Olympics

For a brief period every four years, Australians overnight become preoccupied with a range of sporting events that they just as quickly forget about. As the Games approach once more, Olympics reporter Samantha Lane poses the question: just what is their appeal?

FOR Nick Green, champion rower turned Australia's chef de mission for the London Olympics, the meaning of a movement to which he has devoted a life came to him only in sporting retirement.

Even while competing, the Oarsome Foursome winner of dual Olympic gold questioned the point of his success. But as Green carried a flag into Sydney's Olympic Stadium at the ceremony that opened the 2000 Games in front of 110,000 spectators, it became clear.

"Marjorie Jackson was there. Bill Roycroft, Murray Rose and Michael Wenden. I think there were 13 or 14 Australian Olympic gold medallists there," Green told The Age this week.

"I was carrying this Olympic flag with some of Australia's Olympic legends, and when I walked down that straight and put the flag up the flagpole, for some reason I got it.

"I got the fact that the Olympic Games, and the endeavours that the Olympics offer, had done something to me that I don't think I could have got in another endeavour. They pushed me to a level that I never thought I could get to physically, technically and mentally."

The Olympics, for the average Australian, do not present a physical, technical or mental challenge as much as they present a 17-day sports binge. But the meaning of that is an oft-critiqued matter too. For every green and gold cheerleader it seems there is a cynic that questions why so much money and attention is given to a travelling carnival for athletes most of us have never heard of and are unlikely to hear of again once the glitter of a closing ceremony has settled.

But the unprecedented level of television coverage of the Games being prepared for Australians this July suggests we have never had such an appetite for the event. Over 17 days of competition in London, Australia's official Olympic pay TV broadcaster Foxtel will transmit 3200 hours of television for subscribers on eight channels. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, by comparison, Channel Seven and SBS combined to produce 500 hours of free-to-air coverage over the same period.

While Channel Nine will present this year's Games in traditional, bite-sized style, its pay-TV partner is pitching itself as the producer of "long-form" Olympic coverage. In a first for Australia, Foxtel will broadcast every gold medal event live (there are 302 in London) to ensure that wins such as Steve Hooker's and Matthew Mitcham's in China four years ago are not missed on television as they were then.

That public interest in the Games comes in a rush and evaporates just as rapidly is a fact accepted by Australia's team leader, Nick Green.

Foxtel has data that shows subscriber awareness of, and interest in, the London Games started rising last August. Even so, Green knows that three months out from the lighting of the cauldron, many Australians still don't know where the Olympics are, let alone when they start.

"The Olympics have a place every four years on a world stage, absolutely, but there are other things around the world that take people's interest in between," said Green, a Melburnian and follower of AFL club Hawthorn.

"Once the athletes get over there, once they march in the opening ceremony, within 24 hours people just switch into Olympic mode and they watch it 24 hours a day. But when the Games finish they'll move on to something else. It is the way it is, and it's not [only] an Australian phenomenon."

Dr Dave Nadel, a sports historian from Monash University's National Centre for Australian Studies, has lectured extensively on Australia's place in the world of sport, and sport's place in Australian society. He has also written a thesis on the commercialisation of Australian football. Dr Nadel's theory on why Australians have traditionally cared so much about our Olympic performance is simple: it's a domain, he contends, where the nation has consistently been a world beater.

"Despite some of the silly things you might hear on Anzac Day, we are not a significant military power, we never have been, we never will be," Nadel said.

"Despite the influence of Rupert Murdoch, and perhaps BHP, we are not really a significant industrial or commercial power. But sport in general, and Olympic sport in particular, is one of our few chances to shine on an international stage.

"I used to say to my students, 'go overseas and the only mentions you'll find about Australia in most international newspapers concern national disasters and sport', so the Olympics are important to us for that reason.

"Being the world's best cricketing nation is very important in India and England, but the Americans or the Russians couldn't care less. With the Olympics, in contrast, they could."

At the Australian Olympic Committee's key fund-raising event before Beijing the lavish Prime Minister's Olympic Dinner, where single tables are bought by the country's largest businesses for upward of $20,000 Kevin Rudd said Australia's performance at the Games had a profound impact on the national psyche. In isolation, the former PM's assertion could be dismissed as jingoistic guff, but Nadel notes that the Olympics "isn't always just a cheering show" and cites the manner in which indigenous affairs penetrated the political agenda around the Sydney Games.

Nadel describes the often fleeting, but hugely passionate, fixation on athletes most Australians have never heard of until Games time as pure nationalism.

"We barrack for these guys and these women because they're Australians," he said. "It's for the same reason that all sorts of people take part in all sorts of wars with nasty effect. Nationalism is very powerful."

GREEN believes this seemingly irrational audience behaviour occurs because Olympians, unlike Australian footballers, tend to be everyday men and women who couldn't possibly be training or competing for money or fame.

"We view our AFL footballers, who we see week in, week out, as these athletes who are untouchable and invincible. Particularly in Melbourne, where we revere them as gods," he said.

"Our Olympic athletes are normal Australians. Our taekwondo team, our archery team, our table tennis team, they go about their business with no fuss and usually no finances. They work two or three jobs.

"The reality is that most of our Olympic team are amateur athletes. There's only a small percentage who earn an income from their sport, perhaps just over 10 per cent of our athletes who earn a professional income from their sport. So ultimately our athletes are just normal people, and I think often that explains our connection with them."

Returning to those who will broadcast the next batch of Olympic stories, Foxtel's head of sports and Olympic Games, Peter Campbell, sees the location of the upcoming Games as an additional attraction for Australian audiences.

"It's being held in a city that everyone gets," Campbell said this week.

"In Australia people love London. They know it and it's iconic. With a lot of people if they haven't been there it's a destination they would aspire to go to. In the lead-up to Beijing there were questions about smog, questions about the torch, there were some negatives . . . but the beauty about London is it's a city that people are expecting to put on a great show."

Many of those charged with staging the show have been spruiking for some time how ready London is. At the year-to-go celebrations at Trafalgar Square, London's Mayor-cum-Olympic-mascot, Boris Johnson, boasted to a heaving crowd that "the Olympic venues are already so ready we might as well call a snap Olympics tomorrow and catch the rest of the world napping".

Even AOC president John Coates, proudly instrumental in staging the "greatest ever" Sydney Games, has said London is poised to claim that mantle.

Green, who has visited London several times to check facilities and athlete services, agrees that London is well placed to be the best Games of the modern era.

"Being in the centre of Europe and with quality management who are delivering the event, the makings are all there," Green said.

"The only thing I see, and I'm sure everybody else sees, as the things that could undo that in any way are things that are not related to Olympic venues, things like transport and security."

As for Australia's prospects, the mood in the green and gold camp has lifted in recent times after last year's gloomy forecast. Then, the AOC projected that based on benchmark events, Australia would have its most barren Olympics for 20 years, and slide out of the top seven nations in the medal tally. Now, with the passing of several more world championships and other major meets, Green's estimate is that the nation will finish fifth on the medal count.

"Our performances, I think, will dramatically increase on the volume of medals we won in 2011 by the time we get to London," the team boss said.

"The times that we were swimming [at the national championships last month] were world best times . . . whereas at the world championships in Shanghai we won a bucket load of silvers and not too many golds. I sense that's starting to change now.

"Where the opportunity clearly lies is in the fact that at the end of 2011 we had 37 fourth and fifth placings and some of those were edged out of a medal by the smallest of margins. I just get a sense that our team has been improving significantly since the end of 2011."

Despite some cynicism about the inner workings of the International Olympic Committee, Nadel says that when the Olympics are on he cannot help but enjoy them.

"They're funny things, the Olympics," he says.

"Like the [soccer] World Cup we all know there's a level of corruption. We all know that the Games largely favour the people who spend the largest amount of money on them . . . they're at least G20 if not G8 countries, or they're countries where the government has had a system that heavily finances sport, like the old Communist countries . . . But despite that we all want to watch it because it is the highest level of sport available and it's a great show.

"We might have some doubts about the people who run the show . . . there might be all sorts of things about the way the Olympics are organised that we don't like, but it's a great spectacle.

"I suppose you could argue it's like the glitz and glamour about movies. The best movies aren't the ones that win at the Oscars, but everybody watches the Oscars."

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