Despite Australia’s lukewarm start to London 2012, I’ve come down with a full-blown case of Olympic fever. But there behaviour of a couple of swimmers has me flummoxed. James Magnussen’s sulky post-race interview, Emily Seebohm’s teary effort, and Leisel Jones’ bristling response to (admittedly unfair) criticism all reflect a culture of entitlement that appears to have set in.
Big Jimmy, aka “Maggie”, “The Missile”, or the Commbank “Can Man” buckled under the pressure. Sure, the media’s feverish hype wasn’t his doing, but describing his heat as “easy” hardly poured cold water on the expectation. And regardless of his performance in the pool, his post-race interview with Nine’s Giaan Rooney lacked grace and deserved censure. The 20-year-old carried himself with distinctly more humility after qualifying fastest for the 100m final, and a gold medal would doubtlessly redeem himself in the eyes of the public.
While Magnussen’s error was his American-style machismo that sits so poorly with the Australian psyche, Emily Seebohm’s reaction to her silver medal is far tougher to assess. Devastated athletes often cry, especially when they fall agonisingly short of the holy grail after four years of graft. But compared to Alicia Coutts’ unbridled elation following her own silver medal in last night’s 200m individual medley, Seebohm could have showed more poise. Furthermore, her reference to what “cost” her a gold medal implies that she felt entitled to first place, and the extent of her devastation after losing what is, after all, just a swimming race hints at how cosseted elite athletes can be.
Before discussing Leisel Jones, it is important to emphasise how unfair the criticism of her body shape was, especially in light of a leaked News Ltd news list that outlined the intention to stir controversy. But considering how unwarranted and cynical the attacks were, her response was confusing.
Jones has been lauded for her ability to convert negative press into motivation, but her decision to respond at all – and lend the baseless criticism any credence whatsoever – was puzzling.
There were a heap of other ways Jones could have acted. She could have let it go through to the keeper – “no comment” – or played a straight bat – “it’s like water off a duck’s back”; “I only listen to the opinions of those I respect”. Making light of the situation would have been endearing – “I’d like to see a few of those journos jump in the pool”; “Have you seen the rig on a few of those chubby scribes in the press box?”; “Remind me how many gold medals those armchair critics have in their sock draw”.
But instead, Jones made it obvious that the criticism had made an impact, good or bad. Admitting that the media affects performance in any way is a strange move. Even by trying to explain that negative column inches had been transformed into inspiration, Jones unnecessarily breathed new life into a story that had been roundly condemned and dismissed.
When Collingwood’s Brownlow Medallist Dane Swan was described as fat earlier this year, his sarcastic response was exemplary. Part 1: firmly quash the speculation at a press conference. Part 2: make light of the criticism via twitter. Part 3: rub your nay-sayers’ noses in it with three goals, 42 touches and an Anzac Day medal. Whereas Jones stoked her ‘fat’ story, Swan completely snuffed it out.
But that’s the response of an AFL player who has built up a thick skin in the face of constant media attention 52 weeks of the year. Our Olympians linger in the background until the focus explodes for two weeks every four years, when the Olympic flame burns brightly and the glare of the media shines even brighter. Evidently, some struggle to cope.