16 March 2014
The story of Australia’s mixed effort and Vladimir Putin playing the world as fools
After international football, the Olympics are the Socceroo Realm’s other great passion. That’s because, like football, the prestige of winning and representing your country is so huge. While much of the excitement of gold medals by Australia is diminished in the recent 15 years because Australia wins so many, the individual stories of specific triumphs still resonate. Indeed, after Australia’s appalling start to London, the sailors getting the nation’s first gold, and then Sally Pearson and Anna Meares adding to it not long after, were really moments to savour.
Given that Australia is a minor player, the Winter Games are a different beast. For the purity of sport, that actually translates quite well because one of the big criticisms of the summer Games is that focus is so nationalistic. You don’t see athletes from other nations, or even experience entire slabs of a sporting event, because the broadcaster is enamoured with showing the cursory Australian in 30th spot about to throw their javelin, or the cursory Australian being hammered by the Chinese at table tennis and about to lose their final few points.
Sochi 2014 was the first Games to merge the two. Talk of Australia with “12 medal” chances was optimistic in the extreme, with those chances realistically being “best day” scenarios of the athlete excelling and bad luck hitting a few opponents. The real expectation was 4, as identified by the highly accurate and well researched American magazine, Sports Illustrated.
Of course, so many potential medal hopes still meant many Australians in action, and the potential demise of large slabs of sporting drama to be consigned to news clippings. Conveniently, pay-TV has emerged to save fans in Australia from this never ending flag waving “oi oi oi” parochialism. Even though Channel 10 chose internet streaming for its supplementary coverage, not the four pay-TV stations that Channel 9 offered 4 years ago, their second free channel, One HD proved an adequate companion. Their overall telecast was good, with decent slabs of live viewing, excellent interviews and, given Australia’s obvious lack of abundant resources, surprisingly adequate commentators. After Melanie McLaughlin’s acquisition of a nasally bogan accent to fit in with the majority of on-screen Channel 10 personnel (she was recruited from Fox Sports where she sounded far more refined), the only hiccup I saw was going to an advertising break when the Austrian World Champion in the men’s slalom was about to make his run. Yes, his run was fastest, and stayed fastest of the remaining seven skiers for gold. Showing his run after the event as a replay, it doesn’t quite offer the same level of excitement.
Also great about the Winter Games is the totally different types of athletes, sports and vistas on offer. Speed skating (especially short track), cross country skiing and biathlon produce some of the most exciting direct racing possible. Far more exciting than people running around an oval track or swimming up and down a pool. Without the Winter Olympics, how else could I have a favourite cross-country skier, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland? In Vancouver it took her until the 30km classical cross-country, the very last event, to shake off the Norwegians and finally win a gold. In Sochi she managed it early on, in the 10km classical, to become a dual gold medallist. There’s also the “Generation Y” sports like snowboarding and ski-cross to add more relevance for the youth of today, and also easier consumption to traditional alpine events that are decided by times and require dedicated viewing of the entire event to appreciate the competition.
Sochi was the first Olympics to return to Russia since Moscow in 1980. No expense was spared with virtually everything built from scratch, costing over $50b. To put that in perspective, London 2012 cost $12b – for a far larger Games. Being in Russia also presented the political controversy you’d expect, especially anti-gay laws. While the law against “gay propaganda” was new, Russia has always been anti-gay, so it’s mysterious that only on the dawn of the event that these issues become a problem – a repeat of the case with China’s Games of 2008 and the issue of Tibet. Terrorism was also a worry. Russian president Vladimir Putin would hear none of it. Nothing would stop these Games from being a success.
Australia finished with two silver and one bronze. Two of those were from expected sources, the other not so expected. They also told a tale in approach to winning those medals. David Morris, barely a top 12 hope in men’s aerials, approached his event with a strategy to achieve the best possible result. While other athletes could still out-score him on higher technical jumps, he knew he couldn’t compete directly with them so put himself in the best possible situation to be a “nuisance” to them, by sticking his jumps, ensuring they had to perform.
Morris landed cleanly all his jumps as he progressed through the last 12, to the last 8 (just) and to the last four (just). Once there, he landed his “money jump” to score 110.41 and give the remaining athletes no leeway for mistakes. Anton Kushnir, the Belarussian favourite, was next, and nailed his higher difficulty jump, scoring 134.50 to annihilate Morris’ score as expected. That put extra pressure on the remaining to jumpers, both Chinese. The first didn’t land cleanly, Bronze to Morris. The second didn’t land cleanly, Silver to Morris.
Torah Bright backed up her gold from Vancouver to nail silver in Sochi. Eerily, her performances were similar, crashing her first run, before completing the second. The only disappointment is that her first run was shaping up much better and would have won the gold easily. Her second, by many experts, was still good enough for gold, failing by just .25 points – the closest possible margin.
The winner, Kaitlyn Farrington of the USA, didn’t seem to have a run quite of the same quality. It was close, and as Torah said, that’s the nature of judged sports. Even then, there’s some residual regret that could have done better. The cavalier approach that the snowboarders take to the events is difficult to rationalise compared to the stoic concentration you see of athletes in other sports. While it could just be a coping mechanism for the stress of competition, it could also just mean that tiny fraction of effort and concentration lost that costs you a gold.
Torah also undertook two new events: slope-style and boardercross, and apparently did no training at all for halfpipe in the two months prior to the Games. She preferred to concentrate on boardercross in which she was only a late inclusion after injuries to other competitors before the Games and entered lowest ranked overall. She failed to progress from the first knockout race. If the cavalier approach didn’t hurt, maybe the reduced training did, especially for that first run crash. Compared to Vancouver, Torah’s run didn’t seem as polished nor did it match her score in qualifying in Sochi, where she returned the highest score of the entire contest – 93.00 (out of a possible 100). Her silver medal winning run scored 91.50. In Vancouver 2010 she scored 45.00 under a different scoring system, after scoring 45.8 in qualifying.
Towards the end of the Games, former aerialist Jacqui Cooper slammed Torah for selfishness. “Whether she likes it or not, she’s actually a role model. A role model for athletes, maybe even a role model for parents and if Torah thinks someone’s getting hard done by, or if Torah thinks this or if Torah thinks that, people are going to actually jump on her bandwagon. So to create such a negative vibe during the Olympic Games – I almost think she should be ashamed of herself.”
Torah was at the centre of the “team outcast” affair, claiming other athletes were getting undeserved funding priority over others. World Champion Alex Pullin was singled out as “the chosen one” ahead of other snowboarders fighting their way through the ranks, and indeed, often already top 10 world ranked athletes. During halfpipe training at the Games Torah was critical of its shape, which only fed the selfish, spoilt narrative Cooper, along with several media trying to validate their character assassinations of Bright, was trying to push. Except, all athletes complained about the shape of the halfpipe at the time, and it was promptly fixed.
The criticism from Cooper was unjust. Jacqui Cooper was an Olympic flop and should be last to talk about “results” and “role models”. Due to the “team outcast” affair, funding models across the winter sports will be examined.
Lydia Lassila, queen of aerials in Vancouver, sorry to say, was a disappointment here. Not in the medal, in the approach. The whole week the story proliferated of her performing an unprecedented quad-twisting jump. No woman had done it in competition; it was only the domain of the men, who were now creeping into the realm of 5 twists for a jump. Lassila only landed one in training, and that was barely a landing, and would not have sufficed as a good scoring jump in the Games. Coming into the final four of the final, the leading jump was only 99.01 with only one jumper left after Lassila. Given she scored 214 for two jumps under a different system in Vancouver, a score just over 100 with one of her triple twisting jumps was easily a gold medal, or silver at worst. No, toss away the highest percentage chance and go for the lowest percentage jump for some sort of glory to the ego. While she would have a certain gold via a huge margin had she nailed it, they don’t reward any extra for that. Surely it’s best to stick with the “money jump” in the final? Just ask David Morris!
The thing is, there’s countless World Cup events during the season that a quad-twist could be attempted “in competition”. Why do it at the biggest event of all that only comes across once ever four years? It actually smacks of an athlete under extreme pressure, not wanting to fail. By attempting the impossible jump it actually is impossible to fail. No one expects her to land it, so if she does, it becomes a miracle. If you fail, at least “you had a go” and “left nothing on the table”. It’s very typical of the Australian “bully sports pscyche”. The response to a challenge is often to bully the opposition and try dominate the task. Cricketers are the worst by often blazing away in tight run chases, swimmers are next by starting races too hard and using “it’s a racing meet” as an excuse for the loss, the Socceroos began to show hints of it in Asian World Cup qualifiers, and now we see it creep elsewhere.
The only saving grace of Lassila’s bizarre tactics is that her good friend Alla Tsuper of Belarus won gold. It was Tsuper’s fifth Games and finally she snagged the gold after so many years of dominating the sport and, like Lassila, having a baby. The tears that Lassila shed after the competition were primarily for Tsuper. In that sense it was a storybook finish, as Lassila already had a gold from Vancouver, now her friend has one. Strangely, Channel 10 commentators didn’t even recognise the nature of these tears, figuring it was sadness and disappointment at failure. As if! Maybe had one of the Chinese skiiers snatched the gold instead of Tsuper, then the story not quite the happy ending, and then would come the niggling regret.
Alex “Chumpy” Pullin. He doesn’t know how he got that nickname as given during childhood. It’s clear now. He’s a chump! Twice world champion, twice World Cup winner, twice favourite for Olympic Gold, twice fastest in qualifying, twice a monumental flop. He fell innocuously during the quarter-finals of racing, just like in Vancouver. What gives? Well, he stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Say what? He stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Yes! He stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Even though Torah Bright ceased training for her pet event of halfpipe, she still did continue to train on snowboard for her other two events. That at least kept her sharp for competition. Clearly the strategy didn’t work for the Chumpster. No wonder Torah and the other snowboards were questioning the funding system. It actually costs nothing not to train.
Pullin wasn’t the only one to fall. Virtually the entire snowboard and ski cross events were beset by falling Australian athletes. It’s enough to give anyone the feeling that Australia and winter sports are not a natural fit. Wait!
One might think Vladimir Putin is the biggest chump of Sochi 2014. He’s not. Despite all the talk of terrorism, anti-gay propaganda and lack of snow, Russia and Putin get the last laugh. Russia won the medal tally, kept all venues secure, managed to reverse global warming for several week, and curtailed any attempts for mass demonstrations or even athletes making a stand against Russia’s poor gay rights. They did it with all the control you’d expect from a government led by a former KGB agent that it was almost invisible. Almost, because adding the names “Viktor” to recruits An (short track speed skating) and Wild (snowboard parallel slalom) did not quite assuage the reality of foreigners (Korea and USA, respectively) delivering 5 of Russia’s 13 gold medals. Travelling too far away from the Olympic venues and Sochi in general, you’d also have been greeted with a “ring of steel” guarding the city.
A new event was added of team figure skating that delivered a certain gold individually for the nation and to the ten individual Russian skaters that comprised the team. Talk about spreading the wealth. To reduce suggestions of a scam, the luge was also given a team event, which Germany somehow won after earlier winning all the individual events that comprised the team event. All that sliding on your back, you’d think that would tire a team out. Obviously not. To think, someone gets paid for dreaming up these events. What next, Short Track Taekwondo at PyeongChang for 2018?
If Russia made one mistake in their run for medal tally glory, it was not to recruit the entire Dutch speed skating team. The Dutch won over 70% of all medals for the sport: 8 gold, 7 silver and 8 bronze. Their one and only other medal was a bronze from short track speed skating. This must have been one of those Dutch skaters showing great agility on the inner warm-up ring so the Dutch coaches decided to throw the athlete onto an actual short track. No suggestions yet of a team speed skating event that incorporates all events and awards every Dutch speed skater a gold medal. Probably because nearly all of them won one anyway.
Of course, there was one Russian failure. That was ice hockey in which Russia lost to Finland in the quarter finals. The country threatened to go into mourning while Putin scurried away to figure out the ramifications for the team and how to console the nation. The solution was heavy make-up to prevent any cracks or emotion in his pristine, stoic face emerging. Before Putin ever needed to present himself for potential public embarrassment, up pops the Americans to be hammered 5-0 by Finland in the bronze medal game. Russia sleeps well at night with the knowledge that whatever Russia stinks at, USA stinks worse. Nah nah-nah nah-nah nah.
Beyond the great and glorious Games of Russian glory, slick organisation and toilets that actually do work, Putin saved his coup de gras for after the Games. As the world absorbs the waft of post Olympic harmony, Putin moves mobilises Russian troops in Crimean region of Ukraine. It’s been totally orchestrated by Putin, starting by revving up Russians in Ukraine to resist moves by Ukraine to join the European Union after a law was just passed to make Ukrainian the sole official language. Ukrainians and Russians clash outside the parliament building, the Russian friendly president is deposed, the former opposition leader is released from jail, and a more sympathetic president installed as interim. Russians in Crimea feel threatened, in moves Putin, Russian troops take control of the region, the region orchestrates a phony election to secede, it won’t have any legitimacy, will the region be annexed by Russia, we’ll soon know.
Having visited the region, most particularly Estonia and Latvia, one thing is certain about Russians: they will always regard themselves as Russian. They’re a gruff people, contemptuous of the locals. The Baltic states can be thankful for being so small and not as geographically important, and being members of both NATO and the European Union offers plenty of protection. Crimea is on the Black Sea, home to Russia’s southern naval fleet, so important militarily. Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU and further dismantle Russian grip in Europe, precipitated this entire affair.
One thing is certain about Putin: he will always regard himself as Putin. He’s a gruff person, contemptuous of everybody and everything else. The Olympics, the anti-gay laws – it’s all been about Russian grandstanding to antagonise the west, especially the USA. Barack Obama snubbing the Olympics was Putin’s goal, and now with the Olympics over, Putin makes his big move. While Obama and the west stumble about responding to Crimea, Putin’s simply reveling in his power. Much of Europe depends on Russia for oil and gas so are constrained to act, the Americans are too weary and lack any real strategy to intercede, and Ukraine ultimately would be better served without the millions of Russians forming part of their country.
Putin gets the Games, gets the Glory and gets Crimea (if he really wants it). The biggest chumps of Sochi 2014 prove to be the rest of the world. Putin thanks you for your attention.
If you liked this, check London 2012 – Hits, Misses and Meltdowns
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