15 August 2021
A year late, no fans attending, and pressure to cancel the entire event, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games surpassed all expectations and provided the world with a wonderful fillip as it still manages the COVID-19 pandemic. These were the pressure Games, with the pressure to finally allow the athletes to compete, the pressure to prevent COVID-19 wreaking havoc, and the pressure simply to succeed. They did so easily, while also reminding us the Olympics are about sport itself. Without the glitz and hype, it was allowed to shine through in its purest form, with many memorable performances and achievements.
Tokyo 2020 were also the pressure Games for Australia. After two C-grade performances at recent Olympics, the pressure was on Australian athletes to deliver on the millions of dollars invested in them and return the country to its previous status of an A-grade Olympic nation and delivering at least 10 gold medals, if not a few more. While the performances were spotty among the individual sports, overall the country succeeded.
Swimming: 9 gold, 3 silver, 8 bronze
This was a redemption Olympics when Australia’s high profile and much vaunted swimming team finally hit its potential. Despite the media adulation for the gold medals it has returned over the years, reality is those overall returns were often well below expectation. In true Australian style, these failures were buried by the media and Australian culture in general, preferring only ever to focus on winners and not dwell on the failures, especially those that under performed. Internal reviews might note it much later on, and well beyond any great media scrutiny, and it seems many of the lessons were learnt. It’s just a shame it took so long.
The rot started at Barcelona 1992 when Kieren Perkins was hoped to win two, if not three gold medals. He won one – the lone gold for the swimmers. Remember Samantha Riley and Daniel Kowalski in 1996? Both flopped. Riley famously was one of only three women to stop a complete Chinese sweep of the gold medals at the 1994 world championships when winning the 100 and 200 breaststroke (the former in world record time), only to fold two years later in Atlanta with a solitary bronze in her two individual events. She explained it as “it’s a racing meet; times don’t matter”. Mitch Larkin would echo a similar phrase in Rio, 24 years later. No, ignore your opponents, swim your own race, and win the gold. It’s a simple formula.
This poisonous mentality permeated the entire swimming team and endured for many Olympics, with the sources likely the coaches and sports psychologists. Even culturally, there’s something about Australians that can’t accept losses, preferring to spin it into a positive like “it’s still a great achievement to make an Olympic final”. It’s usually favourites that capitulate, believing their existing dominance entitles them to bully the opposition when should remain respectful and composed. The famed “Aussie fighting spirit” is only seen in situations of adversity or an underdog situation when the pressure is off. With the pressure on, they crumble.
Susie O’Neill (200BF) and the men’s 1500F (Perkins upset Kowalski) came through for the only two gold in Atlanta. At Sydney 2000, Ian Thorpe lost the 200 freestyle final after going out too hard and laughably explained his silver as “happy with the result, not the performance”. No, it should be the other way around, or unhappy with both. While O’Neill failed in her pet 200 fly (beaten by American Misty Hyman) and Michael Klim and Geoff Huegill both failed in the 100 fly (upset by Sweden’s Lars Frolander), O’Neill did get the gold in the 200 free – her weaker event. Still, for all her dominance in 200 butterfly over the years, 1 gold was an under achievement, and that Sydney 200BF flop typified Australia’s inability to produce swimmers dominant enough to win multiple gold medals at a single Olympics. For all the swimmers it took for Australia to win 5 gold medals in Sydney (3 individuals and 2 relay teams), Netherlands did it with just two: Inge de Bruijn (3) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (2, including the win over Thorpe in the 200F).
At Athens 2004, more was expected from the men’s 4x200F relay (dominant for 8 years; returned only 1 Olympic gold), Grant Hackett in the 400F and Liesel Jones in breaststroke. Then the mother of all chokes, Beijing 2008. Sports Illustrated slotted Australia for 12 gold medals, perhaps 15, not the 6 ultimately won. While the men failed to produce any gold (100F and 1500F notable misses), more was expected from the likes of Jessicah Schipper and Libby Trickett. Liesel Jones finally got an individual gold medal from a total of 5 individual swims in 3 Olympics.
London 2012 and Rio 2016 were noted flops. Even though much wasn’t expected from London (1 gold), the men’s 4x100F relay, led by James Magnussen, Cameron McEvoy and Eamon Sullivan, were hot favourites, only to implode for a bronze medal. Magnussen and Emily Seebohm then disappointed in their finals for silver, especially Seebohm. Repeating her heat time would have won gold – a tale of woe for many failures. Swim well in heats or semis, only to go slower in the final. Magnussen was unlucky when losing gold by 1/100th of a second in the 100F.
Three gold in Rio was about anticipated for a team in transition and a country running their qualifying trials several weeks before the Olympics like the Americans do. Previously, they were months earlier, meaning swimmers had to peak twice in the year. Even with the low anticipation for gold, Kyle Chalmers swam a big personal best to save Australia’s blushes in the 100F when Cameron McEvoy fell apart and finished 7th. Madeline Groves went within a whisker of gold in the 200BF. The most notorious choke of all was Cate Campbell in the 100F. Held the world record, was faster qualifier by miles, yet got spooked, went out too hard and flopped to fifth.
For the big gold medal haul in Tokyo, the difference was most swimmers swimming their best, and dominant swimmers being dominant. Australia typically relies on an individual gold here and there, and a relay or two, for its gold medals. In Tokyo, the likes of Emma McKeon, Kaylee McKeown and Ariarne Titmus all bagged two gold each (although, it should have been three for McKeown). McKeon and Titmus were two of the new swimmers on the scene and managed to swim wonderfully controlled races, while the veteran McKeon transformed herself from a 200 freestyle swimmer to a sprint specialists and won both the 50F and 100F. Add two in the relays, and that’s 8 gold medals for the women.
Zac Stubblety-Cook stepped up to deliver somewhat a surprise gold medal in the 200BR – the only one for the men. Although, two golds did get away. Elijah Winnington flopped in the 400F (7th) while Brendon Smith (3rd) would have won gold in the 400IM had he repeated his heat time. It was 1.1 seconds slower in the final. Kyle Chalmers was just .06 from gold in the 100F, so can count himself unlucky.
The women missed two themselves, which included McKeown becoming a triple gold medalist had she not withdrawn from the 200IM. Apparently it was to rest from that evening’s 200IM heats for the next day’s 200B semis, even though she could have swum backwards in both of those events and qualified for the next stage. Then there was the 4x200F relay falling to bronze. Even though China won gold in a world record time and Australia was under the old world record, the narrow 0.96 second difference to bronze was easily manageable had the team performed at their best (both Titmus and McKeon 1 second off their best) and if not for the inexplicable decision to leave out Mollie O’Callaghan. Her heat time was second fastest of all the 8 swimmers that swum (4 in the heats, 4 in the final) yet she couldn’t be elevated to the final because Australia nominated 8 competitors for the event so they all had to swim at some point. Normally, 6 get nominated and you promote the two fastest from the heats to the final. Accusations were cast that Swimming Australia were trying to get a gold medal for 8 swimmers, so confident (or arrogant) that Australia would win.
While 9 gold medals could easily have been 14, it could easily have been 5 if not for Stubblety-Cook’s performance and the women’s 4×100 medley relay narrowly winning and McKeon’s evolution and even Titmus beating USA’s Katie Ledecky in the 400F. We’ll take this as a resounding success and it be officially Australia’s best ever swimming performance at the Olympics. The previous best was 8 gold medals at the home Olympics of Melbourne 1956.
Rowing: 2, 0, 2
Australia hopes to win two gold medals and achieved it in the men’s and women’s fours. Two Oarsome Foursomes.
Cycling: 0, 0, 2
One of Australia’s strongest sports returned just two bronze medals – the second horror Olympics in a row. Rohan Dennis was a heavy favourite (and a double world champion) in the road time trial while the men’s 4000 metre team pursuit suffered equipment failure and consequentially a fall in qualifying, meaning bronze was the best they could do. No one has stepped up in the women’s sprint events, the men flopped in their events, while in women’s track endurance both the omnium and team pursuit faltered. The road was even worse. At Athens 2004, Australia won 6 gold medals. To not even win one gold at an Olympics is simply unacceptable, while 2 should be the minimum standard.
Athletics: 0, 1, 2
Zero gold is not a success despite the spin from commentators about minor medals and top 8 finishes. Silver came in women’s high jump, and the bronze in women’s javelin and men’s decathlon.
Basketball: 0, 0, 1
Women were a disaster, winning only one match and losing to USA in the quarter finals. Men finally won a medal after many attempts, including four losses in bronze medal games. Both teams have aspiration for gold, and both losing heavily to USA show there’s still much more work to be done. The men lost in the semi finals before beating Slovenia for bronze.
Canoe Slalom: 1, 0, 1
Jessica Fox will still rue missing the gold in the K1 after hitting an early gate and then narrowly clipping the final upstream gate. One less penalty (worth 2 seconds in time) and she wins gold, and based on her comments, she went out too hard after previous competitors made good runs. The first penalty was careless while the second one was trying extra hard to compensate for the first. She recovered and blasted a composed run in her more dominant (and new for women) C1 event for that elusive gold. Given her dominance in both disciplines in the sport over the years, especially as a multiple world champion, and now with three minor medals in K1, it can’t be complete satisfaction for her, nor a complete success for these Olympics.
Canoe Sprint: 1, 0, 0
Would have hoped for a minor medal or two to add to the gold. Snagging a gold in this sport, especially in a minor upset as it was in the men’s K2 1000, is usually seen as a bonus.
Equestrian: 0, 1, 1
Australia likes to win at least one gold, notably in eventing. Silver in the team and bronze in the individual is an adequate return.
Field Hockey: 0, 1, 0
Again, Australia hopes to win at least one gold. The women eliminated early by India in an upset and Belgium just too good for the men in the final. A lot of money gets pumped into hockey, and with no medals in Rio, questions might be asked whether it’s worth it. It’s probably more to encourage widespread participation.
Football: 0, 0, 0
The women lost four games (two each to Sweden and USA) and the two wins were not convincing (2-1 vs New Zealand in the group and 4-3 in extra time over a superior Great Britain in the quarter final) to show they’re not up to standard. The Matildas only qualified from the group phase as a best third placed team as there were only 12 teams in Japan, with two of the three best third placed teams progressing. Australia lost to Sweden and USA in the group phase, and then again to Sweden the semis and USA in the bronze medal match.
The men were eliminated in the group stage after losing to Egypt in the final match after only needing a draw to progress. The Olyroos beat Argentina in the first group match, narrowly lost to Spain in the second match, so not to progress was disappointing.
Overall, football has no place in the Olympics anymore. The World Cup has by far surpassed it as the sport’s main event, and with the men’s competition an age-restricted one and the women’s with such few teams, it’s a redundant event and only ever gains any interest if your country is playing for a medal. Football continues to be in the Games because it earns so much revenue by being hosted in various cities and in large stadiums around the host country.
Sailing: 2, 0, 0
Two gold medals (in men’s laser and men’s 470) are optimal for a team that’s delivered plenty of success in recent Olympics. Perhaps an extra medal or two for a better grade.
Tennis: 0, 0, 1
Much was expected from Ashleigh Barty in women’s singles yet she was dumped in the early rounds. Another choke when representing Australia, just like when losing the deciding Fed Cup match to Kristina Mladenovic of France at home, in Perth, in 2019. Stealing a bronze in mixed doubles after Novak Djokovic and Serbia withdrew from the bronze medal match was some salvation in an otherwise dismal showing for Australia. Tennis, like football, baseball/softball, and especially golf, should not be in the Olympics. Their pinnacles in achievement are elsewhere and no one really cares about them.
New Events: 2, 0, 1
Snagging gold in men’s BMX Freestlye and Stakeboarding Park was a nice bonus. A bronze in men’s surfing probably below expectations. Sport Climbing was exciting and a great addition, as was surfing. The surfers really embraced it, were so passionate, and the competition was good. Carissa Moore, who represents Hawaii on the professional tour, was full of tears and joy when winning for the USA. Can’t see the point of 3×3 basketball except it allowed Latvia, in the men’s event, to win their only gold medal. USA won the women’s.
Overall: 17 gold, 7 silver, 22 bronze
A total wipeout in triathlon was disappointing while silver in women’s beach volleyball was nice. The most compelling statistic of the medal haul is the strike rate. With 17 gold from 46 medals, it shows Australia won many close events. In contrast, Sydney 2000’s strike rate was 16 from 58 medals, including 25 silver. Athens 2004 was 17 from 50 and Melbourne 1956 was 13 from 35 (including 8 silver).
More illustrative is some of the other host nations. Japan won 27 from 58 medals in Tokyo. So the same total as Australia in Sydney, just with a far superior strike rate. In Sydney Japan won just 5 gold, and 3 each at Atlanta 1996 and Barcelona 1992, so they also showed a remarkable improvement. Spain was just as remarkable with 13 gold from 22 medals in Barcelona (7 silver) after only single gold medals at the previous 3 Olympics. China went 48 from 100 in Beijing and Great Britain 29 from 65 in London. So all are around a 50% strike rate, which confirms Australia’s poor display in Sydney and their excellent achievement in Tokyo where they performed similar to that of a host nation.
Undoubtedly, Ariarne Titmus beating Katie Ledecky in the 400 freestyle. It was the event they were mostly evenly matched in, it was the race most hyped, and had the most exciting conclusion when Titmus overhauled Ledecky on the last lap. It also set the tone for the rest of the swimming team. Jessica Fox winning gold in the C1 Canoe Slalom was obviously up there for so many reasons (mostly emotional), and the bronze in men’s basketball is also there for similar reasons.
The most special gold medal should be one awarded to Japan itself. They defied mounting pressure to cancel the Games, and delivered an Olympics that ran smoothly and, in terms of pure sporting excellence and excitement, was as good as any. Arigato to this wonderful country and their beautiful people. They can be proud.