Fall from grace: An Australian story

Australia’s cricket captain Michael Clarke

Australia are 2-0 down in the ongoing Ashes series versus England. A variety of adjectives have been used to describe the current lot of Australian cricketers, right from “an embarrassment” to “a disappointment” to “undeserving”. Much has been written about the decline in the standards of Australian cricket, but it is not just the cricket that has suffered.

Australia has been a major sporting force in the world since the advent of competitive sports. Their list of accomplishments stretches far and wide across various sports such as cricket, tennis, rugby union, swimming, athletics, hockey, football and cycling amongst others.

A look at the country’s fortunes in other sporting disciplines shows that Australian cricket forms just a small part of a more deep-rooted malaise that the proud Aussies have been battling for a good part of the last decade.

Olympic Sport

Post World War II, the country emerged as one of the top performers at the Summer Olympics with a 20 year period between the 1952 edition at Helsinki, Finland and the 1972 one at Munich, Germany, where they consistently finished in the top 10, even finishing as high as 3rd once in the 1956 games in front of their home crowd at Melbourne, Australia.

Following a disappointing two decades since Munich, the Aussies came back to the forefront at the Barcelona games in 1992 where they finished 10th and initiated another two decades of Olympic success. It reached its peak in the 2000 and 2004 games in Sydney and Athens respectively. In 2000, they totaled 58 medals, their highest tally ever to finish 4th overall and followed it up with 50 medals in 2004, their second highest to date, once again finishing 4th in the standings.

Results have tapered since then, with the medal haul dipping to 46 in 2008 (finishing 6th overall) and 35 in 2012 (finishing 10th overall), with just 7 gold medals.

Oly-medals-tally

Swimming

(From Left to Right) Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe, William Kirby and Grant Hackett at the World Championships, 2001

A large part of Australia’s medals came from swimming, where they have won a total of 56 gold medals in total. The country in the past had given us some of the greatest swimmers who made the biggest splash in the form of Shane Elizabeth Gould, Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe, who was nicknamed ‘the Thorpedo’. Thorpe along with good mate Grant Hackett made Australia a force to reckon with in swimming, both at the Olympics as well as the FINA World Championships, in the early 2000’s

Post the retirements of Thorpe and Hackett, the medals from the pool have dried up, coinciding with the country’s dip in Olympic performance, just as it had happened with the departures of Fraser and Gould after the 1972 games. The effect carried over to the World Championships as well as can be seen in the graphic below.

Oly-swim

FINA-swim

Tennis

Tennis legends Roy Emerson (left) and Rod Laver (right) at a tennis gathering in Los Angeles

The tennis courts too have seen a steep decline in the number of top rated players that Australia produces. Samantha Stosur, world ranked 13, is the only Australian in the top 100 in the WTA rankings. On the men’s side, three players – Bernard Tomic (41), Lleyton Hewitt (64), Marinko Matosevic (73) – are in the top 100, but it has been quite a while since an Australian man challenged for the top ranking or top honors at a Grand Slam event. Even getting into the second week of a Grand Slam event has become a thing of the past in Australian tennis.

Some of the most storied names in tennis, both on the men’s and women’s side, hail from Australia. Speaking of the great Rod Laver, the last man to win the Grand Slam (he did it twice), Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Pat Cash and Tony Roche is enough to get you dizzy. And you had Margaret Court, Daphne Akhurst and Evonne Goolagong on the women’s side.

Australia has had 18 male Grand Slam winners with 77 singles titles between them and 4 female winners with another 42 titles. For a country with all those legendary names and ridiculous numbers, the cupboard looks threadbare at the moment.

Patrick Rafter and the record breaking doubles pairing of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (the Woodies) continued to hold the fort for Australia for some time into the new millennium and Lleyton Hewitt, the Aussie battler, carried on the legacy for a few years winning 2 Grand Slams and finishing runner-up in a few. Since then, Stosur’s US Open triumph in 2009 remains a sweet anomaly in an otherwise bitter phase for Australian tennis.

Rugby Union, field hockey and football

Radike Samo of the Wallabies with the ball in a Tri-Nations match against the All Blacks from 2011

Along with New Zealand (All Blacks) and South Africa (Springboks), Australia (Wallabies) made up the Big 3 in world rugby for a very long time. The All Blacks are of course the most successful rugby union side ever in history with a mind-boggling win % of 75.65%, followed by the Springboks at 62.62% and the Wallabies are third at 52.99%.

The Wallabies were the first team to win 2 Rugby World Cups when they won the 1999 edition to follow their maiden triumph in 1991. As in other sports, they have taken a few steps back since then being overhauled by European teams such as England, France, Scotland and Wales.

They have always had to contend with being second best to the all-conquering All Blacks, but they still used to do well at the major tournaments. But during 2005 and 2007, they suffered the ignominy of finishing the year outside the top 3 in the world, a rarity in the game. 2009 season onwards though, the Wallabies have picked up their performances, but still struggle to get wins against the big 2 – the All Blacks and the Springboks.

When you look at the Socceroos, both the men’s and women’s football team continues to be amongst the top 2 teams in Asia (after having moved from the Oceania confederation in 2005).

Field hockey is where it gets interesting. The men’s hockey team despite being one of the dominant forces in the game has only 1 gold medal to its name, from 2004 in Athens. They have frustratingly only picked up the bronze in 2000, 2008 and 2012. They did win the 2010 World Cup, after finishing runners-up in the previous two editions.

That was their second World Cup triumph. The Champions Trophy meanwhile has become somewhat of an Aussie playground; 5 straight titles on the bounce since 2008 means they will be going for their sixth straight title next year in Argentina.

It is somewhat of a mirror image with the women. 3 Olympic Gold medals and 2 World Cup Gold medals to their name mean they have a better trophy cabinet than the men. But again, despite being amongst the elite teams have not picked up an Olympic medal since 2000 and only have a Silver to show since the 1998 World Cup.

What could be the reason?

About 30 years ago, most suburbs in Australia, especially the affluent ones had a tennis court, grass, clay and concrete, within walking distances for kids to go out and play on. Today, they no longer exist, replaced instead by swimming pools. Tennis officials in Australia are only too aware of it. The tennis courts which also served as a make-shift cricket pitch or basketball court are nearing extinction in Kangaroo land.

On the Olympic front, you could perhaps fault the investment; while Britain committed £304 million to the 2012 games, while Australia committed £113 million.

As per a research report from  about 3 years ago by Sweeny Sports, an Australian sports research firm, as reported by the Guardian, UK, among men, the most popular organized sports are golf and cycling (both 8.8 per cent of the male population), swimming (8 per cent), running (5.4), tennis (4.9), football and cricket (both 3.9). Among women, the top organized sports are swimming (10), netball (4.8), tennis (4.7) and cycling (3.9).

The total value of construction works in the form of public swimming pools, football grounds and other stadia has also increased from £520 million to close to £1.2 billion in the past decade. Four-fifths of that spending comes from the private sector. Yet, oddly enough, while all these numbers are on the rise and surveys reveal that the most popular sports in Australia in terms of  ‘interest’ and participation are tennis, swimming and cricket – those three sports are exactly where Australia have taken a beating.

More and more Australians are also seemingly engaging in non-competitive physical pastimes and extreme sports such as skateboarding, surfing, mountaineering and off-road cycling, which have seen a massive spike in popularity. Some Australians believe that the country’s Australian Rules Football is at fault, with participation in the sport having gone up almost 10% in the last decade, accused of gobbling up the country’s best cricketers, tennis players, footballers and basketball players.

Verdict

Piecing together the various elements of the jigsaw, you get a fair idea of why Australian sport has fallen behind that of other countries.

But, you also have to give the other countries their fair share of credit. Some of Australia’s best programmes such as the ones in cricket, swimming and athletics have been adopted by other countries as a model and improved upon. Even the Australian Institute for Sport (AIS), which was formed after the dismal showing in the 1976 Olympics, has been taken up as a benchmark by other countries’ Olympic associations.

Australia underwent a similar phase of sporting barrenness sometime in the early 80’s, when as now, things looked alarmingly glum and the mood of the nation was sombre. Australia managed to rebound from that creating a generation of elite athletes and sportsmen who would go on to be amongst the best in the world.

The country needs another renaissance in the wake of this latest fall from grace, to spring back up and rise from the ashes of the fallen; the sporting world will be better for it.

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