Australia hates athletes. Apparently.

I don’t care about sport, so I don’t care about the Olympics, beyond viewing them as a sort of vague historical milestone that rolls around once every four years. The Leading Media Story of this first week has been a bitter divide over Australia’s success and failure: one side furious with our athletes for failing to win gold, the other side telling them to the shut the fuck up and take a chill pill. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of psychopath that would pen a piece like this:

I have zero interest in hearing some tearydeary tell me that she had nothing left in the tank. Or, worse: “I don’t know what went wrong.”

That’s the job. Coaches. Athletes. Officials.

Stop whining. Start winning. Or find another job.

I’m surprised this latest furore is what it took for some voices to call for restraint. Even before the Olympics started, I was noticing, for the first time, the strangely passive-aggressive manner in which we treat our Olympic athletes. It started with the ludicrous “scandal” of Nick D’Arcy and Kendrick Monck posting jovial photos of themselves on Facebook, holding pistols and a shotgun, in a licensed gun store, in the United States. There were outraged calls for them to be penalised for undertaking such perfectly legal behaviour, and they have in fact been sent home after competing. (The Australian Olympic shooting team, strangely, suffered no such penalties.)

There was John Steffensen’s allegations of racial abuse, to which he was told “put your head down and your bum up and you just concentrate on your job.” There were the photos of Liesel Jones that led the media, completely unfounded, to spark rumours that coaches were concerned about her weight. Then there was the sleeping pill thing. I can’t even remember what that was about, but here’s how the Herald Sun spun it:

This is the same tone the Herald Sun uses for convicted felons, welfare cheats and unruly kids – a bold, stern warning from an authority figure, reassuring the law-abiding mums and dads of the mortgage belt that Something Is Being Done about the latest Threat To Civility. Only in this case, the line-up in Villain’s Row are the athletes that we allegedly admire, adore and respect. Apparently they’re only worthy of that if they “deliver” us gold, like couriers, or indentured servants hacking away at a rock face deep underground.

I must have missed a couple of steps along the way. First of all, why do we – the Australian public – need gold so badly? Is Treasury bankrupt? Is the fiat currency system about to fail? Are we constructing some kind of diabolical war machine fuelled by smolten Olympic medals and greased with the tears of our swimmers? Ah, the gold is a metaphor for sporting success. I see. My confusion remains. How does the athletic prowess of another Australian in any way impact the life of Davo Dickhead in his McMansion in the western suburbs?

The other thing I don’t understand is this: even if we, the people, have an insatiable lust for gold, how is it that the Australian athletes owe it to us? I don’t think it’s the taxpayer funding. I’ve barely seen that mentioned at all. Many Australians seem to feel on a deep and visceral level that the athletes personally owe them gold, whether they have a monetary stake in the battle or not.

I was going to write this before the Games started, during all the creepy outrage about the gun photo and the sleeping pills and Liesel Jones’ weight. The reaction of the press and the public to our lack of immediate, effortless dominance has only confirmed the uneasy feelings I had about the whole affair. It reminds me of nothing so much as an overbearing parent pushing their child into sport – not caring about why they might fail, not caring about how good the opposition is, not caring about them, really – just demanding success so they can live vicariously through them. The pushy, demanding parent at junior teeball may be a stereotype and a myth, but apparently the fickle Australian public isn’t.

Maybe, since I don’t care about sport, I don’t get to have an opinion on this weird, unedifying barrage of criticism. But I’m still puzzled by the ferocity of attacks aimed at world-class athletes by people sitting on their couches at home. What have you accomplished?

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