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Australian love affair with sport in danger of becoming an abusive relationship

Doping, crime, racism, sexism ... scandal after scandal has made it a trying time for fans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 5:39am

Lovers of Australian sport might well feel they've been jilted for much of the past year.

It began at last year's London Games, where the country's Olympians won just seven gold medals, their worst total in 20 years. Its much-vaunted swim team won only one gold - in a relay - and some of its male members were accused of bullying other swimmers and taking banned sleeping medication.

Things haven't improved much in 2013, on or off the fields of play. An Australian Crime Commission report in February unveiled illicit supplements use in the Australian Football League and National Rugby League and warned of the infiltration of organised crime and illegal gambling. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency continues an investigation, and still generates headlines.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said when the Crime Commission report was released, it was a dark day for Australian sport and the allegations were "sickening".

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd urged caution, saying it was important to establish the facts because he was concerned every athlete in the country "is now walking around with a total cloud over their head".

"We all know how central sport is to the Australian identity ... it's because we actually believe in fair play and that's who we are," Rudd said at the time. "That is now being torpedoed."

Unfortunately, the trouble didn't end there. Racism has reared a very public head.

Two Aussie rules players in particular - Aboriginal star Adam Goodes and Sudanese refugee Majak Daw - have been victims of racist comments. Goodes pointed out a teenage girl in the crowd after she called him an ape when he was playing for the Sydney Swans against Collingwood.

The issue was really ignited when Collingwood club president Eddie McGuire suggested during a radio show that Goodes should be used in the marketing of the musical King Kong. Critics condemned McGuire's attempt at humour, saying it highlighted deeper issues in Australia, and he was ordered to undergo a counselling program by the AFL. But he wasn't fined or banned.

"She's 13 years old, still so innocent. I don't put any blame on her," Goodes said after the initial incident. "Unfortunately it's what she hears and the environment that she's grown up in has made her think that it's OK to call people names."

The persistent bad news for Australian sports fans came full circle last weekend when Barclay Nettlefold, who became president of Swimming Australia in October with a mandate to clean up the problems that came under the spotlight at the Olympics, was forced to quit after being accused of inappropriate comments toward female staff.

Nettlefold said he had made comments in jest to colleagues but conceded they were "not consistent with the standards expected of me."

The swim team will go to the Barcelona world championships in July with separate men's and women's coaches while Swimming Australia conducts an international search for a new head coach - and that's in addition to a search for a new president and a new major A$2 million-a-year sponsor, which it lost Wednesday in the wake of the scandal.

Patsy Tremayne, a New Zealand-born sports psychologist at the University of Western Sydney who won a diving bronze medal for Australia at the Commonwealth Games, says she believes Australia's decline in sporting achievements overall results from its isolationism in the past.

In essence, she said it was a case of what Australians didn't know, didn't hurt them in major international events.

"We probably performed much better than a small country should. We punched way over our weight, which is the Australian way of dealing with things," Tremayne said.

"Now the teams are jetting overseas to train all the time ... [and] now that everybody is going overseas, we are actually no different from everybody else."

One veteran sports personality convinced that Australia's slide isn't irrecoverable is Laurie Lawrence, a former national swim coach who spent his eighth Olympics in the athletes village at London as an activities support coordinator with the Australian Olympic Committee.

"We all like to win, none more than me, but we have to realise that losing is part of it," said Lawrence. "We have to accept the good with the bad, and get back to the drawing board."

Lawrence was at the 1976 Montreal games when Australia didn't win a single gold medal, and just one bronze in the pool — Stephen Holland's third-place finish in the 1,500 metres.

"When Steve Holland came home, the media jumped on him, the public jumped on him, asking why he hadn't won a gold," Lawrence said.

At least now there's plenty of successful athletes who can share the load of being role models, he said, including Olympic gold medallist cyclist Anna Meares and hurdler Sally Pearson.

In the short term, Australia has plenty of opportunities to recover its image in international competition.

In soccer, Australia, after their 1-1 draw with Japan on Tuesday, remain in third place in their qualifying group for next year's World Cup in Brazil. Their direct qualifying place in the 32-team tournament will probably be determined over the next two weeks when they play key home matches against Iraq and Jordan.

Looking ahead, the British and Irish Lions have just arrived for a three-test rugby series against the Wallabies.

Soon it'll be back-to-back Ashes series in England and in Australia, cricket's most chronicled spectacle, over the next seven months. Australia are desperate to avoid losing a third consecutive Ashes series for the first time since the 1950s. The tour didn't start particularly well, with Australia dismissed for 65 by India in a warmup for the Champions Trophy.

While Australia aren't favoured to win either the rugby or cricket series, hope springs eternal. And despite those odds, jilted Australian sports fans just might learn to love again.

Associated Press

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