London 2012 has demonstrated that the line between ‘Olympic champion’ and ‘failure’ can be a very fine one indeed. Australian swimmer James Magnussen discovered this in the 100m freestyle final when he was beaten by 0.01 of a second for the gold medal by the USA’s Nathan Adrian who touched in at 47.52s. According to an article in the Brisbane Times, Magnussen has been criticised for his overconfidence in the lead up to the Games. His statements of confidence and intent to win, coupled with his competitive trial times generated a public expectation that he was guaranteed a gold. There is always a risk however in feeding a public expectation of this nature that failure to deliver will ignite criticism and attract negative media attention.
But it was not just Magnussen who came under heavy criticism. The performance of the Australian swim team in London as a whole has been described in a number of articles (including in The Herald Sun, News.com.au, The Roar and The Conversation) as “disappointing”. According to News.com.au, “the one gold medal in London - secured by the women's 4x100m freestyle relay team - is Australia's poorest Olympic gold medal return in the pool since Barcelona in 1992.” London 2012 has also been the first Olympics in which Australia has been unsuccessful in claiming an individual swimming gold since the Montreal Games in 1976.
Given the result the President of Swimming Australia David Urquhart has announced that a review will be undertaken into the Australian swim team’s 2012 Olympic campaign, led by the former Australian coach Bill Sweetenham and two time Olympic gold medallist Susie O’Neill.
In an interview on Fox Sports O’Neill said that: “what I've been hearing a little bit from different people is the work ethic from Australian swimmers is maybe not the same as it used to be 10 years ago." In response to this claim, Head Coach Leigh Nugent has defended his team’s commitment and effort, stating that the Australians have been “out-raced" by an in-form, all-star American team.”
Nugent also noted that while the Australian team only managed one gold medal in the pool, they still ranked third overall. This raises the question as to whether the public’s expectation on Australian swimmers is too high. The ABC noted that “the weight of expectation is one factor seemingly taking its toll on Australia's swimmers.” Former team sports psychologist Paul Penna told the Brisbane Times that the pressure of competition gets to everybody and expressed disappointment that a psychologist did not accompany the team to London to assist athletes like Magnussen who experienced a lack of sleep and heavy stress in the lead up to his competition.
Given the number of swimmers including Magnussen, Emily Seebohm and Belinda Hocking who made gold medal winning times at the pre-Games trials, but failed to perform to their best at the Games, it may be the case that Aussie swimmers are simply ‘cracking under pressure’. Is the answer to avoid building the public’s expectation of Australian swimmers or can measures be taken to better equip these swimmers to perform under pressure? We look forward to the results of the Australian swimming review.