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Published 10 May 2012 14:05, Updated 11 May 2012 00:32
Sally Pearson is a contender for gold in the London Olympics. Photo: Getty
The money being poured into Olympic sports by other countries means Australia could struggle to match its medal hauls from previous Games.
Whereas the Australian Olympic Team has been used to winning a stack of medals, there could be 10 or 15 fewer medals at the London Games from July 27 to August 12.
There will still be genuine medal contenders in the 400-strong team, such as swimmer James Magnussen, hurdler Sally Pearson, equestrian Edwina Tops-Alexander and the men’s hockey team, the Kookaburras.
But president of the Australian Olympic Committee John Coates says Australia’s overall medal tally in London could be 35. That would be a fall from the 2008 Beijing Games when Australia won 46 medals and in Athens four years earlier when the tally was 49.
“We may get 50 medals this time, you never know,” he says. “But through an estimation process we’ve used before, it could be more like 35 or maybe in the low 40s.”
The method, which he says has proved accurate to within one or two medals in previous Olympics, is assesses the world champions or top-ranked people in an event against our athletes’ performance.
An Australian slide from among the leading nations can be sheeted home to the greater economic and spending power of some other nations, says Coates.
“There is no way of knowing how much the US, China and Russia spend but it would, of course, be immense,” he says.
However, Australia is now also being eclipsed by France, Germany and the UK. “Australia spends about $700 million over four years from official sources such as the AOC, Australian Institute of Sport, Australian Sports Commission and governments,” Coates says.
But the UK and the others have outlaid closer to $US1.2 billion in the same period. Where that money really makes a difference is in the attention that can be devoted to individual athletes and teams. Australia has a renowned rowing program but even with that, it is hard to compete with the money poured in overseas.
The better-resourced nations are able to devote around-the-clock attention to their athletes. They are being monitored whether they are competing, training in the gym or in their recovery phase.
“The UK is spending millions more than us on our rowing program,” says Coates. “They trained out here in their winter.”
Coaching is another area where Australia is being overtaken. There were about 200 foreign coaches lured here in the years leading up the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. “But now we’ve become an exporter of coaches instead. Many Australians have taken senior coaching roles overseas,” Coates says.
“We’re glad there is that sort of career path for coaches and many will return here one day, and that will be good. But at the moment that’s where it stands for us.”
As well, there is not the same level of national co-ordination across all sports as some state-based institutes have reduced the number of sports they cover, often because of funding problems.
However, Coates says the AOC has a program which it hopes will boost the results in London. With the help of government and other backers, it has targeted a number of athletes who look to be on the fringe of world-class performances. So modern pentathlon’s Chloe Esposito has received funding to help with her fencing training to get her ready for the Olympics.
Swimming, of course, has provided many of Australia’s Olympic champions. While the competition will be intense in the pool, Coates is optimistic the swimming team will again fire.
The 400-metre individual medley swimmer Thomas Fraser-Holmes will probably have to compete against American Michael Phelps. Much of the attention will be on the sprinting star Magnussen. The women’s swimming team have often led the way and this year will include the experienced Leisel Jones, Stephanie Rice, Jessicah Schipper and Libby Trickett.
Cycling should be a strong sport for Australia at both the velodrome and road events. Australia finished on top of the medal tally in the world championships in Melbourne in April with six gold, six silver and three bronze medals. Some of the silver medallists were behind by only the barest of margins.
Anna Meares will again be one of the linchpins of the track team, while reigning Tour de France champion Cadel Evans will be part of the road contingent.
The sailing team won three gold medals at the World Sailing Championships in Perth last year. Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page won the 470 event, Tom Slingsby was successful in the Laser and Nathan Outtenridge and Iain Jensen took out the 49ers.
Hurdler Sally Pearson has met all the challenges thrown at her and Coates says Beijing gold medallist Stephen Hooker is back to fitness.
Tops-Alexander was one of the first selected for the equestrian event. Of the teams, the men's hockey should be the best chance for gold, although they have been hampered by injury.