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Published 10 August 2012 07:00, Updated 13 February 2013 07:34
Australia’s gold medalist Sally Pearson celebrates on the podium of the women’s 100 hurdles at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo: AFP
For someone mostly uninterested in the Olympics, I did something out of character on Wednesday morning – I got up early to watch Sally Pearson win a gold medal for Australia. As she walked around the stadium perimeter with a beaming smile, our national flag draped over shoulders, I shed a tear. Her achievement seemed all the more extraordinary given it comes at the end of our country’s apparently disappointing Olympics campaign.
Pearson is now likely to be at the top of pile of a small group of Olympians from these games to be courted by brands. She’ll find it pays to be a stand out.
The criticism of Pearson’s colleagues who haven’t fared so well, I believe, has been excessive. But then again the connections between achievement in sport and national pride are intense and longstanding. But there is evidence that this veneration of sports people has been shifting over the past decade or so.
Last year we did a report on national identity that showed, unsurprisingly, that Australians thought sport was an important aspect of what it means to be Australian. “In Australia, if you don’t play or follow sport, it’s ‘what’s wrong with you?’” said one man (not entirely tongue in cheek). However, pride in Australian sports people was tempered by concern that we worship sport stars excessively, to our own detriment. There was concern that some contemporary sport stars abused their position. Many of those we surveyed expressed disgust that bad behaviour by sports stars was overlooked or even celebrated in Australia (i.e. Brendan Fevola on Dancing With The Stars).
Australians are questioning the status automatically accorded to sports’ high achievers. Brands seeking to align themselves with particular sports figures need to emphasise sportsmanship, which reflects the Australian values of mateship, fairness and camaraderie, rather than the individual sports person who may fail to live up to those values.
All this puts greater pressure on sporting heroes to do everything right on the field and off … but I suspect the rewards for them will be greater if that can manage to live up to our higher expectations.