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Losing to the Brits

Nick Bryant | 23:59 UK time, Monday, 18 August 2008

Britain Tops Australia in gold medals.

Not my headline, but the words of the Sydney Morning Herald.

It's an Olympic story that is getting quite a bit of play here - it got second billing on the SMH website, nudged off the top of the online podium by the resignation of the leader of a nuclear-armed country in one of the most troubled corners of the world.

So, yep, it must have been a close call.

And there was me thinking we'd have to wait for the Ashes next year for a good, old-fashioned Anglo-Australian stoush.

The last time Britain out-medalled Australia, Bob Hawke and Margaret Thatcher occupied The Lodge and Number Ten, and Rebecca Adlington and Stephanie Rice had not even entered the world let alone leapt into an Olympics-sized swimming pool.

Seoul 1988 - the Brits got 5, while the Aussies got 3. Thereafter, the Aussies have always ended up on top.

• 17/9 in Athens
• 16/11 in Sydney
• 9/1 in Atlanta
• 7/5 in Barcelona

That may happen at Beijing, too - although the failure of Australian men's swimming team to win a single gold (it's the first time that's happened since the Aussie annus horribilis of 1976 in Montreal) and the British domination in cycling makes it tough.

Even John Coates, the head of Australian Olympic Committee, has conceded publicly that the Poms might edge out the Aussies. "Not bad for a country that has no swimming pools and very little soap," as he himself would doubtless put it.

Meanwhile, the Australian sports minister, Kate Ellis, has been reminded that a week is a long time in sporting politics. Before the Olympics started, when she entered into her now famous wager with the British sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, she called the Poms a bunch of "serial chokers". This morning she was quoted in The Australian saying that the Aussies had become complacent. To rub salt into her self-inflicted wounds, she quoted from Tony Blair, who had told her that long-term investment produced long-distance pedal power.
Australia's 200m freestyle relay gold medal winners
To tread the dark path of sporting cliché - or to retread it - Australia has been a victim of its own success. The Australian Institute of Sport, established in the wake of the disastrous Montreal Games, set the gold standard - and has since been copied all over the world.

Then there's what might be called the "Troy Cooley syndrome". Troy Cooley is the Australian bowling coach nabbed by England who helped mastermind the Ashes victory in 2005 (when he returned to the Australian fold, he helped coach Ricky Ponting's men to the 5-0 whitewash).

The British cycling coach Shane Sutton won gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games for - wait for it, Australia. Top quality coaches can reportedly earn five times as much in Britain than in Australia.

An Australian coached the Brazilian winner of the 50 metres freestyle, who edged out the pre-games favourite, Eamon Sullivan. The legendary Aussie swim coach, Ken Wood, openly sold his training techniques to the Chinese, which might have cost his protégé, Jessica Schipper, a gold (she was beaten by a Chinese swimmer).

Anyway, here are a few other quick thoughts, which will hopefully undermine a few dog-eared stereotypes rather than reinforce them:

• Are the Aussies win-at-all-costs competitors? Among others, the swimmers Libby Trickett, Grant Hackett and Leisel Jones showed themselves to be champions both in victory and defeat.
• Are the Aussies nerveless performers, athletic robots who can turn it on every time, as the Brits often appear to think and fear? The world record-holding swimmer Eamon Sullivan produced an under-par performance.
• The notion that Australian sports stars regard success as a platform rather than a peak, as the Brits are sometimes accused of doing ("open-top bus syndrome"), also fell apart a bit at this games. Libby Trickett and Leisel Jones both fell off a little after early golds (although they did make a great comeback in the relay), and Sullivan had set a couple of world records in the heats.

Who knows whether the Brits will ultimately beat the Aussies. But goodness me, the next few days are going to be close and fun.

Thanks, as ever, for your comments on the divisive nature, or otherwise, of Aussie sport. Summer unites and winter divides. Dare I say it, but I think BryantObsessed got it pretty much spot on, even if he did get sent to the comment "sin bin" for a later remark (I don't get to the see the ones that are blocked or held up, by the way).

And, as a few of you wrote, I should have spent a lot more time talking about that great summertime national sport: cricket (good to see the "Sheffield Shield" make a comeback?). And soccer, if you go by attendances, is definitely starting to challenge it, as MoMcCackie pointed out.

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