September 7, 2000


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Medals don't come easy

Andy O'Brien

On Monday, a Queensland doctor missed out on walking away with a million dollars despite knowing the answer to the final question on Australia's version of 'Kaun Banega Crorepati'. He went home with half a million dollars (the exchange rate is a dollar to about Rs 25) and was declared a national hero.

The highest prize-money winner in the history of the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' contest in Australia, had hoped to buy a small island in the Great Barrier Reef if he hit the million-dollar jackpot. But even if the veteran doctor gambled a shot at the million dollar question and became an instant millionaire, he would still be short of "buying" a bronze medal for Australia at the upcoming Sydney Games.

You see, Australian taxpayers are paying almost A$2 million for each of the country's bronze medals won at the Games. That's the investment involved to produce an Australian athlete who can finish third in his or her sport at Sydney.

The price for a silver medal A$8million and gold -- hold your breath -- A$37 million. With that kind of money around who wants to be a mere millionaire?

The University of South Australia study calculated how much federal money went into elite sports programmes over the past four years. The figures are based on the fact that the Australian government has spent nearly half a billion dollars in the past four years for Sydney, that we will win 62 medals in Sydney. The study found a very strong relationship between the amount of money spent in each four-year cycle, and Australian success at that Olympics. So the more money you spend the more medals you bring home! How come that doesn't work in India's case?

Battle lines drawn; war of words begins

Just nine days to go and just 10 words and the war had escalated into an embarrassing Olympic row. Other swimmers had chosen to ignore or downplay claims by brash American swimmer Gary Hall that the dominant US swimming team would smash the emerging Australians "like a guitar".

Susie O'Neill simply laughed it off. Ian Thorpe remained diplomatically silent. And then along came Kieren Perkins, dual 1500m Olympic gold medal winner and world record holder in that distance who is going for his third shot at the gold in Sydney.

"I don't take a lot of notice of drug cheats," the dual 1500m Olympic champion told reporters. "So, you know, don't worry about him." Suddenly, and succinctly, the gloves were off. And no amount of repair work by the Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, who did his best after Perkins's outburst, can disguise the enmity between the nations expected to dominate in the Olympic pool.

Coates admonished Perkins, arguably the most media-savvy athlete in Australia, for entering a war of words with Hall. Perkins's comments, he said, were clearly against Olympic protocol, since all Australian team members are forced to sign an agreement promising to respect other athletes and refrain from derogatory comments.

Hall junior, who won silver medals in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the Atlanta Games, was suspended by world governing body FINA for three months in 1998 after testing positive to marijuana.

He arrived in Australia over the weekend and trained at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre, just as Coates was suggesting Perkins should choose his words more carefully.

Australian head coach Don Talbot insists other countries will cause concern when the Olympic campaign begins on September 16, and he's right. But Talbot, and most of the Australians, has an abiding ambition to beat the trash-talking Americans in Sydney to emerge as the world's number-one swimming nation.

The head coach is desperate to deprive the world's number one team of ammunition in its battle with the emerging Australians. "I really believe they're probably trying to use us as a springboard to get their own team up and I think if we respond in any way, we're giving them grounds to do that," said Talbot.

He predicts Hall's comments are just the start of a verbal barrage from a US team anxious to retain its world number one status under threat from Australia.

"Every Games I've been to this sort of stuff is just below the surface," Talbot said. "It's part of the skill of the athlete to ignore that, while knowing that it is there."

Talbot has been at pains to emphasise the competition from other countries. Both Germany and Japan have strong women's teams, while the Dutch boast formidable male swimmers. One of the fastest swimmer in the world Michael Klim, who sat beside Perkins as he delivered his spray and will race Hall in the 100m freestyle, saw the humorous side of the row.

"I thought you were supposed to play guitars, not smash them," he said. Although actions will speak louder than words, the message to Hall and others is clear: Don't mess with us Australians in our own backyard.

Pillow talk and pillow fights at athletes village

There is talk that Olympic pin collecting is the 29th sport of the Sydney Games. However, at the athletes' village that 29th sport may be something else: pillow fighting.

Olympic sponsors usually try to pay for their official status in part by supplying their own products to Games' organisers. That way, they cut down on the cash they might otherwise have to spend on their sponsorships and they get a chance to associate their products with real Olympians.

Even if they're selling pillows. Tontine, officially supplying 25,000 pillows to the Olympic Village, will use that tie-in to launch a new premium Rebound pillow. It's priced at $14, more than double the cost of regular pillows in Australia. But hey, these are pillows you'd trust with your Olympic dreams. And new TV ads try to make the connection clear. They show a supposed boxer using his new Rebound to train for - ha, ha! - Olympic pillow fighting. To really milk this, Tontine should sell the Village pillows as memorabilia after the Games. Instead, they're slated to be destroyed out of sanitation concerns.


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