Sydney, May 13 (DPA) Think of Australian sporting prowess and what comes to mind is the grin on happy captains as they hoist trophies aloft at the end of rugby, cricket and hockey tournaments.
But as well as top class teams there are outstanding individuals as well: Mark Schwarzer in football, Cadel Evans in cycling, Emma Snowsill in triathlon, Andrew Bogut in basketball, Mark Webber in motor racing and Neil Robertson in snooker.
That Australia, a nation of 22 million, punches above its weight in the world sporting arena.
But why this is so – and why it performs relatively poorly in some sporting disciplines – is a hot topic after Robertson won the world snooker title one week and Webber came first in a F1 race the next.
Schwarzer was beaten with Fulham in the Europa League final Wednesday but Evans is considered a top contender for the Giro d’Italia title on May 30.
To leaven the usual Australian triumphalism, let’s own up to the nation’s underperformance in some disciplines.
Next month in South Africa – it is only Australia’s third World Cup appearance – fans will come home delighted if the team gets beyond the first round as the Socceroos are no football super power.
In athletics, Australia has to go back to 1960s and distance runner Ron Clarke to find a multiple world record holder. Top middle-distance runner Craig Mottram did not even make the final of his signature event, the 5,000 metres, at the Beijing Olympics.
The men’s Davis Cup tennis team has a proud history with 28 titles, but has been out of the top tier World Group for three years.
Australians tell you that they excel in sport because the nation’s pride is at stake and individuals are keen to live up to the national stereotype.
“Part of Australia’s global standing lies in the fact that we have such an enormously competitive nation on the international field of sporting endeavour, and at the Olympics, and in other elite sports as well,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at a send off for the enormous 435-strong Beijing Games contingent.
“It’s part of who we are as a country.”
Only the United States sent a bigger team to the 2008 Olympics than Australia, and Australia had the second-largest visiting team at the Athens Games as well.
Sheer numbers gives weight to the proposition that success reflects a disproportionate investment in order to do well.
Newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt worked out that if every nation had sent athletes to Beijing at the same rate as Australia there would have been 146,000 staying in the Olympic Village rather than 10,000.
“It’s just an inferiority complex we’ve got,” Bolt argued. “We seem to think that the world is standing there cheering and astonished how fantastic we are that some swimmer won a gold medal. The rest of the world is paying as much attention to our sporting achievements than the rest of the world is to Argentina’s.”
The contrary argument, of course, is that the likes of Schwarzer, Evans, Bogut and Robertson are bubbling to the top in sports that Australians don’t much care about.
They do most of their competing abroad, where they are not buoyed by a home crowd and where they can genuinely say their achievements are their own.
Robertson is a case in point, having had to borrow equipment to compete as he rose through the ranks in Britain.
Casey Stoner, former world motorcycle racing champion, is another who left Australia for Europe when he left school and was without the benefit of government largesse or an adoring local audience as he made his way on the international circuit.