PLAYING THE FIELD with Hockeyroos’ player and London Olympian Ashleigh Nelson
The Real Issue of Sportsmanship and the Olympic ideals when athletes are indifferent to representing their country at the Games
I write this piece as a previous Olympian, an athlete with minimal financial benefit from her sport, an injured athlete now unable to compete, and a former country girl longing to win an Olympic gold medal.
“It should be a fight to make an Australian Olympic team and if the spot is given up so easily, then it never really meant that much in the first place.” Loudy Wiggins – Diver & dual Olympic medalist
Tennis Sets A Wrong Example
Despite the forthcoming focus on the recent controversy created by Australian tennis player Nick Kyrios, please don’t be confused, as this article really isn’t about him. His recent escapade is merely a vehicle to discuss the frustrations of an athlete who could have potentially lost their opportunity to compete to athletes for whom the Olympics is nothing more than a possible calendar event. It is a reflection on how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has undermined itself and its values by selling its soul and pushing out the little guy.
I don’t know Kyrios personally and therefore can’t make a call on who he is and what he stands for as a person. Having said that, I am open in my views that his on-court conduct, as an athlete, is very difficult to support or condone. All athletes have their moments – usually when poor execution and dubious umpiring collide. What is clear is his apparent inability to contain those frustrations, or at the very least challenge the umpire in a respectful manner. I have no doubt that over the course of my career I have probably cast a few filthy stares, argued about a decision during the course of a game, or criticized decisions after the final whistle. I can, however, categorically say I have never threatened an umpire, let alone made crude remarks about my opponent’s relationship status. I haven’t done this because I know that it won’t get me anywhere. I will lose focus as to what’s actually important. It would reflect poorly on myself and my team mates and, during periods of clarity, I truly understand how hard and unrewarding umpiring is.
Why is tennis even in the Olympics?
Indifference to the Games
So, when Kyrios said that he didn’t want to be a part of the Australian Olympic team at Rio, the fact that he wasn’t going didn’t really have any impact on me, although I thought it might be one less athlete the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) might have to deal with. What did annoy me though was that even going to Rio and an Olympics games is essentially a choice for some athletes.
From an athlete’s point of view – hockey specifically – where the Olympics is the absolute pinnacle of your sporting career, it’s a milestone event that we work towards for a large portion of our life, only to potentially get one shot at winning a gold medal. Some are luckier than others and have a career that spans a few Olympics, but for many of us, this doesn’t transpire, either through non-selection or injury. (In my case, both, with my recent ACL tear 100 days out from Rio.)
Play The Game or Get off the Field
If I had been reprimanded like Kyrios because of my on-field behavior, and had to explain myself to Australia’s Chef de Mission, Kitty Chiller, in response to a 14 page letter, I can assure you I would have been there front and centre pleading for the opportunity to have my shot. I would be doing that because I wouldn’t want previous on field/court indiscretions to be the reason I didn’t achieve a life long dream.
The fact that he doesn’t feel this way about needing to play perhaps isn’t actually a reflection of his own personal attitude about the Olympics, but a reflection of the comparative importance of tennis at the Olympics.
This “Olympic option” mentality isn’t just limited to tennis players.
This brings me to the crux of this article.
Why is tennis even in the Olympics?
I am not a tennis player, but from what I gather, the height of a tennis player’s career isn’t an Olympic gold medal. By all accounts, most of the tennis players we hear from these days tell stories about their childhood dream of growing up to be a Grand Slam winner taking out all four slams in one year. Sure some of them may have aspired to go to an Olympics growing up (Kyrios even said this in a interview at some point), but given a choice between four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal I am confident which one any tennis player would choose.
Kyrios isn’t alone on the tennis front however with two other players in the top 23 ATP tennis rankings also opting out of the Olympics. Both Bernard Tomic (Australia) and Dominic Thiem (Austria) have chosen to play in an ATP event in Mexico being held at the same time as the Rio Olympics. As many are probably aware this “Olympic option” mentality isn’t just limited to tennis players. Golfers Adam Scott and former number one Vijah Singh, have also turned down the opportunity to play in Rio.
Sportsmanship or Foul Play
Readers may think I am taking a swipe at all these listed athletes for opting out. I however have great respect for their choice, if they are making this decision to focus on the events that mean the most to them; it’s what dedicated athletes do. What makes my blood boil is that the IOC has allowed sports like golf and tennis to be a part of the program when clearly many of their athletes don’t hold the Olympics in the highest regards.
Coming from a sport where we commit ourselves to training for the Olympics throughout our career it breaks my heart to think of the athletes who have missed their one opportunity, while watching others compete for a medal they are indifferent about.
Who are the true superstars?
I understand we live in a society where sponsorship dominates the majority of decisions that are made in regards to hosting an event. With that in mind, it is no wonder the Olympics love having superstars like Roger Federer (I even got a photo with him in London 2012) to promote their event. But why do we need superstars like this when they have at their disposal true Olympic and highly marketable champions like Usain Bolt, Anna Meares and Michael Phelps, to name a few. This point aside I am confident in saying Olympics markets itself – you either watch it or you live under a rock for two weeks.
I don’t agree with how Kyrios behaves on court – it isn’t my cup of tea and I think it reflects poorly on him and potentially the Australian team. But what I really don’t agree with is when sports where the Olympics Games isn’t a priority for the athletes career are included.
Going to an Olympics shouldn’t be a choice about if you can fit it into your playing schedule. Speaking as an Olympic athlete – your schedule is dictated by the Olympics. Any sport that has athletes that don’t fit these criteria shouldn’t be in consideration.