World turns upside down for bemused Australians

Defeats in rugby, tennis and football have provoked a period of unfamiliar soul-searching in a nation used to winning.
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The Independent Online

Thank heavens for Ian Robinson. Last week the Zimbabwean umpire was credited with helping Australia's cricketers to escape the indignity of losing a home Test series to New Zealand for the first time in 16 years. A historic victory for the Kiwis – which was avoided after two contentious decisions by Robinson – was a prospect too awful to contemplate for most Australians, already reeling from a run of sporting failures by their national teams in recent weeks.

The rot started with two consecutive losses by the once invincible Wallabies (rugby union) in Europe, with an upset for the Kangaroos (rugby league) sandwiched in-between. Then came the Socceroos' agonising 3-0 defeat by Uruguay in Montevideo, which robbed the football team once again of its dream of qualifying for the World Cup finals.

Just a week later, the nation was forced to absorb yet another piece of bad news: the 3-2 win by the French Davis Cup tennis team in Melbourne, which saw the Australians – including the world No 1, Lleyton Hewitt – vanquished at home, and on grass in the final.

So profound was the sense of shock that the sound of Anthony Mundine's head hitting the canvas in Dortmund that same weekend barely registered. The former rugby league player was knocked out by Germany's Sven Ottke in the 10th round of their International Boxing Federation world super-middle-weight title fight.

The chain of events has been sobering for Australians, who had come to take success for granted after an extraordinary three years in which they appeared incapable of losing anything. "Have we lost our nerve? Our talent?" asked one traumatised columnist.

Failure has an unfamiliar taste, and it sticks in the throat of a nation that derives much of its self-esteem from the feats of its athletes.

Only last month, a national newspaper ran a lengthy article reviewing Australia's sporting achievements in 2001. "The Ashes are won, the Lions tamed and Lleyton has the world on a string," it enthused. "This is the year that almost all Australia's sporting blessings have come at once and all things seem possible." Now triumphalism has given way to soul-searching, with numerous explanations offered for the sudden reversal of fortunes.

The fact, for instance, that the tap has been turned off in sports that had money poured into them in the run-up to the 2000 Olympics. The departure of veteran athletes following the Sydney Games. The emulation by other countries of the winning tactics that transformed Australia – world champions in 47 disciplines in 1999 – into a dominant sporting nation.

However, David Rowe, a sports lecturer at the University of Newcastle, dismisses the idea of a causal relation between the various losses. "There is no pattern with an identifiable cause," he said. "Sports highs and lows come and go, and a run of wins or defeats is not necessarily related." Certainly, some results were the product of specific situations. The Kangaroos, who lost 20-12 to Great Britain in the first Ashes Test, were rusty, having called off the tour because of security concerns and then reinstated a shorter schedule without lead-up games.

The Wallabies, meanwhile, are widely regarded as needing an injection of new blood, and their back-to-back defeats by England and France – 21-15 and 14-13 respectively – have given the coach, Eddie Jones, a mandate to pension off ageing players and rebuild the team.

The Davis Cup fiasco was a combination of bad luck and poor judgement, with an injured Pat Rafter forced to withdraw from the fifth rubber after the decision was made to field him and Hewitt in the doubles rather than Wayne Arthurs and one of the world's leading doubles players, Todd Woodbridge. Arthurs took Rafter's place in the decider, which was duly won by Nicolas Escude.

While the reasons for the disappointing run may be debatable, its impact on the national psyche is beyond doubt. Australia has always excelled in sport rather than in other fields, such as artistic or scientific, so sporting achievement is central to its identity and self-image.

Now the tables have been turned. "We couldn't win soccer, rugby, cricket or tennis. So now it's up to our actors to save our pride," ran the headline on an article analysing Australia's chances of winning Academy Awards.

Some observers believe that a bit of failure is healthy. "Even euphoria gets tiresome after a while," said Peter FitzSimons, a columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald. "You need the black spots to appreciate the euphoria." Matt Price, a columnist with The Australian, said that the recent "loserfest" made a pleasant change.

"Hopefully more Australians will emerge with a better appreciation of failure," Price said. "Kipling, Churchill and others have waxed impressively about the character-building nature of defeat, but I prefer the anonymous American who uttered: 'Losing is nature's way of saying you suck'."

But the people deriving the most pleasure from Australia's recent poor performances live across the Tasman. New Zealanders are positively gleeful. "They may have more world champions and Olympic gold medals than a Kiwi can poke a stick at, but in the past four weeks, the Australians' seemingly bullet-proof confidence has been exposed as a mere veneer," declared the New Zealand Herald.

So thank heavens for Ian Robinson, saviour of Australia's sporting pride. To lose the cricket would have meant national psychosis. As Matt Price said: "To be defeated by New Zealand at anything is, without exception, unacceptable."