It may be painful for Australia to be languishing in the Olympic medal table, but it is torture to be overtaken by its pipsqueak neighbour New Zealand. Fortunately, the Australian media has found ways to soften the blow. Cheekily announcing the birth of a new nation, the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid, showed "Aus Zealand" at ninth place in the league table yesterday.
In similar vein, Richard Hinds, a sports columnist for Fairfax newspapers, noted that Australia has a history of stealing New Zealand's success stories – such as the film star Russell Crowe and the legendary racehorse Phar Lap – and passing them off as its own. So why not embrace its achievements in Stratford, he suggested, concluding that "Team Oceania is doing quite well".
London has been a chastening experience for Australia, a proud sporting nation which entered the Games with a goal of 46 medals, including 15 golds, and a place in the top five. As disappointment has piled on disappointment, that estimate has been quietly revised. "Oh, I hope we get to 30 [medals]," the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, told ABC radio yesterday.
The country's dismal performance (until Tom Slingsby triumphed in the Laser sailing class yesterday, it had just one gold medal) has been analysed ad nauseum, amid daily breast-beating and recriminations. Lack of government funding for elite sport was partly to blame, Coates said at the weekend. Yesterday he said not enough emphasis was placed on sport by primary schools.
Media commentators have reflected the national mood. The failure of the men's 4x100m swimming relay team to win a medal of any description after having been confidently tipped to take gold was described by one newspaper as "the biggest defeat since Gallipoli". But when New Zealand leapfrogged Australia in the gold medal tally late last week, the headline-writers went berserk. "No, Bro! Kiwis overhaul Aussies on medal table," screamed the Daily Telegraph, adopting a popular Maori salutation. The Australian lamented that "the news is bad, and it's all black", in reference to New Zealand's sporting colour. Channel Nine, the commercial broadcaster, showed only the top nine rankings – at the time, New Zealand was number 10.
On the other side of the Tasman, meanwhile, success is tasting all the sweeter because of Australia's poor show. New Zealand is accustomed to being eclipsed by its larger neighbour, except on the rugby pitch. "Great medals haul, and we're beating the Aussies," trumpeted the Dominion Post in Wellington. It also asked, cruelly: "What's the difference between the New Zealand rowing team and the entire Australian Olympic squad?" The answer: the rowers have more gold medals (three).
Australian newspapers were even accused of "censoring" New Zealand's success. The New Zealand Herald reported: "Australian media are in denial – the first stage of grief – at seeing New Zealand above their team on the Olympic medal table."
As of yesterday, New Zealand was lying 14th in the table. But if population was taken into account, the Herald reported excitedly, the country – home to just under 4.5 million people – would be sitting proudly on top, both for gold and total medals. On the more conventional table, meanwhile, Australia was 16th – behind Hungary, Korea and Kazakhstan.
Particularly hard to bear was its performance in the pool last week. The swimming team won just 10 medals, compared with 20 in Beijing. One after another, gold medal hopes clambered out of the pool in tears, having won only silver or, in the case of Stephanie Rice, nothing at all. Rice was a triple gold medallist in Beijing. Overall, it was Australia's lowest Olympic haul in the pool since Barcelona in 1992.
The former national head swimming coach Don Talbot, who had an iron reputation, accused his successor, Leigh Nugent, of being too nice. "They [the swimmers] were glad to see the back of me, but someone has to rough people up a bit," he told The Australian.
"Leigh's a softer man than me."