Medal spotlight on Australia: Sink-or-swim time for athletes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In the first in a series looking at the main medal contenders for London 2012, Robin Scott-Elliot assesses the Australians, who have their smallest Olympic team for 20 years – but are looking worryingly good in the pool and on the track

This may be a question of glasses. Australia's smallest Olympic team for 20 years is arriving in Britain amid rows over how much the swimmers are getting paid, who can sleep with whom in the Olympic village, bitter claims that a 400m runner was overlooked on racial grounds and fears this is all paving the green and not-so-gold way to the worst Australian performance at a Games for more than 20 years.

That's the glass half-empty version. There is another. The 410 Australian athletes scattered across Britain – the swimmers have set up training camp in Manchester – is more than either China or Germany are sending, and only 25 fewer than headed for Beijing four years ago. A projected finish of eighth in the medal table has been recently revised upwards to target fifth place on the back of a swimming team of genuine youthful potential, a revived cycling squad capable of taking on Britain in their own velodrome, and a thin but convincing spread of medal hopes across other sports.

China, despite its slimmed down team of 396, and the US are in a contest of their own at the top of the medal table. Russia will battle Britain for third and fourth, while the host nation is keeping a wary eye on its European rivals, France and Germany. South Korea and Japan have spent heavily on their Olympic hopes; Italy and Ukraine will also look for a top-10 or upwards finish. Australia, meanwhile, seek to finish in the top seven for the fifth consecutive Games. For a country with little more than a quarter of the population of Germany and a third of Britain, it is a remarkable record. Can they maintain it?

One in three of Australia's medals in Beijing came in the Water Cube. Swimming is Australia's Olympic sport but the 47-strong team putting the finishing touches to preparations in Manchester this week is not the force of old. In part that is due to others closing the gap on Australia's women, the mainstay of their Beijing medal tally (the men did not win a gold in 2008), with Britain, Italy, France and Holland stronger than four years ago. At last year's world championships in Shanghai no Australian woman won gold.

In London they will lean heavily on Stephanie Rice, the one genuine big hitter in the women's team, and a couple of veterans – in swimming terms – in Leisel Jones and Libby Trickett, who has come out of brief retirement to compete. Rice, 24, won three golds in Beijing but comes into London dogged by shoulder problems and having finished third in the 400m individual medley, her signature event, at last year's world championships behind Elizabeth Beisel of the US and Britain's Hannah Miley.

At an Olympics, momentum within a team can often prove pivotally important; Rice goes on day one to defend her 400m individual medley title. If she fails it will place ever more pressure on to Australia's biggest hope, James Magnussen, aka "The Missile".

Much rests on Magnussen's broad shoulders. The 6ft 5in 21-year-old was key in both Australian golds in Shanghai, winning the 100m free and firing the freestyle relay team ahead of France and the US. There has not been a great Australian sprinter in the pool since Mike Wenden in 1968 but the ultra-confident Magnussen is a London star in waiting.

Outside the pool the velodrome offers the likeliest chance of quantities of Australian medals. The head-to-head with Britain's much-vaunted track team will provide a Games highlight – at April's world championships in Melbourne, Australia led the medal table but Britain took more golds from the Olympic events.

The feisty Anna Meares is the team's star; her confrontation with Victoria Pendleton, an old and respected foe, will be quick and brutal, while high-speed duelling is likewise certain in the men's and women's team pursuits, an event that has seen the world record reduced with almost each outing Britain and Australia have made in recent months.

Elsewhere there are some world-class athletes who expect gold. Sally Pearson is favourite to win the 100m hurdles despite her tumble at Crystal Palace at the weekend, Mitchell Watt will contend the long jump medals, while Sam Willoughby is ranked No 1 in the world in the BMX. In team sports, hockey and basketball – the women's team, the Opals, have won the last three silvers – there are good podium prospects on offer.

It was in 1976 that not one Australian managed to climb to the top of a podium in Montreal, a collective failure that led to a serious revision in sport funding. That was the spark for the overachievement of the last four Games. It is a path Britain belatedly followed 20 years on after a disastrous Atlanta Games.

However, with greater resources and the funding finally in place, Britain edged ahead in Beijing and with home advantage should stay there in London. But Australia, hosts a dozen years ago, are further down the road in the Olympic cycle; what state will British sport find itself in three Games' time, when the high of hosting the event, and the extra funding that brings, has worn off? If it is in as robust health as Australia's now that will be no bad place to be.

Australian officials insist that squabbles over the Aus$10,000 payment to swimmers, with Aus$35,000 to follow in return for a gold medal, have been resolved. They have also dealt with Russell Marks' moans about not being able to share a room with his wife, another member of the shooting team, and John Steffensen's allegations that he was "racially vilified" in not being picked for the 400m (Marks sleeps on his own; Steffensen will be in London). From their vantage point, the glass is half-full.

Already installed outside Australian HQ in the Olympic village is a large plastic emu. Sitting on its back is a pint-sized kangaroo kitted out with bright red boxing gloves, the symbol of a country clearly looking to punch above its weight one more time.

Show us your medals

Since 1992 Gold Silver Bronze Total

Beijing 2008

GB 4th 19 13 15 47

AUS 6th 14 15 17 46

Athens 2004

GB 10th 9 9 13 31

AUS 4th 17 16 16 49

Sydney 2000

GB 10th 11 10 7 28

AUS 4th 16 25 17 58

Atlanta 1996

GB 36th 1 8 6 15

AUS 7th 9 9 23 41

Barcelona 1992

GB 13th 5 3 12 20

AUS 10th 7 9 11 27

Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor