Placings a cruel yardstick on biggest stage

16:49, Aug 12 2012
Bevan Docherty
BEVAN DOCHERTY: Said it didn't matter where he finished if it wasn't in the top three.

Veteran triathlete Bevan Docherty made a cryptic comment in London this week.

Old Mr Consistency - the only triathlete to win back-to-back Olympic medals - was asked if he was pleased to be the first New Zealander home in 12th place at Hyde Park.

Docherty basically said it didn't mean diddly-squat.

"The Olympics is all about winning medals, no-one cares when you are off the podium.''

That's an understandable attitude from a competitor of Docherty's pedigree.

Olympic athletes hate to lose, especially those who've had past success.

That's why tears coursed down Valerie Adams' cheeks after she surrendered her Olympic shot put title to her Belarussian bugbear Nadzeya Ostapchuk.

But is Docherty right? Does no-one care about the athletes who miss medals?

Hardly. That would mean writing off the vast majority of the 11,000 athletes in London.

Some athletes do under-perform on the Olympic stage.  New Zealand middle-distance star Nick Willis was as disappointing in London as he was exhilarating in Beijing where he won the silver medal.

Triathlete  Andrea Hewitt was also deeply dejected at her sixth place after being ranked as world number one for her consistency in the World Championship Series.

But some plucky fourth-place finishers, such as road cyclist Linda Villmusen, swimmer Lauren Boyle and veteran eventer  Andrew Nicholson, can't be accused of under-achieving.

Cycling is one of the world's top sports in terms of quality and depth.  Villmusen's fourth in the time trial is, arguably, at least as meritorious as most of our bronze medals.

Nicholson would almost certainly have won a medal had his dressage test not been delayed because international eventing officials decreed repairs had to be made to their enclosure after a rain shower.

Swimming is one of the Games' glamour sports - up there in the Gods with track and field.  It's a huge feather in Boyle's swim cap to even make the 800m freestyle final, let alone finish fourth.

We're not talking about Commonwealth codes like rugby, netball and cricket here. Swimming and track and field are genuine global sports. Competition is exceedingly tough.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee set a qualifying standard for some sports, based on potential to achieve a top-16 placing.

A lot of our athletes have achieved that. Decathlete Brent Newdick, who finished 12th, was thrilled to make the NZOC target.  He felt it justified his selection.

Some Kiwi competitors have notched career or season bests. Others' Olympics have been over in the blink of an eye.

Canoeing have been big improvers. New Zealanders were weaned on the gold medal deeds of Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald, Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell in the 1980s.  But Ben Fouhy, in Athens in 2004, has been our only paddler on the podium this century.

Fouhy flopped at Dorney, leaving the Olympic arena with his standard, expletive-peppered spray at Sport New Zealand over funding issues.

Maybe his sport's future is female.  K2 100 world champion Lisa Carrington and her K2 500 partner Erin Taylor made finals at Dorney Lake this week - the first Kiwi women to do so.

It's interesting to see other New Zealand sports referencing rowing as a future template.

That's not surprising given our oarspeople have been our top sporting team in London with three gold medals and two bronzes.

Canoeing head coach Gordon Walker, a former Coast to Coast multisport champion, said sports had to have a long-term plan and target key events.

"Like New Zealand Rowing, they understand. They don't chase the eight, they chase the twos, the fours and the single. They're very strategic about that.

"You've got to have a long-term strategy around what you want to achieve.''

Walker says that's imperative for codes like canoeing who are battling big European nations.

But back to the Docherty dictum about the Olympics being all about medals and Adams' wee weep over her  silver medal.

She clearly hadn't seen the movie, Tuesdays With Morrie, where American sportswriter Mitch Albom sat with his former college sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of a neurological disease.

Schwartz was at a basketball game where his college, Brandeis University, were trouncing an opponent. The Brandeis boosters started chanting "we're number one'' so Schwartz jumped outof his seat and yelled: "what's wrong with being number two?''. He silenced the gloating crowd.

What is wrong with being number two, three, four, five? What's wrong with being an Olympian, in the first place.  

None of the New Zealanders here came along for the ride - or the free McDonalds.


Fairfax Media