Aussies lash out after relay favourites bomb

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 20:43 30/07/2012
James Magnussen
Getty Images
DEFLATED: James Magnussen reacts after the Australian 4x100m freestyle relay team finished fourth.

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The tide turned dramatically and there was blood in the water around Australia as the sun rose on anything but a golden moment for their Olympic Games campaign across the globe in London's aquatic complex.

The men's 4x100 freestyle relay team, the brazenly named 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' spearheaded by James 'The Missile' Magnussen, were expected to take the focus off Leisel Jones' added buoyancy around the waist and waterline - and they succeeded, though not in the manner a bleary-eyed public and dumfounded media anticipated today.

Magnussen, Matt Targett, Eamon Sullivan and James Roberts were the fastest qualifiers, reigning world champions and with the sport's fastest swimmers over two laps in 2012 launching and then anchoring their quartet, winning the gold medal in world record time was assumed to be a formality.

Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates certainly thought so - he chose this event to present the medals and had to smile through gritted teeth as the Russians, Americans and, finally, the French stood on the podium.

As "La Marseillaise" reverberated around the arena, Australia truly was a "Land Down Under" as the airwaves were awash with a chorus of spite, recrimination and disbelief.

Veteran broadcaster Alan Jones reportedly described the Australian's fourth placing as representing a worse defeat than Gallipoli; elsewhere media outlets merely labelled the 3min 11.63 sec debacle as "Australian swimming's darkest day" - disregard current Olympian Nick D'arcy's assault on teammate Simon Cowley in a Sydney bar four years ago, they were out of competition.

Magnussen, the most identifiable and over-hyped Australian athlete in London alongside hurdler Sally Pearson, found it only takes a millisecond for an aura of invincibility - and the adulation of a nation - to evaporate.

Instead of enhancing his reputation as the new improved 'Thorpedo', the successor to the star of the Sydney and Athens Olympiads was soon portrayed as the instigator of the 'Australian Missile Crisis', the ringleader of the rebranded 'Weapons of Self Destruction.'

"Dud Missile shocks relay teammates" bemoaned one headline accompanied with an image of Magnussen slumped poolside, head in hands.

By covering his pet distance almost a second off his personal best - light years in swimming terms - Magnussen did not supply his teammates with the advantage they had predicted when he left the blocks.

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Targett - condemned to a second leg match race with Michael Phelps - and Sullivan kept in touch with the Americans and French but Roberts, supposedly a medal contender with Magnussen in the 100m freestyle, could not reel the leaders in and then got overtaken by the Russians.

"Wow, that is a shock," former Olympian Grant Hackett told viewers on Channel Nine.

Magnussen also stated the obvious when reluctantly corralled to the host broadcaster's poolside pen.

Suddenly the face of Australia's swim team's wanted to slink without trace and his surly treatment of interviewer Giaan Rooney, another former Olympian, compounded his tardy performance.

"I've got no response really, I've got no idea what happened," he said into the distance before his teammates took up the slack.

Fans on Twitter admonished Magnussen with one summing up the mood by tweeting: "Poor form by James Magnussen in post-race interview. Total lack of grace and respect"

Magnussen initially walked past Rooney, who looked as deflated as her interview subjects, before returning to offer his 11-word explanation.

She later defended him by tweeting Magnussen was "walking around in a daze, don't even think he knew I was there".

But arguably Magnussen's most heinous crime was committing that most un-Australian of acts: talking the talk and then not, in his case, lapping the lap.

Australians can condone a battling loser - a tearful Stephanie Rice was given the benefit of the doubt after relinquishing her 400m individual medley crown on Saturday - but Magnussen's self-assuredness, or cockiness, has backfired in the aftermath of a disastrous Olympic Games debut.

The 21-year-old's deeds at the world championships in Shanghai last July meant he was always going to be a focal point of advertising campaigns and cheerleading media organisations yet in Australia there's a fine line between exuding confidence, and arrogance.

"Magnussen is a likeable bloke from the likeable mid north coast NSW town of Port Macquarie, who has oozed confidence throughout the London lead-up. All the same, Magnussen might have toned it down a notch," wrote Andrew Sharwood on The Punch.com.

"After the Olympic trials in March, Magnussen famously grabbed the microphone and said "brace yourselves", a message aimed directly at his rivals. It wasn't a modest moment."

There was no reason he couldn't win the 100m freestyle in a new record time, disregarding his rivals, many of whom were in today's relay.

"I think at this stage where I am at with my preparation and my times at the moment, the biggest competitor here this week for me will be myself and my head space," he told The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

He then went on to consider the possibility of "leaving a legacy".

What Magnussen has to ensure now, leading into the 100m freestyle on Thursday, is he doesn't exit Heathrow without activating the metal detectors.

Australia's failure to win the men's 4x100m freestyle relay was the lowlight of a day where the Hockeyroos lost to New Zealand for the first time at this level; hopes were also dashed in tennis, volleyball, beach volleyball, water polo, boxing, badminton, basketball, table tennis, gymnastics and the women's cycling road race.

At least Bryce Corbett from the Australian Women's Weekly noted the reaction to Magnussen's meltdown had some of his compatriots on top of the world: "After building him up as a god, now we dive in and tear him down. Now there's an Olympic event we excel at."

- Fairfax Media

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