WHAT do you do with nationalistic fervour and triumphalism when hundreds of athletes on the other side of the planet, who carry Australian passports just like you, can't seem to win?
That has been the niggling, discomfiting and mostly unspoken question across Australia for more than a week now.
As each day of the London Olympics has passed, the bewilderment and frustration has grown in lounge rooms and workplaces throughout the nation.
These Olympics bring to an end a period in our sporting history that began in 1976, after the games in Montreal yielded a gold-free result for Australia. That humiliation led the Fraser government to reorganise the administration and funding of sport.
It established the Australian Institute of Sport and began a process of - let's call it for what it was - buying Olympic gold medals, a practice that subsequent governments followed enthusiastically.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that this had the support of a big majority of Australians. We like watching men and women in the Australian strip winning. It makes the rest of us feel like winners. In fact, the rest of us claim the victories as our own. ''We'' won 16 gold medals in Sydney in 2000. ''We'' took 17 gold at Athens in 2004.
The first four years of the new century represented the apogee of the post-Montreal venture, in terms of the gold haul and with the securing of a locally-held Olympics.
In 2008 at Beijing, Australia's athletes won 14 gold medals. At London, as we know, the team will struggle to get beyond a handful. What we also know is that this will trigger all manner of inquiries and investigations. Already, the reduction of the issue to dollars and cents has begun.
On Monday, Australia's most senior international Olympic official Kevan Gosper essentially blamed the Gillard government for the paucity of Australian gold medals. He attacked the findings of a 2009 Rudd government-commissioned panel headed by company director David Crawford that recommended more public money should go to community-based sports ahead of some elite, Olympics-oriented sports.
''There was a suggestion that getting gold medals in the Olympic games was too costly,'' Gosper said.
''Now, that really cost us. You've got to put money in there. That pays for coaches, it pays for international competition. The money is difference between silver and gold.''
Gosper is right in one important respect. Money definitely makes a difference in the chase for gold. Great Britain, embarrassed by its desultory Olympic performances through the '90s, followed Australia's example and has poured masses of cash into its sporting bodies, funded in part by its public lottery, and it capped off the effort by hosting the London games.
But money tells only part of the story. For example, in the four years to the 2008 games, where ''we'' won 14 golds, the Commonwealth tipped in about $210 million. In the four years to London, the Commonwealth has kicked in considerably more - around $300 million. Swimming got about $30 million of that, for one gold medal.
The argument from people such as Gosper, and from Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates as he publicly derided the Crawford panel's report, has been that while the amount of government money going into sport had grown, it was not keeping pace with spending by other big sporting nations. In comparative terms, Australia was falling behind. That was Gosper's argument this week: in this environment only bigger and bigger slices of the public-funding pie will push a small-population country such as Australia from second to first.
Perhaps, but surely there's more to Australia's performance in London than that. It's not merely how much money that's devoted to sport that matters but how that money is spent. And the values that go along with sport, including the will to win, should also count. Every athlete who makes an Olympic games deserves to be respected and revered. But if they accept public underwriting of their sport, they should not kid themselves: the money comes with strings attached.
Let's get it clear, that $300 million that Australians contributed to the London games effort comes from the sweat of millions of workers and managers. One tenth of it went to the swim team. No other national swim team in the world gets more adulation or media attention than Australia's. Being a top-line swimmer can lead to riches and open all sorts of doors. After the women's medley relay team took silver last weekend, an ebullient Leisel Jones told a poolside interviewer that she had advised her younger teammates not to worry about where they finished in the race. Instead, they should just have fun. Even allowing for her conventional athlete-speak, was it good enough that this seasoned Olympian was happy with second and portraying an Olympic event as an opportunity for enjoyment? Contrast that with the men's coxless fours, who were dignified but devastated at having come second. They were not afraid to show how much it hurt not to win. And good on them for that.
After the women's medley relay team took silver last weekend, an ebullient Leisel Jones told a poolside interviewer that she had advised her younger teammates not to worry about where they finished in the race. Instead, they should just have fun. Even allowing for her conventional athlete-speak, was it good enough that this seasoned Olympian was happy with second and portraying an Olympic event as an opportunity for enjoyment? Contrast that with the men's coxless fours, who were dignified but devastated at having come second. They were not afraid to show how much it hurt not to win. And good on them for that.
Contrast that with the men's coxless fours, who were dignified but devastated at having come second. They were not afraid to show how much it hurt not to win. And good on them for that.
The point is, Australians pay for these athletes to compete, not to ''have fun'' or waste their energies on Twitter and Facebook or to buckle under the pressure and then make excuses about it. This was James Magnussen's first Olympics and it's not hard to see how a 21-year old can be overwhelmed by it all. But coaches, managers, administrators and older teammates are there to stop that happening. Did anyone at any point pull him aside and tell him that he was not on a free ride, that hard-up families in the outer suburbs had helped him get to London through their taxes, and that if he talked the talk he had to be able to walk the walk? Not only did Australia send its best athletic talent to London, it also shipped over some of its entitlement mentality.
The story Underperforming Olympians shouldn't be surprised at public sentiment first appeared on Fairfax Regional Pages.