Our leading ladies

25 July 2012

LADIES first. When Australia goes to the Olympics, that’s always been more than simply an expression of politeness. It’s a succinct summary of how the history books look back on our impact on the medals table, and how the image of Australian sport has been enhanced over the years.

So the debate that has suddenly broken out over whether the gentle gender is entitled to be miffed if a man carries the flag again at the opening ceremony is not without some substance. 

The girls’ contribution usually outstrips their numerical representation on the team. They have always been outnumbered, especially in the early years when only three of them, in total, attended the first seven Games between 1896 and 1924, but they have won nearly 40 per cent of the 449Australian medals.

Despite the AOC’s declared policy of gender equalisation they will be in the minority again - there are 224 men and 186 women in London, or 55 and 45 per cent respectively.

That’s virtually the same percentages as in Beijing four years ago and the women won eight of the 14 gold medals there. Swimmer Stephanie Rice won three of those and she’s back on deck again, and along with hurdler Sally Pearson, track cyclist Anna Meares and the basketball and water polo teams, among others, you would probably be prepared to bet they will outstrip the guys again.  

They won’t lack for profile, either, with Pearson regarded by much of the media as the nearest thing we have to a gold-plated certainty - not that they want to put her under any pressure, of course. Lauren Jackson is still acknowledged as one of the world’s best basketballers. Meares has become a byword for courage and competitiveness. And Leisel Jones becomes the first Australian swimmer to make it to four Games. It is a diverse and impressive collection of stars, on and off the field of play.

In that respect, they have a lot of form, the sportswomen of Australia.

Much is often said about the perceived lack of applause and encouragement for Australian sportswomen right across the board, but nobody could ever suggest that the true stars - especially at Olympic level - do not get their fair share of attention. That was underscored at the opening ceremony in Sydney when Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Marjorie Jackson, the late Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould, Debbie Flintoff-King and Raelene Boyle featured heavily, while Cathy Freeman was the star of the entire production and, indeed, the face of the Games. Not many athletes, male or female, have enjoyed a more uplifting relationship with the nation’s sports fans.

Freeman has been a positive influence on Australian life and the national identity, as have many of her “sisters.” Boyle is a case in point. She never did win a gold medal, but with a sliver of luck and cleaner competition could easily have won four, which, given the that track and field is the most fiercely contested of all Olympic sports, would, I suggest, have made her our greatest ever, ahead of Fraser, Cuthbert, Ian Thorpe and anyone else you care to nominate. Now, in her sporting after-life, she remains a figure of great inspiration and significance as she plays a leading role in helping women deal with breast cancer. Jackson served as the Governor of South Australia. The list goes on.

Chef de Mission Nick Green will be well aware of all this, of course, and will have listened to beach volleyballer Natalie Cook and others point out strongly that there hasn’t been a female flag carrier since diver Jenny Donnett in Barcelona in 1992. But that definitely doesn’t mean that he will be swayed by any of it as he makes the biggest decision of his brief tenure in the job, knowing that whichever way he goes there will be at least half a dozen successful, experienced, inspirational athletes who will be entitled to consider themselves unlucky.

It is always a big issue but not always as controversial as it seems to have become this time. In Beijing, popular rower James Tomkins, a triple gold medallist and preparing then for his sixth Olympics, was pretty much the obvious choice.

It might be just as well Green wasn’t in charge one Games earlier. As a team-mate of Tomkins in the famous coxless four known as the Oarsome Foursome, where they won two golds together, the decision would have been a little more complicated.

The one guideline from history that Green can be expected to observe is that the gig will be a reflection of achievements past rather than any expectations of what might be yet to come. And on that score, yes, ladies of the ilk of Jones, Meares, Cook and Rice (who won’t march in the Opening Ceremony ahead of her 400 metre individual medley title defence on Day 1) have a formidable case.

But in most aspects of life the battle of the sexes is seldom a simple matter - and this won’t be any exception.

Ron Reed in London


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