Olympic mettle hopes and tears

The London Olympic Games is less than a week old and already I’m so disappointed I could cry.

Just to be clear, Sporting Declaration loves the Olympics.

I’d sit up all night just to listen to Lucinda Green’s beautifully droll British vowels as she talks about piaffing and other things I will surely never understand.

I could probably dedicate an entire column to the perplexing pursuit of dressage – a sport that appears to have been invented as a contest between the spoiled heirs of various royal families, in the same way that the 100-metre sprint is a contest between fast people.

Not that we care about such quirks at the Olympic Games. If an Australian is competing, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming and table tennis are enthralling.

Most of all, I love watching competitors who love being Olympians.

I’ll never forget Eric ‘‘the Eel’’ Moussambani, who splashed his way to the Equatorial Guinea national record in the 100metre freestyle in Sydney.

In London, Hamadou Djibo Issa from landlocked Niger was cheered on enthusiastically to last place in the single sculls, having learned to row only three months before. His was a great example of the Olympic spirit.

I wonder what Hamadou would have made of Emily Seebohm, the Australian backstroker who broke down in tears after winning a silver medal, and who told the world she might as well have come ninth.

‘‘I got silver and in my last Olympics I came ninth,’’ Seebohm said.

‘‘But ninth is like second in a way. You are just so close, you just missed it.’’

The press are often accused of being too critical of our athletes, of having unrealistic expectations. But their fanatical desire to turn Seebohm’s silver-medal-winning petulance into a patriotic heartbreak story was embarrassing.

‘‘A lot of people back home were crying along with you,’’ one journo offered. ‘‘Do you realise now that you haven’t let anyone down?’’

That Seebohm made the pool at all was remarkable. In the lead-up, she struggled through swine flu, pancreatitis and six bouts of tonsillitis. She was so nervous she couldn’t eat before the race.

There’s a point to which I understand the disappointment of athletes who’ve dedicated years to reach the pinnacle of the sport and who measure success on a different scale to us mortals.

But there are times when their lack of grace and humility makes me want to sob.

Stephanie Rice has three Olympic gold medals, but blubbered when she finished outside the medals in her pet event, the 400metres individual medley.

Poor Steph. Maybe if she’d won another medal we’d have all forgotten about those homophobic tweets.

I confess, I’m jealous. You bet I am. When I was younger, very few of my dreams didn’t involve becoming an elite athlete of some sort. Ultimately, I did not have an ounce of the talent required.

Maybe my lack of sporting ability is why I struggle to understand the tears.

Last year, the University of Indiana conducted a study of athletes and their perceptions about crying.

The study found that athletes – mostly tough-as-nails jock college footballers – ‘‘who strive to be stronger and are emotionally expressive are more likely to have a mental edge on and off the field’’.

The criers all had higher levels of self-esteem.

Regardless, there are still some very instructive examples of athletes who have had their dreams crushed and handled the experience with remarkable sportsmanship.

The first who springs to mind is Jamie ‘‘Mr Business’’ Pittman, the Shortland boy who captained the Australian boxing team in Athens and was considered a medal chance before being thoroughly dudded in the preliminary round by some horrible judging decisions.

Pittman had worked as hard as any athlete to get to the Olympics, and no doubt he was distraught when the bout was awarded to the German opponent he’d knocked down twice. The Greek crowd booed the decision.

The fighter’s first reaction was to hug his celebrating opponent. He congratulated the German again as he left the ring.

"I hope my country is proud of what I’ve done,’’ Pittman said afterwards. ‘‘I’m pretty disappointed, but I have no regrets.’’

His mum sent him a text message, too.

‘‘You come from Shortland and look where you are now,’’ she wrote.

I’m sure Emily Seebohm’s mum is proud, too. And I’m sure Emily will realise, sooner rather than later, the preciousness of her silver medal and her Olympic experience.

She only has to look at Hamadou Issa and all the dressage riders, rhythmic gymnasts, synchronised swimmers and table tennis players who will leave London having fulfilled a lifelong dream, with or without a medal around their neck.

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