By FRANZ STAMPFL
Published in THE AUSTRALIAN, THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 3 1964, PG 20
(Reproduced with permission)
Very few athletes are lucky enough to win an Olympic medal — most will go to Tokyo with high hopes only to return home empty-handed and disappointed. But the days when athletes and nations believed in Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s ideal that taking part in the Olympic Games was of greater value than winning belong to the past.
Today most nations make gigantic efforts to create a sporting elite in the struggle for Olympic dominance. The two largest nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, spend millions of dollars and billions of roubles to do this and between them they aim to capture the lion’s share of gold, silver and bronze medals.
Baron Von Clausewitz’s dictum in his famous treatise on war that “war is nothing else but the continuation of politics by other means” takes on a similar meaning when applied to sport.
In the 18th Olympic era we have arrived at the stage where cynics may justly say. “The Olympic Games are nothing else but an extension of power politics into sport.”
Whether we like it or not all nations are inexorably drawn into this mad scramble towards a spurious ideal.
Russia and America set the pattern — to them a champion of the sports arena represents not individual excellence but a way of life.
Practically all American Olympic competitors are recruited from the mass of “athletics sponsorship” students whose place in their university depends entirely on their sporting prowess, not on academic achievement.
They are trained by the best professional coaches in the land. They are pampered and molly coddled and treated like the most precious race horses.
One famous American discus thrower recently complained bitterly that his country sent him to Europe by a slow turbo-prop jet rather than the latest supersonic jet.
ATHLETES LIVE BETTER
In Russia, the State looks after its sportsmen. Many are better fed, better housed, have better jobs and get unlimited time off from work for training and competition.
Australia’s athletic movement is the last bastion of pure amateurism.
In this country all athletes do a day‘s work or full-time study and compete and train in their free time. They are not subsidised or assisted by their school, university or club.
They are the only athletes I have seen anywhere in the world who pay when they enter the ground to compete.
In answer to massive Russian and American sporting preparations most European countries have established huge national coaching schemes.
Since World War II there has been in Europe a huge upsurge of tracks and sporting facilities of all kinds.
All big cities and large towns now have their modern stadiums, and thousands of small country towns right down to humble hamlets proudly display their new tracks which are used to full capacity.
FIVE NEEDS FOR A MEDAL
Finland, with a population of three million, has more than 300 cinder tracks. It was the ﬁrst country in Europe to establish a national coaching scheme in the early twenties.
It is not surprising that this small country’s athletes won 36 gold medals since the beginning of the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Compare this with Australia’s record.
In 64 years we won ﬁve gold medals. Edwin Flack won the 800 metres and 1500 metres in 1896 at Athens. Archibald Winter won the triple jump in the 1925 Paris Games with a new world record of 50ft and 11 1/4 in. John Winter won the high jump in London in 1948. Herb Elliott won the 1500 metres in Rome also with a new world record of 3 min 35.6 sec, which still stands.
To win an Olympic gold medal, five things are necessary. They are ability; ﬁrst-class coaching and training; ﬁrst-class training facilities; tough competition (local and international); and luck.
We are unable to plan ability or luck.
But to give our athletes an equal chance to compete against the world’s best we can and must establish adequate training facilities, coaching and competition.
Australia was among the first countries in the world to organise and conduct amateur athletics competitions. The Amateur Athletic Union of Australia was founded in 1898.
Yet after 66 years there are fewer than 7000 registered athletes competing regularly in the whole all Australia.
MORE FACILITIES A MUST
We can boast of no more than 10 cinder tracks and very few of them are used for athletics only. Most are used as soccer ovals and hockey grounds during the winter. Naturally on these grounds competition and to a large extent training are conﬁned to the summer months only.
It is utterly old fashioned to regard athletics as solely a summer sport. The Americans and Europeans train and compete all year round and have done so for many years.
The few competing athletes in Australia relate directly to our small number of tracks and inadequate training facilities. And an a result we limit considerably our chances of international success.
I do not believe we can ever match, nor believe there is any need to, the four million Soviet athletes or the 70,000 American athletes in training.
But I believe we can and must have many more athletes competing and provide many more training facilities.
In contrast to its athletics facilities, Australia has more tennis courts and more tennis players per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
Competition in Australia is based almost entirely on inter-club competition. This excellent for the average athlete. But after nine years of observing this system, I am firmly convinced it restricts the champion as much as it gives pleasure to the weekend athlete.
Competing in grades for their clubs, most of our best athletes rarely if ever meet during the inter-club season.
The only time they compete against each other is in the State and National Championships.
There are few interstate matches or open competitions to bring together the best in the country.
With the exception of the Olympic Games in 1956 and the Empire Games in 1962, we have provided no international competition in this country for our athletes.
In America and Europe athletes are worried not by the lack of competition but by too much competition. Obviously the Americans and Europeans are seasoned campaigners by the time they compete in the Olympic Games.
Most of our athletes on the other hand, have always entered the Olympic Games completely unprepared for the rough and tumble of the highest form of international cut-throat competition.
l have the greatest admiration for our Australian athletes who are more dedicated and potentially better than any in the world. But it is a tragedy that they have been cut off from the rest of the athletic world and have never had as good a chance as overseas competitors to prepare for Olympic competition.
Imagine if Australia’s tennis players competed for no more than four or ﬁve months of the year in local competition, and only every four years ventured abroad. Where would they be in the world of tennis?
Generally, the standard of coaching in Australia is very high and compares well with the rest of the world. All of our best athletes follow training routines which are universally accepted.
Coaching on an organised basis is ﬁrmly established in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
These three States have established local coaching schemes and their Amateur Athletic Associations recognise their coaches only after they have passed strict tests.
WHY A GRASSTEX TRACK?
Our coaches certainly do not lack knowhow.
But in sharp contrast to the American and European Olympic competitors who have been constantly kept at peak form by tough competition during the past few months, Australia’s Olympians have not met as a team since the end of March. With the exception or Ron Clarke and Ken Roche, none of them have had any solid competition.
In a fortnight’s time they will all meet in the National Fitness Camp at Narrabeen, near Sydney, for the ﬁnal tune-up before leaving for Tokyo.
They will train and compete on the newly built grasstex track. Considering that in Tokyo they will compete on cinders, the choice of a grasstex track is most unfortunate to say the least.
The touch and timing of a grasstex surface are utterly different from that of a cinder track. To make such a radical switch so close to the Games — only to have to change back once once more to cinders in Tokyo — will handicap our athletes even more.
Would any Australian tennis player in his right senses train on a hardcourt before competing at Wimbledon?