If you build it, they will come, goes the famous quote. But what happens
when you starve a sport of funds and take away venues?
I turn into an almost barren carpark, two hours before a Sunday sunrise when I would ordinarily, and quite contentedly, be blissfully counting sheep. The stuffy warmth of the car heater is replaced with the crisp cold of pre-dawn as I trudge towards the hulking mass of brick and steel that is Canterbury’s Olympic Ice Rink.
The entry booth is boarded up, so I hesitantly push forth the slightly dusty glass doors to find a small group of bed-headed athletes shuffling across the ice. The Sydney Arrows Ice Racing Club members are up and at it, heavy coats and hand warmers their only armour against the giant man-sized esky they call their second home. They’re placing roughly 60 thick blue mats along the barrier, in case any of them perform a reverse-Bradbury, falling at speeds of up to 50km/h.
By 6am the team is suited up in cut-proof unitards, stepping onto the ice in their wing-tips of choice, set upon freshly sharpened 18-inch blades. I’m told cuts are customary, and scars are a common language. Formally, short track speed skating involves racing various distances around an oval-shaped 111.12m track. Informally, they’re bladerunners competing in blitzing 500m sprints to tactical 3km contests. An aerodynamic skating position is key, so skaters travel in an ass-to-the-grass squat position with their back parallel to the ground. For them, everyday is leg day. They squat, brah.
The sport, collectively known as “that one when the guy won when everybody else fell down? That was hilarious!” delivered the first Winter Olympic gold medal claimed by an Australian. Yet that medal very easily could be its last. Almost 15 years has passed since Steven Bradbury won by being the last man standing, and now the sport in Australia is on its last legs.
“People’s access to facilities are just not there,” comments Scott Weekes, Australia’s junior development coach.
Of the 23 ice rinks nationwide, only seven offer short track, down from greater numbers in previous years. As a result, participation numbers have dwindled, adversely affecting the number of skaters who reach elite level. All members of the national squad are now stationed overseas, there is no national coach, and all funding provided by the Olympic Winter Institute has been cut.
The same situation faced our British rivals in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Normally, UK Sport awards funding based on results, rather than potential. However, a petition for a substantial funding increase by Team GB performance director Stuart Horsepool paid off.
“I’m the first one to believe in performance-related pay but, when you get to the world-class level, it comes back to the belief that somebody out there is supporting the programme properly, and we are serious athletes doing a serious job,” said Horsepool in 2011. The result of a seven-figure cash injection, totalling to £2.9 million ($A5 million) was a string of World Cup gold medals, and European and World Championship titles. Funding pledged to launch the team towards the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang is an unprecedented £4.3 million ($A7.4 million).
In stark comparison, last season the Australian Sports Commission allocated winter sports 2.6 per cent of the total funding given to summer sports. Of this, short track speed skating received 2.4 per cent, a mere $83,000.
Despite their passion to achieve sporting success, and dedication to a monotonous training routine framed by frozen fingers and toes, our winter athletes recognise that without more home-soil support Olympic medals remain out of reach. Teenage short track speed skater Liam O’Brien has represented Australia at two World Cups, and believes that extra recognition and monetary support would improve the quality of training.
“I would like to represent my country at world championship and Olympic level in the future,” the 17-year-old said.
“Access to better facilities would help us improve the way we train through more specific equipment, such as better protective mats, quality ice, and physiotherapy to help us stay injury-free.”
While Liam concedes that talent and hard work come first, he believes funding is relevant: “I reckon I could do better with all of this [access to funding].”
Not just track coming up short
Short track speed skating may have been left out in the cold, but it’s a chill felt by most winter sport athletes. Few sports are more at odds with the typical shrimp-tossing Australian than those that fall within winter’s realm. For who would care about ice and snow in a home girt by sea? While the Aussie public may gather around the television to watch a hyped Winter Olympic final, the performance and athlete are promptly forgotten for the next four years.
Fox Sports News journalist Amanda Shalala believes the smaller presence of winter sports in Australia affects the amount of media it receives.
“The number of athletes participating in winter sport is minuscule compared to other pursuits, so it only makes sense that the coverage in turn follows this,” Ms Shalala told The Newsroom.
“I don’t know if winter sports will ever garner much attention outside of the Olympics. Even our summer Olympians really struggle to attract coverage outside of the Games every four years.”
Mainstream coverage is generally limited to the broadcast of the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, the Olympic Games. Save for the performance of a Bradbury or a similar fortuitous win, of course.
Curiously, for a country so uninterested in winter sports, success is relatively high. Australia sent 60 athletes to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, winning three medals, a ratio of 20:1. By comparison, the 2012 London Summer Olympics featured 410 Aussies, winning 35 medals, roughly a 12:1 ratio. These figures seem reasonable until you consider that our summer athletes competed in more than double the number of sports, suggesting double the chance of a medal.
Despite the success of Australian winter sport athletes, the category has maintained a Cool Runnings-esque novelty which has yet to transition to genuine interest from the public. Ms Shalala believes that the low levels of participation are brought about by the limited number of expert facilities, linking this with low media coverage.
“There’s very minimal coverage of winter sports in Australia. Our climate means we don’t have many world-class facilities to breed winter sport athletes, resulting in most people choosing to pursue other sports,” she said.
“Rightly or wrongly, when newspapers/TV networks have very limited space for sports coverage, they will prioritise the big sports, like the football codes, cricket, tennis, etc. over most things.”
This may be the case for free-to-air television stations led by the call of the ratings war, but the frosty reception extends across all Australian media, including dedicated sports channels and sports lift-outs.
“The likelihood for change will come online, with the creation of niche websites and digital platforms to promote sports and athletes which find it difficult to break through into the mainstream,” Ms Shalala added.
A young skater has just taken her third fall of the morning, and is sliding out towards the blue mats, whacking them side-on. I sigh, and a white plume of breath hovers briefly before me. My fingers are numb and my nose pink. After a slight pause, she’s up and racing again.
To continually push the boundaries of what we can achieve is the inspiration for the underdog narrative synonymous within Australian culture. Perhaps it’s time to salute those giving it a red hot go. – Story and photos by Sinéad Fogarty