The great thing about sport is there is never a sure thing, and when it comes to the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games that is definitely the case.
In the early hours of this morning the Australian Rollers Wheelchair Basketball team bowed out at the quarter-final stage of the competition. This was a major shock to many, and could be a body blow to the sport as a whole.
The defeat means that the Rollers will play off for fifth spot, the same place they finished in Sydney in 2000, after winning gold in 1996. Since 2000 the Rollers have made each Paralympic final winning one gold and two silver medals. They have also won two World Championships.
To make this defeat all the more painful for the sport the Australian Gliders, the women’s team who won silver in London, failed to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio. Not surprisingly many are questioning how the two teams could slip so far in four years.
The men have the same coach in Ben Ettridge, but the women opted to change coaches after London with Tom Kyle replacing John Triscari. Interestingly Kyle is in Rio with the Rollers support staff, which has raised a few eyebrows as to what his role was/is, as had the women qualified he would not have been able to fill such a role. Harsh critics may well say that his failure has been rewarded while the players are stuck at home.
There is no doubt that the Gliders players suffered from not having enough international competition. The women were placed in the National Wheelchair Basketball League competition and played against predominantly male teams and this was meant to be good preparation. Yet the women’s game differs from the men’s and they should always have been playing against other international teams in order to gauge where they were at. Top quality athletes need to be pitting themselves against the best in order to work out where they are in their preparation, and to highlight what they need to work on. There is no doubt that the women’s team were let down. It is all very well having national camps, but playing quality international competition is the only way you can find out how good you are and whether players can lift to play at this level. The Gliders definitely have the players, but what appeared to be cost-saving options cost them dearly. One hopes that with the talent available they will bounce back quickly, but it may take a bit longer than many believe due to that lack of international exposure; other teams move on and improve in that time.
As for the men one wonders if some complacency set in. Not necessarily amongst the players on the court but with Basketball Australia. Having medalled for the past 12 years, and again with the talent available was there almost a feeling that the team would be guaranteed to make the semi finals and medal?
It is strange to witness how the team of support staff has grown in that 12 years. Some will argue that this is to ensure that the team continues to evolve and be the best they can be. From the outside looking in it looks as if there were people who wanted to ride the Rollers train. It also appears that money was spent in this area rather than ensuring, like the women, that they had enough international competition coming into the Paralympics, to be able to asses exactly where they stood and areas they needed to work on.
One feels for the players. No doubt they will have looked at the huge entourage travelling with them and questioned the need. After all sometimes too many voices can in fact add to confusion, rather than a clear direction.
After the success of the past, the players carry the pain of not living up to the success they worked to achieve and many expected. Harsh as it may sound attention has to turn to the coaches and questions asked. Were they up to task? Did they play the right combinations at the right times in games? Were their selections the right ones having cover across the court with high pointers and low pointers?
Hindsight is perfect vision as they say, but this is a huge disappointment for a great sport, and sport in which Australia was a world leader. Basketball Australia has had its own issues in the past four years with new CEO’s and Chairs of the Board and one wonders if this has also played a part in the outcomes. One thing that would be good to know is how much money was invested into the Boomers and Opals programs compared to the Gliders and Rollers. Then a proper assessment done on which teams have/had the best chance of winning at the Olympics and Paralympic Games. Would this investment be relative to that possibility?
It was a sad day when the Gliders failed to qualify for Rio, it is an even sadder day that the Rollers will not have the chance to medal.
Yet the issue must not rest there with a shrug of the shoulders and the line ‘you win some you lose some.’ A review needs to be carried out as to how two teams who were vying for gold four years ago in London have fallen so far so quickly. In addition, every off court position needs to be assessed as to its worth to the team and whether it added value and had an impact on performances on the court, in a negative or positive way.
Most players would tell you that they would rather sacrifice some of the support staff and carry their own drinks if the money saved meant they were able to play international teams regularly, and be sure that they maintain the standard required to be competitive at International level.
Let us hope that an independent review is carried out, and not simply a Basketball Australia review, which is likely to paper over some of the mistakes made. Often the best way to learn and move forward is to acknowledge what went wrong and make sure that you never do it again.