“Win or die” was the wording of a telegram allegedly sent by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to coach of the Italian football team, Vittorio Pozzo, before the 1938 World Cup final. The document never survived and some players have denied such a telegram was ever sent. Yet the myth will continue to live on.
It is unlikely that any such message would be sent to any athlete or team in modern times as it would soon be shared via social media, or leaked to a sympathetic media. Yet there were many sports stars of the past who were faced with similar pressures from political leaders.
In September 1949 Viljo Heino of Finland claimed the 10,000m world record. The communist government in the then Czechoslovakia were upset that their runner, the great Emil Zatopek, had lost his mantle as World record holder. Zatopek, who was an officer in the army, was given three weeks off to concentrate on training to win back his world record in the October. He was expected to deliver. He did.
While individual athletes may not receive such threats today, one thing that is clear is that the sports they participate in are faced with a similar threat, win or die.
With Governments in many countries funding major elite sporting programs there is an expectation that these sports will return from Olympic Games and World Championships with medals.
That was why the Australian Sport Commission (ASC) created Australia’s Winning Edge program. The aim of the program is quite clear. “Investments will be prioritised to sports that demonstrate the greatest chance of short, medium and long-term success. Decisions will be based on credible evidence that takes into account recent performances and future potential, along with understanding the systems that will drive performance outcomes.” The ASC website states.
Sport in Australia has recently seen the price of failure with the announcement on the eve of the Rio Olympics, with the Western Australian Institute of Sport announcing that it will close down one of its founding sporting programs, Gymnastics. None of the athletes from Western Australia qualified for Rio, nor did the Australian team. The price is a hefty one for all those budding athletes looking to follow, the likes of Alana Slater, Lauren Mitchell and Olivia Vivian. The Gymnastics community and Gymnastics Australia are still fighting to keep the program alive, but time will tell how costly the failure to qualify for one Olympics will be.
Equally terrifying is that one sport that would be deemed to have underachieved at Rio and will return with no medals was in lock down last week as they filed a report on the Rio Games, and an argument as to why their funding should not be cut to the Australian Sports Commission. This was before the Olympic Games had even finished!
So no longer is it the athlete who may pay the ultimate price for not winning, but the sport itself. A failure to deliver success may well result in a funding cut that could see the sport die a slow and painful death in terms of being competitive on the world stage.
Australia has seen over the past twenty years an exodus in its top sports scientists and coaches to other nations. The current situation could well see athletes who are the children of immigrants, and who have dual citizenship, also ‘jump ship’ and opt to play for the country of their parents origin if they find the program they were part of is to be cut financially.
There is no doubt that the Australian Sports Commission are walking a tightrope in terms of achieving the goals that they have set, and allocating funding based on those goals.
One of the points that the powers that be appear to be missing is that sport is frequently cyclical. A nation may dominate for a number of years but they rarely stay at the top forever. Brazil in football are a plain example, Australia in cricket are another. If you look at Gymnastics we have seen, Japan, China, the USA and former Eastern Bloc countries dominate the sport over the past 50 years.
Of course if we look at figures such as those produced after the Beijing Olympic Games, where Australia’s 14 Gold medals were quoted as costing $48million each, then understandably funding must be cut. However you cannot look at such a return with such tunnel vision.
As we have seen with the win by Joseph Schooling, the swimmer from Singapore who won his country’s first gold medal at the Rio Games. The 21 year old met his hero Michael Phelps, the man he beat to claim gold, in 2008 when he was 13 years old and Phelps was on his way to the Beijing Olympic Games. Phelps was a hero to Schooling. “If it wasn’t for Michael, I don’t think I could have gotten to this point. I wanted to be like him as a kid,” Schooling was quoted as saying.
For every fan that makes it to an Olympic Games, let alone on the podium there are hundreds if not thousands who dream of that moment, yet know it will always be out of reach. That is the power of sport, the power to dream. Those who don’t make it understand the sacrifices, the hard work and dedication it takes to make it to the top of the mountain, and that is why they live their dreams out through heroes like Phelps and the thousands of other athletes who took part in the Olympic Games in Rio.
These people may not return as Champions, but they are champions for their sport. They influence so many to try and emulate their achievements, to take up the sport and to persevere. There can be no price on that. The health benefits at at time when fast food and play stations are encouraging many to stay at home and not exercise is immeasurable. There are massive benefits gained from being a part of a sporting team, or just part of a competitive environment. One learns so many life skills, the pain of losing, the joy of winning, the importance of working as a team and not being selfish.
To some, it is becoming quite disconcerting how those running sport appear to be adopting a very dictatorial approach. If pressure continues to be applied something will have to give, and as we have seen with other nations, when the demand for success becomes so great that is when short cuts are taken. It literally becomes a ‘win at all costs’ situation for those involved in the programs as they strive to keep their jobs. Legal vitamins become performance enhancing drugs.
The Essendon debacle hurt Australia’s sporting reputation overseas. A country that was renowned for being fierce competitors buy who always played fair. The denial that there had been any wrong doing, the lack of accountability and then the attempts to shut down the investigation and ultimately sabotage it, was hard to comprehend by many outside the country. Yet many of the same people in the media who were a part of that process to sabotage the investigation are the same people to throw mud at Russia for their systematic drug cheating.
The next four years are possibly the most crucial for Australian sport in a long while as it continues to try and hold its own against other fast improving nations with larger talent pools.
That is why it is so important that threats such as ‘win or die’ should never hang over a sporting team, an individual, or a sporting program.