With all the intense hype Down Under about the London Olympics, it is obvious that Australians not only love competing against the English, but are looking forward to a contest on British soil. Seriously.
Many of the 410 athletes on Australia’s Olympic squad are already in and around Britain or close by at training camps. For those who remain, along with the rest of this sports-crazy population of 22.3 million, there is growing anticipation that the Aussies who will join their already 200,000 or so compatriots who live and work in London will do well in the Olympic medal count.
And, better yet, if they do it against the Brits in close finishes.
The long sporting rivalry between the countries was spawned by cricket and the so-called Ashes series staged roughly every two years since the 1880s. Australia dominated the series for almost two decades until England won the last two series back-to-back. Throw in rugby — most Aussies recall the Wallabies beating England to win the 1991 World Cup in London and then losing to the English on home soil in the 2003 final — and there is that competitive, often surly edge between the countries even when the Olympics are not on.
Laurie Lawrence, a former national swimming coach who will be spending his eighth Olympics in the athletes village as an activities support coordinator with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), did not pull any punches regarding the rivalry in a telephone interview.
“Every time the Aussies meet the Poms,” Lawrence said, using Australia’s colloquial name for the English, “we want to beat them. That is our heritage. We started with 11 convict ships that the Poms sent the dregs of society over on. Now it’s a case of just wanting to let them know the ‘dregs’ are still here.”
Expanding slightly on Lawrence’s version, here is a brief history: Between 1788 and 1868, about 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia from Britain, commencing with the “First Fleet,” which carried 780 convicts to Botany Bay at Sydney. The majority were poor and illiterate and records indicate eight out of 10 prisoners were convicted for larceny or petty theft.
The seeds of the rivalry between the Colonial masters and the far-flung former subjects started right there. At London this month, British Olympic Association chairman Colin Moynihan and AOC president John Coates hope to pick each other’s pockets, depending on the medal results between the countries. Coates and Moynihan, rowing enthusiasts who first met at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, have some champagne riding on it.
“We have bottles of Bollinger on total medals won, and a magnum on the golds,” Coates says.
The AOC is not issuing total medal predictions for London, just aiming for a top-five finish in gold and in overall medals counts, and to have athletes on the podium in 14 or more sports.
Australia won 58 overall medals at its home Olympics in Sydney in 2000, including 16 golds, to finish fourth behind the US, Russia and China. At Athens in 2004, that total dropped to 49 overall medals, but the number of golds increased to 17. In 2008 at Beijing, Australia’s gold medal total dropped to 14 among 46 overall medals. Britain, which has roughly three times the population of Australia, won 19 golds to finish fourth overall — two spots ahead of the Australians.
The old rivalry will not take long to get started at London — the Opals, as the Australian women’s basketball team is known, take on Britain in the last match of the first full day of competition on July 28. Led by Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson, Australia, which has won the silver medal the past three games, should get the visitors off to a winning start in the 17-day Olympic grudge match against the hosts.