I have a picture from a daily newspaper taken at the end of the 200m Backstroke at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.
I was only 14, at my first international competition and I’d swum a really stupid race.
Despite telegrams-like-books from my coach back home, detailing the time I should swim on each lap of the race, I thought I knew better. The times he was asking me to hit were too slow. I’d trained harder in the Australian team camp than I’d ever trained before and all through that previous summer my times had dropped dramatically every time I got in the water – why should they stop at the Commonwealth Games?
Especially when I’d qualified fastest for the final, in lane four.
That night, my body coursing with an amount of adrenaline I’d never felt before I flew down that first 50m to lead; at the half-way point, still in first place, I’d swum faster than I had in the 100m final – way too fast with that distance still to go. I held on to the lead until the last 25m when the older, more experienced Canadian, Cheryl Gibson made her move.
It’s a curiosity of backstroke that you have the best seat in the house to watch your main rival come from behind to mow you down. I’d used up all my energy in the first three laps so I had nothing left in the tank to thwart her attack.
I finished with the silver medal by a few tenths of a second.
But you wouldn’t know it from the picture in the paper: I’m leaning on the lane rope, big grin on my face arm, raised above my head, waving to the Australians at the other end of the pool celebrating my silver medal.
The caption under the picture read, ‘Losing can be beautiful, too.’
That’s the way I was taught to lose. I can’t remember if the lesson was delivered because in my very early years I’d cried at the State Championships – or something similar – when I came second; maybe it was just part of the general uprightness of my parent’s generation.
What I do remember is that on post-race behaviour Mum and Dad were strict and uncompromising. They understood my disappointment. But no matter how disappointed I was, there was on rule: gracious in victory, magnanimous in defeat.
Which meant holding it together, no matter what. I had to shake hands with the victor and say congratulations; on the dais I had to smile as I received my minor medal.
‘Then, when you get home you can cry,’ Mum said.
I was reminded of that old rule in London during the Olympic Games. Especially when one of our silver medallists came to the Foxtel studios, crying a river of endless tears – with a mother who seemed to encourage it. At one point, while waiting for the studio to be ready, the silver medallist’s mother disappeared, only to reappear some time later with a large chocolate gold medal. She presented it to the silver medallist, saying ‘Here’s your real medal, darling.’
I couldn’t help thinking how furious my mother would have been if I was performing like the silver medallist.
Firstly, because an Olympic silver medal is absolutely nothing to cry about; second, because the lack of dignity in defeat only seemed to demean the achievement.
James Magnussen at the London Olympics. Image via sportingjournal.com.au
But since no one else around me seemed to be too shocked by the post-race performance I decided I was just old-fashioned; perhaps I didn’t understand the demands of modern sport.
Except that when I got back from the London Games the most frequently asked question was not about our results in the pool but our post-race performance on the deck. ‘Why are our swimmers such bad sports?’ everyone asked.
Quickly followed by, ‘Can’t the coaches or psychologists do something about that?’
From whom do we learn good sportsmanship? I heard plenty of complaints that the media don’t like silver medals, or that Australian sporting public are only interested in winners.
But if that is so, why is Gallipoli – an epic fail as my son would say – one of the stories that define us as a nation? I think it’s because of the way we behaved in defeat – we were gallant and courageous and true. And I think it’s something we have to understand – and practise – from the time we are young athletes.
While many complained that the recent Bluestone report into Australian swimming’s performance in London took too long to be released, I think the timing of it, just as our children were competing at school swimming carnivals, could not have been better.
I for one took advantage of it when my son went to the Zone swimming carnival last week. Before he left I asked him what the important things to remember that day were.
Have fun, he said.
I nodded. What else?
Do your best.
What if things don’t go as you would like them to, I asked.
Lose well, he said.
I’m proud to say he did all three. It’s a rule I will keep reinforcing.
*Lisa Forrest has been a public figure in Australia for more than 30 years. She first endeared herself to Australians as a smiling teenage school girl who won Commonwealth medals in backstroke, as well as taking a leading role in the campaign to defy Malcolm Fraser’s government and lead the Australian swim team to the controversial Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. Retiring from the sport she became a pioneer for women in sports journalism, becoming the first woman to host a national sports program, Saturday Afternoon Football, on ABC TV in 1986. Since then she has presented a variety of TV and radio programs, trained and worked as an actor, and written four novels including the non-fiction account of the 1980 Moscow Games Boycott. Her fifth novel, Inheritance, a fantasy adventure for young adults, will be published in April.