All Eyes on Atlanta

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All Eyes on Atlanta,
An exploration of the media coverage of the Australian swim team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

By Michael Romei

ABSTRACT

When the Australian swim team travelled to Atlanta, Georgia to compete at the Centennial Olympic Games in July 1996, it was hailed by the media as the greatest squad the country had ever assembled. Littered with Olympic, World and Commonwealth champions, world-record holders and number one ranked competitors, it was expected to return home with a swag of gold medals – an ideal dress rehearsal for the Sydney Games in 2000.

That scenario never eventuated. With each event, the promised gold was snatched away by a parade of Americans, Kiwis and even an Irishwoman. The response by the Australian media, in particular the print journalists, was one of disappointment, frustration and outright disgust, leaving a visibly tense and pressured team to battle with the knowledge it had failed not only itself, but its country.

It wasn’t until the final day that Susie O’Neill and Kieren Perkins triumphed in their respective events – two celebrated performances that overshadowed the negativity that had dominated the seven days of swimming. But for most members of the team, the Atlanta Games was the most difficult meet they had – and would – compete at, with the criticisms of their efforts lingering long after the screaming headlines and barbed words ceased.

All Eyes On Atlanta revisits the largely forgotten events of the 1996 Olympic Games, illustrating the complex relationship that exists between athletes and the media. It reconstructs the event from the perspective of three athletes and provides a compelling insight into the sacrifices made by elite athletes and the expectations placed upon them.

INTRODUCTION

Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre

Atlanta, Georgia

July 1996

One by one, the Australian swimmers emerge dripping wet from the Atlanta Olympic pool, their dreams still bobbing in the chlorinated waters. In the stands the American team – unmistakable in their star-spangled garb – cheer boorishly as the swimmers pass. “Bronzed Aussies!” they cry, delighted with the nickname they have coined for the pretenders to their throne.

With their heads bowed, the swimmers shuffle their way to the competitors’ chute, mumble some words to the television reporters and press before quickly seeking refuge in the warm-down pool. Each day the promise of gold becomes dimmer, and members of the Australian media contingent grow impatient. They join in on the taunts, their copy splashed with equal measures of confusion, disappointment and utter frustration.

“Has the Australian swim team been encased in a cocoon of self-fulfilment?” asks Jacquelin Magnay, reporting for Fairfax. “Has it been ill prepared for the tough racing of an Olympic Games, inexperienced in the psychological battles of nerves and intense pressure?”[i] Her colleagues are more pointed. “Discipline is a misunderstood word in Atlanta,” laments former rugby league coach-turned-reporter Roy Masters.[ii] “This team is uninspired… [they] swim insipidly,” colour-writer Patrick Smith huffs, going on to describe a ‘cesspool’ brimming with failed athletes.[iii] In the News Limited camp, the outlook is equally dire. “Our Olympic Failure” screams the front page of The Daily Telegraph as Trevor Grant condemns the “mediocrity of Atlanta”.[iv] Even the usually upbeat Nicole Jeffery concedes defeat, admitting: “The Australian team is not the champion team most Australians believed it to be when it departed to the Olympics”.[v]

It is these words that come to Elli Overton’s mind as she climbs from the pool on day five of the meet. After being ranked number one in the world in 1995, the fiery-haired 22-year-old had managed fifth place in the 200m individual medley. It was the event she knew backwards; the euphoric start, the pain at the end of the breaststroke leg, the agonising freestyle sprint home. She wanted gold. She deserved gold. People expected gold.

Waiting in the media scrum is Neil Brooks, the pool deck interviewer for Channel 7. A former Olympic champion and member of the 1980 ‘Mean Machine’ relay team, Brooks had shown off a devastating collection of razored teeth in the preceding days, and he braced himself for more unfettered honesty as he waved Overton towards the camera.

“Elli, Elli, Elli,” he drones. “Disappointing today. What’s happening out there? The swim team can’t seem to catch a break.”

Set amongst an army of freckles, Overton’s eyes widen angrily. “We don’t know what we’re doing wrong, so how can we tell you?” she snaps, causing Brooks to stiffen. The criticisms that had left her sleepless the night before flood her thoughts, creating a deluge. Her speech becomes racy, her hands animated.

“I can’t explain the way I swam today; I can’t explain what has gone wrong here. All I know is that I’ve done everything I can to do the best I can. I’ve worked my arse off. The training I’ve done over the last 18 months has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve trained like you would not believe. I’ve given up everything.” Overton’s eyes become glassy before turning her head to catch a glimpse of her conqueror, Michelle Smith, the Irish swimmer whose pot of luck had people across the globe scratching their heads in disbelief.

“We’re just concerned about you all,” Brooks soothes, stunned by Overton’s defensive response. “We feel disappointed too. It’s only because we do love you so much.”

“You have no right to be disappointed in us,” Overton responds as she wipes back a tear. “We have done all the hard work, so we are the ones who should be disappointed.

“The team has been really hurt by what has been said about us. It’s been made out that we’ve let everyone down. So I just want to say to people back home, please don’t be down on us. We’re doing everything we can. If you think we want to be swimming like this, you’re wrong…

“No one can be more disappointed than we are. So give us a break. It’s just so hard.”[vi]

THE ATHLETES

PART ONE: ELLI OVERTON

When asked to recount her former lifestyle, Elli Overton does so without pause. Up at 4.30am. In bed by 8.30pm. Weight sessions, aerobic classes, physiotherapy. Little time for friends or a social life. Just eat, sleep and swim. All in the pursuit of perfection. For Overton, the years of regimen and sacrifice, of living in a world in which a thin black line was her closest confidant, are as vivid as when she retired from the sport 10 years ago.

“I think one of the hardest things to deal with as an Olympic athlete is that you spend all your time putting so much pressure on yourself and expecting yourself to be the best in the world,” says Overton, 36, with a sigh.

“That’s what you tell yourself every day, that you can be the best in the world, otherwise why are you getting up every morning and swimming 80 kilometres a week? You’ve got to think that you can be the best, and of course the hard thing is that when you don’t end up being the best … it’s just completely devastating.”

Affectionately known as ‘Big Red’ during her swimming career, Elli Overton now lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two sons. It’s a place far removed from the training pools of her youth, and very few people know of Overton’s past. Which is not to say that she left Australia in search of anonymity.

The Australian media rarely dwell on departed athletes; there’s always a new kid on the block to praise, and Overton remains largely forgotten in swimming folklore. Despite being a talented swimmer who enjoyed a long tenure in the Australian swim team, she never captured the public’s imagination in the way that her training partners Samantha Riley and Susie O’Neill did, and continue to do so. The Golden Girls of the 1990s, Riley and O’Neill stole the show – not to mention the endorsements – with their bubbly, warm personalities. And gold. Lots and lots of precious gold.

The harsh reality, according to Overton, is that Australia sees itself as a nation of winners, nothing less. It was this lesson – rather than a piece of silverware – that she took home with her from Atlanta in 1996.

“I think being an elite athlete, no one’s expectations are higher than your own,” reveals Overton. “We put the highest expectations on ourselves, and the rest is kind of secondary. But 1996 was the year that, of all the years I swam, I was very aware of the negative press that we were getting, and it affected me more than it had at any other time.”

In the two years preceding Atlanta the Australian swim team was in stellar form, and Overton was one of the most notable improvers. In 1994 she seized six medals at the Commonwealth Games – an event the Australian swimmers dominated by winning 25 gold medals – and backed up that performance a month later with a World Championship bronze in her pet event, the 200m individual medley. In 1995, in the pool where the Olympics would be hosted the following year, Overton snagged a Pan Pacs gold medal as the Australians came within a half-stroke of beating the Americans and claiming the meet, their tally of 13 gold medals falling only one short. With less than a year before the Games, Australians were ranked number one in eight Olympic events and boasted several other world champions and world record holders.

These results had the media wagging its collective tongue. With Australia pumping $3.28 million a year into swimming in anticipation of being anointed the sport’s superpower at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it seemed that the public was about to get an early return on its investment – and on American soil, no less. With each meet, the buzz became louder. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was quick to jump on the media bandwagon, announcing it anticipated an eight gold haul from the swimmers – a result that would be unprecedented on foreign soil. The usually reserved head coach, Don Talbot, predicted there would be a 50 per cent increase in medals from the Barcelona Games four years earlier. Even Sports Illustrated, the venerated American magazine, crossed the Pacific to cover Australia’s swimmers for its special Olympics edition.

With expectations so high, Swimming Australia media manager Ian Hanson was forced to issue a warning to the team, imploring it not to get carried away by rankings and stating: “We’ve got to go to Atlanta confident, but not over-confident”.[vii] But not even relatively slow times at the Olympic selection trials at Homebush Aquatic Centre in April 1996 could blunt the enthusiasm, and by the time the Games rolled around in July, the media had whipped up a frenzied, expectant public.

It didn’t take long for it to begin to unravel. On the first night of the Atlanta finals the best result for Australia was a lone bronze medal, courtesy of Daniel Kowalski in the men’s 200m freestyle. While this was a better than expected result considering Kowalski had been treating the race as a warm-up for the longer distances – leading The Daily Telegraph’s Wayne Smith to predict “bigger and better things to come”[viii] – Australians were still left wanting. Earlier in the day, Jacquelin Magnay had written a piece for Fairfax in which she predicted the traditionally slow start Australian swimmers had to Olympic campaigns would end in Atlanta, with Michael Klim – the world’s number one ranked 200m freestyle swimmer – primed for gold and perhaps even a world record.[ix] As it was, the rookie Klim misjudged spectacularly in the heats and failed to make the final. In other events, Barcelona bronze medallist, Phil Rogers, failed to repeat his success in the men’s 100m breaststroke, while in the women’s 400m individual medley Magnay’s other hot-tip, 16-year-old schoolgirl Emma Johnson, finished in fifth place.

Overton was also in the 400m medley field. Having never enjoyed racing the distance, she viewed it more as a warm-up event and was not disappointed when she failed to reach the final, ultimately placing 14th. But despite the seeming insignificance of the race, it would exact a significant toll.

“That was just like the beginning of the end,” Overton reveals with a groan. “Those races [the heats and the B final] were just so painful, complete agony. All I could think afterwards was that something wasn’t right. I had no freshness, no energy.

“I don’t think there was anything wrong with 14th. I definitely didn’t have expectations of medalling in that, but for it to be the kind of race that it was, it just made my upcoming swims more difficult. It began to mess with my head.

“My whole time from that point on was just a constant pep talk: ‘Look, I’m going to be fine for the 200 individual medley. I’ve got a few days. I’m going to feel better. I can do this. I’ve done the work’.

“I was just trying to be as positive as I could every moment of the day.”

But Overton would find that almost impossible in the days to come, as the Australian team wilted in the oppressive Atlanta heat. Two-time Barcelona medallist Hayley Lewis failed to make the final in the women’s 400m freestyle. Scott Goodman claimed bronze in the men’s 200m butterfly, an event in which he was ranked number one in the world. Dual world champion Samantha Riley struggled in coming third and fourth respectively in the women’s 100m and 200m breaststroke events. Kowalski was expected to win the men’s 400m freestyle with ease but ended up with bronze. Overton had more woes in slumping to 11th place in the women’s 100m backstroke.

“It was really hard for me, because I had such close friends on the team and then if someone had a disappointing race I would get pulled into their emotional turmoil of ‘Oh, what is going on?’” says Overton. “And that’s what started to happen in Atlanta. I think we were really impacted by other people having disappointing races.”

The media was livid. Four days into the seven-day meet and Australia had bagged only a few bronze medals. And some zinc, or pewter, or whatever fourth and fifth places are. Patrick Smith claimed the team was “profoundly underperforming”,[x] while Jacquelin Magnay called the results “unacceptable” and warned: “If the swim team continues on its downward slide, then the lucrative $3.28 million of annual funding provided to the sport via the Australian Sports Commission will be in jeopardy”.[xi] Even back home journalists were pulling out the knives. Jenny Tabakoff from The Sydney Morning Herald vented her anger by writing: “It has been depressing to see swimmers from famously non-aquatic nations beating our team”,[xii] while The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Prentice patched together a ‘who’s who’ of Australian swimming – including former champions Shane Gould, Murray Rose and coach Dick Caine – to pass judgement on the team’s technical skills and the coaching staff.[xiii] In the process, Caine echoed the increasingly popular belief that the swimmers had been molly-coddled and lacked the requisite strength and hunger for Olympic gold.[xiv]

“They are not getting up and coming through for us,” head coach Don Talbot – known in swimming circles as ‘Ming the Merciless’ – admitted to circling journalists. “Let’s hope they do soon, otherwise it is going to be a bloody miserable week.”[xv]

Overton was aware of all of this. Each day in the Athletes’ Lounge the AOC would deliver the Australian newspapers, in which the swim team was the star attraction. Initially the papers were an irresistible temptation but within a few days their appearance was met with dread. With them came phone calls from concerned family members, all desperate to buoy Overton, whose disappointment was quickly morphing into anger.

“We were really disappointed in ourselves, and then to read and hear that we were letting the whole of Australia down was just awful,” she says. “Once we started to get that message, I just became so mad.

“I would lie awake every night trying to give myself pep talks, but all I could think about was why these journalists and people back home felt some sense of entitlement to how I performed. I mean, sure I’m representing Australia and that’s a big aspect of the Olympics, but for people to look at me and think I’m some big failure and disappointment just wasn’t fair. I had done everything I could to do the best I could.”

Overton had a reputation for being outspoken. Four days before the Atlanta Games she graced the front page of The Daily Telegraph with the headline “Chinese Swimmers look like blokes: Elli”,[xvi] and there would be more headlines to come when her anger surfaced in her poolside interview with Neil Brooks.

“I was so ready to win a medal,” says Overton when asked of her fifth placing in the 200m individual medley – an event won by Ireland’s Michelle Smith, who tested positive to drugs in 1998.

“And I so thought that I could, thought that I should, thought that I was entitled to it. I totally thought I was entitled to it! I’d given up everything!

“I was just so overwhelmingly disappointed, and I was kind of indignant about having to share it with everyone else. It was like a raw wound, my own personal disappointment. And I felt like no one else could understand that.”

Overton’s recollection of the interview details are hazy, however she says her primary target wasn’t the public, as was popularly reported,[xvii] but the media – in particular the collection of non-swimming specialist reporters who had been airlifted into the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre to cover the Olympic spectacle.

“I was definitely speaking more to the journalists than anyone else, who just wouldn’t cut us some slack. And I thought to myself, if you care about how Australia does, why don’t you offer some more support and be positive, because that can only help.

“I guess I was hoping that it might open [the journalists’] eyes up to the impact that they can have. They didn’t seem willing to acknowledge everyone is human. They just seemed to be out to roast any little mistake.”

After spending most of her life programmed to achieve the singular goal of perfection, Overton had a tough time adjusting to normal life when she retired after the Sydney Olympics.

“Competitive swimming absolutely messes with your head,” she admits. Eventually Overton sought therapy to exorcise her swimming demons, and it was during these sessions that she grappled with one of her most vivid memories from the Atlanta Olympics.

“I probably got hundreds of faxes after the interview, of people saying ‘Oh Elli, we love you guys, don’t listen to the media, we’re so proud of you’. But there was one from this guy that I remember very clearly, and he said: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen’.

“I’ve thought about that for years, wondering if it was a justified comment. Was he right? Should I not have been complaining like that? Probably he was right on some level…

“But after all these years of self-analysis, I’ve come to realise that swimming chose me. I started swimming when I was six years old. When I was eight I was good at it; I was winning medals, and I just did it. I didn’t think when I was eight that I would go to the Olympics. I was just doing it because I loved it, because I was good at it, and then all of a sudden I’m so good at it that I’m swimming in front of crowds and the media start paying attention. Then you start putting all of this pressure on yourself as the years go by.

“The thing is, I didn’t know what the heat in the kitchen was going to be like when I was eight. And then there you are, you’re behind the blocks at the Olympics and you’re really up close to the oven and you didn’t really choose to be there. You chose to do something that you loved, and do it well. Then all of a sudden the world cares about you doing something you love, and how you perform. And it all becomes so much bigger and more complex than that.”

PART TWO: SAMANTHA RILEY

Samantha Riley was stretched out on her bed on the fifth floor of the Leme Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. She stared blankly out in front of her, unable to move. Earlier that day she had attended the opening ceremony of the World Short Course Swimming Championships, and the headache she had been battling for seven days had worsened.

Her coach Scott Volkers was slumped in a chair in the corner of the room, his brows furrowed with concern. In the preceding days Riley had consumed countless Panadol, been subject to frequent massages and spent more time attending physiotherapy sessions than doing pool laps. Nothing that Volkers or the Australian team doctor, Brian Sando, attempted made any difference. It seemed increasingly unlikely that Riley would be able to perform anywhere near her world-beating best in the coming days, laying to waste what had been a flawless preparation.

It was in desperate frustration that Volkers heaved himself from the chair, hurried down the corridor to his own room and began rummaging in his wife’s handbag. Eventually he pulled out a blister pack containing one tablet, the last of what had been given on prescription to his wife more than three years earlier. He then returned to Riley and gave it to her, saying it helped with headaches. She swallowed without comment.

“The only two people I would trust enough to take something without checking myself would be my coach and the Australian team doctor,” Riley would later say.

Twelve floors above them, Dr Sando slept soundly. It was November 29, 1995.

Looking back, the now 37-year-old Riley believes that day marked the end of her Olympic campaign. Two days later, she swam in the 200m breaststroke final, winning gold and setting a world short course record. She then backed up that bravado performance with another gold and world record in the 100m breaststroke final, and claimed a third gold as part of the medley relay team. Riley was the star of Rio: fans were leaping to their feet, whacking on drums and dancing the samba as she raced. Back home in Australia, the performances were received as affirmation of her swimming greatness: the nation’s female equivalent to Kieren Perkins and hot favourite for two gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics.

Then on January 12, 1996, while competing at the Queensland swimming championships – and just six months before Atlanta – Riley was informed she had tested positive to drugs. The blister pack Volkers had fished from his wife’s bag contained a powerful painkiller called Di-gesic. It was a banned drug.

In the month that followed the news, Riley was instructed by her lawyer and a select group of executives from Australian Swimming Incorporated to carry on her training and sponsorship commitments as if nothing had happened. They were convinced that the best chance for a successful appeal was for the case to be established in a calm environment, free of any media hysterics – a ruse that put considerable strain on Riley and her preparations.

“It was so hard to find any motivation to go to training,” she recalls. “I would wonder if I was doing it for no reason, if I was actually going to be able to go to the Olympics. That was what I was doing it all for, it was the reason I would put my body on the line every day. And you couldn’t think, ‘Oh, it’s okay, we’ll be able to do it next time’ because who knows what might happen in four years.

“Then there was also the strain of wondering how people would react when they found out. I would show up to every session a nervous wreck, wondering if anyone from the media had found out.”

Media attention was nothing new for Riley. Since winning both breaststroke events at the 1994 Rome World Championships – an event otherwise dominated by the suspect Chinese female athletes – she had never been far from the headlines. In August 1995 there was an uproar when she was disqualified in the 100m breaststroke heats at the Pan Pacific Championships for what the judge regarded as an illegal downward “dolphin kick”. Beyond the pool, her short-lived engagement to rugby bad-boy Julian O’Neill had been followed relentlessly, and there was even more attention centred on her new beau, the gold medal-winning Norwegian speed skater Johann Koss. But regardless of the subject, Riley always seemed to emerge with her reputation intact – and in most cases, enhanced. With her famed cereal-packet smile and a perfectly pitched back-story of triumphing over diversity (she was diagnosed at age four with severe asthma), Riley was adored by the public and the media unconditionally.

It is perhaps for this reason that when the news of her positive test eventually broke on February 12, 1996 Riley struggled immensely. In what quickly became a national soap opera, opinions on her conduct varied wildly. At her press conference in Brisbane the following day, Riley shed tears while describing the worst time in her life, declaring: “I am not a cheat. I have never cheated.”[xviii]

For those journalists who had previously met Riley and experienced her charm first-hand, her declaration was sufficient. Kevan Gosper, Australia’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board member, promised to lobby all the important people he knew to ensure Riley went to the Atlanta Games, while Prime Minister Paul Keating – in the midst of a hectic election campaign – telephoned Riley at home to offer his support, announcing to the media: “It appears that this is the result of an unfortunate error. And I confess to being a fan of hers.”[xix]

But then there were those whose sympathy was harder to elicit. While few seriously believed that Riley – who had been an avid anti-drugs campaigner – was guilty of anything sinister, they wondered how an elite athlete could be foolish enough to take a pill upon which ‘Di-gesic’ was clearly engraved. Caroline Overington, writing for The Age, suggested that support for Riley was based on her endearing personality rather than notions of fairness, and argued that as someone who broke the rules she deserved the same punishment as anyone else. After all, said Overington, there would always be Sydney in four years’ time.[xx]

“A lot of the journalists who cover the swimming, you get on pretty good terms with them,” says Riley. “They become an extended part of the team. They travel to all of the swim meets at home and abroad, and you become quite friendly with them.

“But when the headache tablet drama happened, there was suddenly a much bigger range of media who were interested, and a lot of them were not supportive at all. I remember doing an interview with Kerry O’Brien on the ABC and he wasn’t very compassionate. I’m not sure if he called me ‘stupid’, but it was something along those lines… It was definitely a mixed bag when it came to how the media approached the issue.”

While for most of the Australian team the reverberations of the media weren’t felt until after they began competing in Atlanta, Riley had her confidence eroded long before then. On February 22, 1996 she was cleared to compete, but the attention surrounding the matter never subsided. Every interview Riley had was dominated by questions on the topic, and each was a constant reminder not only of her lost favour but also the strong possibility that her career would be defined by a headache tablet.

“I was really trying to convince myself that everything was all right,” Riley reveals. “But a lot of damage had been done to my confidence. I really resented all of the attention that I received for such a negative incident, and something I was trying so hard to forget.

“I was also worried about what other athletes around the world might hear about me. I remember having ridiculous dreams of standing on the blocks and having people throw things at me and call me a cheat. People would tell me not to worry about what everyone else thinks, but it was really important for me to not swim under the cloud of a doping scandal. I didn’t ever want people to think that there was more to it, that the headache tablet was just a cover-up. And that was perhaps the thing that I found most damaging.”

When Riley arrived in Atlanta, she was forced to re-live the episode again, this time with journalists from international media outlets. After her disappointing performance at the Olympic trials – where she qualified second in both breaststroke events in times well-short of her best – Riley had acknowledged the adverse impact stress was having on her swimming. But despite this, Australian Olympic officials still felt it prudent that she front the media pack at the earliest opportunity.

“I remember being pressured to do it,” she recalls. “To be honest, I felt that I had explained myself over the previous four or five months, and I felt that every interview I had to give was about trying to prove my innocence and how it was a mistake. I thought that doing another press conference was unnecessary. I was there to compete and to put all of that behind me.

“It just dredged everything up again and reminded me that it was never going to go away. Looking back, I really should have just stood my ground and said: ‘No, I’m here to compete, and I don’t feel like I need to answer any of those questions anymore’.”

Having already been through the media wringer and with so much to consume her thoughts, Riley admits that the tearing down of the swim team in Atlanta had less of an impact on her than her team mates.

“I had different worries at that time to probably everyone else. But I do remember there was regularly talk about the negative press, and I don’t think any of us needed to hear that at the time. We were there to do a job; we were there to perform the best we could. And it became difficult to do that.”

For Riley, most of the information came from team meetings. Each day there would be a review of the finals that had taken place the night before and of the morning heats. Initially pegged as an opportunity to reinforce techniques and provide support for one another, they quickly descended into a negative affair as Don Talbot began to feel the pinch from the media. He would echo the media reports, chiding swimmers and rattling off ultimatums: “If you can’t at least do your best time, you have failed”; “If you swim faster in the heats than in the final, you have failed”; “We have too many people missing finals because they are lazy on their skills”; “No one is going to give you a medal for trying, you have to do better than just try”.[xxi]

By day four the swimmers were so deflated that they called an ‘Athletes Only’ meeting, imploring each other to ignore the outside reports and just enjoy themselves. At the end of this they called in Laurie Lawrence, the designated Team Motivator, who initiated a sing-along of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Home Among the Gum Trees’ to boost morale, which Riley says became one of her most indelible memories from Atlanta.

But for all her efforts, Riley was unable to suppress the mental damage of the past year. In her favoured event, the 100m breaststroke, she could only manage bronze as the gold was snapped up by her South African archrival, Penny Heyns, in a time short of Riley’s best. Two days later in the 200m distance Riley came fourth in a pedestrian time, allowing Heyns to become the first woman in Olympic history to complete the breaststroke double. In the warm-down pool after the race, Riley clung to the wall and sobbed uncontrollably.

“Everyone had said to me that it would be a fairytale finish,” she admits. “After everything I had gone through, a gold medal would make everything right – that was how it should end. But even though I was physically fit, in the mind I was still struggling with what had happened. The mind is such a powerful thing.”

But while those around her may have hoped for a fairytale finish, many journalists had already written Riley off. As a result, they didn’t crucify her in the same manner as her team mates, instead content to push home the tragic element of the result.

“Riley is a sad case,” wrote Patrick Smith in The Age following her 200m final. “She has been under intolerable pressure since testing positive to a banned substance. The woman has coped, but she had swum with a heavy heart that has proved an anchor. Her smile has been forced.

“She gave everything but, in the last 20 metres, she had nothing left to fight with. Not oxygen, not confidence, not belief in herself. At this level you are the greatest in the world until you doubt it. Then you are a flotsam.”[xxii]

In that same piece, however, Smith underlined the differing standards to which the rest of the team were held: “Swimming is a very simple sport to measure for success. And it does not come down to medals or finals. It comes down to swimmers performing at their peak at the biggest event in world sport. Swimming like they never have before. After all, they have had four years to get it right.”

When asked about Smith’s claim, Riley says that while she disagrees, she is not surprised.

“You don’t have four years to get yourself primed and race at your peak and all the rest,” asserts Riley. “We’re not robots. We’re all still human beings and people get sick, people get injured… and in many cases we just want it too much.

“It’s not a surprising thing to hear from someone who hasn’t actually lived it, because that perception is the general perception. And you can’t expect someone who isn’t intimately involved with the sport to know any better. The bottom line is, you don’t have four years to get it right – you might have a minute, or two minutes.”

Now living in Queensland with her husband and three children, Riley says she is satisfied with where her life is. She owns a chain of swim schools and continues to work the speaking circuit with her prized smile. But she never did get the Olympic gold she craved. After Atlanta she was unable to reach the lofty heights that characterised her 1994-95 seasons, and her career ended in yet another media circus when she failed to qualify for the Sydney Games, ousted by 14-year-old prodigy Leisel Jones. Riley says the physical battles she had after Atlanta made the events of 1996 difficult to reconcile.

“I was on such a high in ’94 and ’95, and I thought that would just roll over into the Olympics,” Riley admits. “I do feel disappointment. Ninety-six was really hard to get over. It might sound indulgent, but I still feel like I was good enough to have won a gold medal at the Olympics. I feel like… Yeah, something’s missing.

PART THREE: DANIEL KOWALSKI

Daniel Kowalski shifted awkwardly in his seat inside a packed conference room at the Homebush Aquatic Centre on April 27, 1996. Around him a swarm of journalists – some wielding microphones, others snapping photographs – jostled for the chance to ask a question. But Kowalski, the newly crowned Australian champion in the 1500m freestyle, remained silent.

To Kowalski’s right, fielding every question, was the man he had conquered: Kieren Perkins. Olympic champion. World champion. World record holder. The man who had dominated swimming for the last five years and been christened by Don Talbot as “the Michael Jordan of Australia”.[xxiii] He had qualified for the Atlanta Games after months of hysterical reports about illness and poor form. Kowalski may as well have been invisible.

As the interview wore on, Kowalski considered leaving. He had had an exhausting week, qualifying in three individual events, and he needed rest. But then a female journalist rose from her chair and asked Kowalski his only question.

“How does it feel to be the most hated man in Australia?” she queried without a blink.[xxiv]

A shell-shocked Kowalski would attempt to brush the question aside with a forced laugh, adding with his usual grace: “I’m glad [Kieren] made the team because it would have felt funny without him.”[xxv]

The pain, however, ran deep.

“I basically thought that if there was going to be any questions asked of me it would be about performance. So to be asked that was extremely unsettling,” reflects Kowalski, 35, who moments after the question had to endure a live cross to Channel 9’s Hey Hey, It’s Saturday and stand quietly as Perkins was subject to hearty congratulations from Daryl Somers.

“I worry about what people think of me, because I’m the type of person who wants to be liked. People would criticise me for that, say that I didn’t have the killer instinct. But I was never going to change who I was, and those types of things really did upset me. I held onto that comment for a long time.”

While Australia may see itself as a nation of winners, any victory that comes at the expense of a popular champion is almost certain to be greeted with contempt. Kowalski was a sad example of this. Since 1994 when he first knocked off Perkins at the Commonwealth Games trials – and in the process smashed through the mythical 15-minute barrier – Kowalski had been the reluctant villain in the nation’s top-rating prime time soap. In July 1995, after beating Perkins in the first of a series of Grand Prix races, Kowalski received several phone calls and letters from a man promising: ‘If you win [again], you’re dead’. In the nights that followed Kowalski had dreams in which his coach, Bill Nelson, was shot while diving into the pool to protect his charge. The next time Kowalski raced, he placed fourth. The police never found the man.

Kowalski expended a huge amount of nervous energy worrying about the threats. After several sessions with the swim team psychologist he was able to refocus, but niggling in the back of his mind was the idea that negativity would always be attached to any success he had. Despite being an immensely dedicated swimmer with a lively sense of humour, Kowalski was no Perkins in ability or swagger, and he was punished harshly for this.

“Dan was dropped in the frying pan. He was the centre of attention,” Perkins revealed to The Courier Mail’s Mike Colman following the Atlanta Games. “People were asking him all the time whether he thought he could beat me… There was less media attention [on me]. They tended to leave me alone, which was good.”[xxvi]

When Kowalski finally arrived in Atlanta, he was determined to put everything behind him and concentrate on the task at hand. For a time, it worked. The thrill that comes with experiencing the vast scale of the Olympics – of rubbing shoulders with the world’s best, of living in a world where everything, from fast food to haircuts, is available free, 24-hours a day – initially swept through Kowalski, culminating in his unexpected bronze in the 200m freestyle on day one. But the following day Kowalski was part of the 4x200m relay that finished fourth, and it was then that he began to struggle mentally.

“The Olympics really is an emotional roller-coaster,” says Kowalski, who believes his selection as the lead off swimmer rather than the anchor (for which he had trained) was the reason for the disappointing result. “I remember how there was the high of the first day, and then the huge low on the second… I would lie in bed trying to anticipate things and it would waste energy.”

Kowalski recalls the content of team meetings becoming increasingly negative after day two of the Games, a pattern that coincided with the media coverage – the details of which Kowalski says were inescapable.

“Don Talbot was starting to feel a bit of pressure, and the meetings became quite harsh. The way he handled negative performances was to basically put people down. That was his style, and I think that was a style that came from the old guard, the olden days when people would berate bad performances and that would fire you up for the next time around. I think he just hadn’t figured out that that doesn’t work.

“The stuff that was being said in the newspapers, you could just hear people talking about it everywhere. Even though we didn’t have Internet and emails readily available, it would come from all corners. Team mates, family, friends back home, athletes from other sports, administrative staff, people from the AOC. It was difficult, and I started to fear the idea of racing.”

Kowalski’s thoughts were shared by his training partner and swim team captain Nicole Stevenson, who attacked the media for being too demanding and claimed it was contributing to the poor showing of the swimmers.

“We are a nation of knockers,” Stevenson was quoted as saying in The Sydney Morning Herald. “[The Australian media] puts more pressure on swimmers than other countries put on their athletes.

“I can’t explain how different an Olympic Games is… We get on the blocks and all we feel is nerves, instead of being excited. We are scared of swimming slowly and not winning a medal. It seems medals are everything.”[xxvii]

But it wasn’t just missing medals that were the source of dissatisfaction – it was also the colour of those claimed, as Kowalski quickly discovered. By the time of the men’s 400m freestyle final on day four, Kowalski was caught up in the general malaise of the team – so much so that when he walked to the blocks he was forced to mouth repeatedly: “Focus on yourself, focus on yourself.”

With Perkins – the world record holder and world champion in the event – sitting in the stands, Kowalski was the designated favourite. His race plan was simple. Stay with the leaders for the first half of the race, then kick hard in the third 100m before bringing it home. But when it came time for him to take control, Kowalski did nothing. Too preoccupied with the race plans of those around him, Kowalski froze, allowing the gold medal to slip into the outstretched hands of Kiwi Danyon Loader as he had to settle for bronze. It was the second tactical blunder Kowalski had committed that week, following a glance at the electronic scoreboard in the 400m heats that almost cost him a place in the final.

As Kowalski climbed from the pool, he berated himself, saying out loud: “Daniel Kowalski must concentrate on himself and not other people!” In the press conference later on he confided to journalists that a lack of self-belief had cost him the race – an admission that proved costly, with the already irate members of the press using it to drive home their criticisms.

Jacquelin Magnay, who in the past had questioned Kowalski’s mental toughness, relished the opportunity, writing: “He knows, as well as anyone else on the team that the gold medal was there for the asking”.[xxviii] Patrick Smith claimed that Kowalski’s tactical ineptitude was a prevalent trait in the Australian swim team, writing: “Alex Popov doesn’t make blunders like that. Nor Denis Pankratov. Nor Jeff Rouse”.[xxix] Roy Masters was perhaps the most frustrated, writing a damning article in which he claimed – ironically given the content of the team meetings – that there was “too much treacle and too few cutting words” in the Australian swimming fraternity and that the concept of discipline had been lost.[xxx] The result was particularly bittersweet given that following the Australian trials in April the media had run a fervent campaign to have Perkins reinstated ahead of Australia’s other qualifier, Malcolm Allen, who ultimately placed 13th.

“I knew it was an opportunity gone,” says Kowalski, his voice betraying a mixture of sadness and disgust. “My coach had told me what I needed to do and I hadn’t done it, and I paid the ultimate price with regards to sports. It just wasn’t a pleasant experience… I never thought I’d be so disappointed winning a medal at the Olympics.”

All of a sudden, Kowalski’s bronze medal in the 200m was recast as another failure, and any rhetoric about the Olympics being about “taking part” was consigned to the bottom of the Georgia Tech Olympic pool. In addition to the Fairfax articles, The Daily Telegraph ran a story in which senior swimmers such as Kowalski were criticised for not lifting when required – apparently symptomatic of “careless and cocky” attitudes.[xxxi] The outpouring prompted Kowalski’s mother, Penny, to send a heartfelt open letter to The Australian, which it published on the final day of the swimming schedule:

“For nearly 15 years we have shared a dream with our son – the dream that he would one day go to the Olympics,” she wrote. “This year our dream became a reality and we proudly waved him off from Sydney Airport along with his fellow team mates, all of us feeling a glow that we were a part of a team that was representing Australia. Now, just a few weeks later, at a time when we should be elated and ecstatic, the media tells us that our son’s achievements are disappointing. Not only our son’s but nearly every other swimmer’s…

“How glad I am that Daniel and his coach are thousands of miles away and unaware that his bronze medals are looked upon by Australia with such contempt. It has hurt us to learn how insensitive the media can be to its countrymen’s achievements. What should have been a wonderful week for us has been totally overshadowed.”[xxxii]

In spite of the barrage, Kowalski tried to turn his disappointment in the 400m into motivation for the 1500m. In a promising sign, he qualified first for the final while Perkins scraped in by a knuckle length, nine seconds adrift of Kowalski. But this time the media was more guarded in its predictions, with Magnay claiming that Kowalski would struggle against Briton Graeme Smith and Russian Aleksey Akatyev, while Perkins was simply out to regain some semblance of credibility. “It is no longer a matter of which Australian will win the 1500m gold, but whether an Australian swimmer can win anything,” she concluded on the day of the final.[xxxiii]

But although Perkins was in a precarious position going into the final, Kowalski says that when he dove into the pool on July 26 for the final event on the program, all he could think about was what had been asked of him at the trials three months earlier.

“I knew I couldn’t beat Kieren no matter what I did,” he reveals. “I thought that if I won I’d be the most hated man in Australia because I’d beaten everyone’s favourite.”

What happened next was what almost everyone back home had been pining for since the Barcelona Olympics four years earlier. Out in lane eight, beyond Kowalski’s eyeshot, Perkins led from the start to defend his title and immediately enter the pantheon of Olympic greats. In the centre of the pool, Kowalski swam shoulder-to shoulder with Smith, eventually grabbing the silver by 0.05 seconds. In doing so, he became the first man in 92 years to win Olympic medals in the 200m-400m-1500m freestyle events – an achievement that provided little consolation for Kowalski, who cried himself to sleep for more than a year after the race.

Perkins’s iconic performance – along with Susie O’Neill’s golden swim in the 200m butterfly a couple of races earlier – muted talk of the team’s overall performance, with the media now possessing plenty of fodder to fill its pages. Courtesy of the late run – where five medals were collected – the final medal tally was 12, three up on Barcelona. It was a welcome relief for Talbot and other high-ranking swimming officials, whose heads had been on the chopping block along with the swimmers.

While the performances of Perkins and O’Neill – who were both able to block out the negative media coverage as well as their team mates’ woes – were celebrated by journalists, for the majority of the swim team the preceding days were less easily forgotten. Kowalski would never get the individual Olympic gold he craved, brushed aside in the years that followed by Grant Hackett. But despite the negative shadow the media cast over him during the height of his career, time has blunted any feelings of resentment that Kowalski once held.

“The tough thing for journalists is that no matter how hard they try, they can’t know internally what an athlete is feeling or what they’ve experienced or what they’ve been through,” says Kowalski as he reflects on those seven days 15 years ago. “They can only report on all those elements that they see. It’s not an easy thing.

“I think the expectations in ’96 were rightly high because we had performed so well the year before. So in a way we brought it all on ourselves. But I also think that we and the media underestimated the rest of the world.”

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Elli Overton – 24 August 2010
Linley Frame – 3 September 2010
Daniel Kowalski – 3 September 2010
Michael Cowley – 17 September 2010
Caroline Overington – 17 September 2010
Mike Colman – 23 September 2010
Samantha Riley – 13 October 2010
Jim Webster – 13 October 2010

NOTES:

[i] “Swimmers flounder in a sea of questions” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1996, p.2.
[ii] “Bronzed-off: Our swimmers are drowning in treacle” by Roy Masters, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[iii] “Swimmers a team in need of inspiration” by Patrick Smith, The Age, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[iv] “Our Olympic failure” by Trevor Grant, The Daily Telegraph, 27 July 1996, p.1.
[v] “Swimmers fail pressure test” by Nicole Jeffery, The Australian, 25 July 1996, p.33.
[vi] Reconstructed based on author interviews with Elli Overton and Linley Frame, and reference to “Emotional Elli pleads with Australian public: Don’t be disappointed in us” by Nicole Jeffery, The Australian, 26 July 1996, p.39 & “Silver shines through gloom” by Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph, 26 July 1996, p.62.
[vii] Hanson quoted in “Medal-morphosis” by Jim Webster, The Bulletin, 13 February 1996, p. 85.
[viii] “He’s only just begun” by Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph, 22 July 1996, p.37.
[ix] “Fast start for the first day?” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Age, 20 July 1996, p.3.
[x] “Swimmers a team in need of inspiration” by Patrick Smith, The Age, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[xi] “Swim hero lays the blame on coaches” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Age, 24 July 1996, p.2.
[xii] “A shot in the arm” by Jenny Tabakoff, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1996, p.2.
[xiii] “Unsound technique cost our swimmers” by Tim Prentice, The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1996, p.46.
[xiv] “It’s the coaches’ fault: Murray Rose” by Roy Eccleston & David Nason, The Australian, 24 July 1996, p.1.
[xv] “Water torture” by Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1996, p.43.
[xvi] “Chinese swimmers look like blokes: Elli” by Trevor Grant, The Daily Telegraph, 17 July 1996, p.1.
[xvii] “Emotional Elli pleads with Australian public: Don’t be disappointed in us” by Nicole Jeffery, The Australian, 26 July 1996, p.39 & “Silver shines through gloom” by Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph, 26 July 1996, p.62.
[xviii] Riley quoted in “Sink or Swim” by Michael Cockerill, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1996, p. 33.
[xix] Keating quoted in “A bitter pill for Riley” by Caroline Overington, The Age, 17 February 1996, p.24.
[xx] “A bitter pill for Riley” by Caroline Overington, The Age, 17 February 1996, p.24.
[xxi] Talbot quoted in Wobbles: an Olympic Story by Nadine Neumann, Brisbane: Glass House Books, 2009, p.153-154.
[xxii] “Swimmers a team in need of inspiration” by Patrick Smith, The Age, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[xxiii] “The New Wave” by Steve L Price, Sports Illustrated, 22 July 1996.
[xxiv] As revealed by Daniel Kowalski in interview on 3 September 2010.
[xxv] Kowalski quoted in “Kowalski finishes second in public applause stakes” by Caroline Overington, The Age, 29 April 1996, p.22.
[xxvi] Perkins quoted in 1500: The Story of Australia’s Race by Mike Colman, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2004, p.185.
[xxvii] Stevenson quoted in “Freestyle relay rookies show the way forward” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1996, p.3.
[xxviii] “Life in the slow lane” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1996, p.25.
[xxix] “Swimmers a team in need of inspiration” by Patrick Smith, The Age, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[xxx] “Bronzed-off: Our swimmers are drowning in treacle” by Roy Masters, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1996, p.1.
[xxxi] “Special Games probe: In pool of broken dreams” by Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1996, pp.92-93.
[xxxii] “The Games that turned to spite” by Penny Kowalski, The Australian, 27 July 1996, p.22.
[xxxiii] “Australia stops for Kowalski v The King” by Jacquelin Magnay, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1996, p.1.

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