“Olympic flop” is a term that dots Australian previews of swimming at the home Gold Coast Commonwealth Games that get underway on Thursday. Mentioned in the context of the Dolphins in Rio in general but most specifically directed at Cate Campbell, ‘flop’ is, whether you think it fair or not, misguided.
The coming six days of racing in the Optus Aquatics Centre pool will make no difference to the Olympics past – nor the Olympics to come. And that on several levels and for a variety of reasons. The Commonwealth Games is a multi-sports event that is both a singular and particular – and often thrilling – dot on the journey that joins the Olympic Games.
It is an event best viewed without without the goggled perspective of what it all means to other moments.
Yet, we find Campbell and Co reflected in reports far and wide as folk ‘looking to exorcise the demons of her Olympic flop two years ago’. The only place one can ever truly exorcise an Olympic demon is at the Olympics.
The 25-year-old sprinter approached Rio as hot favourite for sprint gold, the wisdom of hindsight requiring us to wonder whether having Campbell crack the shiny suits 100m free world record and be treated to a deck-side celebration with Dawn Fraser just a month out from an Olympic campaign was the best way to approach the ultimate competitive cauldron.
Campbell described her as the “greatest choke in Olympic history” in Rio – her sixth-place finish in the 100 metres freestyle final. Heats: 52.78; Semi: 52.71. The final: 53.24, sixth.
As we wrote from Rio: “Nervous energy, like a door left open for a thief to walk in and do his worst, is a killer. So it proved for Campbell tonight a little over a month since she sent shockwaves through the world sprint sorority with a 52.06 world record.
“This one could not be lost. And yet it was. This one was likely to see sisters, Cate joined by Bronte, share a podium for the first time in history. And yet it didn’t.
“Instead, the day belonged to Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel, both on 52.70, Sarah Sjostrom on 52.99.
“Consider the crunch: Campbell – 11 times inside what it took to win today; 25 times inside 53; 42 times faster than the best she could muster today. That vault of confidence was reduced to dust in the heat of Cate Campbell’s self-constructed Olympic cauldron.”
That history remains forever. No changing it. It need not be the present nor the future. Campbell took some time out, played a starring role at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest without even getting wet – by telling it like it is and calling those governing the sport to account (our No2 story of 2017). And then she returned, in record form in the short-course pool – another world record in home waters in the mix – and then another series of pace-setting long-course efforts on the way to what can be described as the first true test since Rio but the context of which is ‘nothing like the same thing’.
Talking to reporters in the last days before racing, Campbell confirmed that change had been as good as rest on the way to a return to form. Now, it was good to be back where she belongs:
“I definitely missed being part of the team. To be back in the green and gold, it really makes my heart beat a little bit faster.”
Invitably, she faced questions about her ‘mental strength’. In her replies, Campbell reached for the context of a home crowd as a way of explaining that ‘pressure’ is not best understood in the frame of ‘expectation of others’:
“It’s not so much the pressure of expectation, because people want you to swim well. They’re not rooting for you to swim badly. They want to see you swim well so they will support you and not put pressure on you. I’ve never had a home crowd advantage. We saw in Glasgow in 2014 that the Scots just lifted. There was something in the air that got them ready to swim fast and I’m really hoping we feel that same energy here.”
Even so, fair to note, too, that a note from an acquaintance during the Games in Rio was a part of an untimely reminder that a world if watching and hoping and praying and, yes, expecting. In the nicest possible way – but expecting nonetheless.
If there is pressure and expectation of a harmful kind, Campbell has indicated, it is that built within – and based on previous form.
The following week will show us what we already know about Campbell: she is capable ion standing up and winning in phenomenal speed on the big occasion – and she is capable of falling down on such an occasion, too. That, she has in common with a great many others.
The Gold Coast gathering will put pressure on others this time round: Oleksiak, an Olympic champion at 16, has not moved forward on the clock since and has now returned to her home program rather than stick with the demands of a centre of excellence. This week, the form guide of 2016 tells us that she will beat Campbell. Take away Rio 2016 and the form guide screams all the more loudly that Campbell is the ace to beat come the 50 and 100m free.
Extending that thought, we can also say that Australia is favourite to top the medals table despite advances from Canada and Britain’s divided force of home nations. Australia has not been defeated on the medals table since 1978, when Canada, at a home Games in Edmonton, claimed 15 gold to Australia’s 12 and England’s Sharron Davies was the only non-Canadian/non-Aussie to reach the top of the podium in the pool.
Times have changed, the old Empire has struck back of late, an England led by Adam Peaty sure to make an impact, a resurgent Canada, too, Scotland, Wales and South Africa almost certain to shape the overall outcome of the meet – but Campbell is correct when she says:
“We do set the standard of the meet. I’m incredibly proud of this team.”
The history of sport shows us that pride does not always come before a fall. It all depends how you harness it.
“… back in the green and gold, it really makes my heart beat a little bit faster” is a good place to start.