Don't look up to great athletes just because they're on a podium
Boorish outbursts ... John Steffensen. Photo: Getty Images
One of the most demanding events at the Olympics is also one of the most neglected - the heptathlon, in which athletes must compete in seven track and field events, from javelin to hurdles.
It is a pity there is no heptathlon for whining at the London Olympics, because Australia would be a gold medal chance. We have John Steffensen, a team silver medallist at the 2004 Games, and now an Olympic chip-on-both-shoulders, petulant, permanent victim.
As a marginal member of the 2012 athletics team, he has been frequently describing officials at Athletics Australia as liars.
It appears because he has made repeated accusations of racism - his family is of mixed race from South Africa - officials appear too intimidated to confront his boorish outbursts.
This has been going on for years. In 2010, Steffensen announced he was boycotting the Commonwealth Games because he objected to the management of athletics by Athletics Australia. This time, he threatened not to run in London, and did not appear for the official team photograph.
His main complaint is that he was selected only for the 4x400 metres sprint relay team, rather than the individual 400 metres.
He has claimed on numerous occasions to have been subjected to racial abuse and discrimination for much of his career, a claim echoed and endorsed by his friend and fellow serial complainant, the boxer Anthony Mundine.
Athletes at the Olympic Games are meant to be ambassadors, but Steffensen has gone out of his way to foment toxic accusations. He has kept up a flow of vitriol via his Twitter account. Here are some samples from the past 10 days:
''AA [Athletics Australia] has a lot to answer for …''
''I hope people can see why I became so outspoken! I had no choice! All I wanted was 2 b given a fair go n 2 rep my felo Aussies well.''
''all they do is just lie lie and lie!!''
''India's media big on Steffensen's racism allegation against Athletics Australia!!!!''
''If my claims are baseless why is there a big article in the USA Today about me??''
''People are so educated about race the media don't even no wat I am!! His brown so he must be aboriginal hahahahahahahahhahahahahaha!!''
''lies lies and more lies!! Lol!! I love watching them dig deeper!!''
''Do you no I have not got one phone call from AA since that email! They all running and working out wat lies they can tell to save themselves.''
''Dallas [the chief executive of Athletics Australia, Dallas O'Brien] u can't lie no more! I have a paper trail for days! Save your self n start telling the truth! U can't hide behind bias media!''
Steffensen's antics provide a timely warning that all that glitters is not gold. We are about to be inundated with an unprecedented barrage of Olympic coverage via the Nine Network and eight channels of Foxtel devoted to the Olympics 24 hours a day. The networks will be on full hero alert.
We all make the mistake of equating someone with good looks with someone who is good for us, though this obviously does not follow and we keep learning the hard way.
The process applies especially to elite athletes. Their grace in action is the product of enormous single-mindedness, self-belief and a streak of mongrel needed to survive in sport at the highest level. Grace in sport is often accompanied by gracelessness off camera.
The corporate machine is kicking into overdrive to exploit the Olympics, creating heroes to attach to consumer products which will then be sold hard.
As for how genuinely heroic those glossy Olympic stars will be, we need only the cautionary tale of the Olympic pin-up Grant Hackett, whose carefully nurtured public image has recently been trashed by an alcohol-fuelled domestic rampage.
After tomorrow's opening ceremony come 16 days of events. It will seem longer as time is stretched by the density of the dramas. We will be willing our athletes to excel, but Steffensen has delivered a backhanded favour by reminding us that graceful bodies do not automatically connote graceful souls. We already hype our athletes as national heroes. Let's not go overboard.
Poll: Will the comments of John Steffensen and Josh Ross affect the athletics team?
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