AUSTRALIA’S SECOND medal at the Winter Olympics was an emotional event for the pride of Warrandyte, writes RON REED:
YOUNG Melbourne snowboarder Scotty James has proved you don’t necessarily have to win a gold medal at the Olympics to emerge as a class act with your profile significantly enhanced. The 23-year-old from Warrandyte, who won bronze in the half-pipe after not quite holding his nerve when the moment of truth arrived, was not particularly well-known to Australian sports fans in general despite having competed at two previous winter Games and having made himself wealthy by mastering this spectacular and extremely skilful new-age sport
But anyone who watched the emotional aftermath on Channel 7 couldn’t help being impressed by the upbeat and gracious way he presented himself. In his first interview in the mixed zone, where athletes and the media meet immediately after every event, he admitted he was struggling to hold back tears. Not so much tears of disappointment, but of pride. “It means the world to me,” he said. Not many minutes later, he was interviewed again, this time with his family surrounding him and an Australian flag draped around his neck, and the struggle was lost. “I can’t really talk,” he said.
“This is really cool. I have had amazing support. A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it. But I took it in my stride and came out fighting, this kid from Warrandyte. I gave it my best shot.” Earlier, he had said he “came out and did it the Australian way – having a real hard crack. Being the underdog, that’s what we do”. Like virtually all of Australia’s winter athletes, James spends most of his time living and competing overseas but there is no mistaking where he comes from. In competition he wears red boxing gloves, a nod to the iconic boxing kangaroo. And he refers to “my beloved country” … even his beloved Warrandyte, and the northern suburb probably doesn’t hear itself described like that on international television very often.
Veteran team boss Ian Chesterman no doubt had all that in mind when he appointed James to carry the flag at the opening ceremony. At any Games, summer or winter, this privilege is accorded to an athlete with history and runs on the board but there’s always more to it than that – it’s also about character, inspiration and, yes, national pride. It appears that James was head and shoulders above all other rivals in the team of about 50 and he has turned out to be the perfect choice.
Unfortunately, however, his performance fell slightly short of his own and everyone else’s expectations, or at least hopes. But the result was not out of kilter with the form guide. It was always going to be a huge ask for James or anyone else to beat the hot favourite, American Shaun White, who was already a dual gold medallist at the Olympics and is regarded as the best snowboarder in the sport’s relatively brief history. Japan’s Ayumo Hirano has also been in red hot form. Each of the 12 finalists were given three attempts at performing their intricate aerial somersaults and twists with judges awarding scores out of 100, the best single score counting. White opened with a mistake-free 92, which was never going to be enough, but his second run was marred by his hand making contact with the snow just as he finished, meaning he had to produce something special at his last attempt when all three front-runners were still well and truly in contention in a contest that lived up to the hype that preceded it.
Sadly, he was going well but lost balance and crashed midway through his repertoire, putting him out of contention – but with his first effort still enough to keep him on the podium despite a couple of late challenges from behind. White, who had scored a perfect 100 in a recent World Cup event, finished off with a flawless 97.75 with Hirano second on 95.25. James got to his feet with what looked like a slightly embarrassed grin and waved to his supporters, who were applauding warmly nevertheless. This, of course, was recognition that Olympic medals of any colour are difficult to win – and he had one. It certainly wasn’t a failure.
But did the final fall constitute a choke? Call it that if you will, but veteran Olympic watchers will recognise it as yet another case of an affliction known – to this column, anyway – as five-ring fever. I saw many examples of it at the eight summer and one winter Olympics I attended, where in-form and experienced athletes found the unique pressures of the greatest sporting show on earth difficult to cope with and their results suffered accordingly.
Perhaps the most obvious case I witnessed was at the Nagano winter Games in 1998, almost 20 years ago to the day, when a young Australian freestyle aerial skier named Jono Sweet, good enough to be a medallist at World Cup level, simply jumped off the launch pad and failed to execute any part of his tricks. Shortly before, his two experienced female team-mates, Kirstie Marshall and Jacquie Cooper, also inexplicably bombed out, Marshall landing poorly on both jumps and Cooper lucky to escape injury when she crashed. It was meant to be the biggest day of those Games for Australia and turned into a morale-crushing disaster.
The devastated and embarrassed Sweet said: “I had great training all week but just put too much pressure on myself. I was doing all the big tricks better than anyone. I could have won it. It’s my first Olympics and I’m not used to the pressure. I let it get to me and I didn’t do what I know how to do.:”
Sweet wasn’t the first athlete that has happened to, and far from the last. James wouldn’t seem to fall into quite the same category. For one thing, he is far more experienced at this stratospheric level, and for another, he made no mention of being unduly nervous – although when the dust settles we might hear more about that. “I wish I’d landed my second run – but it is what it is,” he said. “I was definitely relaxed. I had worked hard and was very focused. That’s why we work hard to enjoy these experiences. I did that today. It was cool.”
The good news? “I can assure you I’m just getting started,” he said.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.