The inside back-page of The Saturday Age sport section, called ‘World of Sport’, includes 6 brief summaries of sports stories from around the world. The little stories that aren’t nearly as important as those on the 18 pages that come beforehand. This past weekend, it included stories such as: New Zealand’s win to tie their test cricket series with Sri Lanka at 1-1, the positive drug test of Russian Olympic silver-medal-winning discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova, and the two changes to the Wallabies’ side for a test against Wales.
Two weekends ago, on Saturday November 17, the stories included Aussie squash player Ryan Cuskelly’s win in the Toronto Cup, a theatre project about the New York Yankees having been commissioned, and Rafael Nadal’s announcement that he’ll make his comeback in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in December. Oh, and the story of the retirement of an athlete who has won more Olympic medals than any Australian other than Ian Thorpe.
When Thorpe retired, it was a massive story. In The Age, it was front-page news and an 8 page wrap-around of The Age sport was devoted to Thorpe’s career, despite it being the day before the start of the 2006 Ashes Series. The blanket coverage and idolatry was no surprise, of course. He’s the only Aussie with 5 Olympic gold medals to his name, winning 3 of them in Sydney which made him the most successful face of the country’s home Games. On top of that, his retirement was even more newsworthy as it was a surprise – he was still expected to be successful in Beijing, and so was seen to be walking away from the opportunity to add to his record of most Olympic Gold medals and most overall medals for Australia.
And here we are, six years later, and the only mention of the retirement of Australia’s only other athlete to win 9 Olympic medals, Leisel Jones, is relegated to the ‘World of Sport’ section.
November 17, 2012 wasn’t exactly a huge news day in the world of Australian sport. The football codes were in genuine off-season mode, the Spring Carnival was over, and it was an off-week between cricket tests. The Australian Masters golf tournament was on, however one of The Age’s two stories on that competition was based on the contention that interest in the tournament was waning like never before.
In the heart of footy-land, The Age devoted two pages to the upcoming AFL Draft and another two to off-season AFL news including the axing of ABC2’s Marngrook Footy Show. Other page-long stories deemed more newsworthy than Jones’ retirement included a profile of Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic after he scored that goal in a friendly against England, an interview with Racing Victoria’s head veterinarian about his background and the integrity and drug issues facing horse racing, and the fact that Jamie Whincup was going to win the V8 Supercar championship for the year no matter what happened at the race in Benalla that afternoon.
Jones might not have had the career or cache of Thorpe, but the lack of coverage was startling.
Leisel Jones is the only Australian swimmer to compete at 4 Olympic Games. The only Aussie not named Thorpe to win 9 Olympic Medals. A 3-time Olympic gold medallist, leaving her only behind Thorpe, Fraser, Rose and Cuthbert on Australia’s all-time list. A world record holder in a few different events.
The country has seen her grow-up from being Australian swimming’s youngest Olympic medallist when she won two silvers in Sydney at age 15 to the mature woman who would “like to continue as a role model and mentor for younger athletes” during her retirement. She is a team-leader who stood up to bullies who were creating disharmony within the Australian team in London, and a forgiving athlete who when asked about the coverage of her physique in London said that there was “nothing to forgive…Media is the game we play, and in the end, I was the one who came out with a silver medal.”
It’s impossible to know, but one wonders whether or not gender played a role in the lack of coverage of Jones’ retirement. The usual argument regarding the fact that sportsmen should receive more coverage as they are more spectacular athletes and therefore more popular and profitable works for most sports in Australia other than swimming. Or so the Australian public have seemed to think over time. Maybe it’s not true of swimming either. Is it too controversial to wonder whether had the retiring Olympic legend been male, he would have received more coverage than was afforded to Jones?
Ultimately, who knows why the Australian media chose to make the retirement of one of Australia’s most successful Olympians such an afterthought on a slow news day in sports. Whatever the reason, though, it was a stunning example of the difference between some successful athletes and others. Six months ago, Australian newspapers used images of Jones on their front pages to drum up criticism and scandal, attacking her physique on the cusp of the London Games. Now, upon her retirement, she is an afterthought. Some athletes can decide what the story is and have the media at their beck and call. Some athletes are used by the media in a completely different fashion.