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Swimmers struggle, team from Down Under having real trouble at the London Olympics

07/31/2012 09:35 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - The team from Down Under has been downright dreadful so far at the London Games.

OK, it's still early — just 53 of 302 medals had been presented as of Tuesday — but the Australian team's stated aim of being in the top five in both the gold and overall medal standings was looking seriously shaky, mostly because of the sinking performance of its usually strong swim team.

At this stage, Australia has just one gold — its women's 4x100-meter relay team in swimming — along with three silver and two bronze overall — all from the swimmers. That puts them in a tie for 11th place in the gold standings and ninth overall.

The biggest disappointment for the Aussies was in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay on Sunday. Australia was heavily favoured to win but finished in the fourth place after a mediocre lead leg by James "The Missile" Magnussen.

Magnussen qualified fourth-fastest Tuesday in the heats of his signature event, the 100-meter freestyle, but was fastest in the night semifinals — clocking 47.63 seconds — going into Wednesday's final.

No other swimmer in a textile suit has gone faster than the 47.10 seconds in the 100 Magnussen posted at the Australian trials in March.

"I took a fair hit in the relay. I am still trying to bounce back from it," Magnussen said Tuesday, admitting he didn't sleep for two days before the relay because he was so nervous. "It hurt my pride as much as anything else. A lot of my competitors have never seen me lose."

He has some company in the wounded pride department.

Emily Seebohm was hot favourite to win the 100-meter backstroke in the pool on Monday night, but finished second. She admitted her obsession with Twitter may have cost her a gold.

Seebohm said she had stayed up for too long communicating on social media about her prospects in the race — "when people start telling you you are going to win, maybe you start believing it and I hadn't even swum."

Stephanie Rice won both the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys in Beijing four years ago but, plagued by shoulder problems in the leadup to the games, could only manage sixth in the 400 on Saturday and fourth in the 200 IM on Tuesday. Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese star, won both the IM gold medals.

The malaise extends to the Opals — the women's basketball team led by Seattle Storm centre Lauren Jackson but without the injured Penny Taylor. Winner of silver medals at the last three Olympics, Jackson hoped to make it gold this time by finally beating the United States in the final.

But after an overtime loss to France — its first defeat by any team other than the Americans since 1996 — the Australian women might not even get to the medal round.

Its men's team, playing without the injured Andrew Bogut, has lost both its matches, including 82-70 to Spain on Tuesday.

To make matters worse in the so-far lousy London Games for Australia, world champion Cadel Evans of Australia withdrew from the Olympic time trial.

Evans, the 2011 Tour de France winner, finished 79th in the Olympic road race and officials said he was too tired to compete against the clock in Wednesday's race.

Predictably, Australian media in London and back home haven't been kind about the team's lack of success.

"Australia has only ever seen the confident, bold and freakishly fast James Magnussen," the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in a comment piece. "On Sunday night at the Olympic pool in London, they saw a shattered man, wandering around in a daze and staring into space. He did not know how to react to defeat. This had never happened before. Swimming's Superman had been hit by some sort of kryptonite, and he had not seen it coming."

Kevan Gosper, an Olympic silver medallist for Australia in athletics in 1956 and a long-serving member of the IOC, said Australia's lack of depth in many sports and small population base meant other countries such as France — which has three golds in the pool here — can overtake them in sports like swimming.

"And don't forget we also have a very young team," Gosper said. "Guys like James Magnussen are only at their first Olympics."

The level of interest in Australia's plight extended to its banking industry where, rather incredibly, two analysts said the high Australian dollar was to blame. It's been worth more than the U.S. dollar for most of the last year, and is also strong against the Euro and British pound.

The ANZ Bank's chief economist Warren Hogan and foreign exchange official Andrew Salter researched Australia's Olympic performances over the past century against the value of the dollar.

They said that the Australian team has been more successful when the currency has been weak than when it's been strong. One of the reasons — and they admitted it was less than scientific — is that when the dollar is high, the government budget suffers and forces tighter funding conditions for Olympic athletes and support staff.

"All the while the currency is trading around levels that in real terms are the highest ever during an Olympic year," they said. "If our relationship is to be believed, Australia will place around 16th at the London Games."

That would be its worst performance since the Montreal Games in 1976, when Australia failed to win a gold medal and placed 32nd with one silver medal and four bronze.

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