At time of writing, Australia is sixth on the Tokyo medal ladder and with only one day of competition left it seems unlikely that we will suffer the ignominy which attached to our performance in 2016, when we limped across the finish line in 10th position (behind Italy and South Korea, for goodness sake), prompting a week of national mourning and, as I can now reveal, demands for a Royal Commission which might well have been acceded to had they not been gazumped the same year by the even more reprehensible performance of our largest financial institutions.
But while most of us can now relax, knowing our reputation for punching above our weight is safe for at least another three years, one Australian head which some say should have rolled after Rio is already getting itself round the task of improving on our Tokyo tally when the circus comes to Paris. And one part of John ‘Teflon’ Coates’s job between now and then will be to find out the events which it is the perk of every host city to introduce, and to make sure Australia can give a good account of itself in them. Fortunately for him we have always been early adopters of new outdoor pursuits. The 28th Olympiad may have been the first to recognise skateboarding as an elite sport rather than a traffic hazard, for example, but the gold medal we won in it should not have surprised anyone, since Aussie towns were amongst the first anywhere to provide skaters with dedicated venues; the skatepark built in 1976 in Albany, WA being one of only three in the world to be heritage-listed (I’m not joking). But if anyone expected the recipient of the first men’s skateboarding Olympic gold to use his moment in the spotlight to thank all the municipal councils who’ve helped to establish the sport here – and to acknowledge the contribution made by schoolteachers who tolerate the recurrent absenteeism which acquiring Olympic champion proficiency in this almost exclusively teenage sport demands – they would have been disappointed. ‘I have no f–ing words, man,’ announced Queenslander Keegan Palmer to a roomful of reporters, before qualifying the oxymoron with ‘It’s f–ing insane’.
Mr and Mrs Palmer must be very proud of their son, but while his wealth of skateboarding skills certainly set him apart from most other Australian 18-year-olds, the same cannot be said for the self-confessed poverty of his vocabulary. It is 21 years since Australia last came 6th in what is generally considered the Olympics of literacy; the OECD’s Global Education and Skills Forum survey. Today, despite a bewildering succession of innovations and interventions by state and federal governments, our school-leavers languish in 15th place in the international reading and writing ranking, and, even more worryingly, in 24th place for numeracy.
If the current federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, is serious about reversing these trends, rather than commissioning an executive search for the next David Gonski, perhaps he should simply add John Coates to his team. As Coates would know, Covid has changed the recreational habits of every Western population, and in addition to their beloved pétanque and more recent urban innovation, parkour, his French counterparts are believed to be considering capitalising on the popularity in France of the Netflix blockbuster The Queens Gambit by adding chess to their Paris wish list. It is unlikely that Australia will be able to produce as many grand masters as champion swimmers by July 2024, but Annastacia Palaszczuk will not be expected to announce Brisbane’s new Olympic events until 2026 at the earliest. This would give John and his AOC team at least a five-year headstart on other countries to incentivise our teachers’ unions to bring our children up to the superior literacy and numeracy standards of countries like Singapore, the Netherlands or even Kazakhstan. It says something about Australian priorities that only by giving reading, writing and arithmetic the allure of being Olympic events do we have any hope of making the next generation of Keegan Palmers capable of competing with the young people of other nations outside the sporting arena.
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