While cricketers and footballers stumbled out of nightclubs, our swimmers were head down, bum up following a black line up and down the pool.
While rugby league players and Jeff Fenech routinely murdered the English language and Jana Pittman and Tamsyn Lewis developed their own brand of media histrionics, our swimmers gave polite and articulate interviews in which they never put a syllable wrong.
While Marion Jones (crying below) and just about every elite cyclist except Cadel Evans were pumping themselves chock full of performance enhancers and Chinese women strutted the pool deck with Superman shoulders, the only thing our swimmers were in danger of over-doing it with was Uncle Toby’s muesli bars.
And while David Beckham, Shane Warne and Tiger Woods were setting new standards in extra-curricular shenanigans, we had to trawl all the way back to 1964 and Dawn Fraser’s reported theft of an Olympic flag to find even a whiff of scandal among our swimmers.
They were humble, wholesome and well-adjusted, winners in and out of the pool. They were a sponsor’s dream. And they were feted accordingly.
And then somewhere the wheels fell off. There was Nick D’Arcy’s assault on Simon Cowley, the Stilnox debacle that turned our Olympics men’s relay team into a pack of water zombies and, more recently, the personal implosions of Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.Embed from Getty Images
There has also been in the Australian swimming team the increasing prevalence of the Cult of Me. In place of the work horse qualities of Kieran Perkins, Susie O’Neill and the greatest toiler of them all, Petria Thomas (pictured above), there has emerged a brand of swimmer just a little too much in love with themselves.
At the top of this tree sits the woman who consciously uncoupled from competitive swimming yesterday.
When Stephanie Rice burst on to the scene in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she couldn’t put a flipper wrong. She looked great, had a winning smile and she went like the clappers in the pool.
Winning three gold medals in world record time, she seemed set to establish herself as one of our swimming greats. Yes, seemed. For it is not those initial wins on the global stage but the victories clawed out of adversity that mark the true legends of any sport, like Kieran Perkins’ 1500-metres win in Atlanta after scraping into the final and Grant Hackett’s victory in the same event in Athens eight years later, swimming with a collapsed lung.
We never got to see this from Rice. She came into the London Olympics encumbered by a shoulder injury which never allowed her to perform at her best. And while she gave everything in the pool, she didn’t miss an opportunity to create headlines out of it, posting selfies of her bikini-clad pre-Olympics bod and doing bugger all to dispel rumours of a fling with basketballer Kobe Bryant until her teammates labelled her a home wrecker.
Rice loves a good selfie, particularly one taken in the mirror where she can get more of herself in the frame. Her Instagram feed is littered with them to such an extent you begin to wonder if she has any friends who know how to use a camera.
She is so adept at self-promotion that in Celebrity Apprentice she out-PR-ed Roxy Jacenko, who has made an empire out of generating publicity.
More recently, there have been magazine confessions of nose jobs to mend her damaged self-esteem. And through it all, there have been the high-profile boyfriends whose careers she has strangely cursed by association.
And so we come to yesterday’s retirement announcement. Not for Ms Rice the press conference every other sports star navigates at the end of their career, with pesky reporters’ questions beyond one’s control.
Her announcement came in the form of a video link. It was an infomercial, complete with Steph’s reminiscences, her thoughts for the future and, God help us, a backing track. I was waiting to be told the number to call to make my three $29.95 monthly instalments.
“I definitely feel like I’m losing a part of myself,” she gushed, to a continent of rolling eyeballs.
This was all preceded by breathless countdowns to the ‘big announcement’ on her Instagram account, starting from four days out. As if her retirement was Really Big News. Didn’t matter that her no-show at the Commonwealth Games trials might have given us a bit of a clue. Indeed, more than a few people commented in confusion post-announcement that they thought she’d retired years ago.
Last year, Steph kept the media hits clicking over with will-I-won’t-I musings about a return to the pool. Turns out that was a crock. Yesterday she said she had never wanted to make a comeback.
And so she totters off into the post-pool sunset. Where she may find the publicity opportunities a little thinner on the ground. Then again, we must remember that in this particular field of endeavour, we are watching a true champion.