Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Participation is great, but medals count too

Aug 24, 2010

The YOG is supposed to embrace sporting ideals, but kids are here to win

By Rohit Brijnath

ALMOST everyone enjoys medal tallies, almost everyone calculates them: the National Olympic Committees, newspapers, Wikipedia. Of course, like creative accounting, the figures don't always match.

It is not helped that with fine cunning, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - which does not release an official daily medal tally nor will it record a final medal tally from these Youth Olympic Games (YOG) - has paired nations in some sports as occurred in the first Olympics in 1896.

A Singaporean and Turk won bronze together in archery here, which is terrific for international understanding but plays hell with medal tables. Saying Singapore won .5 of a medal is bizarre.

Nevertheless, any public, which sees itself as a part of a larger team, is drawn to medal tallies: Where is my country? Look at the Chinese! There is an inclination to discover an identity within a table, and while a neat pride is taken from it, it can also release an offensive jingoism.

Still, nations can be clever at this. If you search Google, you can find Olympic medal tallies calculated per capita and according to gross domestic product (GDP), measured through cumulative medals and ranked by gold medals. No doubt somewhere there is a list according to national height. In a way, most everyone can become a winner.

The medal tally is intriguing for it is the collision of idealism and realism. Fact is, people count; point is, should it matter? Isn't the point to cheer all sporting excellence, or merely athletes wrapped in a particular uniform? But surely, sensible people are capable of both.

Comparison is fundamental to sport, even in junior disciplines where rankings exist. The focus at the YOG, said an IOC spokesman, is on achievement, not performance - read participation, not winning - but it is hard to evade measurement. A celebration of first place and last is beautiful, but from swimming (touch pads) to diving (subjective points), athletes are constantly being judged.

Competitiveness has been sharp here, tears have trickled, and while young athletes must be carefully nurtured we must be careful of pussyfooting around them. Clearly they come to win, against themselves, against one another.

Making it about individuals, not nations, is nice, but it is not as if national identity is irrelevant at these Games. We distinguish athletes not only by place but also residence. Flags rise at events, anthems play and we are keen to use the geography of home advantage.

Uniforms do not just identify athletes, they give them a sense of allegiance, like kids jousting to win a school championship. Even then, we liked to be part of a wider team, caught up in the thrill of comparison, trying to top different tables, so why not now?

If you open David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book Of The Olympics, the first pages list medal tables from 1896 - though teams first marched behind national flags in 1908. But this counting is unsurprising, for sport demands record. Figures in sport - goals, baskets, championships won - compel us and it is to them we return to constantly.

Medal tables, in a way, educate us, allow us to remember, are a way to check a nation's progress through time in the context of other countries. Top of the medal table anyway does not signify a great nation, it simply indicates its felicity in playing sport at a particular time.

But the idealist is not necessarily swayed by these arguments, especially on medal tables. He points first to the IOC charter which states, unequivocally, that 'the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries'. Their philosophy embraces participation, a diverse human collection rather than a national head-butting, which is sound.

George Orwell, in his essay The Sporting Spirit, wrote that 'at the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare', but the Olympics, presumably, wants to discourage such metaphors. It speaks constantly of peace, an idyllic and not always persuasive notion, but it deserves points for striving in an essentially cynical sports universe.

The Olympics is right to be wary of nationalism for just hosting a Games can become an excuse for national preening. Berlin 1936, which was seen as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany, lingers as a warning. The medal table, after all, is fun, it cannot become a proclamation of some sporting master race.

Medal tables, occasionally, have a tendency to spark excess, an intensity that undermines some of the purpose of sport. It is apparent in football, where topping a table provokes insane spending, leading clubs to bankruptcy.

The Olympics awards no 'best nation' prize, yet an obsession with medal tables led to this headline in Australia in May: 'Budget delivers in Olympic arms race'. Britain and France were spending and getting ahead, so evidently they had to. Taken further, nations tend to fund sports in which they win, focusing on elite athletes rather than the more embracing idea of mass participation.

Medal tables are also skewed towards affluent nations. Richer countries send more athletes to Games, all trained in more sophisticated conditions. In less advantaged nations, where hunger, not sport, is priority, science labs are to be found only in H.G. Wells fiction.

At Sydney 2000, an Eritrean official laughed when I asked about sports science, they were happy simply to compete as human beings. But perhaps this itself is a lesson for kids: that all starting blocks are not equal, that life and sport offer an uneven playing field. Perhaps the empty medal table is a young athlete's despair, yet also his powerful motivation.

It is a debate with no finish line. The IOC is being cautious for kids in sport is a delicate matter. They arrive for experience not for demoralisation, yet they also come as nations wanting to win. So the realist will still scan the medal table, the idealist will seek pure competition. In the paradoxical universe of sport, each brings his own value.
[The irony is that scores- and rank-obsessed Singapore is trying to teach youth of the world not to be scores- or rank-obsessed. :-)]

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