Going for the Gold

Forget for a moment about political grandstanding, lip-synching and other tricks at the Pyongyang-influenced mass games opening ceremony. Forget the amazing performance of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. For a flavor of the Olympics, look at two statistics: Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in as many days. And, India, population 1 billion, won its first individual gold since it first competed in the Olympics in 1900.

Indeed, in this Olympics the combined efforts of 10 major developing countries – Brazil, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, Vietnam and Bangladesh netted together just nine golds compared with China’s 51 and with most of the rest going to the US, Europe and Australasia.

Somehow something is wrong with a medal system for what is supposed to be triumph of sport and individual effort, not of nationalism and commercialism so evident in Beijing.

Phelps is doubtless one of the greatest ever Olympic swimmers. India for sure does not have a sports culture or much interest in team games beyond cricket and hockey. But the very fact that one individual can win eight golds in the space of a few days says volumes about the maldistribution of Olympic medals which in turn adds to feverish nationalistic competition for places in the medals tables and the weighting of sports with scant regard to their popularity, visual appeal, athletic demands or universality.

Top medal winners are invariably swimmers. Phelps follows in a long line of names including Mark Spitz of the US, whose record he surpassed.. The reason is simple: swimming and diving events account for no less than 45 gold medals with many events being short-distance ones in different styles which enable one person to take part in several events. Phelps won more than Spitz because there was one more in which he could compete.

There are a few athletic events – short distance running – and track cycling in which it is possible for one person to get up to three medals, team and individual. For a few other events individual as well as team medals are on offer. But mostly it is impossible to compete for more than one medal. A sailor for example has to stick to one class of boat. He cannot try for medals in different classes.

The water events – swimming and diving – are so overloaded that they account for almost the same number of gold medals as whole of the athletics program of track and field events ranging from the 100 metres to the marathon and including all the throwing and jumping events, plus the triathlon.

Although swimming is undoubtedly a popular event in many countries, some also see a hidden racial bias in this medal distortion. In general terms, Caucasian physiques are best suited to swimming, which explains why there are almost no African-American swimmers of note and the swimming events have always been dominated by the US, Europe and Australia. Some physiques are just better for some sports. Caucasians dominate swimming just as people of West African ethnic origin (African-Americans and Caribbeans) dominate sprints and wiry people from north and east Africa in longer distance running.

All which helps account for the fact that other countries have often focused on climbing the medals table by concentrating on a few other events where medals are in abundance despite the low level of public interest and participation. Thus, for example, there are no less than 18 golds for wrestling. Weightlifters collect no less than 15 gold and the shooters a similar number for a sport that has few followers and has, judging both by attendance and media coverage, almost no spectator appeal. Track cycling is dominated by riders from the tiny number of nations with access to the velodromes and high tech machinery required.

But sports with active followings and huge numbers of global participants such as dinghy sailing, rowing and road cycling are relatively under-represented as are widely practiced non-western sports. Such exotic events as equestrian dressage, women’s hammer throwing and 10-metre air pistol shooting continue to get medals while games such as squash with huge numbers of players in many countries – not least Pakistan and Egypt – are still excluded.

There is another curiosity about medals. Weightlifting, boxing, judo and wrestling all hand out medals relative to the weight of the participants. So why not do the same with athletics, or with that far more internationally popular sport, basketball where height is a determining factor? The Philippines, for instance, is fanatical about basketball but the relatively short stature of almost all southeast Asians means that it, like most of Asia, will never be able to compete with teams averaging 2 metres (6ft 7inches) – the US average.

Maybe team games should not be in the Olympics, originally a contest between individuals. Most of them anyway, notably football (soccer) have much bigger tournaments of their own. (World Cup soccer attracts bigger TV audiences than the Olympics in most of the developing world). A single medal for a team event is anyway almost irrelevant when the media – and the IOC – are fixated on the medals table.

Meeting different demands of nations and their preferred sports is not easy but there is a strong case for radical reform of the medal system and introduction of a few new sports widely played in the developing world and which do not require hugely expensive facilities or vast amounts of money for athletes’ training, whether provided by the state or commercial sponsors.

China may feel proud to be top of the medals table. But it got there by using just the same regimented methods and state money that once pushed Russia and (East) Germany to excel. Once their brutal communist systems collapsed, so did their medals tally. So maybe we should now be congratulating them, not China, for relying more on individual initiative than state power to get medals. And congratulate India, Brazil, Indonesia – and some European countries like Sweden – that won few if any medals and all those do not seem too bothered about not spending money on sports to bolster nationalism but would rather spend on playing fields for schools and for the people at large.