Faster, higher, richer
There should really be two Olympic Games. Not because the Olympics are terrific, but because they’re an increasingly meaningless measure of human achievement.
The first Olympics could be limited almost exclusively to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and France. On the grounds of fairness, you could broaden the list of competitor nations to include other athletes from advanced economies such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia.
The second Olympics – let’s call it the meaningful Olympics – would be contested by the rest of the world. Mali, Guatemala, Chad, Uzbekistan, Laos, Fiji, all of them competing for the first time in years on something that actually resembles a level playing field.
The fact that at the London Games more than two-thirds of the gold medals have been won by just seven countries does not mean that those countries have some kind of monopoly on athletic talent or a heightened desire to win.
As of lunchtime on Friday, the United States had won as many gold medals as Ukraine, South Africa, Spain, Romania, Denmark, Czech Republic, Brazil, Poland, Kenya, Croatia, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Canada, Sweden, Slovenia, Georgia, Norway, Dominican Republic, Ireland, Lithuania, Turkey, Algeria, Grenada and Venezuela.
Does this mean that the United States is better at sport than all these other countries combined? No. It means the United States is better at spending money on sport.
With every passing Olympics the medal tally stands less as a testament to athleticism than affluence. It doesn’t matter if it’s state-sponsored bravado by communist regimes such as China or the record contribution of taxpayers towards sports funding in a country such as Australia – and frankly, is there any real difference any way? – the end result is still the same. The richer you are the more likely you are to win.
This is not an attempt to detract from the sacrifices made by athletes in countries such as ours, most of whom have slaved since childhood with early starts, strict diets, exhausting training. I don’t begrudge the use of public money on their training and coaching either.
But you have to question the extent to which a gulf has opened up between the haves and have nots, so much so that it has rendered the actual spirit of the Olympics utterly meaningless, which in its inception was about testing the limits of human endeavour on a level playing field. Faster, higher, stronger has become faster, higher, richer.
The second thing you really have to question, with maximum force, is the blasé and arrogant assumptions of so many in the Olympic movement throughout the western world, who have got away with arguing that winning gold is so vital to our national sense of identity that government must keep pouring more money into elite sport.
The Australian Olympics Committee appears to have sniffed the wind on this issue a bit over the past week, realising that the public will no longer cop perpetual demands for more cash, or buy the argument that anything less than a top-five finish is a source of shame. That old stager Kevan Gosper was out and about this week, claiming that our (apparently) disappointing performance was the Government’s fault, describing the (non-existent) shortfall in public cash for Olympians as “the difference between silver and gold.” Gosper no longer has anyhing to do with the AOC, which in an almost jaw-dropping moment given its past rhetoric, recognised publicly this week that sport funding was at record levels and that it wasn’t after more cash.
The AOC comments were in line with what seems to be the public mood on this issue. There has been a growing gulf between public perceptions of what constitutes victory, and the perceptions of those involved in the sports. The Australian people haven’t been angrily demanding answers as to why we have won so many silvers as opposed to golds, even though some of the sports people and administrators have been worried about it. There is a heartening widely-held belief that trying your best is more than enough, and that winning any kind of medal is an honour.
If you could hand out gold medals for nonsense, the front-runner from these Games would have to be the four-time British Olympic rowing champion Sir Matthew Pinsent, who put pen to paper in The Times this week with his call for buckets of public cash for elite sport in the UK. Pinsent tried to argue that Australia was currently recoiling in horror at its efforts in London this month, oblivious to the fact that our country is still functioning adequately despite not having cracked double figures in terms of gold.
He argued that Australia had failed to capitalised on the gains it made in Sydney and that the UK needed to avoid repeating our mistakes.
“Twelve years on the Australian effort has been reduced to rubble,” Pinsent wrote.
“If we get it right, this is the start of something special; if we get it wrong, we’ll look back and be wistful about the heights that we scaled and maudlin about the slide.”
Being maudlin would at least give the Brits a chance to go back to what they are truly best at. You could almost call it their national sport. And whatever joys they are extracting from their placings in London should be tempered by the reality that the taxpayers are the true unsung heroes of their Olympic effort, coupled with the advice of the many Australian coaches they pinched to teach them how to actually win something for a change.
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