Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic Spirit

The Olympics went out in style yesterday, although the beauty of NBC's American coverage is that the Games were extended for just a little longer thanks to its peculiar 'as live' form of broadcasting.

Having spent such an inordinate amount of money for the TV rights, the station deigned not to even show Usain Bolt's iconic 100-metres live which proves that they don't really 'get' the Olympics over here.

Last night, despite the world knowing the Games were over, with the euphoric athletes having long since returned to the village en masse presumably to seek out the Swedish swimming team, we were treated to the strange sight of the Men's volleyball final seemingly taking place after the closing ceremony. The US won gold though, naturally enough.

If one takes out Michael Phelps (a freak who could have been born anywhere), then they only won nine more golds than 'Team GB', and they got to win medals in sports like softball that no-one else cares about.

According to the US media, their team actually 'won' the Games because they won the most medals, albeit not the most golds. The news that a bronze is as good as a gold will be welcomed warmly by America's friends in Cuba (see below). This is thus the Olympic equivalent of school sports day where ever child gets a prize, even the fat ones (who should instead be encouraged to focus on the shot put).

For London 2012 we ought to campaign to have special sports included that Britain specialises in to guarantee more medals. Morris Dancing for example is not materially different from gymnastics if done properly, whilst we would surely triumph in the Binge Drinking Pairs event, or Teenage Knifing (a derivative of fencing). You may laugh, but then so did the IOC when someone first suggested BMX.

Fortunately I was in the UK for most of the Games, and the tremendous accomplishments of our team definitely generated a 'feel good' factor despite the typically lousy summer. Unfortunately whilst the rest of the country basked in our 'golden Saturday' on Aug 16, I misguidedly chose to watch Watford versus Charlton instead. In true Olympic spirit however, some of the long balls on display were certainly 'higher', albeit not quite so obviously 'swifter' or 'stronger'.

Much has been made of the inevitable comparison between the accomplishments of our Olympic team, compared to those of the England football team, or lack thereof. The comparisons are a little unfair; firstly, the England players have day jobs at their clubs, convening only occasionally to play for the national side. Second, with all due respect to our sailors or rowers for example, it's a lot easier to excel as a pampered Brit in these elitist sports, than it is in the world's only true global sport.

However one comparison was a fair one, and it concerns our typical response to yet another penalty shootout exit. We were often told that one couldn't prepare for penalty shootouts because it was impossible to recreate its inevitable tension. This is a point of view as ridiculous as Chris Hoy or Christine Uhuruogu blaming defeat upon the difficulty of recreating the tension of an Olympic final, that they've also waited four years for. Unlike our football team, they won, and thus they didn't.

It is also notable that when you participate in a sport for which money is at best a secondary concern (ie. virtually every Olympic event), then you will inevitably prepare absolutely meticulously, or else why bother at all? With most of our footballers already financially comfortable for life, despite their inevitable protestations, does anyone truly believe that they do everything on and off the pitch to ensure they are the absolute best they can be?

The closing ceremony was fun, and there was a great contrast thanks to Boris Johnson between the brutally efficient Beijing approach, and what will hopefully be a more self-deprecating fun approach in 2012. The little skit with the double-decker bus was original, but wholly unrealistic. Firstly it arrived on time, second the bus stop wasn't vandalised, and third the upper deck contained the lovely Leona Lewis, rather than a mugger. Nice idea though.

A glance at the final medals table makes for interesting reading, less so in the upper echelons that we occupy, but further down. Take South Africa for instance, which in the past year has humiliated England at both cricket and rugby, and which as a nation churns out muscle-bound brutes at a terrific clip.

How many medals do you think a nation containing some of the most terrifying-looking (and sounding) people on the planet took home? Erm, just a single silver the men's long jump, the same haul as war-torn Sudan. An open bus parade through the streets of Soweto surely awaits.

The mighty Armenia (Pop: 3.2m) took home a rather respectable six medals, yet strangely every one was a bronze. As the US approach implies above, is it fair that they finished so far below Bahrain, Tunisia, Cameroon, Panama and Tunisia who each won just one medal, but which just happened to be gold? Is there something in Armenia's rich culture that makes them so adept at finishing third?

Cuba (Pop: 11.3m) meanwhile managed a superb 24 medal haul, yet just two golds. There are lots of countries I'd want to return to having almost done enough to win, but Fidel Castro's Cuba is not one of them. Their open bus parade will probably mow them down. Roll on 2012.


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