Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic Reflections

The Beijing Olympics is over and the debate has begun. China has more gold but the U.S. has more medals. So who’s better? One of the NBC commentators suggested the use of a point system to resolve this matter: 3 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze. But this would imply that the gold medal is worth the same as one silver plus a bronze. Still others believe in 5 points for gold, 3 for silver and 1 for bronze.

But should the criteria of achievement rest solely on medals, either by color or by count? What about the number of medals or gold normalized against the total number of participants representing that country? Some of the nations sent proportionally more athletes than others, more than one athlete per 100,000 populations while others sent as few as one per tens of millions. Shouldn’t these considerations also enter into the determination of the athletic prowess of a country?

In the end, who cares? Each of us will take away different memories of this Olympics as was the case in the past and the number of gold or medals will not have much to do with it.

For me personally, I do not have a vivid memory of when Mark Spitz won seven gold medals but I do remember it as the Munich Olympics where terrorists turned it into a horrible political statement by the senseless murder of innocent athletes and civilians.

I have but a dim memory of the Moscow Olympics because the U.S. and many countries in the West elected to boycott participation as another political statement. I can only imagine the deep personal disappointment of individual athletes that prepared long and hard only to have their anticipation dashed because of politics.

These athletes, at least, had no say on the decision of not participating. I wonder how the champion marathon runner must be feeling now for his high profile withdrawal from the Beijing Olympics because of his alleged fear of polluted air. The actual race was held under blue sky and no one collapsed because of lung damage. I wonder how the now ex-champion will feel about the London smog four years from now?

In the similar vein, I wonder whether Steven Spielberg is feeling any personal satisfaction for bowing out of his advisory role to the opening ceremony. Having seen the actual spectacle, will anyone care as to what his contribution could have been?

The Beijing Olympics might be remembered as when Michael Phelps won eight gold medals. But the story that touched me the most was the Chinese woman who won a gold in shooting. Her single parent father couldn’t support her when she was in her early teen and abandoned her in the care of the coach. She missed her father so much that many times she thought of quitting to go searching for him. Her coach told her that training hard and winning the gold would be the best way to reach out to her father and get him back.

I wonder if her father knows what his daughter has done. If he is still alive, will he reunite with her? Is there a real happy ending to this story?

The most gold won by the U.S., 83 in all, was at the Los Angeles Olympics when the Soviet bloc returned the favor and boycotted the event. This was more than double the amount of gold medals the U.S. would garner in a normal Olympics, but certainly the significance of the accomplishment was greatly diminished by the non-participation of a significant part of the world.

Similarly some of the detractors of the Beijing Olympics also sought to trash this event by turning the sporting event into a political circus. They may have succeeded in persuading some athletes to stay home but they failed in their objective to diminish the spectacle. The 10,000 athletes that participated in Beijing will testify to the great time they had and the life-long memories they will treasure.

An extensive review of the hypocrisy found in Western media coverage of the run up to the Olympics and the event itself can be found here.

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