The Olympics begin in London in a couple of weeks (July 27), and I’ll be just where I want to be, which is in front of a television set. While it’s generally true that everyone at home sees sporting events better than anyone in the stadium, it’s especially true for the Summer Games, a smorgasbord so large that no one can down it whole.
As a free-range columnist at five such fests (in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney), I would peruse each day’s crowded calendar and pick the venue I thought would yield the most interesting results. I didn’t always choose right, so I missed a lot of really good stuff.
The joke that every Olympics news person knows is about the reporter who calls his desk during the Games. “What’s happening at the Olympics?” his editor asks. Replies the reporter, “How should I know? I’m at the Olympics.”
A hi-def TV, comfortable lounger and clear personal schedule won’t solve all Olympic-spectating problems, however. At these Games, as at its predecessors, the question of who’s winning will be problematic, not so much in individual events as in the national standings that summarize them.
Nationalism is a touchy subject on Olympia, which like Billy Martin in the old Bud Lite commercials, feels very strongly both ways about the matter. On the one hand, the official Olympic creed proclaims that the most important thing about the Games is participating, not winning, but on the other hand their administrators stoutly resist doing anyway with the national uniforms, flags and victory-stand anthems that stir popular passions, sometimes in unpleasant ways, but are good for business. So while the national medal standings are unofficial, they’re mentioned prominently and without protest in every account of the proceedings, and followed avidly.
Trouble is, the standings can raise almost as many questions as they answer. A case in point was the last Summer Games in Beijing, where athletes from the United States collected the most overall medals—110 to 100 for runnerup China-- but the Chinese won more gold medals, 51 to 36. Further, the fairness of the whole system is questionable when one notes that a 10-second effort in the men’s 100-meter dash final counts for the same number of medals (3-- one gold, one silver and one bronze) as the basketball tournaments in which 12-person teams must prevail over a grind of eight 40-minute games. How about a count that gives the basketball-medalist nations 12 medals each instead of one, huh? Huh?
The U.S., of course, is a large and rich nation with a deep gene pool, so it always does well in the summer standings, no matter how they’re tallied. Since the modern Games began in 1896 we lead the medals list with 2,302 overall and 929 golds to l,l22 and 440 for second-place USSR/Russia and 725 and 208.5 for third-place Great Britain. We’ll again will be in the hunt for the top spot in London, along with Chinese, whose emerging economy has been harnessed to produce athletic glory from its abundant human stock.
Do not, however, expect to see American and Chinese jocks vying head-to-head in many events; rather, they’ll mostly be playing different games, as they did in 2008. The Summer Olympics encompasses 302 medal events spread over 26 sports. They’re really not one event but many, and which are most important depends on where you sit.
For example, Americans traditionally have been very good at track and field and swimming. That’s fortunate for us because T&F (called “athletics” in Olympic parlance) is the main medals source in the Games, with 47 events offering 141 medals, and swimming is second with 34 and 102. In ’08, we won 23 medals in track and 31 in swimming, while the Chinese, with 2 and 6 respectively, were pretty much a non-factor in each.
So why weren’t we runaway victors in the medals count? Because the Chinese put their energies elsewhere, collecting a total of 36 medals in diving, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis, sports in which the U.S. registered a big “O.” You can bet that those activities received mucho TV time in the People’s Republic, maybe as much as T&F and swimming got in our land.
The Chinese approach to the Olympics is reminiscent of that of the former East Germany, another odious regime. With a population of less the 20 million people, the East Germans set out to demonstrate the superiority of their system by pouring their resources into winning big on the Olympic stage. They succeeded by finishing second or third in the medals count in four Summer Games (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1988) and collecting more metal than the U.S. in two of those (’76 and ’88).
They did it mostly by zeroing in on sports where participation and performance standards were relatively low, namely women’s track and field, women’s swimming, rowing and canoeing. They eschewed team sports because these yielded too few rewards (see above). And—oh, yeah—they doped like crazy.
About the only sport that’s important in both the U.S. and China—and where the two nations will clash directly for superiority in London—is gymnastics. The Chinese got the better of that contest in Beijing, winning 18 medals to the U.S.’s 10, but the U.S. will field strong squads on both the men’s and women’s sides this year, and should make a game of it. I’m sure you’ll be tuned in.
As usual, women’s gymnastics will get lots of TV time in the U.S. That’s because its participants are young, tiny and cute, and do the sort of circus tricks that boggle the mind. But while gymnastics is fun to watch it’s brutally hard to do, and its fearsome injury rate makes its label of “football for girls” apt. I watch, but through the fingers that cover my eyes. Real football is getting to be like that, too.