13 August 2008

The True Spirit of the Olympics

Scott Russell's Blog - CBC.ca
The tyranny of medal totals
Posted by Scott Russell | Aug 12, 08 11:51 AM

At times the Olympics can be a numbers game. But do they have to be? Our obsession with counting medals might cause us to miss the point entirely.

Every day we continue to tally and each of us has a different reason. I admit to being fascinated by the Michael Phelps story. At the time of writing the remarkable American swimmer had accumulated nine gold medals in his burgeoning aquatics career. That’s an all-time high for a single athlete at the Olympic games. It equals the record set by swimmer Mark Spitz, track star Carl Lewis, Finnish running legend Paavo Nurmi and the exquisite Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina.

These are amazing medal totals and they are reflective of phenomenal talent.

Sinister plot?
What I don’t understand is the recurring theme of these Olympics in China. It seems to me this sinister plot driving us to the overall medal standings at the end of each day is a bastardization of what the Games are supposed to be about.

“Who is winning the Olympics?” This is a question we come back to like moths to a flame. It’s the wrong question. Our continuing search for the answer is going a long way to diluting the power of the original intent of the Olympics.

“It’s an Olympic committee thing. It’s a media thing. It’s not an athlete thing,” Clara Hughes explained.

Hughes, who is working with us at CBC analyzing cycling in Beijing, speaks with perspective. She is the only Canadian to have won Olympic medals at both the summer and winter Games and has stepped onto the podium five times in her career. The possibility is that she’ll add to her total in Vancouver 2010 when she takes to the speed skating oval at what will presumably be her final Olympics.

Spirit of the Games
“As an athlete, overall medal counts are immaterial to me. I’m focused on what I have to do, not on any running total,” she continued. “It seems to me it goes against the original spirit of the Games where countries were to lay down their arms and compete in a peaceful way on fields of play.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. So why is it then, that we all want to know whether or not China can win more prizes at these Games than the Americans? The host country of the Beijing 2008 gathering claims its athletes will be able to capture up to 122 medals and presumably declare that their system of sport is better than any one else’s.

The record books show that the Americans have taken most of the medals at most summer Olympics with a couple of glaring exceptions. In 1936 at the Nazi Olympics, the Germans prevailed. During interludes in the 1970s and 1980s it was the Soviets who won with greater frequency.

As history tells us, the aforementioned sport systems were built with propaganda in mind. The architects of those factories that cranked out athlete/soldiers are not to be applauded for their adherence to the Olympic ideal.

Anna Rice’s perspective
I was about to check the running total on my laptop last night when Canadian badminton player Anna Rice came into our studio. She had just lost to Chinese star Lu Lan before a wildly enthusiastic audience. Badminton is very popular in China and as it turns out, so is Anna Rice.

Therefore, as she sat in the studio, she talked not about winning and losing and the fact that her exit from the tournament meant that Canada had one less medal to count on for the country’s total. No, instead she talked about what an eye-opener it must have been for Canadian kids to see how popular her sport can be in a place like China.

Rice spoke to a much more powerful message surrounding Olympics. It is apparently her understanding that sport and peaceful competition should continue to be universal.

If you go back to the Olympic Charter you will find the following words. “Olympism is meant to be a way of life and no one country can claim to own it exclusively.”

Recalling that, I moved the cursor on my laptop and clicked away from the standings board. I realized that which country wins the greatest number of medals really doesn’t matter much to me.

The sum total of what I’m saying is this. Counting medals can be for someone else. I’m much more interested in the individual athletes themselves, people like Michael Phelps and Anna Rice.

They and not the numbers are able to captivate and inspire me.

Inspiring Canadian results at the Olympics can provide extrinsic benefits for years to come. A generation can be moved to participate in sport and athletics based on how their heroes perform at the international level.

Australia....a country with two-thirds of the Canadian population, took the initiative to invest in their developmental programs years ago and are reaping the results now. This movement has resulted in impressive increases in sports at the community level as the federal programs developed focused on the long-term benefits of doing so.

No other facet of our culture has the capacity to bring together so many different streams of life in mutual joy and celebration than sport.

We should embrace and recognise the vital interconnections between elite sport and community sport programs. The reality is that our elite sport system only prospers when we have a strong talent base on which to draw. Equally, having successful and high performing role models in sport is integral to encouraging children to take up sport and aspire to reach their own dreams.

In recent times funding and developmental programs at junior and community sport levels has been approached with a focus on increasing the pool from which our elite athletes can be drawn. This focus must be dramatically expanded. We must recognise that everyone’s involvement in sport and physical activity brings its own rewards.

Whereas early federal sports policy in the past had a clear focus on community physical activity and ‘Participaction’ style programs, this has declined over time to become virtually non-existent.

Community participation in sport spans a number of central objectives: developing basic skills and healthy disciplines in young children; contributing directly and significantly to better health and prevention of chronic disease across all segments of the community; and promoting a more inclusive and engaged community.

Yet at a community level, participation in sport and local activities is declining. Federal sports policy must fill this void and play a central role in a preventative health agenda. From this will naturally emerge a talent pool from which to develop future Olympians.

We will never have the size of talent pool to pick from as the Chinese or Americans (or Indians in the near future), but we will have a healthier population and a respectable representation in international competition.

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