Tuesday, August 31, 2004

So Menelaus says to Pericles...

Mark Spector, National Post page B1 ("Choking Games"), Monday, August 30:

Maybe that is why Olympians like van Koeverden, Muenzer or Kyle Shewfelt win gold medals - because the pressures and expectations that emanate from them and their immediate circle are manageable, while those who bear the extra weight of national hopes are perhaps overburdened. One might ask why the same does not apply in the United States or China, though.

I'm slightly interested in hearing, and contributing to, the national discussion on if and how Canada should win more medals. I sincerely hope though, that it will not be based at all on premises which are both anecdotally and statistically false, such as Spector's last sentence in the paragraph above.

For starters, Canada won 12 medals. Sports Illustrated, as always, ran a complete breakdown of medal predictions before the Olympics. Compiler Brian Cazeneuve talks to at least two experts in each sport prior to publishing. It's about as dispassionate a prior assessment as you could hope for (i.e. he's got bigger things to worry about than discounting Canadian prospects based on a "choke factor"). Guess how many medals they predicted for Canada? Fourteen. 4 gold, 8 silver, 2 bronze. As for the United States, let's see:

Gail Devers, Allen Johnson, Men's 4x100m relay (track), Women's 4X100m relay (track), Men's 4x100m relay (swimming), Rulon Gardner, Brendan Hansen, James Carter, John Godina, Tom Pappas, Marion Jones, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams, Holdren & Metzger, and the Men's basketball team. That's a pretty long, and yet incomplete, list of underperforming U.S. athletes. And yet, wow! They won about as many total medals as predicted as well.

Winning an Olympic medal is, hmmm, what's the word I'm searching for here, oh yes, there it is - hard. That's part of what makes it interesting. Some athletes exceed expectations, even their own, and that necessarily comes at the expense of other athletes. It's competition. There are ways that our national teams can attempt to ensure their athletes peak at the right time, but it involves having the teams selected earlier. In the case of a sport like swimming, that might mean that swimmers who have made massive improvements in the months preceding the Olympics still don't get to go. Then all we'd hear about is leaving some of our best athletes at home because of the inflexibility of the Canadian Olympic Committee. I believe the cliche that applies here is, "Pick your poison."

A few other thoughts here:

- I've been trying to clarify in my own mind over the past two weeks why it is that I love the Olympics. I think it's mostly the combination of the gifts and the will of the athletes. Scott Feschuk put it pretty well: "You realize there are a lot of fit people out there. They have willpower, determination and are so much better than you." Gymnastics is popular, I would venture, thanks to the stunned fascination inherent in watching someone doing a backflip on a 4-inch beam, or hold the Iron Cross on the rings.

- I think it's a joyful moment when a Canadian wins a medal not because of national pride per se (a feeling that Canada as a nation has accomplished something), but because of the feeling that the medallist has something in common with you. Most of us are impressed when someone from our high school accomplishes something important, and I don't believe that school pride really enters into it. Canadians in the Olympics is comparable.

- It'll be a shame if the new efforts to increase our medal totals make the pursuit of elite athletics more like a government job. I think it diminishes it, somehow. The present reality that our top athletes regularly retire to do other things is to our credit, as far as I'm concerned. I find the glut of Russian athletes (for example) in their 3rd, 4th, and 5th Olympics to actually be a little sad. It's like they don't have anything to move onto, which unfortunately for them, they don't.

- Finally, congratulations to Greece for their fine hosting and performances. But they got to enter athletes and teams in every last event, and you're telling me there was no room anywhere for Alki Stereopolis?

Toast that kaiser!


At 1:40 p.m., Blogger Alan said...

I wish Canada would win more medals, but I don't think we need any sort of national campaign, and certainly no government money. I'd just be happier if we'd stop being so damn happy about LOSING! It's so, well, loser-y, you know? Have a little pride. If you finish 37th, it's OK to be disappointed. It's OK to want to win. They give medals out for a reason.

At 5:10 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

You warm my heart - toast that kaiser indeed.

- Jass


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