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Friday, March 5, 2010

The Medal Game

According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Olympics is a measure of many enduring characteristics -- even masculinity:

"The people responsible, or some of those responsible for the preparations, should do the manly thing and make the appropriate announcement. If they're lacking in decisiveness, we'll help them."

Medvedev is referring to Russia's Olympic officials following what the Russian government considered to be a weak showing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (Russia finished with 15 medals, it's lowest output since 1956). The head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachev, resigned two days later, citing the team's "unexpectedly" lackluster showing in Vancouver.

Ah, there's the Olympic spirit.

There's no shame in tracking the medal count in the inset of your morning paper and beaming in pride at your country's latest bronze medal in underwater basketweaving, but at what point did the collective hardware haul of each nation become the barometer of success?

The Olympics should be defined by moments -- Dan Jansen's victory lap with his daughter, Kerri Strug's one legged vault, or my personal favorite, four limping Jamaicans carrying their rickety bobseld to the finishline.

The idea that the number of medals a nation wins has any correlation to the greatness of a nation (or genetic superiority) is backwards -- Olympic success has and always will be the direct result of the amount of time and money a nation puts into developing athletes and building top notch facilities. The best example of this is the evolution of the Chinese Olympic program over the past couple decades: the government took proactive measures to start investing in events outside of its traditional strengths (diving, table tennis, gymnastics) in anticipation of hosting the 2008 summer games. They targeted niche events (rowing, beach volleyball, shooting) by outsourcing the best coaches and plucking prospects from each respective sport at an early age. What the Chinese Olympic program did was akin to creating a AAA farm system to nurture and develop their athletes and in the end, they were rewarded: 51 gold medals, including their first medals of any color in obscure sports such as windsurfing (how is this an Olympic event?).

So what's wrong with these so-called medal factories (by the way, you're delusional if you think the United States doesn't run its own). The real danger lies in how they shift the focus of the Olympics from celebrating sportsmanship and the lifetime achievement of selfless athletes to a rogue 'me against the world' mentality.

We've seen the Olympics used as a pedestal for bigotry (Hitler's '36 games) and terrorism ('72 Munich). It's been used as a political chess piece (The USA's boycott of the 1980 Moscow games) and as a platform for social justice (Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the '68 Mexico City games). The international stage the Olympics provide have always left the games vulnerable to extracurricular agendas. This will never change.

While history assures us that there will always be turmoil in the world, there's no reason why the Olympics have to reflect reality. As Russia scrambles to engineer the ultimate medal machine program for the 2014 games in Sochi, their driving motivation for the games needs to lie beyond repairing a bruised ego.

Don't be surprised if the Russians dominate everything from the iditarod to curling in four years. The best thing Americans can do is focus on genuine moments of Olympic joy, regardless of nationality. If you get too wrapped up in the medal counting game you might just miss four Jamaicans in a bobsled.


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