By Harry Darkins
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Summer Olympic Games is the most prestigious of international sporting events. Every four years, thousands of elite athletes from around the world come together to compete for glory in 26 sports, spanning a total of 39 disciplines. This union of nations is appropriately symbolized by the five interlocking rings of the Olympic emblem, which represent the five continents of the world.
A staggering 4 billion people tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012, which began with a dramatically choreographed expression of British culture through modern history. This was followed by the ‘Parade of Nations’, which saw each competing delegation enter the stadium carrying a mysterious metal object in the shape of a petal. At the culmination of the ceremony, we discovered that these petals were to form part of the Olympic cauldron, the ultimate symbol of the unity of the competition which dates back to its earliest history in ancient Greece.
“State of mind”
Designed and built by British firm Stage One, the flower-shaped cauldron consisted of 204 of these petals, one to represent each competing delegation. After being ignited, its metal branches rose up and met in the centre, forming one larger and brighter flame. This symbolic action is a perfect encapsulation of the concept of Olympism, which Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, described as a “state of mind,” which can “permeate a wide variety of modes of expression and no single race or era can claim to have the monopoly over it.”
De Coubertin’s ideals of equality are no doubt admirable, but it cannot be denied that the flames of certain nations burn much brighter than others, the distribution of medals across competing delegations being far from even. So what causes Team China’s medal haul to eclipse that of Turkey’s? Why does Team GB so outdo Bangladesh, as well as nearly 80 other countries which have never won a medal at the Olympics?
It makes sense that most of the high-ranking countries in the medal table are ones with large populations. China, the USA and Russia are example of this. With a combined population of almost 1.75 billion, at London 2012 they won a grand total of 273 medals between them – nearly half of them gold.
But if we assume that the number of medals gained positively correlates with population size, then why doesn’t India, with its huge populace of over 1.2 billion, share in the glory?
It is clear that, despite larger countries naturally having more people to choose from, there are other factors at play which lead to success at the Olympics. Could it be that some countries are simply more ‘sporty’ than others? This may be true for the UK, the birthplace of many international sports. Its football teams have become world-renowned institutions, their merchandise being worn even in the most remote corners of the world and David Beckham being more well-known than most world leaders.
The country is currently rejoicing after its best performance at the Olympics for over a century, reaching an impressive 3rd place in the medal table after the athletic powerhouses of the USA and China.
Yet many have forgotten that just 16 years ago at the Atlanta games, team GB clocked a mere 16 medals, only one of which was gold. There has been no dramatic change in British national character which has triggered this remarkable increase in fortune. Rather the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, lies in money.
The disappointing performance of Team GB at the Atlanta games sparked a country-wide debate surrounding the state of sport in the UK. This resulted in the government deciding to award National Lottery funds to British athletes and their coaches.
Beginning in 1997, this funding has changed the face of Britain’s performance at worldwide competitions, and most noticeably at the Olympics. At the Sydney games, for which Team GB was granted £60m in funding, British athletes almost doubled the medal count of the previous games, bringing home 28 medals; then in Athens (grant of £70m) and Beijing (£235m) came 30 and 47 medals respectively. However, it is their brilliant achievement at London 2012 – the home games – which has truly exceeded all expectations with athletes securing 65 medals, of which a staggering 29 of them were gold.
“Australia isn’t doing as well as it has previously”
Australia is also a country known for its sporting prowess, which over the years has translated into fine Olympic performances. Yet the case of the Australian team was somewhat contrary to that of Team GB at London 2012, where the team raked in a relatively underwhelming 35 medals. Is money, which has been mainly responsible for Team GB’s rise, also the reason for Australia’s Olympic demise?
Michelle Williams, a native of Australia’s Gold Coast, seems to think so. “I’ve spoken with my family and I have seen some comments from friends on Facebook about it,” says the London-based PA. “The consensus seems to be that the Australian Institute of Sport had its funding cut quite a bit in the last few years and that this is the main reason that Australia isn’t doing as well as it has previously.”
Does this mean that it is money alone which dictates Olympic results, and therefore medals can effectively be ‘bought’?
Laura Barão, a 19-year-old student from Patos de Minas in Brazil, thinks that there are deeper-running issues. “One important thing which helps athletes to receive those medals is the national passion for sports. We live for it,” she says. “Here it’s very common to see young children playing soccer, volleyball or even basketball on the streets and if you ask a small child what he wants to become when he grows up, he’s probably going to say an athlete.”
Similarly, Anna Vasylyeva, 17, from the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, says that any good performance by her country’s athletes is “not the merit of the Ukrainian government, who does not support young sport stars. In Ukraine a lot of facilities and equipment are left over from the Soviet Union so our athletes win only because of their enthusiasm, regular training and a desire to put their country on the map.”
Ukraine is not the only country which has used the Olympic Games in order to promote itself on the world stage. Throughout history the Games have been used as a political tool; a means by which certain nations aim to project an image of themselves to the world. The notorious Berlin Games of 1936 is one example.
Hitler’s regime heavily promoted sport as an essential part of the Nazi vision. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, claimed that “German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”
Indeed, German sporting policy at the time clearly reflected domestic politics. Athletes of Jewish, part-Jewish or Roma descent were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations, and only one ‘token’ athlete with a Jewish father was permitted to compete for Germany at the Berlin Games. The event was an illustration of the Nazi drive to strengthen the ‘Aryan race’ and flaunt its dominance, to exercise political control over its citizens and to prepare German youth for war.
A runner carrying the Olympic torch into the Reich Sports Field to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Because of this steadfast attitude towards what success at the Olympics meant for Germany’s future, as well as its standing on the international stage, Hitler’s athletes thrashed the other competing nations and came top in the medals table with a total of 89. This was a dramatic increase from the 20 it received just four years earlier in Los Angeles.
Interestingly however, it was African-American track and field legend Jesse Owens who proved to be the most successful athlete of the games, winning a total of four gold medals. The victory of his racial counterparts so important to his master plan, it is little surprise that Hitler was so furious at Owens’ victory.
“Our daughter doesn’t belong to us anymore”
In more recent times, China’s aims to secure economic domination are mirrored in its impressive and sometimes ruthless attitude towards competing at the Olympics. We recently heard the story of Wu Minxia, the Chinese diver who took Gold in the 3m synchronized springboard. Wu’s win was somewhat bittersweet however, as after the event, she was finally informed that her mother had been battling with breast cancer for eight years, and that her grandparents had both died a year ago.
It is a worrying story which reinforces the many bad stereotypes about the Chinese Olympic programme, which sees children as young as 5 or 6 coerced into daily training and living in government-sponsored training facilities, cut-off from family and void of any social development. “We’ve known for years that our daughter doesn’t belong to us anymore,” Wu’s father told the Shanghai Morning Post.
For some nations, merely the ability to compete is enough cause for celebration.
Palestine, despite not officially being a country, has been a recognized member of the International Olympic Committee since 1995 and sent five athletes to London. Nablus resident Ghadeer Awwad, 19, explained why she thinks Palestine has never won an Olympic medal.
“First of all, Palestine is a developing country with a low living standard, undeveloped industrial base, and low Human Development Index,” she said. “People living in a developing country are less likely to be thinking of doing sports and even getting fit – they are more likely to concentrate on their basic needs such as food, education and good healthcare. All of this has resulted in a government more interested in improving its people’s basic standards of living rather than spending money on national team sports.”
Of course, despite what US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would have us believe, there is a more immediate reason for Palestine’s substandard performance at the Olympics. “We mustn’t forget that life under occupation results in a less developed country,” Awwad continued. “So the Palestinian athletes who make it to the Olympics aren’t that well prepared to compete against other teams and win medals.”
“Under our harsh circumstances, her result is very good”
Nader el-Masri, 32, is a runner from Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. He became recognized at home after competing in the 2006 Doha Asian Games and has since made appearances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. Living in the region of Palestine which is subject to some of the worst living conditions in the world, finding proper training facilities has always been a problem for el-Masri, and he even struggles to find running spikes to compete with.
Speaking to the BBC, he said, “In Palestine we can’t find a pair of shoes of such material. In Guangzhou I didn’t have time to go and look for shoes, so I decided to borrow them from my Qatari friend.”
Palestinian athlete Nader el-Masri.
18-year-old swimmer Sabine Hazboun is another Olympic athlete who refuses to let her difficult surroundings infringe on her ambition. One of the best female swimmers in Palestine, she is forced to train in a semi-Olympic pool in the conflict-ridden town of Hebron in the south of the West Bank. “Maybe if we had enough resources, such as proper swimming pools and the ability to train without our freedom of movement being impaired we would have achieved a better result” said Fawaz Zaloom, head of the Palestinian Swimming Association.
Despite coming 51st out of 74, her performance is still significant to her compatriots. “The results are no surprise and I’m satisfied,” said Zaloom. “We are an occupied people and under our harsh circumstances, her result is very good. The mere participation in the Olympic Games and carrying the Palestinian flag is an achievement as it gave us the chance to tell the world about our cause and created a civilized image of our people, who deserve a country of their own.”
Ghadeer Awwad shares Zaloom’s optimism regarding Palestine’s bid for statehood. She said, “of course, having our own team playing in the Olympics helps on some level to accomplish what our President has been asking for at the UN,” adding that her native Nablus was “happy, proud and amazed” that Woroud Sawalha, a runner from just outside the city, had made it to London.
It is clear that financial investment and support is a fundamental factor which determines athletes’ performance at the Olympic Games.
“Perfect physiological attributes”
But even if we were to imagine a world in which money were no object, all athletes were given all the necessary equipment and facilities to be able to fulfil their potential, and politics was completely removed from the equation, it is still doubtful that all nations would be equal in their sporting abilities.
This is sometimes due to topography. Landlocked Nepal is never going to have the chance to build up much of a reputation in sailing, and any budding Sudanese skier would have to relocate to colder climes if he wished to train for the Winter Olympics. Beach volleyball has long been a popular institution in countries such as the US and Australia (the latter boasting 16,000 miles of sandy coastline), but is a more recent import to cooler countries with little or no coastal areas.
Additionally, sports commentators often talk of certain athletes possessing the perfect ‘physiological attributes’ for their chosen sport. This concept may also be true on a wider, national scale. A quick look at the line-up of sprint events supports the widely-held view that athletes of western African descent have a ‘genetic pre-disposition’ to sprinting. Every men’s 100 meter Olympic gold medallist since 1984 has been of African descent, as well as the majority of his competition.
Similarly, runners from the Horn of Africa dominate long-distance events such as the 10,000 metres and the marathon. Lack of funding from their governments poses little problem for them, as their training does not require the same kind of expensive equipment and facilities as sports such as show jumping, cycling or rowing.
“Sport can be culture”
Yet perhaps by debating how best to achieve success at the Olympics, we are losing sight of the movement’s entire ‘raison d’être’ in the first place.
Wojdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar are two athletes who made history in London, but not for winning. They were the first women athletes ever to compete in Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team.
What happens at the Olympics is a reflection of our societies. It is a platform on which we are able to champion new ideals. During the past two weeks we have been reminded of the power of the Games and their ability to transcend cultural mores, inspiring people the world over to work harder to achieve their goals – sporting or otherwise.
A year after the London riots which prompted him to despair over a “broken Britain,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been talking of an “inspirational country,” which “makes people feel proud to be British.”
All things considered, winning medals seems rather trivial.
“I think it should be part of the government’s responsibility to inspire people to practise sports,” Laura Barão told me. “After all, sport is not only people running after a ball. Sport can be culture, as well as a healthy, active lifestyle.”