What price gold?

SCMP April 3, 2006

Nationalism and sport naturally go hand in hand. However, as the Beijing Olympics loom, last month's Commonwealth Games in Melbourne illustrated in a minor key just what a distortion of both nationalism and sport the medals-table obsession can become.

No one doubts that, for its population size, Australia is the most accomplished sporting nation on Earth. But if such a supposedly laid-back people can get quite so obsessed with their athletes, as was apparent in Melbourne, one must look forward to the Beijing Olympics - being endowed by China as the essence of national pride - with dread.

Perhaps it was the sheer dominance of Australia that fuelled its media's obsession with the local performances. Australia won about one-third of the gold medals on offer, twice as many as England and three times as many as Canada. Even the games' official website read as though it had been written for a domestic audience.

But Australian sporting nationalism wasn't something so evident at the Sydney Olympics, where the focus of national pride was more on the quality of the venues and organisation that Sydney brought to the Games. Could this be partly an outcome of the role of official funding, in a government-inspired effort to win medals in many sports? One might have thought that Australia had enough sporting interests, plus space and climatic advantages, not to need force-feeding with official institutes and training centres for elites.

Local and state funding of sports facilities for ordinary Australians, for recreation and exercise, is a normal function of government. But using taxpayers' money to aim for national glory across a range of sports, including some with few participants, is different.

It reminds one a little of East Germany, which developed training systems in an attempt to prove the superiority of communism. That example is now being followed by China. As a civilised, open society, Australia does not go in for the kind of abuse of young bodies for which East Germany was famous. But is the objective so different?

The Commonwealth Games also brought home again the distortions resulting from medal inflation in some sports. Shooting, a sport with a tiny number of participants, had 36 golds at Melbourne, of which six were won by one person and 16 by India. Track cycling is another medal-heavy event despite the need for hugely expensive, specialised tracks and machines. Meanwhile, whole teams labour for two weeks to win a single medal in sports such as hockey, basketball and rugby, which have huge numbers of global participants and draw big audiences. What is the value of a medals table except for nationalist boasts, when one person can win several medals because events are so similar?

Aquatic events suffers medal inflation, too. The number of medals - 41 - handed out in Melbourne was almost as many as for the whole athletics programme, which is supposed to be the core of the games. Five Australians won two or more golds in aquatics.

Things will be similar in Beijing, where there will be 44 golds for aquatics compared with 46 for all athletics events. Cycling will have 20, wrestling and gymnastics 18 each, and canoeing 16. Meanwhile, badminton merits just five, tennis four, and team sports from one to four medals.

Perhaps it would be better to abolish the team sports altogether. But the biggest issue is the sheer excess in the number of medals - a total of 303 golds are to be awarded in Beijing - and the uneven distribution. This puts a premium on minority sports where infusions of state money into intensive training can have a particularly marked impact on the medals table.

That's not very sporting.




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