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Assorted thoughts on the Olympics

I catch glimpses of Olympic Games here or there on TV, but I look up results and commentary online regularly.

The lion share of the medals won by Great Britain so far has come from two sports: Sailing and cycling. I accept that the UK is a sea-faring country, so I can understand sailing. But cycling? Great Britain does not strike me as cycling-mad as some of the continental countries, yet they completely dominated the track events. Amazing!

With all due respect to Michael Phelps’s achievement, there is something unfair in the opportunity afforded to the swimmers and gymnasts (and, to lesser degree, runners) to contest multiple events, while most of the sports have a single track available to any given athlete. It is hardly a surprise that career medals lists are dominated by the representatives of those couple of sports. (Career lists on Wikipedia).

Check out the names of the Russian gold medalists in Wrestling. Even if you are not entirely familiar with Russian names, you should be able to notice that they are not much different from the names of other medalists from former Soviet republics (look at Men’s 74kg or 60kg, for instance). There is certainly not an ethnic Russian name in sight among the men (at the time of writing). Besides the fact that I find that amusing, it also positions wrestling as the only sport where former Soviet Olympic glories have been maintained with reasonable combined success by representatives of former Soviet republics. Contrast that with gymnastics, in which the combined medal haul of athletes from former Soviet parts was a paltry 4 bronze medals this year – that against the names of Latynina, Andrianov, Dityatin, Nemov, etc. on the career medals list.

Chinese athletes have been tremendously successful in these Games and will likely remain in the top spot for the number of Gold medals won. I find it interesting, though, that the majority of sports in which the Chinese have shown themselves remarkably dominant at these – and in some cases, previous, – Olympics are the ones in which competition is indirect and is decided by posted scores. Gymnastics. Diving. Weightlifting. Shooting. Take any sport in which one needs to outrun, outswim or plainly defeat an opponent in direct confrontation, and the Chinese can often hold their own but are no longer dominant (one exception, apparently, is Badminton). It leads me to think that the Chinese are able to master repeatable skills to perfection, but are much less able to withstand the heat of a direct clash1.

The Olympic medal table, by the way, in Britain – and, according to some people, in most of the non-American word, – lists countries by the number of the Gold medals won, with Silvers and Bronzes providing no more than tie-breakers. That puts too much emphasis on winning, for my taste, contrary to the iconic adage about participation being the main thing. The “American” approach of counting all medals equally sits a bit closer to that ideal, IMHO. Of course, when I mentioned that to a couple of my British acquaintances, I immediately got accused of favoring the system that nudges the two countries that I mostly care for, the US and Russia, ahead of China and the UK, respectively…

Finally, my UCF friend Jeri posted her thoughts on why these Olympics leave a somewhat sour taste. I largely agree with her points.

1 This observation was partially suggested by the material contained in this article (in Russian).