Sunday, August 5, 2012

The difference between "mediocre" and "terrible"

I’ve been watching the Olympics more this year than I usually do. I’ve been struck by the radical differences in the physical appearance of the athletes. The long-distance runners look like they’re in the final stages of starvation while the shotputters look like the guys walking out of Montana’s on All-You-Can-Eat-Ribs night. The heptathletes have abs you can shred cheese on. The swimmers have arms that dangle nearly to their ankles. Gymnasts look like they can travel twenty to a car. These are specialists, virtually the only people I know of that exercise for 100% utilitarian reasons. They aren’t in the gym saying “I want cannonball shoulders” or “I should sculpt my guns a little” or “How do I get rid of these love handles?” As a result, while they are all crazy in-shape, very few of them look like what we, as North American consumers, have been conditioned to think athletes should look like. This isn’t a bad thing, just an observation.

As a citizen of a nation that waited a week to see one of our people get a gold on the podium, medal standings are of only casual interest. Canada isn’t going to be in the Top Ten. We’ll be lucky to be in the Top Twenty. This isn’t meant to take anything away from our athletes. Seven billion people in the world, I think you’re doing pretty damn well to be counted among the hundred or so best in your sport. But the medal standings aren’t always the same, depending on where you look.

Traditionally, Olympic standing is determined by gold medals. Silver and bronze only count in the event of a tie. So you can have a hundred silver and be ranked below a country with a single gold medal. In fact, they didn’t even bother with 2nd and 3rd place for the first few Olympics in the modern era. You came in first, or you were just one of the losers. Then came 2008, the year China hosted and subsequently won more gold medals than the USA (51 t0 36). American newspapers, up until this point happy to use the gold medal standard, suddenly changed their tune, proclaiming “American Victory!” The US had won 110 medals, you see, compared to China’s 100. More is better, therefore they win. Who cares if we had to change the way we perceive “best?”
It’s this attitude that makes me wonder if the US hasn’t invested more heavily in its swimming athletes than in other sports. It’s well-known that swimming lavishes medals on its athletes in a way no other event does. The Phelps phenomenon (again, not saying he’s not awesome; he swims better than Aquaman) is evidence of this. A swimmer can more easily come home with multiple bling than a gymnast or a decathlete. Play tennis, for goodness sake, and you have to win a dozen game at two hours a pop to get your medal. Compare that to a minute in the water. I know which one I’d rather do. (Yes, I’d get blasted at both, but the duration of my shame would be truncated by opting for the pool.)

Granted, the American-inspired proliferation of this “all medals are equal” idea comes with big benefits for us Canucks. We seem to be inordinately skilled at placing 3rd, after all. With the American system, we rank 11th. Not so bad, really. With the “gold medal standard” we place way down at 25.

Go America! Spread your new way and we’ll forgive you for our failure to embrace the metric system!

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