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Vienna | 18.8.2008 | 14:35 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Are Medal Tables Rubbish?
  It's a shameful thing to admit, I know, but while you were all doing interesting, creative and productive things, I spent the weekend in an orgy of unadulterated patriotism.

I gloatingly texted an Australian friend every time that cycletastic Great Britain snagged a medal for, as a wag from Down Under described it on the Guardian live-ticker, "Riding Fastest In A Line, Riding Fastest By Yourself, Riding Fastest on the Opposite Side of the Track, Riding Fastest On The Same Side of the Track and, most impressively, Riding Fastest Behind A Little Chinese Bloke On A Moped". And for bobbing up and down in a boat, I'd like to add.

My Aussie friend kept up the text banter gamely until the Brits rose above Australia on the medal table, at which point he struck me down with a deadly blow: Article Six of the Olympic Charter, which reads:

"The Olympics are competitions between athletes in individual or team events, not between countries."
Bild: EPA
  Which is of course both true and utter nonsense at the same time. Patriotism may be silly but it is the driving force behind the fascination of the Olympics; and the IOC, which publishes an official medal table, realises that.

Why else would the raising of flags and the playing of anthems play such a prominent role in the tearful medal ceremonies?

The Games must be marketable. Without competition for places on the medal table, few people would tune in to see whether one of their compatriots might hit a bulls eye in the archery, or to watch helicopter footage of a tiny man in a cap 'hiking' and 'jibing' in a sailing-dinghy with a flag on its sail, or, for that matter, set the video recorder to capture the sweaty trials and tribulations of an aggressive looking beach volley-ball player in a krocha cap.

I don't want to exaggerate this point. I am fascinated by the Winter Olympics despite the fact the Brits hardly ever win medals without the help of performance-enhancing nose-sprays*. And in a John Lennonesque world of no teams, no flags and no tight-fitting national skin-suits, the 100m sprint events and the gymnastics would still be fascinating spectacles.

But the first thing I look for in the morning is which Brits might get a medal today and then which Austrians have a chance.

* warning: sarcasm.
Bild: EPA
Money, Money, Money
  There is a practical value to the medal table too. To put it coarsely, medals cost money - lots of money.

Since 1994 minor sports like rowing and cycling have received a huge increase funding in Britain from the National Lottery. Thanks to the existence of lottery funding, athletes now have the financial security to concentrate on their sports and have at their disposal the state of the art equipment to compete with the world's best.

That money could have been spent on other things than the pampering of elite athletes. It could have been spent on infrastructure to encourage the broader masses to be more active - like improved cycle networks, for example, or inner city skateparks and basketball courts. With money comes responsibility - the responsibility to win.

So now the sports administrators are under pressure to have a harvest of medals to show for the funding that they have gratefully swallowed. When the head of the British Olympic Committee spoke of a target of "at least" 35 medals, it was not a hope but a demand.

  The progress that the money has brought is easy to measure.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games Britain was an embarrassing 37th in the medals table with just one gold medal. They trailed countires like Kazachstan and Algeria. Now 'Team GB', as the media encourage us to call them, are jostling for third place.

Predictably, politicians (including Tony Blair) are queuing up to get photographed near a victorious athlete.

But the Olympic success it has also brought a fierce spirit of expectation. When a British judoko was beaten on the first day, but said he was still "satisfied" with his days work, parts of the media responded furiously. It was as if he had let down 'the Nation.' It was an interesting response from a culture that has traditionally preferred polite losers like Tim Henman to brash winners like Andy Murray.

This new found emphasis on winning is all 'not very British', as the ORF commentators would say.
Bild: EPA
The Belated Triumph of Article 6
  The good thing is that our obsession with the medal table is very short-lived and in the long run Article Six does run true.

At the end of the day, personalities or glorious moments always trump cold tables of statistics; and you wonder how many of China's 35 goals the Chinese fans would swap to see their injured star Liu Xiang run in the hurdles.

Everyone remembers that Hermann Maier won the Super-G and the Giant Slalom after his big crash at Nagano but, without referring to Google, I bet you can't remember whether Team Austria's overall medal tally in Japan was greater or less than it was at Lillehammer 4 years earlier.

Whether or not Great Britain finishes above Australia on the medals table, or perhaps becomes 'Team Pride Comes Before a Fall' instead, will occupy my thoughts until Sunday 24th August 2008 at the latest.

I'll retain the memories much longer of that moment when Michael '12,000 calory' Phelps picked up his 8th gold. And the sight of the wonderful Usain Bolt cruising to gold, and tearing up the record books in the 100metres as if it was the easiest thing to do in the world, is a simply unforgettable image that will run on repeat in sports fans' heads for years.

And just imagine what would happen in Mr. Bolt started to try!
fm4 links
  Chris Cummins on Beijing 2008:

Forgotten Guilt, Beautiful Innocence
[Aug. 8] The most politicised Games in recent history are underway

Violence and Reconciliation
[Aug. 10] A vicious murder and a gesture of peace

Wind, Jodhpurs and the Laws of Physics
[Aug. 11] A television festival for insomniacs

Dancing Bee-keepers and Tugged Speedos
[Aug. 12] What's the best event to watch on the goggle-box?

An Ode to Crooked Teeth
[Aug. 13] And a war of words on the beach.

"Just Don't Be Journalists!"
[Aug. 14] A very bizarre press conference in Beijing.

Are Medal Tables Rubbish?
[Aug. 18] Journalists and politicians slaver of them, but the Olympic charter says they don't matter. Do they?
 Übersicht: Alle ORF-Angebote auf einen Blick