Thursday, 25 August 2016

Good morning Tokyo and the politics of medal-gathering

Something must have happened in 1964 ...
<autobiographical_note theme="docLewis"  date_range="1964">
...apart from my getting  116% in a Maths exam set by a lazy examiner. He set 16 questions, with a mark of 10"%" for each. He assumed nobody would score over 100. His plan was to take the marks and just call them "%". But as a mathematician he couldn't live with such a "percentage", so he scaled everyone's mark down. You can imagine how popular I was with my peers – especially the ones who had scraped a pass at the first pass and were now downgraded..
... because, of all the Olympic theme tunes (even the one for Rio), Tokyo Melody is the only one that sticks in my mind, Well, that's its official name, but I've always thought of it as Good morning Tokyo, because those words fit the tune (a correspondence exploited, I think, by the BBC at the time). Maybe there was even a song with that name..

This is strange (the persistence of the ear-worm), as (because of heat before September and typhoons in that month),  the Tokyo games were scheduled for October, a time when – as I had just started my 2nd year  at big school , taking  3 or (on a bad day) over 4 hours on public transport each day – I can't have spent much time in front of the television.

Which brings me to the recent success of British athletes. I must say it makes me feel uneasy. At those Olympics (Tokyo 1964) a united team from East and West Germany performed together for the last time (before the reunification); they came 4th in the medals table . In the 1968 Olympics, East Germany came 5th in the medals table , with West Germany placed 8th (they won 1 more medal overall, but  East Germany won nearly twice as  many golds. It is hard to avoid thinking that the practice of entering a united German team was discontinued because East Germany wanted to strut their (Communistic) stuff.

It was a commonly  held belief at the time that East Germany's success was questionable. TV commentators routinely looked askance at records set by East Germans. They must have been taking drugs, surely?

Since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the USSR, it has been left to China to fly the Communist flag at the Olympics, and they have done it very well.  In Beijing in 2008 they came top of the medals table. I seem to remember cynics at the time saying it was a fix; they were joint first with the USA.  And admittedly they did have exactly the same number of medals as the USA; just many more golds – nearly 42% more. (But USA led the world in silvers and bronzes.). For 8 years I have swallowed the capitalist line that China didn't deserve top ranking.

But they did win, outright. What was the reason? "Drugs, of course", said some commentators. Some openly disregard certain World and Olympic Records because "they must have been drug-assisted". OK, some athletes take drugs; but not just Chinese ones. Why can't China's success just be the result of state support?

Now, at Rio, British athletes have collected precisely  THREE TIM5ES  as many gold medals as East Germany won in 1968, and nearly three times as many medals overall (67 as against 25). They have come ahead of China. But has anyone mentioned drugs (in the context of the Team GB's success?) Of course not – at least, not in the UK's press.  And quite rightly so. The improvement, as many a commentator and athlete and coach agrees, is due to  nothing more than money (or to use the euphemism du jourFUNDING.

Of course, that "nothing more" is arguable. More money means more facilities, more routes for enthusiasms to be funnelled down. It's easier (indeed, possible) to wake at 7.00 to go to train at the local track (or whatever)  than to get up at 5.30 to get your parents to drive you to the next county. Athletes win medals because of effort, tenacity, courage .... etc, etc. But all those things can only yield medals (in the quantities we have come to expect) if there is money (from either capitalism red in tooth and claw or communism [red... just RED]).

Personally I find "our" athletes' untoward success faintly obscene. At Tokyo, supposing we win "only" – say – 30  medals, commentators will be up in arms. Heads will roll. There will be phone-ins to talk interminably about "the crisis". Even more of the time devoted to TV sports will be talking heads rather than actual stuff.

But that sort of medal-count (still a few more than East Germany's 25 in 1968) would strike me as perfectly satisfactory – especially if it meant that more UK children had a chance to have a go at sports with exorbitant start-up costs, that schools could stop selling sports fields, and that children didn't have to go to fee-paying schools to get any experience of certain sports,


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