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Medals Über Alles

Rino Breebaart

Still feeling good about the Olympics? Spare a thought for those who didn't make it to the medal podium.

There's something about the Olympics that makes a great spectacle for all of us television addicts who find ourselves enthralled by sports we'd otherwise never pay to see: fencing, the gymnastics, table tennis and handball . . . For two weeks we tune in to the arcane and symbolic pomp and circumstance of the medals, the laurels and anthems, the scandals and doping, the tragedy of failure and emotional breakdown in the face of immense performance pressure — all that human tragedy. Indeed, the Olympic Games make armchair experts of us all. We occasionally shout at commentators who are forever banging on about personal bests and the myriad pressures of competition. We listen as they shovel air, second-guessing how the athlete of the moment must be feeling at every opportunity, as they participate in the glory of competition. This is a central and unavoidable part of the viewing experience.

Let's not mince words: the Games are a total media spectacle, purest television. Every camera angle is employed to capture every drop of sweat. Every blank stare and jangled nerve, every scratch and anxious look for the scoreboard; all the hugs and huddles. The coaches. The parents and the fans. The guy with the rake in the long jump pit, waiting for the crumpled athlete to clear himself away. Those with cable or satellite access can pipe it in for 24-hours of bleary detail.

Such devoted viewership is naturally also about devotion to your country, about supporting your compatriots to perform their best. It's about how many medals your athletes can grab; whether you can mime along to every verse of the national anthem at the podium. Whether you can finally beat China in the medal tally this year. It's about being in the moment with the athletes, about draping yourself in the flag and going for that patriotic victory lap (and let me just say the sporting clichés will stop very soon). Sure, the spirit of the Olympics is very international and egalitarian, but it's also the safest expression of Nationalism there is. Televisual nationalism. Our athletes must live up to the spectacle of the Games to warrant our national support and cheer.

Unless, of course, you're rooting for the Irish.

The Irish Olympic effort almost completely fell apart: there were no last-minute heroes or sublime racers to rally behind. There were some uncommonly poor performances and disqualifications, accidents, injuries and withdrawals. We qualified for several finals but came last or near last even in those competitions. The Irish rowing team, for instance, head to sweat off several excess kilos just two hours before their race in order to qualify under the weight limit. This process left them pooped, but they managed to come in fourth. Their manager apparently didn't see the weight issue coming.

Out of 47 competing team members, such bad luck and bad fate left the sporting pundits puzzled.

It's one thing to qualify and compete at the highest levels of competition. But it's another thing altogether when your own country's media abandons its own country's athletes. I've never heard so many permutations of "disappointment", "bad news", "sad days for Ireland", "loser" and "fastest loser" and "more bad news" as I have in the 2004 Olympics coverage. Such lamentations came up in the print media, too: "Olympic letdown", "Calamity games" read the headlines, even before the Games were over. Mind you, none of Ireland's athletes made excuses for their imperfect, but no less brave performances. It's the commentators and pundits who put sheer negative spin on the matter, with expert finger-steepling and chin-stroking and long, second-guessing discourses about why the medals wouldn't come: the Athens summer heat, the general unpreparedness, the lack of national funding and support for Olympic sports.

In terms of cosmic coincidence and giving that extra oomph at the peak of a gruelling race when it really counts (say, when you've already given 110, 120 or even 130% of your all), I'd tend to sympathise with the athletes. I hail all that effort and the unpredictability of performance. To see years of training and punishing commitment drip away (like so much sweat) is disheartening and exasperating at best. I understand why some athletes trash their accommodations in a rage of frustration when the games are over (see Detroit News, 12 August 2004, I understand all those red-eyed daggers of annoyance when a snappy reporter jams a mike in their face and demands an answer for a performance that's "clearly not your best".

As far as televisual relevance is concerned, Olympic performance is all about Gold. After the gold medal, there's a real sharp drop-off in media value for the silver, below which the bronze medal seems like a tinny consolation prize, a dirty medal barely worthy of the podium. And then there are all the other place-getters lost in obscurity like statistics in a ratings survey: all the athletes who don't get a close-up or lap of honour, let alone a flag. Unless you're such a cosmic loser you qualify for the week's human interest story, such as the guy who clocks in two hours late but is bravely having a go "despite conditions in his poor country" — if you're not that athlete then you can expect the media to drop you like yesterday's news. It's gold or (nearly) nothing.

Have I sufficiently built up sympathy for the losers? Imagine an athlete who came fourth, or even eighth in her final event. Imagine her waking up the next morning, sore and strained all over, opening the Irish Times and studying her qualitative dismissal, her below-par performance which dashed all her country's hopes, and that eerie implication that her country expected as much. "Fastest loser" the story reads, drawing out the full negative implication of this expression as used in qualifying for a final. She is nonetheless in the top of her class: world class.

The Irish minister for sport, John O'Donoghue, put in his commentator's two cents by predicting little chance of an Irish medal for the next eight to 16 years. He blamed the generally low performances in this year's Summer Olympics on the sedentary, PlayStation-state of the Irish youth. Such an accusation goes well beyond smarmy commentary and enters the tarnished realm of broad self-loathing, a form of national insecurity. What Ireland's athletes deserve is recognition and a welcoming committee at the airport, some of that hug-action on the national level, with lots of cameras. And besides, in 16 years a sport demanding agile thumbs might be introduced to the Games. You just wait.

The commentators jeeringly pointed out that even Mongolia scored a medal; a bronze in Judo. Even Trinidad-Tobago trod the podium. Even that little country, Eritrea, got a medal. All I could think about between beers during the gymnastics finals was the work, the demands and difficulty of devoting one's life to sport. I can only imagine the hours of effort that go into preparing for the Olympics. And there I was, sitting on the couch, rather idle and piqued by unkind or brainless commentating and slack press opinions. To ease my frustration with the Irish self-bashing, I turned the volume on the TV down, donned the proverbial blazer and headphones, slicked my hair the other way and for want of a basic microphone spoke into my fist about "our country's need for clear-cut heroes on the TV (nodding to camera)… and when they won't come, how we (your faithful commentators) spin this blanket of blame to cover the exposed and exaggerated raising of expectation. So we'll be sending a big shout out tonight to all the Olympians who competed at these games past, from the big and little countries and who may or may not have qualified, in the hope that we'll see them all again in China in 2008."

So hats off to your team. Hats off to Olympians everywhere.

NOTE: At the time of writing, a happy ending unfolded in the form of a gold medal for Ireland's Cian O'Connor in the mixed individual show jumping. Seems we Irish pundits got it wrong. And then, extra calamity! A former priest, wearing a green beret, red kilt and knee-high green socks managed to pummel the leader of the men's marathon, thereby displacing Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima to third place. Apparently the assaulting priest is an Irish madman. Ireland is considering revoking his passport as he's a habitual disturber of sport — last year he ran onto the track at the British grand Prix and managed to survive as F1 cars zipped past him. Although not all of Ireland's defrocked priests dress as colourfully, and few are spoil sports so pugnacious as he.

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