The headline blares: “In Medals, the U.S. Rules the World.” So obsessed is the United States media with total medal count that a casual observer might think that total medals won is an Olympic competition category. It is not. It is an informal adjunct to the games that might well be discarded or at least diminished. Before the Soviet Union was refracted into 15 individual states, the Soviet Union habitually garnered the most, a feature that changed with the 1996 games that followed the Soviet breakup. The United States then pulled ahead, but given a feverish drive in China to secure and succor athletes, it is questionable whether Uncle Sam can maintain the lead when the games move to Beijing four years from now.
In fact, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky tells the Washington Post, “There is no country other than China that is going to win the most medals. And it is going to be obsessive nationalism.” With a population base of 1.3 billion — a good billion more than the United States — China’s hegemony in 2008 would seem assured. So what? So what if Lithuania is lost in the 2004 medal overall count? So what if Israel won its very first gold, in sailing? Eritrea won its first medal of any color, bronze in the men’s 10k meters.
This is not what the Games are about, according to the tradition that has sustained them through the years. They are supposed to be contests exhalting sportsmanship-competition. When the flame is extinguished there is to be an era of better feeling than existed before. True, the aspect of amateurism was extinguished long ago. There is big money involved, in the sponsorship, both state and commercial, and in the rewards awaiting winners. But the concept of competing, for self and country, survives even the doping scandals and the uncertain judging in the subjective arenas.
Several NBA stars, who make millions playing for teams in the United States, reverted to teams from their native lands for this occasion and found themselves facing, and in some instances, beating, the team set forth by the United States, the same players they find themselves facing during the regular commercial season. A minor irony.
Not so minor, however, the on-going dispute for gold in the men’s all-around gymnastic competition. South Korea is still trying to appeal a scoring error that awarded American Paul Hamm the gold and relegated South Korean Yang Tae Young to the bronze.
It was not a mistake of simple arithmetic. The South Koreans argue Yang was denied a tenth of a point by judges who incorrectly assessed the degree of difficulty of his parallel bars routine, the so-called “start value” of his performance. The Federation of International Gymnasts agreed with Young’s contention, fired the erring judges, but said the Korean complaint was filed too late to be considered. Appeals continue. Hamm, backed by the U.S. Olympic fathers, says he has no intention of giving up his gold medal.
A duplicate gold for Young has been deep-sixed in the bitterness of the controversy.
Now a what-if, which is allied to the premise of this piece. What if Hamm had said, “You know. He’s right. There was a scoring mistake in the degree of difficulty. In the spirit of the Olympic ideal, I am giving the gold medal to my competitor, Young.” The name, Paul Hamm, would have been written into the lore of the Olympiad. It would have survived the time now assigned merely to a gold medal winner of the games of 2004.
The gesture alone would have produced an irresistible demand for the awarding of not one but 2 gold medals, as was famously done in a winter ice-skating dispute.
And what if the United States stopped crowing about the number of medals garnered. What if the headline, “U.S. Rules the World” had been modified to something a trifle less jingoistic, especially now in a time when American troops are facing roadside bombs in a part of the world where the United States is not loved, but wants to be.
If, as expected, China collects the lion’s share four years hence, it will not signal superiority; systemic, ethnic, or any “ic” you may come up with. It will mean only that one nation collected more medals than the others who all came together to play games.