The Mountain Times

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Going for Gold

Well, we beat China: more total medals and, crucially, more golds. It's a surprise to me, given that China defeated us pretty brutally in the latter category in 2008, and I sort of assumed that its recent commitment to athletic supremacy would bear more and more fruit as the nation's new generation of athletes, handpicked in childhood, came of age.

One thing I forgot to account for, I guess, is the somewhat inexplicable (to me) spike in Olympic success that almost always occurs for a host country: for example, at Vancouver in 2010, Canada literally doubled its Turin gold medal count. So it's only naturally that, after Beijing, London would be a letdown for China.

Does Team USA's triumph on neutral ground mean that the United States is, in fact, a more athletic nation than China? That must be the question we're all asking, since we were so interested in NBC's medal table: are we stronger, faster, tougher, better? The short answers are 1) I dunno, and 2) Who cares? I'll elaborate on these points in a moment.

In the meantime, as we celebrate, it's worth looking at a medals-per-capita table, if you can find one: once you account for our population advantage over most nations, the USA doesn't look that great - we're a middle-of-the-pack country, actually, though far ahead of China. It took several million of us to produce each of our gold medals; whereas it took about 110,000 Grenadians to get one.

If we accept that the Summer Olympics are the best measure of a nation's athleticism (a country's success in the Winter Olympics basically only gauges how cold and weird it is), then the most athletic nation in the world has in recent years probably been Jamaica. If not for Kirani James (the sprinter who just won Grenada's first ever Olympic medal), then Jamaica would be ranked first in London in medals per capita and medals by GDP.

It's not just Usain Bolt: Jamaica has ranked in the top ten in medals per capita in every Summer Olympics but one since 1976. (The least athletic nation in the world is apparently India, routinely dead last in medals per capita, having racked up only 24 in total since its first Games in 1900.)

Of course, these statistical measurements aren't flawless: a single random blip of greatness (like Kirani James) is enough to shoot a very small nation to the top of the charts, and the numbers don't take note of Jamaica's apparent inability to perform any athletic feat except sprinting (which it does very well). And of course these stats still don't measure a nation's athleticism, really; they measure the frequency with which great athletes pop up among a nation's populace, but these great athletes may not be at all representative of the nation's athletic prowess on the whole. If every American swam 100 meters and we averaged the times, we might learn something about the U.S., but I'm not sure Michael Phelps has anything to do with you or me.

Then again, if our Olympians don't represent us, then what do they represent? They can't just represent themselves - i.e., freakishly dedicated strangers committed to becoming perfect at some useless task - because, if that were the case, nobody would want to watch them. Of course, people are, in fact, themselves, but here we are, looking at their achievements as though they mean something for the rest of us.

For some reason, we've decided to celebrate the bodies of our countrymen, and we're rather concerned that human bodies in some other country might be better - yet the United States is ethnically too diverse for anyone here to conceive of the Olympics as some gross racial battle, as though American athletic superiority were a biological superiority. Maybe our athletes are supposed to represent the inner character of Americans (brave, dogged, ambitious), those national traits bestowed upon us by the land, the culture, whatever. But, wow, that sounds dumb.

Another possibility: maybe Olympians are supposed to represent the might of their nations, not of their nations' peoples - i.e., we won more medals because the USA is richer and better organized and can afford to build better athletic facilities, and a lot of people want to live here, and our economy provides us with good jobs that allow us enough free time to pursue excellence in skeet shooting. America works, and the Olympics proves it - not just to the world, but to us.

This position at least sort of makes sense, but it doesn't conform to the patterns of sports fandom. It would be like rooting for your favorite NBA team to win the championship because, if they did, it would prove the superiority of the front office. In athletics, we're never really cheering for the system that produces the success; we cheer for the athletes - who represent something, but it isn't economic structures.

It's no mystery why we love athletes: their accomplishments are inspiring, their stories compelling. The mystery is why we cheer specifically for American athletes and against foreign ones, whose stories presumably are just as good. An irony: I root against China intensely due to the culture of its Olympic team, which comes across more as a government-organized work of nationalistic propaganda than as a collection of privately motivated individuals - which has, in turn, made me less concerned about our athletes individually and more attentive to the U.S. medal count (in short, more nationalistic).

Am I a xenophobe? No. But watching sports is like watching theater: as the audience, we must maintain the fiction that the events on stage really matter - that the guy playing the villain is not just an actor, same as the hero. In sports, this fiction involves picking a side - Yankees, Red Sox, Team USA - and then pretending that the other side is evil and must be defeated. Without this bit of make-believe, there's really no suspense. What we actually care about is entertainment.

Tagged: Olympics, Importance