Sunday, August 17, 2008

Medalsome Counting?

The International Olympic Committee and the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games shall not draw up any global ranking per country.

-Olympic Charter
, Rule 58

Human beings love to count.

Whether we are toddlers numbering toes or coaches working out split times, our propensity for counting is wired into our psyches. Yet a fundamental aspect of the Olympic Games is that there shall be no official counting of medals during the fortnight of competition.

Unofficially, of course, individuals and institutions that do not govern the Olympic Games are free to count away.

And count they do.

National media keep precise count of medals won in comparison with other nations. And to ensure the press gets it right, National Olympic Committees issue daily press releases, assisted by sports National Governing Bodies.

The Olympic Charter is quite clear: The Games are contests between athletes and not between countries. So why does the counting persist?

Hold latent nationalism accountable. At its most virulent it takes the form: "My country/way of living/socio-political system is superior to yours and the results of athletic competition confirm it." Of course, this line of thinking raises some obvious questions: Does one count all medals won? Only gold medals? What methodology works best? And for whom?

And, of course: Why would framers of the Olympic Movement bar institutions that govern the Games from doing what people seem to do naturally?

Avery Brundage, a U.S. national who helmed the IOC during the depths of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., once warned: “If the Games become contests between hired gladiators of various nations with the idea of building national prestige or proving that one system of government or other is better than another, they will lose all purpose.”

At the 1952 Games in Helsinki, the Soviet's Olympic debut included a housing complex with a large public scoreboard that tracked--created, actually--its medals competition with the U.S. Using a scoring system that had been publicized by the British in previous Games, with 7-5-4-3-2-1 points issued to the top six places, the upstart Soviets proudly informed the world that they outperformed the veteran U.S. team. U.S. commentators and collaborators, of course, preferred a 10-5-4-3-2-1 system, which would give their team the edge owing to more gold medals won.

The two governments continued to wage political battles through sport for the next 40 years, intensifying to the point where it became a zero-sum game: Total medals won by the U.S. in 1980 and the Soviets in 1984? Zero.

The counting conflicts continue today. U.S. media apparently favors totaling all medals won, weighing gold, silver, and bronze equally--a practice that would have been scoffed at during the ancient Olympic Games. Chinese media--and Chinese sports officials--prefer focusing on gold medals won. Predictably, nationalism-minded counters will choose whichever methodology results in their nation standing atop the imaginary podium in the unofficial medal competition.

But if the un-Olympic boycotts of the 1980's were the low point in the counting epidemic, there is some evidence of progress in 2008.

The United States Olympic Committee, under the leadership of former Olympic athlete Jim Scherr (Wrestling, 1988), announced in the lead-up to the Beijing Games that it would forgo the counting of medals, choosing instead to focus on the Olympic Spirit, presumably the part about the important thing being not winning but participating.

The cynic might say the USOC's de-nationalized approach is merely a strategem to offset the Chinese sports machine's large harvest of Olympic medals. But others--and I am one--take the USOC's re-orientation at face value, an indicator of the increasing universalism of the Olympic Movement.

What will the future hold? How long before the IOC creates a new rule that directs NOCs and NGBs to join OCOGs in forgoing medal counting? How soon before the IOC insists that Olympic broadcasters--the most powerful disseminators of the Olympic message--eliminate counting from their coverage as a condition of winning contracts? And how many Olympiads will pass before the IOC takes the ultimate step, amending its protocol to mandate an Olympic Flag-raising Victory Ceremony instead of the current nationalism-soaked version?

The countdown continues.

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