Medal count causing heartburns for many

Medal count causing heartburns for many

Medal count causing heartburns for many

The carping among fans is loudest in countries that have turned up on the winners’ podium.

For the handful of countries sitting at the top of the medal count, the Olympics have been a source of joy and a cause for celebration. Then, there is the rest of the world.More than 200 nations are competing in London Olympics, and so far fewer than half have landed a single medal. But the carping among fans and in the news media is loudest and most merciless in countries that have turned up on the winners’ podium, though not as often as expected.

In Germany, there has been hand-wringing about its swimmers, who failed to win a medal for the first time in decades. In India, there has been rage about the disastrous showing of the men’s field hockey team. And in Australia the news media have poked fun at their athletes for underachieving in nearly every sport.

“We will have a team of psychologists on standby at the Sydney airport,” joked Cassandra Murnieks, a reporter at the Australian, a daily newspaper with an office in the media center here.

There are dozens of ways for a country to measure itself against the world, but for a frenetic two weeks in each Olympic year, it all comes down to shiny round medallions of bronze, silver and gold. And these are minted in limited quantities, with a horde of contenders vying for each.

So forget all the talk of international fellowship and the thrill of competition. For millions of onlookers, the Olympic experience is largely about the agony of watching their country come up short.

Consider Spain. It earned a silver in the triathlon on Tuesday and could boast of a handful of other medals. But Spanish supporters are despondent about the showing of its vaunted soccer squad, which won the last World Cup and two European championships in a row. In London, the team didn’t just fail to win a game, it failed to score.

“Football, disaster,” said Rafael Garcia, who was drinking with friends on a lawn in the Olympic Park. He summed up the team’s performance with what sounded like a new form manic-depressive haiku: “Three games. Zero goals. Go home.”

The news media in Spain have been more expansive. El Pais, a Spanish newspaper, wrote that the team “not only fell off a cliff, it did so verging on the ridiculous against opponents of little pedigree like Japan and Honduras. A total failure.” El Mundo likened the experience to a “fearsome blow to the stomach.”

A bit of salt was added to this wound by Fatima Galvez, a Spanish trap shooter, who won a gold medal at the 2011 European Championships, but could muster only a fifth-place finish in London. In part, she said, the country’s economic woes were to blame. “The crisis is very bad in Spain and we all have to tighten our belt,” she said after the event. “But with budget cuts the medals are also cut.”

The Spanish Olympic Committee has been left with the difficult work of putting a positive spin on these and other results. David Suarez, a representative in the committee’s office in London, tried different tacks, including the time-tested, let’s-put-this-in-perspective approach.

In fact, for a lot of countries gold is the only medal that yields authentic glory. “Nobody in Brazil cares about second or third place,” said Fernando Keppke, a Brazilian fan, who was ruminating about Cesar Cielo, a 50-metre freestyle swimmer who earned a bronze medal a few days ago. That was considered a grave disappointment given that Cielo is the world-record holder in the event and won in Beijing four years ago.

“I would not expect a hero’s welcome for him,” Keppke said. “I think his friends and family will greet him at the airport and that’s about it.”

Although Australia’s athletes won a handful of gold medals in recent days, the country has racked up a fraction of the 16 earned when the games were held in Sydney in 2000, and lags well behind its pace in Beijing four years ago.

This has been deemed a fiasco.

After plenty of needling from the domestic news media, Swimming Australia president David Urquhart issued a statement, alerting his compatriots that he grasped the dire implications of the country’s relatively meagre haul in the Olympic pool – one gold, six silver and three bronze.

“This is not a time for blame and scapegoating,” he wrote, “this is an opportunity to make the changes required to rise to the international challenge.”

This is also, apparently, an opportunity for the British news media to mock Australia. On Tuesday, the Independent, an English newspaper, ran a story with the headline, “Yorkshire – the county that is trouncing Australia in the Olympic medal table.” The story had a chart that read, “If Yorkshire were a country,” ranking the county 10th, with five golds, well ahead of Australia’s two at the time.

International taunting

Australia now has five golds and has more than double Yorkshire’s number of total medals. But you get to slice the data any way you like when it comes to international taunting.

Germany has underperformed its usually high expectations thus far, but its top-10 standing in medals at the moment is hardly the catastrophe one might expect given the public gnashing, rending and weeping, as in the photos of the teary-eyed pole-vaulter Silke Spiegelburg after her fourth-place finish.

“It’s not yet time to declare the end of the world,” said Joerg Hahn, a spokesman for Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe, a nonprofit organisation based in Frankfurt that supports German Olympic athletes.

Why wait? The Olympics had barely begun when on July 30, Germany’s largest circulation daily newspaper, Bild, declared on the front page: “Total Olympic False Start. Even the Kazakhs are laughing at us,” because Germany had not yet won a medal.

The Kazakhs might not actually have been laughing at the Germans, but they were surely amused by a recent public relations move by the Chinese. Although China is atop the list for gold medals, it recently claimed that a couple of Kazakhstan medals were rightfully China’s.

“Greedy China looks longingly at Kazakhstan’s gold medals,” read a recent headline in the Times of London. According to the paper, Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, has said that two gold-medal-winning weightlifters from Kazakhstan hail from China. One of them, Zulfiya Chinshanlo, admitted to pining for rice cakes, which Xinhua cited as evidence of a “Chinese stomach.”

As one Olympic behemoth covets a smaller country’s medals, the pipsqueaks are finding mathematical ways to make their triumphs seem more impressive. During an interview last week, a public relations representative from Slovenia pulled out a chart titled “Olympic Glory in Proportion.” It divided the country’s two medals by its total population – 2 million – and put Slovenia at No. 1 in the category of medals per capita. 

“I’m a little worried about Jamaica,” the representative said at the time. He should have been worried about Grenada. On Monday, Kirani James won the gold medal in the men’s 400-metre dash, vaulting his country, population 110,000, to the top of the medals-per-capita chart.