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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Global Quest for Olympic Gold

I remember when I was 12 years old watching the Wide World of Sports on TV with my older brother and they had a gymnastics competition to select who was going to the Olympics for the U.S. and one of the commentators, a former gymnast, was answering a question about the U.S. teams competitiveness on the world stage and he said that “It’s going to take our best efforts if we’re going to beat the Russians.” And I remember turning to my brother and saying, “Yeah, we've got to beat the Russians!” and in true older brother fashion, he ruins me with a simple question:

Why do we have to beat the Russians?

And to this day I still can’t come up with an answer. Why DO we have to beat the Russians in gymnastics?  Why does America have to strive for victory over what was then a Russian Gymnastics Juggernaut? Why do we as a nation even care?

Now one could just say “Because it’s fun.” But even a twelve year old knows that THAT isn't true. It’s more a case of Nationalism which goes beyond the simple joy of competition. And this is fine on a certain level really because we should all be proud of the country we've grown up in more or less.  WE may piss and moan about our country going to hell but if somebody from somewhere else says something disparaging they run the risk of a punch in the nose.

It is totally different for an individual athlete wanting to compete on the world stage against the best in their sport or to have a "nemesis" (who may happen to be Russian) that they can fight  epic battles with but will your nation lose face if you don't beat your nation's declared "bad guy" opponent in say, synchronized platform diving? Will the nation become unproductive as a result?

It is one thing to have a rivalry and another entirely to manipulate the population in a concerted effort to win at sport for some bizarre idea it makes a better nation. Mongolia seems to be doing alright without a number one basketball team.
Perhaps it’s just the modern age of man. Instead of the big modern nations blowing up each other’s cities, we’ll duke it out for supremacy on the basketball court, the judo mat or the swimming pool. Like that’s going to prove how bitchen’ our countries really are.

Or maybe, perhaps, we are just re-living the race to the Moon. We beat the “Ruskies” to that too, with the U.S getting a bucket full of moon rocks and orange flavored Tang for all our efforts at space superiority. Next time one of our astronauts has to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station they can all have a laugh at that.
But it’s this quest for the quixotic vision of supremacy that some nations take to an unrealistic extreme. And although many nations have nationalized sports programs that pick athletes and provide facilities and training, we've also heard the stories of China, the East Germans and the former Soviet Union where very young children were selected, segregated and systematically trained to be swimming, fighting, and rowing autobots. This is the result of countries that base their national-image on their sporting successes in order to show the world that their system of government is the "superior model". Interestingly enough, these are the same countries that have had to put up barriers for the purpose of keeping their people in and the rest of the world out.

And here we see the difference between the East and the West.

Here in America all it takes is for any coach with a Team USA logo on his jacket to tell a young prospect’s parents that their kid has talent in a certain sport and he/she has a good chance to get a College Scholarship and they will GIVE them their kid and PAY them to train them. No solemn faced jack booted state officials are needed.

All you have to do is plant a dollar sign in the parents head and your work is  more than half done.

"A college scholarship, where do I sign?"
But it’s a very personal thing to find the sport you want to do and I find it offensive to think that people anywhere are chosen for a particular sport because someone else decides it’s a better fit.

Yet desire still trumps talent in many ways and it stands to reason that a conscript doesn't make as good an athlete as a volunteer and we've seen countless times athletes who were not initially thought gifted yet had triumphed just the same.

So if a country needs a Ministry of Sport "Grinding Mill" to produce a winning athlete to prove they're a great nation or to lift it's national self-esteem, I'd say that they're not only in it for all the wrong reasons, but they're a poorer nation than they ever thought they were.

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