As Daley Thompson was completing the successful defence of his Olympic decathlon title in Los Angeles in 1984, I happened to be passing the desk of an Italian colleague, a long-time athletics journalist, who nodded towards the exhausted athletes littering the track after the concluding 1500 metres, and said sagely, ‘This is heavy gold’! I instantly knew what he meant. This was a gold medal that was won, if you’ll excuse the hackneyed expression, with blood, sweat and tears; and years of preparation on the training ground in, again, rain, hail, sleet and snow; and maybe a bit of sunshine occasionally, given that Thompson did spend a fair amount of time training in California! But in addition, after two days of competition in ten events, and the proof was the bodies on the track, this was an Olympic gold medal won the hard way.
Contrast that, if you will, with an Olympic gold medal won in a new-fangled event called a Mixed Relay, that’s to say a relay composed of men and women, who for the most part did not make the grade in their individual speciality, in this case, the 400 metres flat race?
This, essentially prompted a question a couple of days ago from former world class British 400 metres hurdles man, Chris Rawlinson, on a website I frequent. Rawlinson asked, with some trepidation, ‘Ok I might get hammered for this. What a joke the mixed 4×4’s are. Olympic medals are something you aspire too rather than second rate athletes been described as Champions or medallists. We have 46 second and 51/2 second 400m runners getting medals, sorry but this is a joke and so are the events that degrade what an Olympic medal stands for in my opinion.’
There were a couple of hundred responses to Rawlinson’s post, which is quite a lot for a site with only a couple of thousand members. The half dozen former international athletes who weighed in all agreed with Rawlinson, as did the very good club runners I could identify. Others excoriated him for, would you believe, his ‘elitist’ view, ignoring that this is after all the Olympic Games. Others were incensed by his references to second class athletes.
Now, let’s go back briefly to the decathlon, if only to regurgitate one of the greatest put-downs in athletics history. It’s true that most decathletes would not make the cut in any of the ten individual events, though there have been some great vaulters and hurdlers in the past, and Thompson was a world class long jumper. But having annoyed Steve Ovett one time by winning an award that Ovett clearly thought should have been his, Ovett responded with, ‘The decathlon? Nine Mickey Mouse events and a slow 1500 metres’. Although it makes me laugh every time I recall it, I can’t agree with the old curmudgeon. Ultimately the decathlon has the imprimatur of having been, admittedly in a different form, in the Ancient Olympics; and that’s good enough for me.
Several respondents on the website made a detour, asking what golf and tennis were doing in the Olympic Games; others extended that to cycling, which has been in the OG much longer than the other two. The point here is that tennis and golf, and indeed cycling have their own elite events, the Majors, the Slams, the Tours, beside which an Olympic gold does not shine so brightly. Ditto baseball, rugby, and most of all, football or soccer, if you prefer. In this last case, the argument used to be that football was an opportunity for third world countries to participate in the Olympic Games when they might not have well-developed infrastructure and/or other training facilities and incentives to nurture individual sporting talent. That is less and less the case in a developing world with, for example a deep penetration of Africans in elite football; and in the case of athletes in individual sports, further opportunities for scholarships in better developed countries.
Everyone seems to agree that the Olympic programme is bloated, but no one seems prepared to do anything about it; and indeed as the relatively recent addition of golf and tennis, and now mixed relays prove, it’s likely to get worse.
Some of my, shall we say, more mature colleagues in journalism have been fulminating about the addition of sports like BMX and skateboarding. I have little problem with that, since these are individual sports with a high degree of expertise, and attractive to youngsters, who might otherwise be getting up to all sorts of anti-social mayhem. And if we really want to get exercised about ‘elitism,’ what on earth is a rich boys’ and girls’ pursuit like equestrianism still doing in the Games? By a similar token, the modern pentathlon – again an Ancient Games invention, albeit in a different form – teetered on the edge of exclusion for similar reasons, until someone came up with the bright idea of starting the final event, the cross country race at intervals commensurate with the points difference, thus ensuring that the first person across the line is the winner. It has made for some breathtakingly exciting finishes in recent Olympic history, and I have long been advocating for the same format in the athletics multi-events, the heptathlon/decathlon whose point-scoring system is otherwise impenetrable to the watcher, casual or otherwise.
Now, I’d better get to the point, otherwise this piece will be too long for the gnats’ attention span that the internet has nurtured. Never mind the mixed relays; the question is, what are any relays doing in the Olympic Games in the first place? Or, indeed any team sports for that matter?
There were neither relays nor team games in the Ancient Olympics, and that should be a good starting point for a slimming down operation. Surely, the Olympic Games should be about individual achievement, full stop!
Admittedly, relays do have a relatively lengthy pedigree in the modern Games; the men’s 4×100 was added in 1908 and the 4×400 in 1912, but this was at a time when the programme needed fleshing out to give it more credibility, the more so since there were no women at all back then. The addition of parallel women’s events – 4×100 in 1928 and 4×400 as late as 1972 – tells a story of its own, that being the obstruction of women by the old buffers of the International Olympic Committee for as long as they could. Now with a full women’s programme, there are more than enough events.
I can see how the Olympic and athletics authorities might think that Mixed Relays could be a response and a sop to the acrimonious debate over Different Sexual Development; but Mixed Relays are not going to solve that debate, and neither is it going to go away. I’ll also concede that relays can be exciting; and again there is again a long tradition, notably with the Penn Relays in the USA, of whole meetings being framed around relays. But they are essentially for college consumption, and you can see how team-building is part of the equation.
And OK, the world’s greatest sprint nation, the USA does provide regular entertainment to the rest of the planet – and a mighty metaphor for a dysfunctional nation – by the regularity with which they screw up relay exchanges. They even managed it in the Mixed Relay last Saturday. But if they get it right, there’s usually no way – outside the advent of a Usain Bolt and/or the trio of Valkyries who took all three women’s sprint medals this week– that Uncle Sam’s boys and girls are going to lose. The Bahamian women briefly proved otherwise 20 years ago in winning both Olympic and world titles; but that was a rarity. On the men’s side, and in contrast to the USA, Soviet expertise in baton-changing meant that they transmuted relatively mediocre sprinters, pace Valery Borzov, into winning combinations decades ago. In other words, relays are an occasion for earning some team members cheap gold medals.
Now, I hope Mark Lewis-Francis doesn’t think I’m picking on him here, because I’ve always had a soft spot for him, coming as he does from the same neck of the woods as me, the West Midlands, better still the Black Country; but MLF is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In the early noughties, he was being touted as the next Olympic sprint champion by no less a person than a previous Olympic sprint champion, Donovan Bailey. This was following MLF’s explosive showing in the World Champs in Edmonton 2001 when, at 18 years of age he ran 9.97sec in the quarter-final. Only a malfunctioning wind gauge deprived him of a world junior record. Without going through all the travails that beset him after that, suffice to say, he never blossomed as expected. He did create a latter day surprise when winning European and Commonwealth silver in 2010, but he never made an Olympic sprint final. However, he did end up with an Olympic gold medal, in the sprint relay in Athens 2004.
One of the best stories in Rio five years ago was the silver medals won by the Irish rowing O’Donovan brothers from the tiny town of Skibbereen. Their downbeat attitude coupled with their impenetrable accent won them admirers around the world. This time round one of the brothers, Paul went one better and won gold with a different partner. He only increased that admiration when he replied to a question about being an Olympic gold medallist with, ‘It’s alright, yeah. You can’t complain about it really. I wouldn’t go around introducing myself like that though.’ By that token, I hope MLF doesn’t go around boasting that he’s an Olympic gold medallist, because relay gold is not worth the base metal over which the colour is painted.