Following one particularly arduous conclusion to an Olympic decathlon – ie big guys running 1500 metres – an Italian colleague turned to me and said, ‘This is heavy gold’. What he meant was that here was a gold medal won, if not ten times over, then with rather more effort and application than it takes to pick up a gold medal as a team member, whether in a football or hockey squad of eleven; a handball ‘seven’ or a volleyball ‘six’; or indeed a sculling pair, quartet or ‘eight’; or in the archetypal 4 x 100 metres relay, swimming or track.
It is an insult to those who have done it the hard way, ie by themselves to equate a team gold with the ultimate in Olympic achievement, which is to say, an individual gold medal. Which is why I am pleased to add my congratulations to Bradley Wiggins, who on Wednesday picked up his fourth Olympic gold, and seventh medal overall, a British all-time Olympic haul. In reality Wiggins has only won three Olympic golds, the individual ones he took in the pursuit (twice) and now in the road time trial. But his haul takes him past rower Steve Redgrave.
Now I’m sure Sir Steve is a very nice bloke, as we still occasionally say in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give the longest name to the frequently shortest collective aspiration; but to pretend that his five Olympic gold medals, all as a team member in a sport practised in barely two dozen countries is worthy of mention in despatches alongside the likes of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson should have those Olympic giants rolling their eyes, as indeed should anyone else who has won even a single individual gold.
That the Olympic Games are out of control has been clear for ages. They are overweight and imponderable. Unfortunately, it is like drug-testing; once a drug is on the banned list, it’s very difficult to get it off, even if it has been proved to serve little purpose. So it is with the Games, there are sports which shouldn’t even be in the Olympic Games. But once they’ve been co-opted, it’s virtually impossible to shift them.
One of the recent additions, tennis is a good, or should that be a bad example. Despite their occasional affirmations, ie when an Olympics rolls round, no tennis player believes that an Olympic gold medal comes close to winning a grand slam; and that’s the same reason that golf and its ‘majors’ should never be part of the Olympics. And even that equestrian luminary, Princess Anne, whose daughter Zara Phillips won a team bronze in dressage the other day, has been moved to admit that her elite and expensive sport should have no part in a democratic Games.
It is often argued that team sports like football are included, since they give so-called Third World countries an opportunity to compete in the Olympics. But, as Kenya and Ethiopia have long discovered, being low on the list of economically challenged nations hasn’t hampered their progress up the scale of winners of individual golds. And if countries like Nigeria could concentrate on sport rather than scams, then just as they could feed the whole of Africa if they got their agricultural act together, they could turn out more than a few Olympic gold medallists too.
The biggest mystery, of course, remains India, the worst possible advert for sport in a democracy. While economic (and population) rival China wipes the floor with the rest of the world in the medal table, a country like India with more than its share of billionaires, and a middle class (in terms of income) as numerous as the whole of Europe, just about creeps into the lower echelons of the medal lists. Indians have won just nine gold medals in over a century of Olympic competition; eight have come in field hockey, at which they used to dominate, though no longer, the last one was in 1980; the sole other gold was won in Beijing by a millionaire rifleman, whose success owed nothing to national associations. But at least he won it by and for himself.
The Ancient Olympics, incidentally were little better in respect of team events; the chariot race laurels were ‘won’ by the elite owners, not the drivers, who were doing all the hard work. However…. ..
Excuse me, if I’ve strayed somewhat around the Olympic Park. But, as we embark on Friday morning, August 3 on an individual sport par excellence (relays notwithstanding), my point is that it’s time to get rid of some, if not a lot of this dead wood. Make the Olympics into a Platonic ideal, by making it all individual; and with the participating sports having to be played/practised in at least 30 countries, for them to stay in the Games. Then we’ll really have something or rather, someone in particular to cheer for.