Each Olympic Games is remembered through its personalities. Usually, it is winning ones, like Paavo Nurmi in Paris 1924, when the Flying Finn won the 1500 and 5000 metres inside 45 minutes; or like Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, lighting up post-war austerity Britain, with her four golds in London 1948. In more recent times, Carl Lewis’ four golds in 1984 made Los Angeles even more of an American Dream. But then, like it or lump it, Seoul 1988 will always be remembered for Ben Johnson’s expulsion for doping, a malaise which seemed to be in retreat in Beijing. But we won’t hold our breath on that one yet.
The likelihood of anyone doing what Michael Phelps did in the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad is extremely remote – eight gold medals and eight world records. Then again, Mark Spitz’ seven swimming golds in Munich 1972 seemed unapproachable. Munich, of course is remembered for sadder events, the terrorist attack which left 11 Israelis dead. There was never any prospect of that in the Chinese capital, although the authorities quietly maintained an iron fist in a velvet glove on the security front.
Despite Phelps’ extraordinary performances, helped as they may have been with a deeper, wave-lite pool, and sleeker swimsuits, swimming is a sport which barely raises a ripple outside the Olympics. Which is not to diminish Phelps, but rather to accentuate what a larger-than-life character Usain Bolt is, in the Olympics’ premier sport. Three victories in marquee events, three world records. And despite the stiff-necked comments from International Olympic Committee President, Jacques Rogge, chiding Bolt for ‘disrespect,’ an Olympic movement which is seeking to reinvent itself with ‘youth’ events like BMX needs personalities with the exuberance, if not panache of Bolt.
On the domestic front, Chris Hoy’s three golds in cycling, and five with his Athens’ tally makes him the Brit-of-the-Games, from this point of view. On the basis of a brief interview with Hoy, in tandem with colleagues, it is clear that the Scot has a political future, if not nationally then in international sport. And why not both, Lord Seb? Cycling, with its seven golds and several minor medals deserves far greater exposure than it has sporadically had in the UK, and hopefully Sky Television’s recent contract with the national cycling authorities will accelerate that process.
On the international athletics front, some interesting patterns are, if not emerging, then consolidating. The USA is in retreat, on the admission of its own coaches, but still leads the medals table with seven golds. And the Russians, who otherwise had a poor Games remain in second place with six. Four years away from London 2012, the British achievements elsewhere have amazed. But the athletics tally remains modest, which is to say, poor, with a gold for Christine Ohurogu, two silvers and a bronze, leaving the UK in sixth place.
But it is the third-world nations in third, fourth and fifth places who have consolidated their assault on the traditional powers. Kenyans won 14 medals (five gold), Jamaicans won 11 (six gold), and Ethiopians won seven (four gold). Excellence in athletics is getting even more regionalised.
I have already written about how staying at home rather than pursuing US college scholarships is part of the key to Jamaican success. But there is a much broader, potentially intriguing debate to be had on this front generally, if we can put aside the tenets of political correctness. It has long been blindingly obvious that athletes who can trace their origins back to West Africa excel in sprinting (thanks to fast-twitch muscle fibres), while the East Africans, particularly from the Rift Valley – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Eritreans, Ugandans – dominate the distances (slow-twitch muscle fibres).
But when Sir Roger Bannister suggested that such domination (in sprinting) was worthy of debate, in a speech to the (British) Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, he was widely criticised for even airing the subject. So we won’t hold our breath on that one either.
As for the hosts, they amazed on all fronts, except in the Bird’s Nest. The Chinese have now emerged, and anyone who doesn’t think they don’t hold the balance of power in a faltering world economy hasn’t been reading the small print on the financial pages in the past couple of weeks. But despite their domination across the Games and elsewhere, they only won two bronzes in track and field. Cue the walkers! They still have a long march in prospect.