I know that it is un-American to criticize the Olympics, but for me they just became irrelevant. They no longer celebrate individual excellence. Instead, they have become another example of the ever-growing everybody-gets-a-trophy syndrome.

The latest assault on individual achievement was promulgated in women’s gymnastics. According to a rule change made in 2003, a maximum of two teammates from any one country can compete in the individual all-around finals, regardless of what the scores they compiled in the preliminary round. So the United States can field two competitors, regardless of the size of its team. So can Rwanda.So can Monaco. So can China. Talk about your discrepancy in representation. China, with a population of 1.3 billion, is allowed the same number of entrants as Monaco, with a population of 35,000.

The change was made so that more countries could have the opportunity to compete in the finals. But why then stop at 24? What is magic about that number? And why two entrants? Why not just one? Then three countries could share the medals podium. As it stands now the top twelve countries were all able to place the maximum of two athletes into the finals, so there will actually only be twelve countries competing. And there is every possibility that one country will take two of the three medals available. How is that any more representative? How is that any more fair?

This method is no more fair than it is an actual competition. There is more than a 20 point difference between the highest scoring team (the United States), and the lowest scoring team (Brazil) .This means that those at the bottom must compete with other athletes who are vastly superior to them. And conversely, those at the top must compete against athletes who are vastly inferior to them. Brazil may be able to enter the finals, but do you think they have any chance of getting within spitting distance of that podium?

And, sitting on the sidelines, banned from competition, are some athletes who deserve to compete. Like the defending world all-around champion female gymnast. It’s true, she did not score higher than her teammates, but she did score higher than 21 of the people who will be competing.

While the governments of the world may be assuaged by this snickerdoodle of a competition, it must be incredibly debilitating for the individual athletes. Either they are incredibly out-classed, or they are taking candy from a baby. Combine this with the fact that gymnastics are scored subjectively by human judges, and you have the makings of a disaster.

Soon it won’t be enough that all countries may compete, regardless of the actual level of competition their athletes can bring to play. The next morph will dictate that it’s not fair that some countries dominate the medals ceremonies. All countries deserve a medal! will be the rallying cry. And that will spell the end of excellence. Judges will be compelled to score based on what is fair, rather than on who performed most excellently. Once more, mediocrity will triumph over achievement, and only to salve some egos. In making this rule change, the Olympic Committee has made a mockery of competition.

This is the egalitarian version of excellence, where everybody gets a trophy just for participating, regardless of how well they performed. And it makes the Olympic tradition meaningless.

Yes, it may be sad and a shame that Honduras does not have the same resources to invest in its Olympic athletes as the United States or China. But the point of the games was to celebrate excellence, not to provide a running tally of how many countries there are in the world. Nor were they set up to make sure that every country could mount a medal on its metaphorical wall. Not every country must enter every competition. It really doesn’t help to pretend that Uzbekistan has the same resources as Australia does. What is really cool is when some nobody from nowhere goes up against the big boys and cleans their clock. Now, that is individual excellence!

Of course, the Games have always been political. They were from the beginning, when everyone wanted to know whether Sparta would inch out Athens in the javelin throw this year. The Games were an opportunity to see what kind of army you’d be up against, come the next war. Or they might prevent a war, depending on how well your contestants stacked up against the competition. Or they might launch a war, if your entrants performed way below expectations. No matter what else they accomplished, embarrassing governments was what they did best.

But now, it seems, no one is to be embarrassed. Keep this up, and the next step will be to make all of the winners’ blocks the same height. After all, events are being won and lost in tens or hundreds of seconds and points, so there really isn’t that much difference between first and third anyway, is there?

Then, all three winners will be awarded the same color medal, for the same reason. Continuing on, we institute a limit on number of medals that can be awarded to one person, one team, one country. After all, it isn’t fair that some countries have so much money and people, and other resources, and can field such a large, well-fed team, with lots of support and lots of time to practice. Not when there are countries that can’t afford to do as well for their teams.

I am certainly not suggesting that athletes should not compete in the Olympics, nor do I think that their countries should stop supporting them. I just think it would be nice if there were still at least one competition in the world that celebrated excellence and achievement. That was exclusive, based on merit. That athletes had something to shoot for, some reason to excel.

If you want to have a venue where all countries can field a team, how about high tea? Separate competitions from goodwill events, or you destroy the meaning behind both.


Filed under Critical Thinking

2 responses to “EVERYBODY’S A WINNER

  1. Don

    In 2003, when the Olympic committee decided to arbitrarily limit the number of finalists allowed in the women gymnastics competition, they were probably unaware of Ivan Illich rolling over in his grave. Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. His father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish. Illich had Italian, Spanish, French, and German as native languages. He later learned Croatian, the language of his grandfathers, then Ancient Greek and Latin, in addition to Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, English, and a few other languages. When I read that in Wikipedia, boy was I impressed, but what overwhelmed me most about Illich was his book, Deschooling Society.

    I read it in1971when it was first published. At that time, my children were all school age (15, 13, 9, 6, and 5). Needless to say, I was very interested in their education. Then along came Mr. Illich telling me, and everyone else in America who would listen, that sending our children to public school was not a very good idea if I wanted them to become educated. But what does this have to do with the Olympics you may wonder. Please, bear with me a few more steps and I’ll tie it in.

    Illich thought that what was happening in our school system was simply the beginning of a long list of ills being foisted upon our society. He pointed out that, “students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”

    Illich’s introduced concepts of Counter productivity, Radical Monopoly, Conviviality, and Specific Diseconomy. It is the concept of Specific Diseconomy that should concern the Olympic committee. Specific diseconomy is a term Illich used, to measure the degree of institutional counterproductivity. It is the degree that the medical industry induces illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, or national defense makes a nation less secure. When specific diseconomy is on the increase, it means the institution is increasingly counterproductive to its original intentions, i.e., the Olympics.

    So, what is the original purpose of the Olympics? I think we all assume that those standing on the top step raising their gold high into the air are indeed the best. Those athletes from countries with a large number of superior performers are only allowed to pick two people to compete in the finals as you so clearly point out in your blog. The way the committee has stacked the deck, we may never know who the real number one is.

    Illich’s ability to predict what not deschooling society would do to our educational system pales in comparison to what is happening to our medical system. The medical community’s failure to reduce iatrogenic disease is second only to their ability to keep it a secret.

    • What is consistently amazing, and disheartening, is how many people in the past have warned us about the foolish and counterproductive things that we consistently continue to do. How many times must we attempt to screw up our society before we finally give it up as a bad job, and just try to make the best lives possible? What is so wrong with enlightened survival that we are afraid to try it?

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