Olympic hosts manage to find medal glory somehow

The correlation between hosts and medal count can be inversely proportionate as Great Britain and Australia have highlighted.
Matthew Pinsent, left, and Steve Redgrave provided the only gold for Great Britain at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Matthew Pinsent, left, and Steve Redgrave provided the only gold for Great Britain at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Nothing against men's coxless pair rowing, but it did seem sort of pitiful sitting there alone after Atlanta 1996, backdropping the lone gold medal of the Olympic team we call "Great Britain".

Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave won it, those scrappers, and Pinsent from Norfolk chimed into the gloom to say: "We have a great history of amateur sport, a history of struggling against the odds, of gallant losers, I'm afraid. We admire people who are gallant in defeat more than we admire our winners."

The woe of it, Great Britain finishing 17th in medals and 36th in gold ones, its worst showing since 1952.

The Daily Mirror won the unofficial gold for derision, concocting the headline "Union Joke" and opining: "A nation of goat keepers and shepherds humiliated the might of Great Britain's Olympic team - our superstars are behind Kazakhstan in sport."

That, of course, snobbishly slighted goat keepers and shepherds, pursuits nobler than, say, moving around money in the City. Besides, Kazakhstan had three gold medals but 11 in total, Great Britain having 15.

Still, countries with double Great Britain's gold total included Algeria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and - yes - North Korea.

And still, two British divers hoping for a night out took to selling their Olympic shirts and hats on an Atlanta street corner, with Robert Morgan telling reporters: "We're skint."

Spotting political opportunity, an opposition leader named Tony Blair said: "I think we have got to decide from now on that as a country we are going to treat this as a major national priority."

As the bleakness persisted in early August 1996, a mild debate weighed whether to treat this as a major national priority money-wise, and the phrase "gallant defeat" remained prevalent in the air, always available to the ear of anybody popping in for, say, Wimbledon or Open golf.

Well, 16 Augusts later, the pleasure of gallant defeat remains available – see Wimbledon, men’s final, 2012 – but it has gone subdued, muffled, avalanched in the metal of medals. A people have changed their essence, Olympics-wise.

Great Britain is an Olympic juggernaut, trailing only China and the United States in total medals and whipping those two in the crucial medals-per-capita vein.

With London established as the 2012 host by 2005, the Great Britain team in Beijing in 2008 won 47 medals for fourth place overall, its best Olympics in 100 years.

Two nights ago, it had surpassed that total already with 48. In Beijing, it won 19 gold medals for fourth overall. This Olympiad, it has 22 already.

Before our eyes previously ignorant to the weirdness of indoor cycling, it has become an indoor cycling Godzilla, with 14 of its 47 medals in 2008 achieved by pedalling either indoors or outdoors, which prompted the Australians to joke that Great Britain won medals by sitting down, which brings us to yet another bewildering development in the medal counts.

At Sydney 2000, the sports haven and alleged rival Australia hoarded 58 medals, 16 gold, 18 in swimming, five gold in swimming.

Great Britain recovered from Atlanta to get 28, 11 gold, not bad, ranking ninth to Australia’s fourth in overall medals, and way-way behind it in medals per capita.

At London 2012, Great Britain had the 48 medals after Tuesday, while Australia had 25, four gold and a puny one gold in swimming (the women’s 4-x-100 freestyle relay), in a country where even firemen can sit around a fire station commenting expertly on swimming. (I know. I’ve sat in one and heard it.)

Even Great Britain with the Rebecca Adlington boost had three medals in swimming after zero at Sydney 2000.

It is such an inversion that – cue chilling music – Great Britain nibbles toward the athletic powerhouse Australia even in medals per capita, with one for every 1,250,000 Briton as opposed to one for every 880,000 Australians.

Now you get winner after winner after winner, “God Save The Queen” after “God Save The Queen” after “God Save The Queen.”

You get Chris Hoy blubbering on the medal stand, and it looks … routine. You get a reminder that being host does help, that money and emphasis do help, and how pivotal, that narrow vote of 54-50, London over Paris, in Singapore in 2005.

And from some in the press who know how to provide a just lampooning of American jingoism and insularity, you get a level of jingoism and insularity so jarring that it seems almost A-A-Am-Am-American.

From divers on the street corner and coxless pair rowers in loneliness, to another turn as the coolest nation in the world, we do have a realisation: for all the skilful whingeing one hears and reads in Britain, somebody in there still knows how to get something done.


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Published: August 8, 2012 04:00 AM


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