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Friday, 3 August 2012

3 August 2012


So here we are, one week in, and I'm still trying to get my head round all this Olympics stuff. What I can't quite work out is whether I am meant to be celebrating astounding individual achievement -- that unique combination of skill, training, dedication and sacrifice that makes a champion -- or national prowess, marked by hoist flags, muttered anthems and gold-plated medal tables?

In other words, am I saluting Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy and Helen Glover and Heather Stanning -- or (at time of writing) five golds, six silvers and four bronzes?

The making of Olympic champions is a mysterious business, isn't it? After all, why are the two nations at the top of the national medal table -- China and the US -- about as different as two countries can be when it comes to the relationship between the individual and the collective, yet both, it seems, equally good at turning out medal-winners?

And why is that the world's two most populous nations, with two of the fastest growing economies on earth -- China and India -- should have such very different Olympic achievements to their name?

As of dawn this morning, China was top of the London 2012 medal table with 18 golds, 11 silvers, and five bronzes -- and India was at number 41 with, er, one bronze. (Four years ago, in Beijing, India did get one gold -- to China's 51 -- in air rifle shooting.)

As it happens, this hasn't been India's week. Not only has it seen China yet again sweep up the Olympic medals as if they were chocolate buttons, but it has suffered the shameful embarrassment of two successive days of disastrous power failures that left up to 600 million people without electricity.

Failed traffic signals, stranded Metro trains, miners trapped underground, hospitals running emergency generators -- it's not exactly the picture India would like to present of itself as a thriving, entrepreneurial economy with a booming private sector and a rapidly expanding middle class.

(Mind you, there are plenty of Indians who know only too well what it means to live without electricity day in and day out. As the spoof headline in the American satirical publication The Onion put it: "300 Million Without Electricity in India After Restoration Of Power Grid." Think about it.)

But I digress. What does it take to make an Olympic champion? On the individual level, clearly you need talent, dedication, a good coach, and a willingness to put your life on hold, if necessary for several years, to reach the heights of Olympian success.

It also helps if you are privately educated: as the chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan, pointed out yesterday, half of the UK medal-winners in Beijing four years ago went to private schools -- something he described as "one of the worst statistics in British sport".

On a national level, you need a structure designed to spot talent early, nurture it, train it and finance it, perhaps to the tune of many tens of thousands of pounds per individual, until that peak of perfection is reached.

In totalitarian states like China, or North Korea, or the old Soviet bloc, it was easy -- you just plucked likely candidates from their kindergartens at an early age and groomed them for athletic stardom. In freer societies, it's more difficult, although as the US has shown, still perfectly possible. The lure of millions in corporate sponsorship can be every bit as persuasive as a Party official.

I spoke this week to a leading Chinese broadcaster who argues that it no longer makes sense for a country like China to obsess about its medals haul -- that as a nation well on its way to becoming the world's number one economy, it no longer needs Olympic glory to persuade the world to take it seriously.

Yet perhaps as long as there are nation states, there will always be a need to encourage national pride. If we no longer charge into war brandishing flags, perhaps it is better that we aim for sporting triumphs instead.

The answer to my original question, I suppose -- do we celebrate the individual or the nation? -- is that we are meant to celebrate both: the winning athlete who bears the flag aloft, and the flag itself, as a symbol of who we believe ourselves to be.

So here's another question: if Team GB acquit themselves with valour, and if London 2012 is deemed to have been a great success, what, if anything, will we have learned about ourselves as a nation? 

I suggested before the Games began that we might feel happier if the whole thing turned into a bit of a damp squib -- that the national pysche is tuned more to failure than to success. Now, I'm not so sure. Do I detect a muttering? "Hey, maybe we're not so rubbish after all …"

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