Champions celebrated as glorious Olympics end
The Rio Olympics are over; 306 gold medals have been won, but thousands of athletes have left empty-handed. Are the Games inspirational because they harshly divide winners from losers?
Early this morning, the curtain fell on the 2016 Rio Olympics. At the closing ceremony in the Maracana stadium, the Olympic flame was extinguished and the official flag of the Games was handed to Tokyo, the host in 2020.
During Brazil’s Olympic fortnight, 19 new world records and 65 Olympic records were set. Michael Phelps won his 23rd gold medal. Usain Bolt once again won all three men’s sprinting titles. Young competitors Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky won four events each.
Tim Black, a columnist for Spiked, thinks we should draw wider lessons from these champions. In the Olympics, he says, ‘there can only be one winner, not many or plural winners’. This ethos, he argues, is ‘almost entirely at odds with that writ large in today’s mainstream cultural script, rich as it is in relativism and low aspiration’.
A similarly competitive instinct helps to explain Great Britain’s stunning Games. British athletes claimed 27 gold medals and second place in the medal table – behind only the USA. Just 20 years ago, at Atlanta 1996, Britain won only one gold.
The turnaround has largely been credited to UK Sport, which allocates funding and prioritises pursuits in which Britain has previously been successful. Sports in which athletes had missed their medal targets in 2008 and 2012, such as wrestling, table tennis and volleyball, were stripped of funds. ‘It is a brutal regime, but as crude as it is effective,’ says sports management lecturer Dr Borja Garcia.
But how meritocratic are the Olympics? Public policy decisions and countries’ relative wealth had a significant impact on the outcome. Whereas 48% of medallists came from Europe, only 5% were from Africa.
And medallists were not the only competitors to draw praise. When Abbey D’Agostino collided with Nikki Hamblin during the women’s 5,000m heats, she stopped running to help up and encourage her rival. Hamblin ran through the pain for the last 2,000m and then declared: ‘That girl is the Olympic spirit right there.’
Send them victorious
The winners should be our biggest inspiration, say some. They unashamedly pursue excellence and show what we are all capable of. Those who never settle for second best break boundaries and achieve things which improve the human condition. As Black writes, ‘the Olympics world is harsh, discriminating and judgmental’; that is why Rio was so good.
Winning is not everything, respond others. The true beauty of sport is its accessibility – anyone can give it a try. Winners’ medals only have value if they are won against many other people. We can learn more from those who battle against the odds or put sporting values ahead of personal glory than from a procession of successful people.
- Which is more important to you: winning or taking part?
- Should the gold medallists inspire us more than anyone else who took part in the Olympics?
- You have one minute, working on your own. Write down every name you think of whom you associate with this summer’s Olympic Games. Then compare with a partner and discuss: what can you learn from your lists?
- Work in groups of three. Produce a two-minute advert encouraging people to watch or visit the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. What message about the Olympics would you want to promote?
Some People Say...
“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I will never be an Olympian. Isn’t this a bit removed from my life?
- This debate can act as a metaphor for our attitude to life. Should we celebrate winners, who set a standard for us to aspire to and inspire us to pursue our own goals? Or should we focus more on those who impress us through their participation, determination or principles? These questions will be relevant to you when you study, pursue hobbies and get a job.
- I’m sad the Olympics are over – when can I next watch them?
- The next winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang, in South Korea, in February 2018. The next summer Games begin in Tokyo on July 24th 2020. But in the meantime you could also take up a sport you have enjoyed watching or participate in another way – for example by volunteering, coaching or umpiring.
- Both Biles and Ledecky were born in March 1997 (they are 19 years old). Biles is three days older than Ledecky.
- The idea that nothing is absolutely right or wrong; all moral questions are relative to the circumstances around them. Relativists are more likely to argue that the winner of a competition is not the worthiest of praise. Black criticises this idea, saying the Olympics should simply be seen as ‘universally human’.
- Team GB also won 23 silvers and 17 bronzes.
- Won by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the coxless pairs rowing race. At Sydney 2000, Redgrave became the first endurance athlete to win gold medals at five successive Olympic Games.
- For example, the British cycling team won 12 medals at London 2012, exceeding their target of 10. Their funding was increased and they won 11 — including six golds — in Rio.
- Dr Borja Garcia
- From Loughborough University.
- According to the website Medals per Capita, the USA — which finished top of the official medal table — was 63rd when medals were weighted and divided by each country’s GDP.