Not bad for ‘just a small island’

It was back in September 2013 that a Russian spokesperson is reputed to have commented about the UK, “. . . just a small island … no one pays any attention to them“. Actually more than 6200 islands, although only 267 are permanently inhabited.

team gbHowever, based on Team GB’s success at Rio2016 perhaps we are not so ‘small’ after all. After winning a record haul of medals (more than won at our home London Olympics in 2012) British athletes from all competitions can hold their heads proudly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not particularly interested in the increasingly over-enthusiastic [nationalistic] commentaries and responses that accompany any gold medal success—whether for Team GB or any other country. Too much unfurling and waving of flags for my liking. A vexillologist’s paradise nevertheless.

In many ways, I wish it were possible for competitors to participate as individuals, not under their national flags. Nevertheless, I do accept that it’s this aspect that attracts public attention and increases interest in the Games.

And all this celebration of rankings. So what if Team GB came second in the medal list, even better than China? Better we should ask whether our athletes acquitted themselves in their respective competitions. After all, since 1997 there has been a massive investment in elite sport, primarily with support to UK Sport from the National Lottery, and that has permitted athletes to concentrate 100% (or almost so) on their sports.

Team GB’s 374 athletes participated in 201 events over 31 of the 39 Olympic sports (this classification taken from the official Rio2016 website). And they came away with medals in 22 of those sports, for a total of 67 medals, of which 27 were gold!

rio medals

It’s interesting to note that although most sports were split into men’s and women’s events, there were three sports with a mixed event (badminton, sailing, and tennis), one event was entirely mixed, men and women competing against each other (equestrian), and two events (synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics) entirely for women.

The Olympics is an interesting mix of sports, disciplines and events. Personally, I do not agree with either tennis or golf being Olympic sports, even though Team GB came away with gold medals in both men’s events. For many Olympians, the games held every four years are what they train and aim for.  They are the focus of all their goals and dreams. Yes, there are World Championships, and regional ones (like the European Championships) and the Commonwealth Games, held at regular cycles. But the Olympics are something special. You only have to witness the reaction of successful athletes to winning a medal, especially if it’s gold, to appreciate just what participating in the Olympic Games means. A week after winning at Rio, Andy Murray was participating in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio where he was defeated in the final by Marin Cilic of Croatia. This was just another tournament on the ATP Tour and, it seems, the Olympic Games were squeezed into his busy schedule. The same can be said for golf. Gold medal winner Justin Rose will no doubt be off playing another tournament somewhere on the professional golf circuit. Notwithstanding the above, I did appreciate the commitment of both Murray and Rose in competing in the Games, and what it meant to win. I just happen to believe that other sports are more worthy of inclusion. I cannot understand why squash has never become an Olympic sport. But we do have sport climbing to look forward to in Tokyo.

One hundred and twenty-nine British athletes won a medal (individual and team). But what is particularly remarkable is that nine Olympic champions from London2012 successfully defended their titles (or double champions in the case of track cyclist Laura Trott and long-distance runner Mo Farah, or triple champion in the case of track cyclist Jason Kenny). The men’s four in rowing retained the title for the fifth successive Olympics (though not with the same team members!), cyclists in three Olympics, and sailors in the Finn class in five. The BBC Sport Rio 2016 website tells the full story.

So, well done to Team GB athletes—and all Olympians—successful or not in terms of medals won. Many personal best times, etc. were surpassed. In swimming and cycling, Team GB athletes also broke world records.

Of course there were the various controversies. Boxing was not without its usual crop of ‘bad’ decisions. I guess that will always be the case in sports that are judged rather than measured (fastest, longest, highest, etc.). Should Team GB’s 4 x 400 m team have been disqualified? There was no visual evidence to fall back on—just the word of a judge. Conspiracy theories abound, because Team GB’s disqualification elevated the Brazilian quartet into the final. Does it really matter? That’s how the decision was called.

Disagree and appeal. Accept. Move on.

211px-2016_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgBut let’s also celebrate, in particular, the many fine examples of the spirit of the Olympics. Rafaela Silva, the gold medal winning judoka from Rio’s City of God favela. The Singaporean swimmer, Joseph Schooling, who defeated Michael Phelps in the 100 m butterfly to win his country’s first gold medal. Fiji winning their first ever medal, gold, in the Rugby Seevens. The Philippines silver medallist in weightlifting, Hidilyn Diaz. But also, who can forget Michael Phelps winning his 23rd gold medal?

But perhaps the epitome of the Olympic sportsmanship shone forth in the women’s 5000 m heats, when Nikki Hamblin from New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino from the USA fell and helped each other to finish the race. Both were reinstated in the final, but D’Agostino was unable to compete. Hamblin did run, but came last, hobbling over the line obviously still suffering from the injury picked up during the heats.

It was, of course, disappointing to see so many empty seats at most of the Olympic venues. Rio residents didn’t appear to embrace the Olympics as was the case in London, because of the cost of tickets presumably, but also because many of the sports simply do not have a following in Brazil. This was in stark contrast to London 2012 when it was impossible to get hold tickets. This does not bode well for the Paralympics that begin in two weeks.

Who will forget, however, the majesty and magnificence of the Rio de Janeiro backdrop to many of the events, in particular the TV shots over the Christ the Redeemer statue to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa) far below where the rowing and canoe events were held.

The view of Lagoa from the Christ the Redeemer statue, where the rowing and canoe events were held.

With the Sugar Loaf always in view, the long stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Rio had it all. And despite the political and economic shocks that Brazil faced, the Rio Olympics seem to have been a great success. Was the athletics program debased because of the absence of the Russian athletes? Probably not, especially if their clean status could not be guaranteed. The Russian Federation was well-represented in other sports, and won its fair share of gold medals.

I’ve not heard of many—if any—actual doping incidents, although the organisation of the anti-doping organization has apparently not been held in high regard. Some examples of doping may yet come to light.

So, we move on to Tokyo 2020. Will Super Mario still be in office?

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