Thursday, 26 August 2010

2010 Summer YOG Packed up & Left for Nanjing

How to Maximise the Olympic Gold Medals for Your Country

overcast 30 °C

The YOG finished on a Thursday, which is a little bit odd. Maybe they try to beat the weekend traffic rush?

Just finished watching the Closing Ceremony on Channel 5. The Olympic Torch's glass casing is somewhat non-descript, but its vortex of fire is a twist (pun intended) to the traditional flame. Quite neat. The gigantic floating platform where the Ceremony took place against the night time Marina Bay with the glittering city skyline as backdrop is quite nice. Attendants were all donned in red hats (no relationship to Linux) to form a sea of reds (Singaporean wear red tops when attending their Singapore NDP (National Day Party)).

Jacques Rogg can chalk up this 1st YOG as a success in terms of some of the impressive record set. A litmus test for Rogge's Olympic Movement's spin-off.

I'll wait until next week to get some bargain YOG souvenirs (I hope they're still available).
Jacques Rogge stated during the closing that some countries didn't send their best athletes. He didn't name names, of course. I won't either (not in this entry). It's quite easy peasy to figure out who they're. What are they saving the young athletes for? Rainy days? But there're quite a few rainy days during the YOG in Singapore. So they're sorry they didn't. They promised (to Jacques Rogge) that they're going to send their countries' bests in the next YOG. Promises, promises.

China's table tennis, which tends to dominate like no other sports, was upset by Japan in this YOG. Upset is what makes watching sports such delightful experience.

Aquatics (Swimming) and Gymnastics have the most medals to give away. Any country good in this sport would tend to have a high medal counts. What's more, one athlete can compete in multiple Aquatics/Gymnastics events. Aquatics (swimming) is one of those Olympic sport events where one athlete can win 5 to 8 medals. Australia, despite its small population, has high medal tally because of its strength in swimming. Thorpedo, for example, won 5 Olympic golds at the Sydney Games. What about Michael Phelps, a super fish (or freak?), won 8 Olympic golds in the Beijing Games, which is unheard of. And quite impossible in all other Olympic event (except Gymnastics to lesser extent). On the other hand, in team sports (basketball, volley ball, soccer, etc) where you have many athletes compete for many exhausting rounds just to get one medal. Doesn't seem fair, does it? While Aquatics and Gymnastics usually finishes in minutes (that's the goal).

So with country that's strong at swimming, the glory of the country (as measured by Olympic golds) are literally rested on the shoulder of a single athlete. Without Thorpedo, Australia's total medal tally ranking in the Sydney Games would slip as many as 3-5 places, depending on the 2nd best replacement. Similarly, if a mediocre swimmer was in the place of Michael Phelphs, USA's gold standing in Beijing Olympic would have also dropped by many places. What other Olympic sport where one athlete can make such a significant difference?

Both Russia and China is strong in Gymnastics. China isn't strong in swimming (but quite good in diving). In this YOG, because of the absence of some strong swimming nations (except for Australia), China gets as many 11 medals in Aquatics, accounts for more than 1/3 of its total medals tally. This gives you some ideas about the importance of Aquatics in maximising medals scooping. And why Australia is one of the top Olympic nation. Very few countries can steal this title from the Land Down Under any time soon. Australia has the longest shorelines in the world, and not surprisingly a water sport culture because of not only its expansive coastline, but most of Australia is in the tropical and sub-tropical zones, which is inviting for swimming. Canada and Russia probably have longer coastlines, but the only swimming style you can do there are freeze styles (not an Olympic event). Australia even invented the freestyle (opposite of freeze-style), aka 'The Australian Crawl'. Oh, yeah, if there's one thing this Sun Burnt Land is famous for, it's the beaches, and the sun bronzed beachcombers. Also because of this longest stretch of beautiful tropical, and subtropical beaches in the world, some of the best surfers in the world are Aussies (no fewer than Yanks).

It's actually pretty obvious that geography determines in part the kinda sport a country is good at. Like the Arctic countries of Canada and Russia are doing very well in Winter Olympics while Australia, well? Not so well. The Jamaican has a bobsled national team, but don't expect them to steal gold medals from Switzerland any time soon.

Atta's dad, born in HK, a country never known for swimming (or sport for that matters), nor did he swim before arriving in Australia. Came here in his middle age, caught the swimming bug, and have been performing morning swim ritual for the last 3 decades religiously (on the beach in all seasons. The winter morning when he swims can get down to 10 °C. Of course, the water is warmer. Probably 15-18 °C). Such is the influence of this Aussie swimming tradition. It's turning a none-sporty, albeit active person, into a sport mad (if you swim in the Sydney winter morning, you're mad in my book).
Let me throw in another anecdote. Darren and myself went to Taiwan 2 decades ago. When Darren - an avid swimmer - asked if we could swim in the Sun Moon Lake. The tour guide said we had better not as there were incident's of tourists drown here because of their swimming inexperience. Then he quickly changed his tune, "Oh! I've forgotten that you two are from Australia. Of course, you can swim here. No prob." Well, such is the reputation of Aussie swimmers. It's absolutely true, I'm not a sporting person, but I swum more often than I had with other any other sport combined. And I didn't like swimming!!! In fact, I was terrified with swimming because of the 2 near drowning experiences I had when I grew up in Vietnam (once, while I swum in the famous tourist spot of Vung Tau when I was being pulled out of the ocean by rip current. I thought I died that day. I was only 9. The 2nd time was in a refugee camp when I crossed the river. Suddenly struck by the memory of my previous drowning. My muscles all seized up. My legs were stiff as a surf board. I nearly drowned). But if I quit swimming in Australia, I may as well quit socialising and stay home (besides, I had to face my inner demon. 2 birds with 1 stone). Just about everyone I know swims. Such is the swimming culture of Australia. Probably much much more pervasive than table tennis culture in China (but China has bigger population. The quantity make up for the heat of the cultural fever).

In short, it's harder to find an Aussie who can't swim than a Filipino who can't sing (or a Japanese businessman who doesn't sing karaoke or play golf, or a Canadian who doesn't play ice hockey).

Interestingly, entry fees to swimming pool is quite expensive relatively to Singapore. In fact, Daniel - a Singaporean - was outraged when he went to a local swimming pool in Sydney, Australia. It's nearly 4 times dearer compare to Singapore swimming pool (and he said the pool he swum in Singapore is better). It's supply and demand. There's no chance that Aussies stop going to the swimming pools. Charge any amount you like. It's like ciggies and boozes, the demand is elastic (in the economic jargon), and the Aussies are hooked on it. For tourists, no prob, the fine beaches are free. I am surprise as there's no public outcry about the steep entry frees are. Maybe they don't know how cheap Singapore pools admission fees are (probably subsidised by government).

You need to build a culture and tradition of a particular sport, you can't just throw money at the training program and expect that you produce the best. FIFA soccer countries are perfect examples. Many good soccer nations aren't prosperous countries, and don't have cutting-edge training institutes. Sure, Australia have the Institutes of Sports (AIS) that trains their best swimmers. Australia won many golds before the AIS was established in 1981. In fact, Australia was more dominant in swimming in the 1960's and 70's before AIS. China have sent some swimmers to train in Australia. Where else, right? If you want to learn Chinese, it's best to do it in China, right?

So how do you get a culture of a particular sport? It's down to historical reason. No silver bullet formula. Take table tennis, why are they so popular in China, my diary entry, "Ghosts on Parole" (dated 20-8-2009. About 9 paragraphs down) made an attempt at this question. And why is China so bad, I should say sucks, at soccer? In China 'soccer' should be called 'succer'. Among several seasons, the biggest reason is simply because not too many Chinese play it (outnumbered by the watchers by a million to 1). There's no soccer tradition in China (even though they invented (a form of) it. But then the Brits invented table tennis). The other is official corruption. How much of that contributes to its suckiness is hard to gauge.

The Chinese national team was doing ok in the 1920's and 30's when the country was dirt poor. But their performance has gone down hill fast in the last few decades as the country prospered (so much for the idea that money would improve a game). In fact, becoming richer would probably harm the soccer game in China as match fixing becomes rife. The Chinese soccer community has been so fed up with the Chinese national soccer team that when it was eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup in 2010 when it lost to Iraq in June 2008, a local newspaper ran only a large, bold headline, “The National Soccer Team Lost Again. We Have nothing to Say.” There was no content under the heading. This is as close as a newspaper can get being speechless. I've nothing more to say.

Chinese soccer fans are probably more embarrassed about the playing level of their National Soccer Team than not having an aircraft carrier (as of this post date). Even Thailand owns one of those babies. But China is going to build one of those military leviathan of the sea (Varyag Class) in a few years, and it's unlikely that the Chinese National Soccer Team will get their acts together in that same time frame. It's much easier to build an Blue Navy aircraft carrier than a decent National Soccer Team in China (perhaps anywhere. USA has half of the world's aircraft carrier in service, but not a good soccer team. But USA has grid iron, and China does not. And what is more, there're great deal more soccer fans than table tennis fans in China). The Chinese soccer fans have slowly learnt to live with that permanent disappointment, and started to cheer for other national teams, and enjoyed a mature game. All is not lost. When you no longer take sides, you start watching a game instead of just cheering one, and actually enjoy yourself regardless which side wins.

I remembered when I was in Bahrain, while I was on my way to the Portuguese Fort, kids were playing soccer in the 35 °C sun on dirt ground. Some with bare feet. They were obvious from not so well off families. I sweat like a pig after 15 minutes of walking. Imagine playing soccer in this weather. The sands should scorch their bare feet. They were apparently sustained by something greater. Yep, the Gulf States are reasonably good at FIFA cup given their tiny populations (1/1000th that of China). Some of these Gulf States do give China a run for their money (or the run-around in soccer fields). China had tried to throw money at soccer, and the result is quite pathetic (so 'throwing money at' should be changed to 'throwing money away'). They try to train soccer players using the same model as training program for gymnastics. The result (or the lack of it) speaks for itself. The key is turning people into sport mad in the sport of your choosing. Not an easy task. Some might say a big name, like Yao Ming, should do it. But to get a Yao Ming of soccer, you have to get many Chinese to play soccer first. Back to square one. Having said that, China isn't a strong basketball nation despite Yao Ming. But it does raise the profile of the game at least, I guess. No shortcuts. No simple solution. In defence of China's soccer though, Germany, for example, established their soccer league association back in the beginning of 19th century, while China is a Johnny-come-lately soccer nation. My goal for them is a bit lofty, I guess.

Some suggest that China is good at sports that utilise small space like table tennis, badminton, etc, and not sports that take up lots of space like soccer. Well, that might be one factor.
Let's recap, economical, cultural, geographical, historical and political factors all influence how good a particular sport a nation performs. And no country, not even China (or USA or Russia), can control everything. They can maximise its odds.

Once again, as I said in my last diary entry - "Inaugural 2010 Summer Youth Olympic Game (YOG)" - I know dilly squat about sport. But I live in a relative free country, and I can say anything I don't know much about (very fashionable and an inalienable right).

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