Day 32: Olympics, the Beijing 2008 wrap up

If you have been reading my other blogs, you would have noticed that I was a tad addicted to the Olympics this year. Then again, I have been addicted to the games for ages with the first one that I remember being Barcelona 1992. Those were truly mesmerising especially since I had a little hobby back then which centred on the flags of countries. I knew basically every country’s flag. No really, just show me a flag and I knew which country it was. The opening ceremony in Barcelona was just awesome – I sat with my box of crayons and drew every country’s flag as they came in. I remember the South African Olympic flag then – with the silver background with the multicoloured stripes and the Olympic rings. I was quite chuffed about that seeing that I could use my Silver Crayola! That was so cool. I can actually picture the team walking into the stadium but for the life of me, I can’t remember who the flag bearer was!

Atlanta 1996 was one of South Africa’s most emotional games with Josiah Thugwane winning the marathon. That was an experience hey! Anyway, we were on holiday somewhere when the ceremony was one, I think it was Sun City though, and I basically missed the ceremony because my parents made me sleep! GAH! But Sydney 2000, that’s when I was an addict of note! The internet, by that time, was pretty mature (even though nobody could have predicted the coming of Web 2.0) and the Olympics website was one of the best websites of that era. In retrospect, it kicked the ass of the Athens and Beijing site! One of the sports that actually hooked me during the games was Gymnastics and the rivalry between the Russians and Romanians. I remember the organisers had set the vault 5cm too low and it caused chaos before one of the Australians realised this and they reset it! Then there was Svetlana Korkhina, probably the tallest gymnast ever, falling on the uneven bars which was HER event. Finally, the Women’s Individual All-Around Finals. One Andreea Raducan, a 16 year old Romanian gymnast put on one of the most amazing performances in every event. Moreover, the Romanians had taken the other two podium positions with Khorkina being relegated to one of the minor spots even though she was one of the favourites. Within a few days, chaos broke out when it was revealed that she had doped! BUT, to add to the scandal, the doping agent was a drug called Nurofen. And yes, that is the over-the-counter painkiller that you can buy at any Pharmacy, actually, I think you can buy it at Checkers! The night before the event, she needed some painkillers so the team doctor obligingly handed her a Nurofen which, at the time, contained a banned substance. As a 16-year old, I am guessing you would trust your doctor to be knowledgeable about the ingredients of the drugs that he administers. Well, in this case, apparently he wasn’t and that cost her Gold. The case was a bit different from the usual drug cases as, basically, all the women gymnasts rallied behind her. Except for losing the Gold, she wasn’t reprimanded (the doctor was though) and the entire gymnastics community rallied behind her. It was quite weird seeing that most drug cases end up with the athlete being ostracised. Anyway, this year’s gymnastics were a bit different.

I guess that the hype before the tournament wasn’t that huge centred on single athletes. But yikes, that Chinese team! Apart from being below the age of 10, they were amazing. Their moves were just perfect and they really did deserve the team Gold that they did take. The whole age scandal though, or as some have put it, Age-Doping, was so blatant. Just looking at the rest of the athletes in other events made you scratch your head and wonder if these girls are really 16! Even that 14 year old British diver looked much older than these girls. I wonder if humans are like trees and grow an extra ring for every year that they are alive – it would put a whole new dimension to the whole age testing thing. The one quirk about the gymnastics was the athlete from USA named Shawn Johnson. She was pretty hot but her name was Shawn! It’s like that song by Desmond & The Tutus “Peter” about a girl named Peter and how the singer really has some issues falling in love with her because of her Boys name! Anyway, this time around, I think the guys actually outdid the women’s teams when it came to actual excitement. But um, women’s gymnastics is so much better to watch!

The highlight of the Games, professionally, was one Michael Phelps, an American who was born to a family of Mermaids of the coast of Maine who actually gave him away to a human family because of the strife and border wars between the Mermaids of Maine and whatever state lies next to it. Apparently, the family’s home was Water-Hammered and they figured Michael would do better on land. Well, the Americans didn’t complain seeing that he went about and got EIGHT Gold medals. Yes, EIGHT which is exactly EIGHT more than South Africa won. The guy is just amazing as an athlete and watching him swim with such poise and ease boggles the mind. I’m trying to imagine being in the Water Cube and seeing him in action. Watching this on TV does not give any indication of speed – try swimming a lap and see how long it takes! I did feel sorry for the, I think, Belgian, who came out second in most of Phelps’ events. This is where the beauty of the Olympics is seen – the triumph of human endeavour is showcased and these sculpted versions of the human race do things unimaginable to all those watching. It’s the thrill of competition at its highest level – athletes train their whole lives for this moment and at that moment, they achieve things that nobody thought possible. One Jamaican aptly named Usain Bolt showcased this on a much larger scale at the premier event of the Games – the men’s 100m sprint. His time, 9.69s (I think!) was just mind-boggling. Nobody could fathom a time that fast only five years ago. Then he went and won another two events with more World Records. It was quite surprising that the Jamaican sprint team had a brilliant Olympic Games in the male and female disciplines. Pity that the Games had Phelps otherwise Usain would be like God!

The South African issue was something that was so well publicised during the games. Whereas in the past Olympics, we had progressively got more medals, all that came back to South Africa this time was Mr. Mokoena’s solitary Silver from the Long Jump event. This, he lost by just a few centimetres to a dude from Panama. I think they practice by jumping over the canal so I don’t think it was such a bad thing to lose to him. Anyway, there was all the stories of bad funding and non-focus, especially with the swimming team who did us so proud last time but this time, well, yeah, you could be forgiven if you thought we actually didn’t compete in the swimming events! But, my view is that the world is getting way, way too good and although SA is also progressively getting better, it’s just not enough to win medals. I remember watching the heats of the swimming one morning. There were, I think, ten or so heats for the event with the first seven being unseeded heats with competitors from every country you can imagine. These were basically swimmers chosen as the best their country had to offer even though their times were no where close to world class. However, the South Africans ONLY swam in the seeded heats with the best that the rest of the world had to offer. Not a single person qualified for the finals (or was it semi-finals) from the unseeded heats mind you. What does this show? Basically, we aren’t just putting anyone into these events – the South Africans who did qualify have proved themselves and are worthy of being there! The famous swimming relay team that won Gold in Athens last time around were placed seventh in the finals. BUT, the time they swam was a few seconds faster than the time that they swam four years ago. The problem was that the American team (with Phelps) were a few seconds faster than them! The same story with other events where the local athletes did the best time that they’ve ever done but still weren’t placed anywhere. They swallowed the essence of the Olympic spirit and broke every personal boundary that they had within them. What more can you ask of the athletes?

But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have won medals. There is obviously so much more that is needed to be done before London in 2012. The problem is that the culture of sport is really dying in South Africa. There was no real business sponsor for the team this time around and the kit was supplied by the specialist sports brand, Mizuno. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Olympic committee had to purchase the kit! Money is going into the other three big sports (well, um, two because Soccer doesn’t count as a National Sport anymore!) and nothing is going into Olympics sports. This is while there are countless companies turning over such huge profits that you would get dizzy just by looking at the amount of appended zeros! Then again, companies want to be identified with something special and, well, our Olympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, didn’t even qualify for the Games! So putting money into the Games did not make business sense for the companies. But, this doesn’t mean they should sit back and do nothing until 2011 and then take a look around and hope that there is an athlete – I think that there really needs to be money pumped into sports to basically make sure our athletes do make a mark in 2012. And they have a wealth of talent to choose from. Our young Fencing team is a perfect place to start – they didn’t perform but, well, the experiences were amazing and, with enough resources, imagine what could happen at the next Games. Also, the dudes that participated in the Mountain Biking and BMX racing are brilliant stars of the future. Nhlapo, the BMXer, became South Africa’s darling and he was just plain unlucky with the crash he had on the last corner. Less publicised was our Mountain Biker (and I forgot his name…) who is only 20 and finished in the Top 20 in the event. Even the commentators said that by 2012, he is probably going to be the one to watch.

One thing that was commented on was the British Cycling Teams whole training schedule. The Brits basically cleaned out the track cycling medals with wins in almost every event. This was due to a training schedule that was centred on only winning. No politics or worries about anything else – the programme was developed around ten years ago to make sure that come Beijing, the most well prepared side would be fielded and win everything. And this they achieved. As I said earlier, I think our approach in South Africa should be similar – pick a sport and aim for glory in 2016. The one problem is that South Africa has this culture of holding onto elements in teams that have historical significance yet aren’t at the top of their game. This is evident in Rugby, Soccer and Cricket as well as our Swimming relay team fielded in the Games. The Brits cycling plan was to tell the athletes that if they want to be in the team, they would need to prove it and if this approach can be taken, well, maybe we could win something. So I guess, we should look forward to a clean sweep of the Fencing medals in 2016! But hey, until the bureaucracy that controls sport now sorts itself out, medals are just a pipe dream.

The one thing I wanted to address was the whole politicisation of the Games due to it being held in China. Yes, China is terrible with human rights and what they do to personal freedoms and Tibet, well; there are millions of publications out there documenting this. For me, I did understand this but there was always this BUT in the back of my head which made me believe in the Olympic spirit. Back in Ancient Greece, wars were suspended for the duration of the Olympics due to it being so sacred. As I said before, it is a pure expression of human excellence. This Olympics did have a lot of politics attached to it especially with China, who eventually did “win” the Games with the highest medal count. Huge sums of money were obviously pumped into the training of athletes to make sure they perform – it DID happen. But (yes, but!) even though China do have that atrocious record and the numerous conflicts around the globe at that point including Russia’s invasion of Georgia, USA with their War on Terror and even the siege of Zimbabwe by our best friend Bob, the Olympics shone past that and showed that human’s can display excellence by not showing us how big guns they have, but by competing and achieving personal glory because of years and years of personal struggle to become the best. Maybe that’s clear enough – I know there will be many that don’t see the point here! Oh well!

Anyway, enough about the politics: the Games personal highlights for me were numerous! Actually, I probably can’t remember all (thank you oh wonderful brain that never remembers anything!) but I’ll just jot down some of them here. The Opening Ceremony obviously was a high point – it was a spectacle of military precision. The fireworks producing more greenhouse gases than several countries do in an entire year. The colours and the amazing floating rings – wow! And finally, the lighting of the torch, done by raising the athlete to roof level and then having him “jog” around the roof of the Bird’s Nest stadium until he got to the torch which had just appeared out of nowhere – that was just spectacular. Then again, I think after Barcelona where the Archer shot the arrow into the vessel, every host city needs to do something of exception. The Closing Ceremony was not as grandiose but it was still amazing. I loved the skit put on by London though – it was nowhere close to Chinese perfectionism but it still mesmerised. Anyway, sporting wise – wow, there’s SO many! The Spanish Gold in the Cycling Road Race and the surprise win by the Argentineans in the Men’s Madison. That was one of the coolest races to watch with Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish riding for Great Britain. How they did not win is something that boggles the mind! One of the sports you’d not expect for upsets was the White Water Rafting where that dude from Togo eventually came out third. At one stage, he could have won the race! It was Togo’s first medal ever! The huge upsets in Boxing were surprising with Cuba not pocketing a single Gold! Another headline was what happened to one of the American’s that competed in the Shooting event. Four years ago, he lost the title on the last shot because he missed the target completely. When you are at this level of competition, this simply does not happen and it never happens twice. Or does it? Well, um, he lost the title YET AGAIN, on the last shot with the same thing happening! Talk about bad luck!

Anyway, those were just a few highlights of mine. The rest is documented in Gold! I love the Olympics and well, it’s a four year wait till the next one. Hopefully, I’ll be there!

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