Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why are Canada's Olympic athletes so fat and lazy?

Yesterday's Toronto Star offers up some poll results:

68% of Canadians "find our athletes' performance moderately or completely unacceptable."
50% of Canadians "were disappointed at our athletes' failure to win medals before today."
30% of Canadians "feel the government is to blame for our athletes' performance so far."

Here, one of my (presumably) countrywomen asks "Why are Canada's Olympic athletes so fat and lazy?" I had hoped it would be satire, but it doesn't appear to be.

1. Meanwhile we've had (as of today) 24 top-8 finishes. How awful and shallow to consider that failure and focus on pointing fingers, while sitting safely here on our couches in front of CBC Television. Mike Brown was reported as nearly in tears after his 4th-place finish in the 200m breaststroke. Since when is a 4th-place finish bad? This obsession with medals is hardly sportsmanlike, in my opinion. Hey, Canada, let's stop blaming and start supporting.

2. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell wants Canada to fund and foster a "culture of sport". Meanwhile the federal government is hacking away large blocks of arts funding. How about a culture of art? A culture of intellect? Let's not devalue the natural talents of all the millions of Canadians who aren't athletes. How about funding social or environmental programs? Is it more important to win Olympic medals than to reduce carbon emissions, provide good health care, home the homeless, etc?

3. What are the Olympics all about, anyway? Sometimes there seems to be a disturbing undercurrent of measuring national or even racial superiority. It's a show of strength, a flexing of national muscles. Why, after all, are governments so intent on pumping money into it at the expense of their own citizens, many of whom live in poverty? Not naming names; the guilty are legion, in varying degrees.

* * *

Michael Phelps has a genetic oddity that causes his muscles to produce half as much lactic acid as other athletes, which means that he recovers more quickly from exertion, and which should be helpful in almost any sport. To me, this points out that success in the games isn't just about effort and spirit. Not to disparage his effort, I'm sure it was Olympian, and I know that he's trained from a young age. But so did many other competitors, and he crushed them (though only emotionally in the case of Milorad Čavić).

A larger population increases the probability of finding such tailor-made athletes, more money makes for better training, and having athletes raised in appropriate environmental conditions can result in beneficial adaptations. In light of the superiority of Kenyan runners who'd trained in natural low-oxygen conditions all their lives, moneyed countries began building hypobaric training chambers for their aerobic athletes. Pretty soon I'm certain that genetic engineering will be involved (if it hasn't begun already).

What does it mean to win or lose an Olympic medal under such conditions? As the science and technology evolve and become more difficult to regulate than drugs, the spirit and effort will be increasingly marginalized we'll be left with a highly-televised sham. Is it avoidable? I don't see how.

1 comment:

Jun Okumura said...

Two related but different urges propel us in every branch of human endeavor: to excel, and to win; sportsmanship, and gamesmanship. We set the rules and the competitors and their seconds devise workarounds. It’s an evolutionary game that will never stop until one side extinguishes the other. Let’s hope that sportsmanship wins (if indeed there is an end) because, without it, there will be no longer be any such thing as sports.