Beyond the Gold: Creating Alternative Ways to Measure Olympic Success and Failure (Part 2)


Dr. Sohail Inayatullah and Dr. Levi Obijiofor

Beyond the Nation as Sovereign

In the Olympics of the 20th and 21st century, only winning matters. Winning boosts a nation’s image, turns winners into instant millionaires, and unifies internal enemies. More than that, it re-inscribes the nation as the natural and only form of government. Can we imagine an Olympics with different sorts of ‘territoriality’, perhaps a line-up of ethnicities, individuals, geographical and virtual communities, transnational corporations, and even civilisations? Can we imagine a postmodern Olympics focused on difference?

Can we imagine a situation where there is excellence and challenge but not in the context of ‘winning’? The desire to win, particularly in an unfamiliar turf, also encourages men and women to cheat, to bypass the most sophisticated drug testing kits available, ultimately harming their own bodies. In the near future, what will the IOC do with athletes who receive gene enhancement therapy? In a generation, will we have three Olympics: one for the gene enhanced, one for the drug enhanced, and one for the ‘natural’ (meaning, finance enhanced)?

Women and Sports

Beyond the problematic non-West, the Olympics are primarily about traditional male values. Women’s sports, as in the (former) Yugoslav girl’s game of Lastis, where girls play with an elastic rope jumping up and down in infinite variations, is one example of a female sport not recognised by the Olympic family. Women might also prefer a negotiated score in which all parties are happy. If the score is drawn, women are satisfied with that conclusion while men would prefer a ‘sudden death’ and all the metaphorical meanings behind it.

At a deeper level, the division of leisure and work in itself reflects a division of the world since women are excluded both from paid employment as well as from leisure. Olympic sports reinforce this division. Olympic sports, as feminists see it, either developed from a warrior tradition such as fencing or from leisure time (i.e., when women were busy taking care of the home economy). Indeed, the origin of the Olympics was about preparing men for war. As with the non-West, the inclusion of women has been in the terms and values of male Western games.

Still there is a beauty to seeing athletes run faster, swifter and stronger. Competition and keeping score does lead to excellence. A Tao of sports where the process is more important than the outcome is only part of the story. Outcomes are important. There is a charm to seeing individuals of many cultures mingle together for two weeks, of seeing the two Koreas unite for a brief moment, of Cathy Freeman carrying the Australian Aboriginal flag at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, of the antics of Usain Bolt in Beijing and London. And even if the flags of the nation-states reinforce the ugliness of patriotism, the Olympics do create internationalism (but not a global universalism).

Transforming the Olympics

Thus, we argue for a transformed Olympics. In generations ahead, we need a re-definition of the concept of the Olympics. New indicators instead of the simplistic medal tally might be useful. For example, Bruce Wilson argues that chatter about Australia in 1996 surpassing its 1956 record should be seen in the context of a $32 million (Australian dollars) sports investment, nearly a million per medal.[4] And inflation has set in. For 2012, it is likely to be 50 million dollars per gold medal, writes David Salter, former head of TV sport at ABC Australia and Channel Seven network,[5]  and 10 million dollars per medal.[6] For Britain, it will be 7 million dollars per gold [7]

Perhaps we need a ratio after the medal tally, i.e. investment/medal in sports. Here, Burundi or Nambia might have won the 1996 Atlanta Games. Perhaps, we should consider an indicator such as GDP/medal tally.  Adam Cooper and Craig Butt argue that using GDP/medal as an indicator for the London 2012 Olympics Grenada is the winner with Jamaica second and North Korea third. And if population/medal tally is used then it is Grenada, Jamaica and the Bahamas. When GDP per capita/medal tally is used then the winners are: Ethiopia, China and North Korea.[8]

Or perhaps we should only allow nations whose budgets focus on education, health and housing to participate? Those who lead the world in military spending – the USA, China, and others – should not be allowed to participate or should have points deducted for military spending. Or perhaps, if we take the equity argument seriously, perhaps overall national obesity should be factored in. Is funding elite sports person smart if everyone else is getting fatter? While these suggestions may be too radical, certainly spending on the Olympics needs to translate into greater health equity for citizens – more sporting facilities and access to playgrounds.

We also need an Olympic Games for the non-West and women where there is neither victor nor vanquished, where excellence is achieved without domination. Ultimately that is the solution: an alternative Olympics where traditional games and the cultural stories behind them are enshrined. Hawaii already has a day for traditional Hawaiian sports. These are critical because they teach the young ancient ways of knowing, of relating to the environment. Sports teach us about one another, about our myths. They create inner and outer discipline. They concentrate the mind. They also are a way for inter-generational solidarity, where the old teach the young. Above all, sports should promote a culture of peaceful co-existence and friendliness.

Media sponsorship

But would these alternative Olympics, where the mystique of Athens—the sexist, slave, brutal city-state that it was (let us not forget)—be globally televised? Of course not! At least not until Asian and African nations begin to control their own media stations. Challenging the Olympics is ultimately about taking back one’s history, one’s body, from the nation as well as from giant media firms that own athletes.

And even in situations of asymmetrical power, positive steps are always possible. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London points out. “I was opposed to the Olympics… But, that said, the achievements of the London Food Board and Rosie Boycott [the board’s chair]in getting the games to be as sustainable as possible is brilliant.”

It’s also about fighting media imperialism and all forms of imperialism thrown up by multinational sponsoring organisations. It is about fighting patriarchy and the modern nation-state system. Finally, it is about creating a new future, a planetary civilisation beyond West and non-West.

[4] Bruce Wilson, “Is overtaking the Melbourne medal tally such a big deal,” The Courier Mail (2 August, 1996), 47.

[5] Accessed 11 August 2012.

[6] Adam Cooper and Craig Butt, “Medal tally stays down no matter what the count,” Brisbane Times (13 August 2012). Accessed 14 August 2012.

[7] Chris Johnston, Marc Moncrief, Caroline Wilson “What price medals, Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 11 August 2012.

[8] Ibid, Adam Cooper and Craig Butt, 2012.

This piece originally appeared at this link and has been republished with permission of the author


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