October 11, 2000


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Money makes the mare go

Rohit Brijnath

In a simplistic, na´ve world every Olympian began from the same starting blocks. When he arrived at the line, to begin his swim, his cycle, loosen his first arrow, everyman was equal. To the point where he competed naked. The only difference was in his natural gifts, his keener eye, his inheritance of fast-twitch fibre and his ability to pedal faster and longer. Olympic gold was an examination of these gifts, a test of a man's fibre during competition, a reminder of the once-romantic line 'May the best man win'.

It is imperinent to suggest that the best man no longer wins, it is an insult to a man's genes, his work ethic. But some residue of truth lingers. For in the modern Olympics, and Sydney rests as a fine example, an inequality of man is evident. Character is still mandatory, skill still primary, but money and the technology that arrives with it plays a significant part it was never destined for.

Australia spent somewhere close to AUS$300 million in preparing their athletes, the United States of America considerably more. Eritrea, an Eastern African country the size of Pennsylvania, required financial support to even arrive at the Games. As much as the size of an athlete's heart is reflected in the medal tally, so is the bulge in its national wallet.

It is not the American athletes burden that drought is a frequent visitor to Eritrea, that a poor nation is bled dry by a continued border war against its once masters Ethopia, that a land where the infant morality rate is sneaking up to 1:10 has limited Olympic aspirations. This is not the bleeding-heart Games.

But every time the American athlete enters a shining, air-conditioned lab, bustling with sports scientists, to have his oxygen levels tested, or every time a French fencer tests his foil that is made from an alloy used in jet fighters, he must know he is advantaged.

There is something dismaying about Nike workers using gloves to handle Michael Johnson's gold spikes so as not to leave fingerprints, and an East Timor runner arriving without shoes. Understandably, celebrity has its perks, genius its rewards, but the technology gap between the sporting haves and have-nots is growing too rapidly, to the point where a certain discrimination is at work.

I have no idea what a modern racing cycle is constructed of, but research discovered this description: an advanced composite monocoque with minimum drag aerodynamic cross sections, formed with unidirectional and stitched high strength carbon fiber in an epoxy resin match. You think they know that in Equatorial Guinea, or Vietnam?

Archery presents a similar dilemma. Bows carved from wood are found only in tribal hunts, Olympic archers preferring a hi-tech, fibreglass-coated carbon fibre bow capable of firing aluminium or graphite arrows at speeds of up to 240 kilometres an hour. It does not end there. In many countries, computers are used to adjust a bow to ensure superior accuracy. You think they know that in Burundi, in Mozambique?

If the African-American is seen as the classic athlete, a natural wonder, for reasons science has yet to reveal, then the African cannot be such a poor cousin. There is an absurdity at work if just the US men's team at Sydney should win more gold than every African nation coupled together; there is something intrinsically wrong if Australia by itself wins 58 medals, Germany 57, France 38, and Africa in its entirety as a continent only 35. In a continental comparison, North America and Europe together won 463 medals.

But there a delicious irony to it all.

If there is one discipline which is the very heart of an Olympics, the essence of sporting competition, it is distance running. To run, through a field, down a valley, up a mountain, is a pursuit available to every man, every nation. There is no bias here, no discrimination, no great boost of technology. The runner may run naked, he may run as dual Olympic champion Abebe Bikila did without shoes, he is judged only on the size of his heart, the working of his lungs, the tenacity in his brain. It is man at his athletic purest.

And so it is just, and possibly predictable, that of the 35 medals Africa won, 29 came on the track, 22 in distance running. Given that many African runners live and train and Europe, and thus too are benificaries of a helping hand. But here, loping round the track, on the most equal of playing fields, he is supreme.

It is simplistic to argue that a simple fastskin swimsuit (that an Indian swimmer mentioned cost $300 or more and must be discarded after infrequent use) or a Nike full length sprinters bodysuit, or a flume (a swimmer's treadmill) to train on, or being able to chart a shooter's heartbeat on a computer, are the reasons why medals are won. But however microscopic the advantage they bring, it ensures a disparity.

It is to flirt with fantasy to believe the world will go backwards, discard technology, and compete on equal terms. There is CITUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS to think of, there are nations whose entire well being is determined by their medal tally, to consider. But it makes you wonder about the definition of athletic prowess.

After the Games were over, an Australian newspaper declared that Barbados was the Olympics most successful country. It's two medals equated to one medal per 154,000 people (by that population calculation India 1medal : 1 billion comes last). Imagine then, if we also calculated medals according to opportunity, who then would win?

One morning, looking for a match to light my cigarette, I interrupted a conversation between three African gentleman outside the Athletes Village. By sheer coincidence they were Eritrean officials and I sat with them awhile. The oldest man at the table, almost regal looking, was Berhane Gebremariam, the Chef de Mission, and he laughed when I asked about labs, about testing centres. With a rueful smile he shook his head at my queries. "Forget technology, forget money, it doesn't matter. Life is competition. We compete as human beings".

Remember that phrase 'may the best man win". Sometimes maybe the best men are just happy to be there at an Olympic Games.

Rohit Brijnath

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