The Straits Times Face-off

Do medal tables matter?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

With the 28th SEA Games just around the corner, athletes and fans alike will be watching the medal tally with anticipation. But do medal tables really matter? Yes, says ST's Assistant Sports Editor Chia Han Keong, as this is what the Games are about.  But Senior Correspondent Rohit Brijnath disagrees as he feels that it's the stories behind the medals that matter. What do you think?

YES: Glory boards help spur on athletes

By Chia Han Keong, Assistant Sports Editor

Do away with the medal table? You might as well tell everyone that the Games will not be fun any more.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) tried.

In the past two Youth Olympic Games (YOG), it refused to put up any official medal table, insisting that the event's ideal is to encourage more youth to take up sports, and that it was not just another race for gold for the participating countries.

It is a noble ideal but the price the IOC willingly paid was that the YOGs will not be as widely watched as the main Olympics because a medal table is not merely a dutiful record of medals won by participating countries, or a soulless collection of numbers only historians find delight in analysing.

More than that, distilling these multi-sport extravaganzas into simple numbers makes it the easiest point of entry for members of the public who wish to understand the bottom line of these large-scale events.

Think about it: Will the average guy on the street even bother to learn about the inspirational tale of reigning 400m Olympic champion Kirani James, if his interest isn't piqued by checking the London Games medal table and seeing an unfamiliar country called Grenada sitting proudly just ahead of India?

James was able to lift his Caribbean island nation - with a population of 110,000 - past the second-most populous country in the world. And it was the medal table that could provide such joy to Grenada citizens.

But really, who does not get a kick out of following the medal tally in progress at any Games, and see how the top nations wage a mock "arms race" to plunder the most gold medals?

Next to watching superstars like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps break records, it is silly but gleeful fun to see countries like China and the United States trying to outdo each other in their private battle for supremacy atop the Olympic table.

No doubt, this has led to claims that the table is used as a jingoistic tool for top-placed countries to spread propaganda about how great and powerful they are. There is no doubt too that such acts are distasteful, but to do away with the table just to stop countries from bragging is too draconian.

That is because, sometimes, countries do need an ego boost. How else can Grenada's citizens feel on top of the world, if they cannot celebrate their country's maiden appearance on the Olympic table, courtesy of James' gold?

Closer to home, few would have been unmoved to see Singapore back on the Olympic medal table in 2008 - placed between South Africa and Sudan - when it won its second Games medal after a 48-year wait.

It led to the Republic setting up the Olympic Pathway Programme and later the Sports Excellence Scholarship to assist aspiring local athletes to reach similar heights in the coming Olympics.

So, rather than be perturbed by the jingoism of major sporting nations atop the medal table, why not acknowledge the inspirational qualities the tally has on small nations trying their hardest to reward their sportsmen's endeavours?

Let's not forget the pride among the athletes in helping their nations climb the medal table. Yes, patriotism is still an effective inspirational tool for sportsmen and women, even in this globalised age, when athletes are willing to travel and train all over the world just to gain an edge over their rivals.

Joseph Schooling has spent close to half his life away from Singapore, having based himself in the US to swim and train with top American talents. But few doubt him when he said he will be "looking forward to doing Singapore proud" at next month's SEA Games. He is targeting nine golds - which will be a significant boost to Singapore's haul in the 11-country SEA Games medal table.

The regional Games has had its share of medal-table controversies, with past host nations including arcane traditional sports to boost their standings in the tally.

Yet, it also symbolises the tolerance among Asean neighbours, who are willing to let the hosts have their moments of glory.

After all, the SEA Games comes around pretty quickly. In two years, it will be back again with a blank medal table, an empty canvas for Asean nations to again fill with their golden exploits.

That, perhaps, sums up the essence of a medal table. It is blank at the start of the Games but by the end of the spectacle, it will be coloured by so many different countries that each medal table tells a unique numerical history - simple enough for anyone to comprehend, yet rich enough for fans to delve in further for stories of inspirational athletes.

How coincidental is it that, on its 50th year of Independence, Singapore should be hosting next month's SEA Games, and trying to eclipse its previous gold medal haul of - you guessed it - 50.

And if the Singapore athletes manage this feat, there is only one way anyone will know about it: on a medal tally.

hankeong@sph.com.sg


NO: Sport is about people, not countries

By Rohit Brijnath, Senior Correspondent

Luguelin Santos is not a number, a figure, a statistic. He is far more profound, he is a symbol of possibility. He won silver for the Dominican Republic in the 400m at the 2012 London Olympics and said: "The greatest pain I have suffered in my life didn't come from an injury. It is called hunger. I was really poor, I didn't even have enough money to buy shoes. Sometimes my feet would bleed until I wanted to cry."

Santos is telling us that every athlete's medal, won or lost, has its own special meaning and carries its own uncommon story. But you'll never find it on a medal table because it doesn't speak. It's just a mute graph, a lifeless row of nations and numbers. It doesn't talk of valour, divulge heartbreak or reveal character. It is the human condition reduced to numerals, the beauty of sport reduced to national one-upmanship.

It is why at the SEA Games it is not a medal table I will study, but stories that I will seek. Stories of defeat and defiance; grit and guts; pain and perseverance. Because in sport it is not countries that win medals. People do. Athletes who labour in anonymity; who win, first, for themselves; for their parents who sacrificed for them; for their coaches who never gave up on them. They do not stand on starting blocks and think, Oh, I'd better push my nation up the medal table. Of course, when they win, nations can happily brag and say "we did it".

Saiyidah Aisyah's grinning, glowing face when she won rowing gold at the 2013 SEA Games is chiselled into my memory. So is Derek Wong grabbing badminton silver at last year's Commonwealth Games. I remember because the brilliant and tragic stay with us, they become embedded in a museum of moving images - an athletic Louvre - in our minds.

But do you remember medal tables? Can you tell me how many golds Singapore won at Aisyah's SEA Games? Do you know where we stood on the table at Wong's Commonwealth Games?

It's worth considering that the very idea of a large Games is an athletic brotherhood, where sport blurs borders, where skill is applauded irrespective of flag, where we look not just at ourselves but celebrate a wider world. And it is a pity if the medal table provokes only the partisan in us, where we feel only envy and not inspiration.

Of course, everyone wants to win and listen to an anthem. Pride is understandable, but when medal tables - which are not officially sanctioned by the Olympics - are turned by nations into a smug weapon, a jingoistic tool, then it is tedious. And, well, unsporting.

Athletes are human beings, with individual dreams, not instruments of propaganda. East Germany, which won 384 medals in four Olympics between 1972 and 1988, fed athletes steroids disguised as vitamins. These days a country's place on a table is flaunted, flourished, gloated about and seen as confirmation of national self- worth. It's as if the sum of medals has overruled its human parts.

Evidently no one is reading the Olympic Charter which states that "the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries". Perhaps nations need reminding that no extra gold medal is awarded for the most gold medals. Gold, of course, has become such an expensive business in sport that it has made a mockery of medal tables. A Guardian report stated that "an Olympic medal won by Team GB at the London 2012 Games cost an average of just over £4.5 million" (S$9.3 million). Less affluent nations cannot compete with this, but what they can do is simply design their own medal table.

A casual wander through the Internet reveals tables according to GDP and population, medals calculated per capita, medal counts versus military personnel and medal hauls on the basis of size of teams. If Singapore uses land size as the primary criterion, we'll lead this SEA Games table.

Of course, people will still gaze at the table next month. Where is my country? Are we doing better? But if inspiration is what you seek, look elsewhere. Because tables don't list personal bests. Tables won't tell you how many new sports Singapore is more competitive in. Tables can't tell you about the Maldives swimmers at the 2014 Asian Games who trained in the sea, in an ocean pool with no touchpads and fish as company. The soul of a Games, you see, can't be located in numbers.

During the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in this city, China led the medal table with 30 golds. It was impressive, but so was the massive weight of the single gold won by the Dominican Republic. It was won in the 400m, by a boy whose response on victory was to hug his crying Sudanese rival who had come fourth: "I may have won a medal but he is my friend. That is more important."

The boy's name was Luguelin Santos. Same boy whose feet bled, same boy who fought hunger, same boy who won Olympic silver in 2012. Boy from a nation whose place in the medal table we'll never remember. But what he did is unforgettable.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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