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  • A Medal Count That Adds Up To Little


    (New York Times) - There is no better place in sports than the Olympics to make a sweeping generalization. Trapped inside the rings, bound by great walls of insulation, it becomes easy to convince ourselves that the psyche and well-being of a nation actually hinges upon the competitive fate of its swimmers and hurdlers.

    Hence, it will probably at some point be argued that the United States, despite the perfect, Pac-Man-like performance of Michael Phelps, is being embarrassed in Beijing, blown out in the grab for summer supremacy and perhaps shamed into rethinking its approach to the training of its athletes.

    And by late Monday morning, it was tempting to say that China was in mourning and would gladly trade its imposing and growing gold-medal harvest for the one that never got out of the starting blocks.

    Liu Xiang won the men’s 110-meter hurdles four years ago in Athens, and his successful defense of the country’s first male gold medal in track and field was said to override all other home-field Olympic ambitions. Instead, Liu withdrew during his first heat, an apparent concession to a nagging injury, evoking much sorrow inside the Bird’s Nest and no doubt around this vast nation.

    But the notion that China had sustained a devastating blow to its national identity and that its Olympics were even partly damaged seems as silly as the idea that the United States should move closer to a state-supported system if it intends to recapture the lead it held for the previous three Summer Games. That is assuming the Americans have actually lost it.

    Need to feel first down at the old Legion hall? Go to an American-based news media outlet, most of which rank the countries based on the overall medal count, which the United States has been leading. Here, and in many places around the world, China is ahead on the basis of a gold-medal surge that has roughly doubled its total haul from the 2000 Sydney Games with six days remaining.

    For those who would like this debate to be formally officiated by a ruling authority, do not count on the International Olympic Committee. “If you read the Olympic charter, we actually see the Games as between athletes, not countries,” Giselle Davies, an I.O.C. spokeswoman, said in an interview Monday.

    We’ll pass on the charter and read between the lines. Claiming that it is merely making a concession to the news media, fans and athletes who, as Davies said, “end up wanting to see a tally,” the I.O.C. does compile and present on its Web site a final medal table with a disclaimer at the bottom.

    “The I.O.C. does not recognize global ranking per country; the medal tallies are displayed for information only,” it reads.

    Violating the spirit of its own charter, the I.O.C. lists the countries according to the number of gold medals. Informational or not, based on that tacit nod, the Chinese will be popping Champagne by the end of the week if the current trend continues.

    Olympic hosts typically swell their medal counts to put on the best possible show for hometown crowds, stir nationalist fervor and justify the enormous expenditure of hosting the Games. The larger question, as it relates to the Chinese, is what they do with their spectacular gains from here. And what, if anything, should the United States do to keep up?

    Donna de Varona, the former Olympic swimmer who is here to advocate for softball’s reinstatement in 2016, said the root of the problem lay with the cutting of financing for nonrevenue sports at Division I universities.

    “It’s starting to affect the ability of our Olympic athletes to keep up,” she said.

    But Ed Hula, the editor of Around the Rings, a Web site based in Atlanta that covers the business side of the Olympics, said he wasn’t yet convinced that the Chinese would, as American Olympic officials have suggested, become the world’s predominant sports superpower from here on out.

    “I think this kind of puts them over the hump,” said Hula, who has been to Beijing many times in the years leading up to the Games. “They’re thinking if they keep developing athletes like this they’ll get even better, but it’s not clear to me what they’ll be like in London. They’ll have to qualify for events; they won’t have the hometown advantage and the same incentive. There are still a lot of sports that they’re weak in and a lot of areas that are difficult to predict.”

    A point, no doubt, underscored Monday by Liu Xiang’s misfortune.

    Just for the record, according to Hula’s tabulation, the Chinese were still trailing the United States late Monday, although closing fast in overall medals as well. “We think the overall count is in accordance with what the Olympics are supposed to be about,” he said.

    Or what the I.O.C. says what the Games are about, at least in its charter.

    Personally, I don’t much care who wins the Olympics in either count, and pity the government that actually believes there is a great, lasting currency in a medal race that will be forgotten 20 minutes after the last delegation takes off from Beijing.

    As I wrote last week when comparing the United States’ imminent fall to No. 2 in gold medals to Roger Federer’s step down Monday in the men’s tennis rankings, defining success at the Olympics is a selective process that is vulnerable to spin. China is still recovering from an earthquake. The United States is fighting wars. Outside the rings, the hurdles run a lot longer than 110 meters.

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