What’s a medal worth?

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Judged vs. timed sports: the value of Olympic gold.

by George Koch in the Winter 2014 issue

“Millions, we’re talking millions here.” The late, great U.S. downhill racer Bill Johnson’s notoriety stemmed largely from this widely circulated quote—he insisted it was a misquote—about the value of his Olympic gold medal at Sarajevo. Many will recoil at such a crass evaluation. Yet the free market rendering its cold judgment, drawn from thousands of individual economic decisions made over years, following an objectively timed event with an undeniable winner, seems less arbitrary than the inscrutable opinions of a self-appointed judging caste drawn from the cloistered sub-universe of certain esoteric pursuits that have gained Olympic status.

Once you move beyond sports that can be timed or measured and thereby provide objective criteria for victory, placement and loss, you enter the realm of judgment. Myriad questions immediately follow. Who is to judge? Are they correct? Is their work distinguished by fairness, or does it appear motivated by chauvinism or even corruption? Once the credibility of the outcome is doubted, even larger questions loom. Are all Olympic sports and disciplines equal? Do all merit validation through that eternally enchanting precious yellow metal, or should we regard some as intrinsically base? Does a bronze medal or even 5th place in downhill skiing say more about an athlete than a neck-drooping clutch of say gold in snowboarding slopestyle, curling or the carcass-hucking variants performed with skis?

Most of these questions are unanswerable. Some will find it offensive I even posed them. They feel all sports are equally valid, all athletes equally worthy of admiration, each one’s efforts just as prodigious as the next, the mere fact of inclusion demonstrating equal athletic and moral excellence, and on without end. But that’s post-modern relativism brought to bear on the Olympic Games. It’s absurd to apply such a worldview to a gigantic spectacle that not only delivers final judgments, but whose very purpose is to rank outcomes and exalt winners. That leaves the scrambled post-modern brain to find solace in scanning for the hundreds of “personal bests,” i.e., losers, the quadrennial gathering disgorges. It’s doubtful whether old Bill Johnson could have hoovered “millions” out of any 37th-place finishes, however personally best.

These tensions among objectivity, judgment and value are built right into the Olympics. In the ancient pagan world from which the Games draw their name, inspiration and dwindling vestiges of their practices, equality wasn’t merely rejected, it was unknown. The Games had ceremonial and religious dimensions, with athletes competing to honour the gods—and gain their attention. Innately judgmental and elitist, there was no interest in personal bests here. Our era’s proliferation of events—10 different freestyle and 12 different cross-country skiing events, for example—would addle the brains of Zeus and Hera, the principal god and goddess honoured in the ancient Olympics. The sheer number alone would seem to debase the value of any given medal, will fall to the level of trinkets barely more alluring than a wrist full of Club Med beads.

The tension among these issues comes out in the views of someone who’s been there and gone all the way to Olympic gold under tougher conditions than most athletes face today—Nancy Greene Raine. On the one hand, she thinks alpine skiing is about the best all-round example of winter athleticism one can find. “It requires the most of an athlete on every level,” she says. “Muscles, skill, timing, mental attitude, equipment, the state of the course that day and your spot in the lineup, all resting on a decade or more of continuous training and advancement.”

Greene rejects the idea, however, that being timed, showing a certain degree of mass participation or reflecting classical aesthetics should determine inclusion in the Olympics or signify the value of outcomes. “I don’t think timed sports should be viewed differently from measured sports or judged sports,” she says. “You should never discount a medal, because to be the world’s best is always incredibly difficult. It serves no useful purpose to try to put down or hoist up one sport or another.”

Besides, she points out, “Some measured sports also include an element of judging, like ski jumping.” Some events depend on official decision-making that’s vulnerable to abuse, such as setting ski-jumping starting points, which determines whether women or men jump farther. In any case, there’s no correlation between difficulty or training intensity on the one hand and being a timed, measured or judged sport on the other. Figure skating, notorious for its abusive judging, is surely the most difficult of Olympic sports and demands essentially life-long commitment. Bobsleigh, whose outcome is about as objective as can be, is known for its relaxed approach to training.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that for many Olympians value comes down to recognition, acceptance and emotional reinforcement within their community of specialists (however small), a few years of sponsorship and a leg up in building a proper career. That’s not so bad for the individual, and there’s nothing really wrong with it. These are recognizable ambitions for professionals in nearly any field. They just don’t seem quite, well, Olympian.

And what might the ancient gods have made of disciplines, like snowboard racing, that have virtually (perhaps literally) more formal competitors than regular practitioners? Honestly, dear reader, please TELL US if you spot even one carving snowboard all season. I see perhaps three a year, usually in the Alps. Yet there are six Olympic snowboard racing events, generating a total of 18 medals.

What might the occupants of Mount Olympus think of a spectacle that pairs sports requiring a lifetime of intense commitment alongside some with training “regimens” that consist of hanging around with the bro-bra’s, spending a couple of hours a few days a week hucking your carcass, before retiring for some well-deserved medicinal herbs, and finally competing in aesthetically unappealing events whose judging ranges from incomprehensible to arbitrary?

Once you remove objective standards, you enter the realm of caprice, whose outcomes are determined via politics. That’s nothing new in the Olympics. It was politics that first allowed, then excluded women’s ski jumping, latterly again applying political pressure for reinstatement. Merit took a back seat. For the record, I’m for women’s ski jumping. But for every good case, there’s a joke sport waiting in the wings. Post-modernism’s inability to make distinctions based on merit takes its adherents down a—brutal metaphor alert—slippery slope to where there’s no rational basis to exclude any event with loud enough advocates.

Decades ago, Greene herself was part of a task force that began with the question, “What is sport?” At some point, as Greene points out, sport ends and mere spectacle and stunting take over. If curling or slopestyle skiing, then why not backflips on a snowmobile? Because it requires machinery? The ancients raced horse-drawn chariots and the team owners got the medals.

We haven’t even touched on aesthetic appeal. Some sports are not only lovely, but have beauty as their objective—like figure skating. Others are impressive in their pure physicality—like speed skating. But some are just plain ugly—the indistinguishable gnomes clad in sack-like peasant costumes twirling mindlessly in the halfpipe coming to mind.

Then again, if one of the 12 remaining Canadians who majored in Classics is reading this, he or she can point out that the ancients feared their gods as capricious and impulsive, cruelly toying with humans like playthings. The ancient mind viewed the world as intrinsically illogical and life as a series of chance events and ironies. Perhaps halfpipe comps are what the old gods had in mind. An international spectacle that lines up rigorous sports requiring a lifetime of training to reach peak performance and judged with scientific objectivity to hundredths of a second, alongside games played mostly by 70-year-olds requiring little more than the ability to stand, might be just the sort of thing to label “Olympic.” It just took 2,790 years to get here.

George Koch
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