I was really into the Olympics this year. The last time I did that was in 1984 when I made a commemorative cushion to celebrate New Zealand’s Olympics successes. And not just medals – I even included non-medallists like Anthony Mosse coming fifth in the Men’s 200m Butterfly, and so I eventually ran out of room and aborted the project.
My experience with subsequent Olympics was less enthusiastic. It was always a thing happening and maybe I’d pay attention to it. The last three Games coincided with me having media jobs involving a telly in the office, so at certain times work would stop and the office would crowd around the TV to cheer on various athletes either doing New Zealand proud and/or oh well, at least they tried.
But this year was different. I really got into the Games. The opening ceremony lured me in, as it’s essentially entertainment and not sport, but I soon found myself getting really obsessed with the competitions. How obsessed? Wikipedia-updating obsessed.
I knew things weren’t going well for the New Zealand swim team when I started to hear “gutted” used frequently in the poolside interviews. And yeah, only one swimmer made it to the finals in her heats. Surely someone in charge is going to have to explain why all the funding only produced a lingering sense of rool-guttedness.
I started to pay close attention to the uniforms of the athletes. There was a continuum of neatness, with the judo players’ floppy ponytails and loose robes at one end, and the tightly ponytailed gymnasts all wearing perfectly fitted leotards at the other end. But I’m not sure where Eric Murray’s comedy facial hair fits onto this scale. Probably off in the “don’t give a damn cos I got a gold medal” space.
My favourite moment – at the medal ceremony for the women’s 200m kayak, the European recipients of the silver and bronze medals did the double cheek kiss with the medal presenter. But gold medalist Lisa Carrington just shook his hand. Why? Because she is a New Zealander and we don’t do that sort of carry on.
Outside the stadium, there were reports of Kiwi House, a venue run by the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which seemed to be a holding pen for homesick expats. It was a bit weird, going heavy on a kind of exaggerated New Zealandness that only really exists in the imagination of expats. But Kiwi House did manage to explode some barbecue gas bottles, which is a pretty authentic slice of kiwiana.
But after about a week of putting scores in boxes, I started to get all existentialist. Like, why is winning medals such a big deal? I can see the benefit to an individual athlete (improved game, raised profile, better sponsorship), but what’s the benefit to New Zealand? The government pours millions of dollars into supporting high-performance sport, but why? Does the Olympics exist to unite countries of the world, only to send them home feeling better than everyone else?
As awesome as it feels to throw a parade for New Zealand’s returning athletes, there are similar parades happening in countries all over the world. Ireland is going mad for its five medallists (matched only by 1956’s lot), and Trinidad and Tobago rewarded its second ever gold medallist with a lighthouse.
New Zealand’s tally of 13 medals puts it at a very respectable number 15 on the medal table, which is high enough to avoid having to drag out the medals-per-capita table in order to prove that somehow New Zealand is better at the Olympics than the raw data would suggest. The notion that “New Zealand punches above its weight” only works if you don’t consider sports that involve actual punching in weight classes. The last New Zealand boxing medal was heavyweight David Tua’s bronze 20 years ago.
But yet the Olympics seem like fun – there are plenty of athletes saying “What happens in the Village, stays in the Village” (which I always translate as meaning “I got real pissed and pashed a lady who is not my wife”). The whole experience seems like a giant party (apart from the intense training and competing parts of it). So I was trying to figure out if there was some sort of Olympic sport I could partake in. Sadly I’m too old for most, leaving just things like equestrian events or shooting and archery. Or perhaps I could set my sights on the Commonwealth Games. They have lawn bowls.