London streets are paved with gold

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.

On ice

My favourite Olympic story is the tale of Steven Bradbury, Australian speed skater.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Bradbury was not a favourite. Australia had never won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics – nor had any southern hemisphere country, for that matter.

So, he’s in the heat for the 1000m men’s speed skating and he wins it. Ok, cool. But no one has money on him to go any further.

In the quarter-final he’s up against local favourite Apolo Ohno and world champ Marc Gagnon. Only the top two place-getters will advance to the semi-final. Bradbury comes third, but Gagnon is later disqualified, so skater Steve makes it to the semi-final.

Bradbury recognises that he wasn’t likely to win it, so he and his coach home up with a strategy. He’s just going to hold back and hope that if a couple of skaters crash, he’ll be able to skate into a qualifying spot. But what happened? Three of the four other competitors crash, sending Steve into second place and ensuring him a spot in the finals.

And so the finals. No one is expecting Bradbury to win. He’s lucky and should just enjoy the experience, right? And again Bradbury holds back, trailing behind his elite competitors. The five men are racking up the laps. They’re coming onto the final circuit, the finish line in sight. Then – suddenly; miraculously – all four of the other competitors crash out, skidding across the icy track. Bradbury effortlessly avoids the pile-up and glides through the finish line. He raises his arms, a gesture that’s a cross between a triumphant “I’m number one!” and a “Uh… what just happened?”

After a delay, the officials made a decision. There would be no rematch. There would be a gold medal and it would be Steve Bradbury’s. And so Australia won its first gold medal at the winter Olympics. It’s perhaps not the most expected way to win, but Steven Bradbury’s skill and technique got him all the way onto the podium.

Attracted by the sheen of gold

Twenty years ago, during the 1984 Olympic in Los Angeles, I was on a Brownie camp. While my fellow Brownies and I were off dancing around the paper mache mushroom, or whatever it was that we did on those camps, one of the leaders was off in her car listening to the radio.

Suddenly she shot out of her car and came running over to us as she screeched (in a way that only women in their 40s can screech), “WE’VE GOT GOLD!”

Tonight I left work at around the same time that Mary-Kate and Ashley’s race started. I figured that I’d get the race results when I got home, but I didn’t count on the bus driver. I arrived at the bus with a hearty 10 minutes to spare. As I boarded I was engulfed by some horrible AM station. The announcer had the most annoying New Zillun accent imaginable – the kind of accent that parents make their kids go to speech lessons to overcome. He was excitedly recounting how the “Evers-Swindoow twuns” had won a gold medal. The drought is over, a nation rejoices, etc.

A few stops down the route home, a fellow got on and excitedly announced that “we’ve won a gold”. He and the bus driver than started discussion the Olympics. Their topic of conversation got on to discussing what are “proper” Olympic sports and what aren’t. In short, they decided:

Proper Olympic Sports
Shot put
Long jump
High jump

Not Proper Olympic Sports
Synchronised swimming
Synchronised diving
Any sport where the winner is decided by judging.

Sports that would be ok to include as an Olympic sport
Darts, because it’s not unlike archery, which is proper.

My stop didn’t come soon enough.

Sanity barely intact, I staggered home and caught a reporter interviewing the medal winners, who are now being nicknamed “The Golden Girls”, which, quite frankly, is an insult to that great sitcom.

The reporter asked them what it was like having the “hopes of the nation” weighing upon them, but one of them (which?) said they didn’t, and they were really just doing it for themselves. The reporter was trying to nudge them to make some sort of statement like “Thank you to all New Zealanders for your support,” but on the two occasions they were offered to make such a statement, they failed to take her bait. In the end the reporter gushed, “Gosh, I think I’m more excited than you are!” and then thrust her microphone back at one of them (which?) for her reaction. How do you react when someone wants your response to their spurt of verbal diarrhoea? By remaining super cool.

O is for Olga

I stayed up too late last night watching the women’s shot put finals. I was initially interested in it because Valerie Adams had made it through to the final and I wanted to see how she’d do, but after I started watching it for a while, I noticed an interesting thing: there were a lot of competitors from ex-communist countries.

Yes, how we laughed during the ’70s and ’80s when the Iron Curtain ladymans would show up and grunt and heave their way to gold at the Olympics. Oh how we snickered as we saw the sweat glistening on their moustaches.

But a few years ago I saw a documentary about some women who, as teenaged swimmers in East Germany, had been given steroids. They were told that it was vitamins, but were a little alarmed when the vitamins seemed to make their voices deepen and bodies bulk up. They went on to Olympic victory, which theoretically proved communism’s supremacy. But some of them were now infertile, one had had a sex change.

In the women’s shot put final, six of the 12 competitors were from Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany, and indeed they took six of the places in the top seven (the silver medal went to a Cuban). Most of these women were born in the late ’60s or ’70s, making them the right age to have received some special vitamins, though it is worth noting that the two Belarus chicks were born in the early ’80s.

So are these top shot putting women remnants of communist-era steroid or hormone use? Or is it just that those countries have a really good history and tradition of shot putting? Perhaps it’s genetic. Or maybe a combination of all.

But it will be most interesting in, say, 10 years’ time when the old communist ladies have retired and the newer breed of non-vitamin-enhanced shot putters are in their place. They probably won’t get the same distances (the world record hasn’t changed since 1987, the Olympic record since 1980), but things will be a bit more exciting.