Thursday, August 16, 2012

London 2012: The brutality of sport

This is the last post in this series on London 2012.  During the Olympics it struck me, as it has done before, how brutal sport is.
Take Liu Xiang in the 110m hurdles for example - 2004 Olympics: Gold; 2005 Worlds: Silver (missing Gold by 0.01s); 2007 Worlds: Gold.  A superb athlete, world record holder, and favourite for the Olympic Gold in 2008.  Then injury hit, and Xiang missed his home Games. London 2012 was his chance fore redemption. 7th July, first round, final heat, Liu Xiang preparing to go through to the semis.  He starts quickly, jumps for the first hurdle, and his damaged achilles means he doesn't get high enough, takes out the barrier, falls and fails to finish the race.  One of the best hurdlers in the world (arguably the very best) over the last 7 years, and he hasn't even got to an Olympic semi final in that time.  Not his fault, just the brutality of injury.
Or take Argentinian hockey player Luciana Aymar, 7-time world player of the year, easily the best player ever.  Olympic record?  Zero gold medals.  Not because she's not awesome, but because she plays for a team who have never been the best team.  Not her fault, just the brutality of being the best player in the world but not in the best team in the world
Or (and this is the most interesting one) how about gymnast Jordyn Wieber, or the Spanish men's football team, or archer Brady Ellison - all pre-Olympic favourites for gold having performed excellently in buildup events, but who all underperformed when it came to the Games.  Although this one is their fault, it's only their fault because they are not perfect.  They were the best for the last, say, 12 months, and just had their blip at the crucial time.  The brutality here is that the medals are often awarded based on a very small sample of performances - usually just one race, or one game.  And it doesn't matter how well you perform in warmup events, or even in the semifinals.  What matters is how you perform in the final, and if that's when you have an off-day, that's it.  No second chances, no excuses.
It is true that part of top-level sport is the requirement to perform under pressure on the big stage, but sometimes things just go wrong, and in most sports, where you only get one chance, that is brutal.
Sailing is, interestingly, a little different: ten races, with the overall best sailor being awarded the gold (a bit like the annual Formula 1 competition).  Equally interestingly, BMX racing uses a very similar model in the heats and semifinals, but reduces the final to one race.  Not only is this brutal, it seems unnecessarily brutal.
The brutality of sport is that it doesn't matter how good you are, if you're not good (or fit, or on the right team), at the time when you are assessed.  You can win every race in four years but if you come fourth in the Olympic final, hardly anyone will know who you are.

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