As the London Olympics recede in the rear-view mirror, it's a good time to reflect before moving on to more pressing matters.
The Title IX Olympics
In terms of overall medal performance in the 2012 Summer Olympics, the most visible, significant result was the outstanding performance of American women. Much attention was given to the US' medal leading total, and to the 40 gold medals; little was given to the fact that women won 29 of those gold medals. With the exception of swimming and diving, the American women outpaced the men in terms of the results in sport after sport. Some examples: gymnastics: women 3 golds, men a couple of bronze medals; volleyball: women a gold and two silvers, men nothing; soccer: women gold, men didn't qualify; track relay races: women two golds, men two silvers; tennis: women two golds, men one (Bryan brothers). Both teams won gold in basketball, but the women's performance was considerably more dominant than the men's (which wasn't bad at all).
The point is not to demean the men's performance, just to point out that the US women stood out above their competition in a way the men did not. In terms of a reason why, I concluded that this is the payoff for some thirty years of Title IX requirements that women's sports get as much money as men's. Over time, this has provided the basis, in a wide variety of sports, for American women to develop world-leading talent. In men's sports, on the other hand, the money--facilities, coaches, and scholarships--mostly goes to the big revenue generators, basketball and football, with sports like track and field, or soccer, or tennis getting the leavings in most colleges.
(I mentioned this to a colleague, who told me that NPR had made the same characterization as my subhead title, but I came up with it independently, so I stick with it--without shame.)
Top Results - Of the five big possible stories I previewed, clearly the biggest for me was #5, the strong performance of American women; I think the performances of the women's soccer team and gymnastics team stand out. #4, Phelps vs. Lochte, was basically a one-week story, hyped to the hilt, though the Phelps record over all his Olympic appearances will remain a monument to his willingness to endure--the training, the pressure, the media attention--and to the excessive number of medals awarded in swimming. #3, the diverse nature of post Cold War Olympics success, was certainly there, without too much fuss, though. #2, the potential for a USA men's basketball defeat, was also there: both Spain and Lithuania (the latter, in a group non-elimination game) had divined the formula to beat the US, they just couldn't pull it off. In the end, it was the depth of the USA squad--which meant that a foul-laden war of attrition worked in our favor--and the sterling qualities of LeBron James which brought home the gold and saved them all embarrassment. #1, the British being unhospitable cheaters, did not happen: somewhat to my amazement, the British did extremely well (compared to recent Olympics results) but there was little complaint about it. The only instance I can recall was when their hotshot moviestar diver was given an extra chance on one of his dives when he fluffed it and complained of photography flashes getting in his eyes. The diver, Tom Daley, got a bronze medal, which probably annoyed the Chinese diving team, but they didn't make a public fuss.
In terms of individual or team performances, I want to mention (15-year old) Katie Lydecky again (800m swimming gold); Usain Bolt's redemption (three gold medals, an unprecedented repeat in the 200/100m races) and Muhammad Ali-style self-anointment as "a legend", the Russian men's volleyball team's gold medal in which they came from two sets down--and launched a potential superstar, their 7-foot-2 spiker Dmitri Muserskiy; and the unexpected re-emergence of the USA's competitiveness in middle distance running, which was itself upstaged by British 10k/5k gold medalist Mohammed ("Mo") Farah. Mo, born a Somali, was probably the biggest star of the whole sports show from the British point of view.
Coverage gripes - Fortunately the memory of the bad taste the NBC prime time telecasts give me is receding, too. The whole "we know who won, we're not going to tell you" smirking tone just makes me crazy. They did have a bunch of stuff on live during the day, but it was all stuff that was guaranteed not to be worthy of prime time, for which the content is heavily edited, and badly edited, old news. I don't need to say more, do I? If I need complain more, let me sum it up in two words: Bob Costas.
This is probably the place to mention the opening and closing ceremonies. It is fortunate I like British music so much; otherwise, I would have found them intolerable. These are always the occasion of excessive bragging by the home country; the British do have a lot to brag about in their history, but compared to Beijing or Sydney, for instance, there was little consideration of any kind of bright and shining future. Isn't there one?
Flying Forward to Rio--I'm hoping NBC will try a different approach in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is 2 hours ahead of Eastern time, I believe, which will give them the chance to turn around results with only slight delay--for example, they could begin the telecast of something like gymnastics before it ended for that day. Maybe even show something live in prime time, guys?
Brazil is a bold choice indeed to host an Olympics. It continues a trend--which I consider a favorable one, as long as they don't follow my preference to hold it always in Athens and eliminate the national organizations--to feature emerging nations willing to take on the big challenge. Rio, 2016 is a worthy follower on the examples of Tokyo, 1964; Seoul, 1988; Sydney, 2000; and Beijing, 2008. They will have to do a lot of work to clean the city and its slums up for international inspection, but it is a big, spread-out city which will provide plenty of opportunity for urban renewal in spectacular vistas.
2020 selection is coming up soon, and the finalists are Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul. The betting favorite is Tokyo, which needs something to gear up its economy, but the same argument is somehow used against Madrid, and I cannot agree with that. Now, Istanbul would be an exciting choice and continue the Brazil line of thinking, but Turkey has been granted the European soccer championship that year and there is a rule (which I consider a stupid one) against both of those occurring in the same year, so they'd have to give it up to get the Olympics. The Turks are big-time soccer enthusiasts, so they may be happier without the Olympics, for now. So, I'm thinking Spain may get the surprise nod: it probably depends on largesse (read: money) doled out for lavish functions and lavish IOC functionaries, and that might appear the best (read: cheapest) investment yet for German Eurodollars.
Continental medal standings
Rather than giving any ink at all to the unofficial--but much too real and important--national medal standings (in my opinion, the clear winner was The Former Soviet Union, though you won't hear that perspective from anyone else, ever!), I've been following the standings by continent and my hypothesis that Europe dominates it. Here is a compelling reason to make the European Union sovereign; it would take over the top of the Olympics standings!
Here are my extremely unofficial final tabulations:
Europe* 97 Gold 108 Silver 110 Bronze (315 Total)
Asia* 68 Gold 65 Silver 71 Bronze (204 total)
North America+ 61 Gold 47 Silver 58 Bronze (166 total)
Australia/Oceania 12 Gold 19 Silver 17 Bronze (48 total)
Africa 11 Gold 12 Silver 11 Bronze (34 total)
South America 6 Gold 9 Silver 15 Bronze (30 total)
My conclusion is that Brazil and the rest of South American should be expected to pick up the pace and aim at fourth place in continental performance in 2016.
*Does not count any former Soviet Union. The breakdown of the FSU (by the way, total 47 Gold 44 Silver 73 Bronze, or 164 medals, vs. the US 46-29-29=104) is as follows:
Russia 24 Gold 25 Silver 33 Bronze (82 total)
FSU in Europe 12 Gold 12 Silver 20 Bronze (44 total)
FSU in Asia (including Caucusus) 11 Gold 7 Silver 20 Bronze (38 total).
It would be a highly technical, and totally unnecessary, effort to allocate Russia's medals by continent based on their winners' homes or hometowns. Even if all of Russia is considered Asia, Europe wins, 359-324, or in gold medals 109-103.
+ Includes the Caribbean.