Sunday, September 24, 2000

Tony's Column - Table Tennis, The Flame, Olympic Spirit, Medal Tally

Since last column, I’ve seen the medal matches for the Women’s Table Tennis, held at the State Sport’s Centre at Homebush. In the bus on the way to the venue, a woman behind me commented that, as a spectator at various events, this was the least informed she’d ever been about the overall progress of the Olympics. This was probably an inevitable outcome for spectators at every previous Olympics. But this time it’s different. What this Olympics has brought home for me is the incredible resource that the Internet has become. I can attend events during the day and be as up-to-date as I care to by surfing the Net for 30 to 45 minutes at night. I can see results, photos and videos of the day’s events, even get live feeds from events still in progress. I love it.

Table Tennis

Though one of the few Olympic sports I’ve ever played, and so one I should perhaps have understood and enjoyed most of all, the Table Tennis was a disappointment. The seats were marginal – side-on and about 100 metres away – and this made it hard to follow the progress of rallies which, in any case, rarely lasted more than a half-dozen strokes. These staccato rallies produced matches that failed to develop any character, at least for me. But there’s enjoyment in every sporting event if you go looking for it. Mine came from watching the players trot after the rolling Table Tennis ball after each rally, sometimes travelling 20 or 30 metres to retrieve it, just like those of us who play the game at home are forced to do. There are no ball-people in table tennis and, come to think of it, no lines-people either. Coupled with the fact that only one Table Tennis ball is generally used in each match, this must make Table Tennis one of the least expensive of all of the Olympic sports to stage. My delight could only have been heightened had one of the players trodden on the ball, rendering it non-spheroid, as so frequently happens when playing at home (the cure for which, by the way, is to heat the ball slowly in water over a low flame). Or the sport could be made even more home-like by adding a few pieces of lounge room furniture around the court under which the ball might inconveniently roll from time to time, sparking frenzied searches involving all four players with both umpires offering helpful suggestions about the piece of furniture under which the ball may have rolled to a stop.

The Flame

Atop the main stadium, The Flame is an impressive sight, particularly once darkness falls. As such, it attracts significant attention from photographers, both amateur and professional. Had I a dollar (preferably a US dollar) for every photo that I’ve seen being taken in which the subject holds up an arm and the photographer manoeuvres to make it appear that the subject is holding The Flame, then I could almost afford the food at Olympic Park. Surely as a species we can be more creative than this. How about making it appear that the photo’s subject is blowing out the flame or … well, I don’t know, just do something different. In any case, this photographic frenzy has spawned a new sporting event for visitors to Olympic Park:  the Asphalt Slalom, in which participants weave left and right across the main pathway, desperately trying to avoid being unintentionally snapped by photographers stationed randomly along its length.

During the Games, The Flame will burn enough gas to meet the needs of 600 typical houses for a year. Remember that next winter when the gas fire seems to be giving off a little less heat than you expected. It continued to burn on this week, despite the imposition of total fire bans across metropolitan Sydney and despite a sudden downpour. So, how should we extinguish it when the time comes? I’d like to suggest a typically Australian way : part way through the ceremony, the flame should go out unexpectedly and with a loud pop, just as other gas flames have done at thousands of barbies through the years across this great nation.

The Olympic Spirit

Signs and messages in shopfront windows and business forecourts around Sydney overwhelmingly tend to wish only our own athletes well - “Go for Gold Australia” being the quintessential example. In contrast, those appearing on church and school grounds tend to follow a less parochial line, more in keeping with the spirit of the Games. Thankfully, this latter spirit has been reflected by the crowds at every event I’ve attended. Applause has been generous for all competitors, regardless of nationality. Even the Japanese softball team received warm congratulations from the predominantly Australian crowd after beating Australia in the softball game that I attended. If only it was always like this …

Medal Tally

As the days have passed and we’ve seen medal tally after medal tally, it was only a matter of time before someone looked for a fresh angle on relative national performance. One line of reasoning has it that any international comparison should adjust for the number of athletes from which a nation draws its Olympic competitors. Hence the Medals per Million (MPM) measure which, quite simply, divides a nation’s total medal tally by its population (see for the latest update - Editor's note: Link no longer exists). Such a measure, coincidentally of course, favours smaller nations. When I checked this morning, Barbados had rather spoiled things, relegating Australia to second by winning a Bronze in the Men’s 100m. Given a population of just over a quarter of a million, this gives Barbados an MPM of around 3.65. To beat this, Australia must now finish with 70 medals or more. Whilst this seems moderately unlikely, the USA now need an impossible 1100 medals to claim MPM Gold.

Since MPM seems a little too small-nation friendly I had hoped to calculate Medals per Athlete for each of the countries, this being arguably a fairer method of assessing relative performance. However, my search for a listing of the number of athletes per competing nation has so far proved fruitless. Another interesting measure might be the number of sports in which each country has medalled – if there’s time, I’ll have a look at this for the next column.

Looking at the remaining events, my prediction of 16 Golds for Australia still looks about right, so I’m sticking to it. The Daily Telegraph also stands firm on its prediction of 99 medals.

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