Fair play in London
With track and field just getting underway, many spectators may feel that the best is yet to come at the London Olympics, but the first week of these games has already produced enough competitive drama to silence rumours that the city was not ready for an event of this magnitude. From the strange, exuberant opening ceremony, which pointedly avoided the technical mastery on display in Beijing, these games have had a distinctly democratic character. The British monarchy, for instance, has never been this accessible. The Queen graciously allowed the broadcast of an irreverent skit in which a stuntman dressed as Herself parachuted into the stadium, and the family have attended several events and cheered the national team from the stands.
Fortunately, most of the drama has come within competition. While the lion’s share of attention has understandably focused on superstars like the swimmer Michael Phelps, whose 20 medals at three games have now made him the most decorated Olympian of all time, several new athletes have also become household names. None has arrived more dramatically on the world scene than 16-year-old Gabrielle Douglas, gold medalist in individual and all-round gymnastics. Her success in carrying the US, almost singlehandedly, to its first team gold in 16 years bears comparison with the triumphs of black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe.
Douglas’ triumph is the story of long perseverance – she has already been a gymnast for 10 years — in the face of great scepticism. Despite a series of off-the-podium finishes in major competitions, she moved from her home in Virginia to train with a Chinese coach in Des Moines, Iowa. According to Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, “In Iowa, Douglas lived with a host family of strangers in a nearly all-white community and thought she might be the only black person in the state [and at most gymnastic] meets she would be the only person of color performing. Douglas was home-schooled in Des Moines by her host family, adding to this sense of isolation.” Despite being given the patronizing nickname of ‘The Flying Squirrel‘ by the US national team coordinator, who deemed her “an average good gymnast,” Douglas’s self-belief never wavered. In June she told the New York Times that “I have an advantage because I’m the underdog and I’m black and no one thinks I’d ever win. Well, I’m going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I’m ready to shine.” Her showing in London has completely vindicated this extraordinary statement.
The16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen made a less straightforward breakthrough. While setting a new world record, Ye swam the final 50 metres of her 400m individual medley faster than the American gold medalist Ryan Lochte. Yet despite her passing a subsequent drug test, scepticism about her performance remains. John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swim Coaches Association, refused to retract disparaging comments that her swim was “impossible” and “disturbing,” insisting that “If people don’t speak out when they see something suspicious, the public is going to think nonsensical splits were real… Regardless where it comes from – take China’s history [of doping swimmers] completely out of it – an anomaly needs to be pointed out. And it’s the only anomaly of the week.” This is true, and some of the fuss over Ye’s performance is entirely rational – her world record in London was, after all, seven seconds faster than her personal best a year ago – some is also due to the unwillingness of traditionally dominant countries to yield ground to newcomers. Consider, for instance, the long history of American doping in sprinting, and the attendant scepticism in relation to other great athletes. Similar questions could have been raised – and were – against Usain Bolt a few years ago. But time has shown that Bolt is simply faster than the much better-prepared and trained Americans and they have learned, however grudgingly, to accept this.
Perhaps the most memorable precedent at the London games has been the intolerance of cheating, most notably in the wholesale expulsion of several badminton teams because of what amounted to match-fixing. The London officials have also overruled a boxing result that was clearly wrong, and relegated cyclists for improper transitions in the sprint competitions. Compared to earlier Olympics – such as the notorious boxing final in Seoul that cheated US wunderkind Roy Jones Jr of a gold medal – this scrupulous respect for the spirit and the letter of the laws that govern sport may prove to be the distinguishing feature of the London games. It is worth remembering, that these are the first Olympics at which every nation has included female athletes and to date the events have shown a genuinely populist and democratic spirit. They may also turn out to be the fairest, in terms of traditional sportsmanship, as well.