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Culture Clash

The View from Guatemala: the Olympics

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Our intrepid corespondent in Guatemala, Dercum Over, wanted for insubordination by the bureaucratic and benighted in more parts than you have, offers this rebalancing of Olympic victory bragging rights.

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JANUARY 22:  Rocio Sosa #1...
VANCOUVER, CANADA - JANUARY 22: Rocio Sosa #11 of Guatemala looks on as Amy Rodriguez #8 of the United States kicks the ball during the 2012 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament at BC Place on January 22, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The United States won 13-0. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Tucked away out of the swirl of things in our mountainous farming village in Mayan Guatemala, my Japanese friend Yurino and I are suffering this week from Olympics hangover. We have pretty surprisingly damn good cable access up here, and so for the last two whole tangential weeks we reverted to our birthright status of First World Couch Potatoes and luxuriated in the quadrennial splurge of the global village, all the usual Olympic bombast appealingly accented this year by an unfettered British sense of fun.

We both want to congratulate Erick Barrondo of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the silver medalist in the 20 km. walk race. He is the first Guatemalan ever to medal at the Games after 60 years of participation. We also like what he had to say about replacing guns and knives with running shoes. He bought his mom and dad a TV so they could watch him compete, and then after he won his medal, President Otto Molina Perez got a couple of plane tickets for them to go see him compete again in the 50 km. race later in the week. Guatemalans generally agreed with what he had to say, and they came out yesterday in numbers and at volume to welcome him home.

Some of the ritual bombast that did catch our attention, however, was the ubiquitous medal count. Why it could possibly matter to anyone which countries get more medals has been a recurring source of annoyance to us both since childhood. It is pretty obvious that people in societies with more disposable income – or with a budget supplied by some soiled nationalistic urge to act out  –  will usually do better because they can afford the training. More athletes equals more medals, más o menos. This Big Network compulsion to weigh the loot seems pretty ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s deliriously entertaining at some primal level to root for members of your own perceived tribe as they stalk the wily “other” to wrest away the prize and hang it around your collective neck. (I once saw an ancient photo of a South Pacific village’s collection of shrunken heads that seemed a pretty similar sort of community pursuit of excellence.) As a result of this atavistic human inheritance, I received a lot of sharp elbows in the ribs from Yurino this year when the Japanese athletes did well. And vice versa, with the exception of basketball. How those American professionals can take pride in that one-sided contest is beyond me. Maybe Olympic officials ought to limit the participation qualifications for basketball professionals the way they have in soccer.

This year the medal count ended predictably, with the USA, China, Britain and Russia leading. However, there is no adjustment for the ratio of athletes sent to the number of medals acquired. This is an appalling oversight with international conspiracy implications, and one which the NBC official-medal-count auditors will be sure to point out when China finally wins the overall medal count, which appeared possible for a while there last week. Getting a jump on NBC, Yurino spent the better part of a grueling half hour in her office this morning compiling the attached spreadsheet that correlates the medal count per country to the number of athletes sent to the Games by that country. She omitted the 119 countries that did not win a medal on the theory that you shouldn’t hit a country when it’s down unless it’s got a funny name, and we couldn’t agree on that rubric either. Neither did we weight the results for the differentially assessed value of gold, silver and bronze, on the theory that I couldn’t even get dressed this morning without working up a sweat, so all three medals are precisely equally out of reach for me, and for you too, obviously, if you are still on-line this beautiful day instead of outside jogging.

The alarming results of this new, new way to look at the Olympics ought to create shock waves all the way to Minsk, (a Russian metropolis once highlighted by Woody Allen in a previous era for its funny name.) The new overall grand winner of the 2012 Olympic Games is – wait for it – Botswana. Botswana sent four athletes to London, and they came home with one medal. Twenty-five percent of the athletes participating from Botswana medaled, a truly excellent return on the national jogging investment, (presuming that all aspiring contestants jog or have jogged. Citation needed.)

United States athletes by this standard came in a three-way tie for a respectable eighth, with 539 participants winning 104 medals for a 19% win-ratio. We were in a virtual dead heat with Russia – 438 winning 82 for 19% – and Azerbaijan – 53 won 10 for 19% – while Quatar, Afghanistan and Mongolia dueled it out with about 17% each. Countries that specialized – Jamaica, Kenya, Ethiopia (24%, 22%, 20%) – all whipped us pretty soundly in the statistics, as well as out there in London on the track, yet again proving Darwin’s basic assumptions about species specialization. These people clearly haven’t jogged in ages, if by jogging you mean running slow enough for the logo on your T-shirt to be legible.

China beat us up pretty badly too; 384 athletes won 88 medals for a 23% win-ratio. Hey – it’s their decade. More worrisome are the stats from Iran (23%) and Georgia (20%.) These place names do not score high marks in other forums of public opinion frequented by NBC and related interests, and so we wanted to offer some calming explanation for worried NBC executives. In-depth research by the scientists living inside my computer reveals that these two countries share a watershed with Azerbaijan, previously mentioned in the winner’s circle, and this water will shortly be available in bottled form at this and other fine Capitalist venues for purchase by the ardent and/or credulous who work and play among us.

Guatemala sent 19 athletes this year and won their first medal, for a very respectable 5.26% win-ratio. Yurino and I are both involved in volunteer work here in Guatemala, she representing the Japanese national volunteer service similar to Peace Corps, and I sporadically representing various NGOs after recently finishing a two-year stint with the actual Peace Corps its wonderful self (about which nothing else will be said at this time.) We both enjoy this experience of immersion in a more rural culture, but occasionally we like to get out a bit. Thank you Erick, Usain, Eric Idle and Pete Townsend for a rather glorious two weeks of international pop-culture. It was swell. As a result of this experience we are better people, and we have made in-depth plans to go jogging.

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