One thing that really chapped me and always has about the Olympics is the relentless discussion and dissection of the medal count. Who's got what, how, and why, and how the number of medals, or the number of golds, is implied to speak something wonderful (or, if said number is low, terrible) about countries and peoples.
What got me thinking about what a freakish, artificial notion this was watching the woman pictured at left, a Byelorussian race walker named Ryta Turava, compete in the 20K women's race walk.
Have you ever seen this sport? It's just like what you'd think - a bunch of people power walking, only with an incredibly sinuous stride that makes you think of Mata Hari and Indian yogis and wonder how double-jointed you need to be to be a great race walker.
This poor woman had a horrible day. She kept thrusting her fingers down her throat, weaving on and off the course clearly in distress until finally, in the penultimate lap, she simply stopped, bent over and made herself be sick; she must have had an awful bellyache. She eventually finished eleventh.
This is not to tell the story of the race; it's just to introduce the fact that the woman is Byelorussian. That day I was perusing the medal table and realized that "Russia", which if you look just at the stats finished a distant third overall, at one time included Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, about fifteen 'Stans, all the way down to lowly Moldova. Add all the "former Soviet" states into "Russia's" total and you get something that looks like this...
Country Golds Silvers Bronzes Total Medals
Russia 23 21 28 72
Ukraine 7 5 15 27
Belarus 4 5 10 19
Kazakhstan 2 4 7 13
Azerbaijan 1 2 4 7
Georgia 3 0 3 6
Uzbekistan 1 2 3 6
Armenia 0 0 6 6
Lithuania 0 2 3 5
Latvia 1 1 1 3
Estonia 1 1 0 2
Kyrgyzstan 0 1 1 2
Tajikistan 0 1 1 2
Moldova 0 0 1 1
Totals 43 45 83 171
Here's a full rundown of this amalgmation of former SSRs. For all the boasting and gloating about U.S. medal totals and Chinese golds, only an accident of history dismembered the country that would have been an Olympic monster for medals this summer, relegating the current braggarts to distant second and third.
And all of this means...what?
Not one damn thing, I'd opine. This Jesuitical twittering over medals doesn't so much as feed a single hungry kid in Armenia, or resurrect one dead soldier in Georgia, or make one Chinese woman's or Azeri man's day brighter or happier or more hopeful. A bunch of athletes did well, or poorly, and good for them. A bunch of nations' athletes did well or poorly, and that says nothing about the life of your average Moldovan or average American, for that matter.
And this endless fiddling with medals and who won and who didn't, and how we "need" to win more and spend more to do it?
I enjoy sport: playing it, watching it. At its best sport helps celebrate the best of the human body and illuminate some very good (and very evil) features of the human soul. But it's not worth the life of the meanest bastard ever whelped, and I'm sorry to see that, as in this quadrennial yelping over medals, we can ever forget that.