August 21, 2008

After so many years of seeing Jamaican track athletes race and race well and even earn world records for the teams of other countries, it feels very appropriate that Jamaica should finally take its proper spot in the annals of the Olympic Games.

Usain Bolt, of course, is in a class by himself. Two sprint events comprising eight races in total, two gold medals, two world records -- and in the 100 metres it seemed so very effortless at the end that he should easily be able to shave another tenth of a second off his own record.

In its own way the results earned by the Jamaican women is even more jaw-dropping: gold in the 100 metres to Shelly-Ann Fraser, her two teammates Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart so close behind her that the 1/1000 second camera could not separate them, both winning silver. Kerron Stewart would additionally go on to win bronze in the 200 metres, third behind her teammate Veronica Campbell-Brown.

The 400 metres and 400-metre hurdles are often considered to be among the most challenging races: too short to be a middle distance race, but almost too long to be an outright sprint. Here, too, the Jamaicans showed their dominance: with a silver for Shericka Williams in the 400 and a gold for Melaine Walker in the hurdles.

This uniquely gives the Jamaicans a strong medal presence in virtually all the printing events. The men's 400 has not yet been run, but I will venture a prediction that Michael Blackwood won't finish last.

Nor is Jamaica's Olympic claim complete yet, not with the 4 x 100 metre relay yet to come. Although they may have been overshadowed by Bolt, Asafa Powell and Michael Frater placed 5th and 6th respectively in the 100 metre, while all three 100 metre medalling women are on the women's relay team as well as Campbell-Brown.

However, the Jamaicans are not alone in some long overdue recognition. So many of the Caribbean island nations are doing so well during this Olympics: some of it weather attunement to be certain, but these nations have been producing exceptional track and field athletes for decades. Especially a seemingly quiet Cuba bears notice, for its results may be about to explode. Unlike the Russians, who brought eleven boxers but qualified only three, Cuba is now in a position to have nine out of its ten boxers potentially win gold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Indian Olympic team, with only a gold (Abhinav Bindra, men's 10 metre air rifle) and bronze medal (Sushil Kumar, men's freestyle wrestling -68 kg). At that, this result is already tied with the 1952 Helsinki Olympics for India's best Olympic results ever.

On the surface this would not seem to make much sense. Like Canada's first-week goose egg among the G8's, India's population and economics would seem to place it into a different competitive bracket.

Yet from a different perspective, the results completely make sense for an emerging world power that is perhaps setting some different priorities for itself. This is the first Olympics since 1928 that the Indian men's field hockey team has failed to qualify: and the only other Indian gold medal was for their men's field hockey team, in 1952.

This suggests an almost polar opposite approach from that of China, its complement and in so many ways its contrast. China seems to have chosen the approach of superficial individualism, throwing all its resources behind athletes competing in individual events and mostly abandoning the team sports to others: yet this should not be mistakened for individual independence. It is said that athletes in China do not choose their sport, it is chosen for them, based on what kind of sport best complements their physiognomy and abilities: and then it is expected that it will be pursued relentlessly, without detour. Whatever ideology may have to say about it, it clearly produces medal results.

In contrast, India seems to focus its strongest support for its national field hockey team. Other, individual athletes may also be individually supported, but the heart may not be in it, and for the most part I suspect most athletes are left largely to fend for themselves. While this has strong similarities to a very traditional British model, it is also the face of extreme capitalistic individualism with a symbolic patriotic note.

India's government has decided that sports are not a major governmental priority. Given the country's success at bottom-line economics, who can argue?

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