“I’m smacking my lips at the prospect of a heady cocktail of sport and politics,” confesses David Mitchell of “That Mitchell & Webb Look” in Saturday’s Guardian, and to those who’d urge an Olympic boycott due to China’s history of social and political repression, the comedian suggests “that’s like boycotting Star Wars because you don’t agree with Darth Vader.”
A totalitarian government like China’s, as with all the Warsaw Pact countries back in the day, sees the medal table as its opportunity to extort prestige at the expense of the rest of the world – to justify their place and their actions. And that’s sufficiently important for them to devote vast amounts of money and effort to. Certainly they’re not going to be happy for Chinese athletes only to succeed in sports where China have a grassroots tradition – particularly since Under-12s Trainer Manufacture was turned down as an exhibition sport.
The calculation that the Chinese Olympic authorities have made, in common with many others across the world, is obvious. They’ve worked out which sports have a high medal-to-competitiveness ratio. So they’ve pretty much ignored track and field because, prestigious though it is, you can wipe out its medal table advantage with a couple of good days’ swimming, sailing or rowing. In fact the whole weighting of the medal system seems designed to turn humans aquatic.
China are therefore suddenly a major medal threat in the rowing. Now, I suppose there’s nothing much wrong with this: it means rowing as a sport has reached new parts of the world. But it feels joyless. These Chinese athletes haven’t got into rowing from a love of “simply messing about in boats” but have been cynically sought out by government officials trawling that vast country for Steve Redgrave-alikes. It’s a sort of industrialisation of the pursuit of sporting success, which is probably inevitable, may lead to records tumbling, is far preferable to doping (although doesn’t preclude it) but will lead me to cheer for almost any other team.