Sunday, 21 August 2016

Where One Olympic Medal Is a Lot Better Than None

The last hope for Cameroon to win a 2016 Olympic medal arrived in the wrestling arena on Thursday night in the stern and determined form of Annabel Laure Ali, a 31-year-old who would vie for a bronze in the women’s freestyle competition. 

Gladiatorial rock music blasted from loudspeakers as Ali walked to the mat a few feet behind her opponent, Ekaterina Bukina of Russia.

It had been a tough Olympics for this Central African nation of 22 million. The news media in Cameroon belittled the performance as “Operation Zero Medals.” By Thursday, at 5 p.m., only Ali could save the country from an Olympic shutout.

“I win, I lose,” she had said in an interview about pressure a few hours earlier. “I don’t want to regret after.”

For all their egalitarian aspirations, embodied by the parade in the opening ceremony, the Olympics are a highly lopsided affair. Through Saturday afternoon, the five most victorious countries had claimed nearly 40 percent of all the medals, and the top 10 owned about 55 percent.

Most countries — more than 120 as of Friday — go home with nothing. For them, the Games are not so much about tallying up glories as staving off embarrassment. And for this sizable contingent, there is a huge difference between zero medals and one.

Consider what happened last week with Austria. It is a winter sports powerhouse, but when the Rio Games began, it was in the midst of a Summer Games medal drought.

The problem started at the 2012 London Olympics, when the country failed to take home so much as a bronze. The minister of sport at the time, Norbert Darabos, went to England during this debacle and denounced his country’s athletes as “Olympic tourists.” He promised a new law that would focus funding on the most promising sports.

“We have to change the structures in time so that we can win medals in Rio in 2016,” he fumed in a 2012 interview, “or else we will again be on the same level as Luxembourg. They won’t win anything in London, either.”

The upshot was “Projekt Rio,” a program funded with 20 million euros (about $22.5 million).
Where One Olympic Medal Is a Lot Better Than None
Where One Olympic Medal Is a Lot Better Than None
It quickly looked like a waste of money. On the first full day of competition, a well-regarded judo fighter lost in just 27 seconds. The beach volleyball team was knocked out by the Cubans. There were injuries and weak performances. A sailing duo in the 49er class that seemed poised for greatness failed to make the medal race.

Headlines at home were hostile. “Olympic Debacle! We live in the stone age,” wrote Kronen Zeitung. Österreich went with “Europe Laughs at Our Olympic Tourists,” and got personal and pithy with this one: “You Are Embarrassing!”

When Day 13 rolled around, all of Austria’s remaining chances resided with three sailing teams. Two of them came up short. The last of the races that day was the final in the mixed Nacra 17, a catamaran operated by a man and woman. (Hence “mixed.”) Tanja Frank and Thomas Zajac, the very blond Austrian Nacra 17 team, were hardly considered one of the country’s more promising medal threats at the start of the Games.

“We were really not in the small circle of favorites,” Zajac said Thursday night. He was sitting on a sofa on the roof of Austria House, an event dining room for invited guests as well as party headquarters for Brazilians who want to stop by and dance outside to a disc jockey. “There were three or four favorites and then five or six that were in the hunt. We were one of those five or six.”

They belonged in the circle of favorites, it turned out. Sailing has a complex system of scoring that factors in previous performances, but as soon as the pair crossed the finish line, they knew they had won bronze. So they did something that seems hard to imagine: They jumped into the water.

“You win a medal, and you don’t really care about the water,” said Zajac, 30, his nose sunburned. “You feel like you’ve survived everything.”

The news media in Austria announced that the national summer medal drought had ended after exactly 2,923 days. Christian Kern, the country’s chancellor, posted an exultant note on Facebook. The pair received hundreds of emails, texts and messages. Frank, who until Wednesday had only been asked about her I.Q., which has been reported to exceed 155, was finally asked about something else.

“The next day,” she said, “we were on the cover of every newspaper in Austria.”

Life for the national Olympic committee’s spokesman, Wolfgang Eichler, has since improved, too. The notion of leaving Rio empty-handed, of another four years of drought counting, was hard to contemplate. A single bronze does not exactly represent a turnaround. “But now it’s easier to do my work,” Eichler said. “It’s not as though now is all good, but at least we’re celebrating a medal.”

At the Olympic wrestling venue, Ali was trying do for Cameroon what Frank and Zajac had done for Austria. The match was the only close one of the night. At 4 minutes 17 seconds, Ali grabbed one of Bukina’s legs and forced her to hop backward and out of the ring, tying the score at 3-3.

The seconds ticked down. Ali lunged again for Bukina’s legs, missing this time, then dropped to one knee and lunged again. But Bukina twisted just enough to deflect Ali, who wound up on both knees. When Bukina swung around and grabbed her by the waist, she won 2 points. It happened at 5:58.

Two seconds later, the match was over. Ali and Cameroon were out of the Olympics. It happened so fast that even Bukina seemed stunned.

Ali passed through the interview zone without speaking, looking exhausted and inconsolable. But on her way out of the arena, she stopped to speak to a French reporter. “I could taste the bronze,” she told him.

“She is to be celebrated, of course,” said her coach, Dieudonné Ebouele Motto. “Because in all our delegation, she is the only one to have done something like this.”

Motto was speaking in French, through a volunteer interpreter named Davide Adams, who happened to be from Cameroon. She has a radiant smile, but even as it flashed, over and over, she said she wanted to cry.61COMMENTS

“So close,” she said, writhing a little. “Did you see how close it was? It was like she was going to win and then suddenly, she didn’t. I can’t believe it. Oh my God. I can’t believe it.”

The cosmic unfairness of the Games then started to bother her.

“The U.S. gets all the medals,” she said, finding the seam between outrage and amusement. “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you share?” www.nytimes.com


Copyright © Africa 24 News. All rights reserved. Distributed by Africa Metro Global Media (www.africametros.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

Africa 24 News publishes around multiple reports a day from more than 40 news organizations and over 100 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which Africa 24 News does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify Africa 24 News as the publisher are produced or commissioned by Africa 24 News. To address comments or complaints, Please Contact Us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Contact Form

Name

Email *

Message *