As the first week of Tokyo 2020 draws to a close and our attention moves towards the highly anticipated track and field of the athletics programme, the last seven days have once again shown us the power of sport to inspire and entertain.
While most people have no idea what the athletes go through to make it to the Games, they work on the assumption that it is nothing short of incredible just to get there, let alone to emerge triumphant.
In fact, it is their diversity that makes the Olympics the greatest show on earth. An all-encompassing event that can bind athletes from so many disparate disciplines where they share the same title of Olympian. We are consistently wooed by the superhuman efforts of these people, and that’s before we even get to the awe-inspiring Paralympics at the end of August.
However, amidst all the competitions, we are reminded that not all sports are created equally. Some sports are known for their finesse such as rhythmic gymnastics where women perform eloquent and free-flowing movements to music all the while controlling the tossing and catching of rope, hoop, ball, club or ribbon.
Some sports are known for their aggression such as the martial arts of judo, karate, and taekwondo where athletes follow the conventions of their sport to score points in one-on-one combat. Be that, in general, through grappling in judo, kicking and punching in taekwondo, or punching and kicking in karate.
Some sports are known for the control of the smallest movements in the human body, where stillness and calm are essential for success such as pistol shooting and archery. Whereas others are about controlling and coordinating the largest muscles, at high speed, while trying to move twice their bodyweight overhead, such as the snatch or clean and jerk in weightlifting.
Some sports are all about the individual and what that athlete can bring out of themselves at the moment of truth like much of the running, race-walking and sprinting disciplines. Others have to contend with what mother nature throws at them and their success or failure is dependent on their capacity to adapt to ever-changing conditions, as seen in the surfing and sailing regatta.
This was never more apparent than in the surfing final where Brazil’s Italo Ferreira had his board snapped in half under the immense force from the swell caused by the ensuing tropical storm Nepartak in the Tsurigasaki Bay, on his opening wave. This, before going on to take gold with a
replacement surfboard in the first ever surfing contest in Olympics history.
Many sports have to master the control of equipment and objects in their search for glory.
Obvious examples of tennis, badminton, golf, cycling, and table tennis spring to mind. But only one sport has to control another living organism, as the riders have to do across the equestrian programme when their partnership with their horse is tested to the limit.
There are sports that have been a part of the Olympics from day one such as the classic field events of discus and long jump, and those that are new additions as of this year, such as skateboarding and sport climbing.
For some athletes, their Olympics journey ends in the briefest of circumstances. Take the gymnasts who specialise in a single apparatus, such as the pommel horse. They have an elimination round before their competition begins in earnest and should that one attempt go awry their dreams are over before their competition even begins. Compare that to some team sports, such as hockey, where there are two pools of six teams with four countries progressing to the quarter-finals after a guaranteed five matches before even the least successful entrant departs Tokyo.
All this diversity makes for great viewing and confirms that sports are not created equally, even if they are rewarded equally.
A gold medal is a gold medal is a gold medal.
The gold medal won by Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy in the bow position and Paul O’Donovan in the stroke position in the men’s lightweight double sculls at the Sea Forest Waterway yesterday is the same medal as that handed out to Japan’s skateboarding sensation, 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya, in the women’s street competition.
The rowers endured heats, a semi-final and a final, each race more lung-busting than the other, safe in the knowledge that the fastest boat on the water will get its dues. Compare that to the high-fiving comradery between the competing skateboarders, which cut an altogether different looking competitive environment. Forty-five-second street runs followed by a series of discrete tricks each to be scored objectively by a panel of judges, with as much joy and celebration coming from their competitors as there was from their compatriots.
Such contrast is the essence of the Olympic movement. How one sport such as rowing, known to be highly technical, brutally physical, pushing athletes to the very limits of their physiology, all the while being heavily dependent on a coach, can share the limelight with a sport like skateboard
ing, which is also highly technical, but is largely coach-free, as the very culture and essence of the sport is built on generation-X pushing the boundaries of human endeavour in a very different way, by not conforming, and trying to break new ground on what is possible with a skateboard and a flight of steps.
And yet, it is likely that Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan and Momiji Nishiya have one more thing in common, and that is that they wouldn’t change their sport for love nor money, even if one seemed to require a lot less time and effort to reach the top of the podium than the other.
Because for most, the sport you choose to do finds you as much as you find it.
In the same way that the rowers wouldn’t change a thing about what they do, neither would the skateboarders. Their toil is specific to their sport and bears no comparison to the other.
What excites one is likely to bore the other. In fact, most of what each do on a daily basis under the theme of practice is likely to sound ludicrous to the other.
We can ask whether some gold medals are tougher to earn than others. We can reduce it down to physical attributes, psychological toughness, competition schedule, you name it, but at the end of the day we may find ourselves belittling the effort invested by everyone who has skin in the game.
It is likely that the hours committed by all athletes to their respective sports are more comparable than any other variable we could come up with from the outside looking in.
There is something deeply satisfying about seeing so much diversity rewarded so equally.
A gold medal is a gold medal is a gold medal.