A land without gold

I was planning to go to the London Olympics this week, but then I looked at the airfares, and gave up. Instead I decided to go halfway there, to Singapore. The only thing it has in common with London is that the local English dialect is fairly incomprehensible, and they use those infuriating chunky powerpoints. Then again, the food’s better.

As is par for the course for newspapers the world over, the local Straits Times has been splashing Team Singapore’s Olympics achievements all over its front page. But from the perspective of Australia, or “ theindisputable champions at every Olympics as long as we’re calculating per capita”, I’ve been a little surprised by what counts as a noteworthy sporting triumph in this other island nation.

“S’pore’s women paddlers through to quarter-finals”, Tuesday’s Times boasted on the front page – and above the fold, at that. I was initially confused by the term ‘paddlers’, as I thought that the Olympics only issued medals for competence in swimming, rather than a lack thereof. But then I remembered I was in Asia, and realised that they meant ping pong.

The article went on to point out, with great anticipation, that if Feng and Wang triumphed in their matches on Tuesday night, Singapore would have two semifinalists and thus be assured of a bronze medal. How charmingly quaint, I thought, that in this country, you can be front page news when all you’ve achieved is a toss-up chance for a bronze.

In Australia, we reserve our praise and admiration for gold alone. You don’t even get that much acclaim for silver. Sure, you’ve helped your country with its overall tally, but all a silver medal means is that you failed by slightly less than anybody else.

Just in case I needed to lord it over any Singaporeans I met over the course of the day, I thought I’d research Singapore’s Olympic record. “In your face, Singapore,” I imagined saying, or perhaps I’d quip about their “Singapoor performances”. How I’d sneer! It would be such a magnificent performance that the IOC would have no choice but to issue me with a special honorary gold medal for gloating. Eddie McGuire would call my achievement “magnificent”, since, judging by his Opening Ceremony commentary, that’s the only adjective he knows.

And my research discovered that Singapore’s Olympic record offers precious little to brag about. Tan Howe Liang won silver in the weightlifting at the 1960 Olympics in Rome – in the lightweight division, I planned to scoff. And then it was a long drought until Beijing 2008, when the aforementioned Feng and Wang joined forces with a certain Li Jiawei to snaffle another silver in the women’s table tennis team event.

I’m sure that if you’re as patriotic an Australian as I am, you will already have fast-forwarded to the same incredulous conclusion that I reached: Singapore has never won an Olympic gold medal. (Given the temperature here, I didn’t bother to check the winter records.) They began competing in 1948 and since then, the anthem ‘Majulah Singapura’ has never rung out at any Olympiad.

What I’m saying is that when Emily Seebohm sobbed because she merely won silver in the 100m backstroke, she was upset because she’d merely done as well as any Singaporean has ever done in the Olympics.

But Singapore’s a smaller nation than Australia, you might be thinking. Yes, it is. There are only about 3 million Singaporean nationals as against our 22 million. Let’s call their population 10% of ours, to be generous. Plus, they’ve only competed as Singapore since 1948, and we’ve been there since the modern Games started in 1896. So they’ve competed in around half the Games, and you’d therefore expect Singapore to have netted around 5% of Australia’s 400-odd medals. That would be about 20 – but they’ve only got 2.

In other words, how awesome is Australia?

We do really, really well at the Olympics, by any yardstick. And, in fact, by the literal yardstick – in the Games’ history, we have won the ninth most medals. Let’s all pat ourselves on the back, shall we? Oi oi oi.

I kept thinking about this, and got a bit indulgent, and even more patronising. Good on Singapore, I thought, for being so proud of the two moments of Olympic glory it has managed to attain. It’s not winning or losing (and if it was, we’d totally smash them), it’s about playing the game. Those are the Olympic ideals right there. It’s about competing, not about whether you win the competition.

And then I started to compare Singapore’s attitude to the national disgrace that occurred on Monday morning, when our men’s 4x100m relay team came in fourth despite being favourite. Words like “shock”, “fail” and “disappointment” were used in our headlines. James Magnussen, who Nine’s commentator had predicted would set a world record in the first leg, gave a brusque interview and point-blank refused to explain why he had so shamed Australia.

I mean, look at the official result. Australia finished an implausible 1.70 seconds behind the victorious French. How is that even possible, unless you are willing to accept that in competitive sport, it’s possible just to have a bad day? How can this possibly be explained, unless you happen to view the Australian women’s unexpected victory in the same event as an example of that offensive cliche about how you “win some and lose some”?

As for Magnussen and his colleagues, the blame, of course, must go entirely to them. They owed us gold. We expected it, and they disappointed us. I expect a personal apology, frankly. And furthermore, I expect each of those swimmers to gain a late wildcard entry to another event at London 2012 and to win back the gold that they owe Australia. James Magnussen, I hope you know a bit of Greco-Roman wrestling.

In particular, I blame the team for choosing that unfortunate nickname. If we learnt one thing in Iraq, it’s that so-called “weapons of mass destruction” don’t always show up when you need them to.

Of course here in poor old Singapore, they probably would have been over the moon just to make the final, and downright chuffed if they’d finished fourth. The entire nation would have been thoroughly proud of their swimmers, I imagine. But that’s Singapore. They’ve never won a gold medal.

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