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Aug 17

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Jolly Good Show Chaps

Some of the words used in sport can be puzzling. Peleton is an old French word which originally meant a small body of soldiers or group of people who share a common activity. In relation to a group of riders in a cycling race, it did not appear in print until about 1951. It’s one of the words we hear a lot during Le Tour de France.

However, during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, we also heard about a kieran. That puzzled me. The only Kieran I know of in sport is the Australian swimmer Kieran Perkins. I was wrong. The spelling is kierin and evidently it comes from a Japanese word for wheels. In cycling, it seems to refer to a particular type of race.

Another mystery term which sent me to the dictionary was 6m Elliott. That one hasn’t reached the authoritative British and American dictionaries I use, but sources on the Web tell me that it is the name of a type of boat.

I didn’t watch the synchronised swimming events at the Olympics. I find them ungracious, even laughable. But I did discover that two of the moves are the eggbeater and the flamingo. I wonder if they will ever reach the dictionary in this context?

When it came to the end of a race on the track or in the pool, there was enormous excitement about who won, who achieved the gold medal, their time, and the margin by which they won. To me, many of them looked like photo-finishes. Those winning times and margins have changed over the years. Here are some figures for the 100 yards/metres:

1896
Gold 12.0 seconds
Silver 12.2
Bronze 12.6

During the 1960s and to the 1990s, progressively more elaborate Omega electronic timing devices and photo-finish cameras were brought into use. Results now look like this:

2008
Gold 9.69 seconds
Silver 9.89
Bronze 9.91

We are down to hundredths and even thousandths of a second. I understand that in 2012 a very well known swimmer won his race by one-thousandth of a second.

I might be old fashioned and out of step, but I really wonder if these minuscule differences mean very much in terms of the glory that is afforded to gold medal winners and the ‘heartbreak’ and ‘disaster’ experienced by some silver and bronze medal winners. Perhaps a medal could also be given to the last person in the race, recognising and rewarding their equally magnificent struggle?

However, medals obviously mean a great deal more to religiously inclined and superstitious participants. We saw competitors kissing pendants on their necklaces, crossing themselves, talking to God, kneeling in thanks, facing Mecca, gesticulating to the sky, the lot. One winner said, ‘Sunday is a holy day and I have been blessed’. After a hurdle race, the silver and bronze medal winners thanked God but the winner commented that she was not a religious person so ‘I can’t really go there’.

When I’ve watched the similar genuflections of winners of tennis tournaments, it has always seemed to me that the person is by implication thanking their God that the other person lost. And maybe it’s a pretty primitive concept that God will personally respond to one sportsperson’s prayers but ignore the myriad starving children round the world.

Meanwhile, in the pecking order of ‘most successful’ countries in the 2012 Games, we read that China and the USA were at the top of the list. That’s based on a medal count. On the other hand, if you look at the more realistic ratio of the number of medals to the population of those countries, the USA is 47th and China is 73rd. They’re not so great, after all.
In the same list, Grenada, Jamaica, Bahamas and New Zealand are the top four. Australia is no. 11. Great Britain is no. 20. Russia is no. 34. Canada is no. 45. No need to boast ? it’s just a different perspective.

One of the most remarkable statements I heard during the Olympiad, uttered by a reporter on our official Olympics TV channel in Australia, was that Isambard Kingdom Brunel invented the Industrial Revolution. I do hope that someone has since told him that the great Brunel wasn’t born until about 40 years after the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The same reporter also told us that marathon running is merely a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about, doesn’t it?
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The alternative ‘winner’ statistics are in an inter-active table here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/interactive/2012/aug/07/olympics-2012-alternative-medal-table-visualised

? Copyright Brian Barratt 2012

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To read more of Brian’s golden words click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

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