Goldfish bowl

Quantity or Quality? Thoughts on medal targets, part two

It is quality rather than quantity that matters.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
In the previous blog post I posed a question that many federations and governing bodies are faced with when they are considering an overall country wide medal target – that is, should they chase quantity or quality? For national governing bodies of individual sports, the likelihood is that they will favour the win and leave the quality for somebody else to wonder about. This is because if an individual sports governing body has more success this provides more clout, more funding allocation and therefore a more sustainable financial basis for future generations. This is the economics of sustaining performance, let alone succeeding further.
This week I will explore the other side of the argument for quality. First let me begin by posing some questions;
Who came top of the Olympic medal table in Beijing, 2008?
Answer – China, of course!
Now let me ask you;
What is your abiding sporting memory of the Beijing Olympics?
Any chance you’re thinking of this bloke?
So now let me ask you, where did Jamaica come on medal table? In fact how many medals did Jamaica win? If this question hasn’t occurred to you in the past you are now about to Google the 2008 medal table. Let me save you the bother – the answer is 15th and 10, respectively (an unusually low number to gain 15th, due to the 5 golds won).
Perhaps, except for a few individuals involved in Jamaican sport administration, I wonder if anyone really cares where they came in the medal table. That’s because Jamaican athletes set the sporting world alight in the sprint events. Now, of course they had an extraordinary athlete, in fact a once in a generation athlete, in Usain Bolt, but also the unprecedented Shelly Ann-Fraser & Sherone Simpson’s sweep of the 100m, Veronica Campbell-Brown in the 200m, Melanie Walker in the 400m hurdles and of course the relays. They bossed the blue riband events in the blue riband of sports of athletics.
In this instance, quality beats quantity hands-down. So what are the arguments for quality over quantity;
Memorable moments.
With a few exceptions our memories of sporting highlights rarely comes down to the quantities. Germany humiliated Brazil in the World Cup semi-final in 2014, Norway ruled in Pyeongchang, British Cycling ruled the velodrome for the last decade, but these memories are in part coloured by the team sweeping all before them but just as much by the dancing footwork of Miroslav Klose, the imperious efforts of Johanenes Høsflot Klæbo, the searing excitement of Sir Chris Hoy cresting the bend in the Omnium which are arguably the abiding moments that imprint on the mind. Moments have to be the nub of the argument for quality over quantity, they create the memories that stay with you the next day during the drive into work, the water-cooler discussions, the goosebumps.
Archery, Taekwondo and Speed Skating are minor sports in most countries – not in South Korea, there they mean a lot. Rugby is all important in New Zealand; Ice Hockey, American Football and Baseball in North America; Javelin in Finland; Cricket in India – the list goes on. Arguably the only sport that dominates as the national game in so many countries is football – which is why football World’s Cup is the number one, single sport, competition. Whichever way you spin it, victory in a nation’s favoured sports means more than in the minor sports. Certainly these traditions have to start somewhere, (sports transformed by achievement, such as cycling in the UK in the 2000s; speed skating from the Reformation in 1889 for Netherlands), but there is an undoubted added significance to a medal/win in an event that is cherished for a particular societal group. In the UK, for example, there is a swirling argument for basketball to be supported, for its prominence in the inner cities and for also remaining the second largest participation sport for teenagers behind football, whereas most medals come from sports that are the preserve of those that can afford it (rowing, sailing etc).
More than the outcome.
An overemphasis on ‘more’, can place a disproportionate focus and attention on the outcome. The extreme aspect of this perspective neglects the value in the comradeship invoked by sport, i.e. my validity as a competitor is dependent on my competitors. It also is at risk of valuing a medal above a medallists, i.e. the cost of supporting a single runner is a fraction compared to that of a hockey team, but in a hockey team you have tens of representatives with the opportunity to inspire on.
Also the process of pursuing excellence, through goals, strategy, training, preparation, priority, diligence, learning, industry, resilience, determination, guts, is a journey full of riches and arguably (some would say a cliche – but not I) that standing on the start line is a greater achievement than the outcome of winning a medallion that costs £100 to make, or to be the best at kicking a ball into an arbitrary space more often than the other team. The process rarely makes the headlines or is part of back-page moments, but it is the story of how the end result was achieved. If the outcome dominates our thinking in pursuit of glory we are at risk of not asking enough questions about how and why we do what we do.
Role models
I, like many of you, look up to many athletes. I take pride in the fighting spirit and exhaustive humility of Cathy Freeman as she won in Sydney. But equally my heart was moved by Yana Novotna’s broken, tearful solace from the Duchess of Kent, after being defeated by Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final in 1993. Mara Abbot, being overhauled in the last moment of the Rio road race, reflects on the privilege of a broken heart and I am full of admiration.
Jack Nicholas is a hell of a golfer, but showed us something about human nature as he took Tony Jacklin’s 3 foot putt away and tied the 1969 Ryder Cup. These are the true champions, win, lose or draw that gives sport it’s magic. If we are chasing the absolutes in performance times, are we taking the time and effort to invest in the person, developing their character, their honour and their privileged place in society. Are elite athletes required, encouraged or left to their own devices when it comes to developing themselves and giving back to a society that funds them?
So what’s the conclusion – quantity or quality?
The essence of sport requires a winner. Pursuing victory is part of the core essence of sport. Taking the crown again and again is to sustain performance – as grand an achievement as taking the first victory. Spreading that winning habit and mindset across a system that injects success in all quarters of a sporting system can literally inspire, increase the stock market, spike the birth rate. Few teams, systems or countries would turn away achievement or abdicate a victory from a winning position. BUT, sport has to be about more than mass quantity. The reason? Because sport is dwarfed by the champions out there in our day-to-day lives, suffering, over-coming the odds, bouncing-back, living a life full of challenges and still endeavouring. Therefore, sport has to sparkle. It has to move you for it to be truly worthwhile – because that surely is the aspect of sport that most conjures the wonder, empathy, respect and ultimately hope that you can project onto yourself, to find more in you and the people around you.
“I try to write 1,000 words. Some people say it’s not about the quantity but about the quality. I disagree. You need to write a lot in order to figure out what’s good and what’s crap.”
Nathaniel Rich
The two perspectives of quantity and quality are inextricably blended. This is not a polar argument to pick one above the other.
One example that will be interesting to watch…Recently the Australian Sports Commission announced their change in strategy away from pursuing just medal count. Peter Conde the AIS director said, “For elite sport this is about national pride and inspiration through sporting success, and that comes from more than a medal count,’’ he said. “That comes through creating great role models and great Australians who understand what it takes to be successful and can engage and give back to their communities. We want a real focus on the value that athletes bring to the community.’’ This strikes me as a brave step onto a new path to explore the worth of high-performance sport, a risky step with a society brought up on expectation and medal table prominence – I’m already inspired and will be excited to see how this unfolds!
Ultimately you should be the judge!

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