YES: Glory boards help spur on athletes (The Straits Times)

SEA Games: Do medal tables matter?

DO AWAY with the medal table? You might as well tell everyone that the Games will not be fun any more.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) tried.

In the past two Youth Olympic Games (YOG), it refused to put up any official medal table, insisting that the event’s ideal is to encourage more youth to take up sports, and that it was not just another race for gold for the participating countries.

It is a noble ideal but the price the IOC willingly paid was that the YOGs will not be as widely watched as the main Olympics because a medal table is not merely a dutiful record of medals won by participating countries, or a soulless collection of numbers only historians find delight in analysing.

More than that, distilling these multi-sport extravaganzas into simple numbers makes it the easiest point of entry for members of the public who wish to understand the bottom line of these large-scale events.

Think about it: Will the average guy on the street even bother to learn about the inspirational tale of reigning 400m Olympic champion Kirani James, if his interest isn’t piqued by checking the London Games medal table and seeing an unfamiliar country called Grenada sitting proudly just ahead of India?

James was able to lift his Caribbean island nation – with a population of 110,000 – past the second-most populous country in the world. And it was the medal table that could provide such joy to Grenada citizens.

But really, who does not get a kick out of following the medal tally in progress at any Games, and see how the top nations wage a mock “arms race” to plunder the most gold medals?

Next to watching superstars like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps break records, it is silly but gleeful fun to see countries like China and the United States trying to outdo each other in their private battle for supremacy atop the Olympic table.

No doubt, this has led to claims that the table is used as a jingoistic tool for top-placed countries to spread propaganda about how great and powerful they are. There is no doubt too that such acts are distasteful, but to do away with the table just to stop countries from bragging is too draconian.

That is because, sometimes, countries do need an ego boost. How else can Grenada’s citizens feel on top of the world, if they cannot celebrate their country’s maiden appearance on the Olympic table, courtesy of James’ gold?

Closer to home, few would have been unmoved to see Singapore back on the Olympic medal table in 2008 – placed between South Africa and Sudan – when it won its second Games medal after a 48-year wait.

It led to the Republic setting up the Olympic Pathway Programme and later the Sports Excellence Scholarship to assist aspiring local athletes to reach similar heights in the coming Olympics.

So, rather than be perturbed by the jingoism of major sporting nations atop the medal table, why not acknowledge the inspirational qualities the tally has on small nations trying their hardest to reward their sportsmen’s endeavours?

Let’s not forget the pride among the athletes in helping their nations climb the medal table. Yes, patriotism is still an effective inspirational tool for sportsmen and women, even in this globalised age, when athletes are willing to travel and train all over the world just to gain an edge over their rivals.

Joseph Schooling has spent close to half his life away from Singapore, having based himself in the US to swim and train with top American talents. But few doubt him when he said he will be “looking forward to doing Singapore proud” at next month’s SEA Games. He is targeting nine golds – which will be a significant boost to Singapore’s haul in the 11-country SEA Games medal table.

The regional Games has had its share of medal-table controversies, with past host nations including arcane traditional sports to boost their standings in the tally.

Yet, it also symbolises the tolerance among Asean neighbours, who are willing to let the hosts have their moments of glory.

After all, the SEA Games comes around pretty quickly. In two years, it will be back again with a blank medal table, an empty canvas for Asean nations to again fill with their golden exploits.

That, perhaps, sums up the essence of a medal table. It is blank at the start of the Games but by the end of the spectacle, it will be coloured by so many different countries that each medal table tells a unique numerical history – simple enough for anyone to comprehend, yet rich enough for fans to delve in further for stories of inspirational athletes.

How coincidental is it that, on its 50th year of Independence, Singapore should be hosting next month’s SEA Games, and trying to eclipse its previous gold medal haul of – you guessed it – 50.

And if the Singapore athletes manage this feat, there is only one way anyone will know about it: on a medal tally.

hankeong@sph.com.sg

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