The games America plays

Even as the London Olympics commence, we have already been informed that the United States will emerge with the maximum gold medals from the competition. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.
Updated on Jul 27, 2012 09:38 PM IST
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Even as the London Olympics commence, we have already been informed that the United States will emerge with the maximum gold medals from the competition. At least, those are the projections made by a bunch of economists, one even by a global accounting firm.

Given the track record of economists in the 21st century, the Chinese may be cackling at these predictions. These, though, may well be correct, but it doesn’t take algorithms and thousands of simulations to figure out that America is likely to be dominant in the Olympic arena, possibly even a baboon with an abacus could throw up similar findings. But it may just detract from any enthusiasm Olympic viewers may have worked up for exciting events like canoe slalom or trampoline.

Interestingly, one model figures that the Indian squad is on pace for five gold medals. If they’re handing out golds for best tantrum by a tennis duo, or worst officials to sportspersons ratio, that could make some sense. Otherwise, that makes the entire process just about as credible as the American gun lobby in the aftermath of that dark night in Aurora, Colorado.

At the very least, it takes the Olympics for the US to pay attention to what the rest of the world is playing at. And, for a change, play along.

Perhaps part of the fascination is the five-ring circus these London Games are turning out to be, even before the opening ceremony. Like the Olympic Delivery Authority, with nearly 300 enforcers, out to ensure brand compliance, which appears even more overbearing than the security apparatus. That’s a sideshow more appealing than some global games.

Take football, which doesn’t quite have legs in North America. The enthusiasm generated for the recent European championship ranked somewhere below that for the Winter Olympic sport of curling.

Given this level of disregard for the top global sport, dismissed here as soccer, there may have been cause to worry about the health of American economists who could have suffered seizures when exposed to headlines like: ‘Greece out of Euro’. Fortunately, there were no reports of ill effects.

The fault here lies with America’s obsession with sports that the rest of the world mostly ignores, like football, the American version, or hockey, the sort played with a puck on ice. The other two major franchise sports in North America are baseball and basketball, which do attract more international interest, than, say, competitive croquet.

That’s what the back pages of the tabloids, the barometer of sporting spirit, focus on. So you may find LeBron James of the NBA’s Miami Heat often plastered there, but not a Cristiano Ronaldo.

The major sport remains American football, in terms of fandom and advertising. American football is probably about the only sport, outside of Sumo wrestling, where 350-pound hulks are considered athletes. The average football contest lasts about four hours, of which there is actual play only during four quarters of 15 minutes each. Which explains why the championship game, the Super Bowl, is known worldwide more for commercials rather than the teams or the result. Or wardrobe malfunctions.

But Americans don’t care that others don’t care. After winning the Super Bowl in February, New York Giants player Brandon Jacobs said of the squad’s quarterback: “Two hundred and twenty-eight countries just saw Eli (Manning).”

While believing in the myth of the universal appeal of these sports, American fans prefer their alternative universe. That may be the reason Major League Baseball’s championship is called the World Series, and the winners of the Super Bowl are called World Champions, though the National Football League doesn’t even feature a Canadian team.

Now as we head into the London Olympics, America joins the rest of the world in the international arena, sort of. Until then, the games North Americans play can be taken as another example of what Republican presidential wannabe Mitt Romney describes as “American exceptionalism”.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal

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