ON DAY two of the Beijing Olympics, one Sunday newspaper indulged in a little hand-wringing over the failure of any of the British cyclists to finish the men’s road race. If it wasn’t a disaster then it was certainly a portent of one. The question had to be asked: had the wheels fallen off already?
Eight gold medals later that looked pretty silly. And so it is at best premature, at worst idiotic, to pass any definitive verdict too early in any games, even if a mood of giddy excitement is settling around a Scottish team that on Monday set a new record for gold medals – 13, to go with eight silver and 12 bronze.
Yet this, arguably, is what many of us have been a little guilty of: racing to a verdict on the Scottish team’s performance – seduced by the fact we are sitting prettily third in the medals table – with too many events still to come, and with the current picture terribly distorted by the bounty of medals in judo, a sport the Glasgow organisers included on the programme precisely because it screamed “medals!”.
One question to be asked is, have we peaked too early? But a more important question, for those interested in comparisons, is: how does the Scottish performance really, truly rank against previous Games? Is a comparison even possible?
Well, here goes. Judo, with 13 of the 33 medals, has not so much distorted the picture as turned it upside down and back-to-front, while allowances must also be made for the inclusion of para-sports for the first time in a Commonwealth Games.
Muddying the waters further is the question of home advantage, though this seemed a moot point in 1986, when the Edinburgh games saw Scotland win a record 33 medals (a mark equalled yesterday) but just three gold medals despite a boycott by most of the African countries (though a trick was surely missed when judo was omitted. What were they thinking?)
Are all medals equal? Do we even want to go there? Comparisons across sports are tricky, though there are some in which a Commonwealth final doesn’t look too different to a world or Olympic final – track cycling and rugby sevens, to name two.
It would be a stretch to make a similar claim for judo. Of all the countries that won medals at the London Olympics, only five are competing in Glasgow – and four of them are the home nations (Canada, who won a bronze in London, is the other).
Judo will not be included at the Gold Coast games in 2018. Basketball will. And even the most optimistic of Scots will admit that basketball will not yield 13 medals, as judo has.
Perhaps the best like-for-like comparison is Manchester in 2002, which did include judo. These were like the first post-dark ages games for Scotland. After the nadir of Kuala Lumpur in 1998, which returned Scotland’s least successful squad of all time (full disclosure: I was a member of the cycling team and did my bit by failing miserably to represent my country with anything approaching honour), the team went to Manchester, almost a home games, with four years of lottery funding behind it.
It was the first “professional” team, though levels of professionalism varied according to the sport, and the individual. At the time it seemed that Scotland did well: tenth in the medals table, with six golds, eight silvers and 16 bronzes. There was much to be optimistic about. But, again, judo skewed the picture: ten of the 30 medals were won on the mat, even if only Graeme Randall won gold.
It was 2006 and Melbourne when eight years of lottery funding really began to bear ripe, delicious fruit. There was no judo in Melbourne, but still a healthy bounty of medals – one less than Manchester, but 11 golds, which was almost double the 2002 total, and the record that was broken here in Glasgow on Monday.
Taking out the judo and para-sports medals, the Scotland total in Glasgow currently stands at 14, five of them gold. This suggests there is still an awful lot to be done, and medals to be won, if Team Scotland is to surpass the achievements of the team in Melbourne, with their 11 golds and 29 in total.
And yet, and yet… having spent 715 words attempting to argue, as gently as possible, that Scotland’s overall performance might not be as mind-blowingly and historically remarkable as the medals table seems to indicate, I’d now like to advance another, more important – probably also more popular – argument.
The quirks and inconsistencies are the whole point of the Commonwealth Games. It is these that produce the best stories (far more important than statistics and medals tables) and explain their magic and charm. There is no other major sporting event in the world where Chico Mohammed and Ali Shan Muzahir, the Glasgow restaurateurs called up to the Pakistani bowling team, could compete alongside Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
When the Olympics get an Eric “The Eel” Moussambani or an Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, they are embarrassed by them, and seek to ensure their like will never bask in the warm glow of the games ever again. The Commonwealth Games are full of the ancestors of Moussambani and Edwards, and all the richer for it.
We shouldn’t ignore the medals table, but we shouldn’t take it too seriously – and we should certainly look beyond it, because that’s where you will find the real point of these Games.