Monday, August 30, 2004

Hubris

If its petty-minded nationalism you want, listen to the crowing of the EU commission hailing the "European" sporting success at the Athens Olympics. "The European Union swept the floor at the Olympic Games," said chief Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinnen, at a press conference in Brussels.

Kemppinnen even had the nerve to seek to seek a round of applause for "Europe's success" from the assembled hacks, then expressing the hope that at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the expanding bloc will "threaten the dominance" of Asian countries in some sports.

This shameless triumphalism is based on the collective record of the teams sent by the 25 member states of the EU, which together won 82 gold medals and 286 medals overall. This compared with "only" 35 golds and 103 medals overall for the United States, 32 and 63 respectively for China and 27 and 92 for the Russian Federation.

However, while it does indeed look as if "Europe" had "swept the board", the commission has conveniently ignored a few minor little details that rather change the picture – the sizes of the respective teams.

The USA, which topped the league for gold medals, actually fielded 1,418 athletes; China fielded 774 and the Russian Federation 826. By contrast, the EU-25 sent a massive 4,198, including 749 from Italy, 711 from Greece and 706 from Germany.

Clearly, the medal-winning score is not only a function of sporting excellence, but also of size of team. By this reckoning, the EU-25 did not do well at all. In terms of gold medals, China's athletes delivered 4.13 percent; Russia 3.26 percent; and the USA 2.46. The EU-25, however, only managed 1.95 percent.

Comparisons with all results give a similar picture. Russia comes out on top with 11.1 percent; China 8.1 percent; and the USA 7.3 percent. The EU-25 trailed with a mere 6.8 percent. By these measures, therefore, "Europe" was the worst performer of the four major population blocs.

Britain, by contrast, actually did quite well on the team-size comparator. With 355 athletes, it produced nine golds and 30 medals overall, giving medals ratios of 2.53 and 8.45 percent, better than the USA in gold/overall performances and coming second after Russia in the "overall" stakes - easily beating the EU-25 on all counts.

Such performance, of course, went unremarked by the commission but at least Kemppinnen had enough sense to deny any plans for competitors to enter the Beijing Games under an EU flag, although his guarded "not yet", clearly betrayed the ambition. But no such caution from Prodi. In a message issued later in the day, he declared "In 2008 I hope to see the EU Member State teams in Beijing carry the flag of the European Union alongside their own national flag as a symbol of our unity", he said.

Unity it may signal – but that is unlikely. Performance it will not. Hubris? Most certainly.

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