With Olympic gold medals being dished out way too freely in recent times, it is good to hear that “rigour” is to be restored in Rio. Following a series of reforms that may sound oddly familiar, all competitors will sense a new robustness in that sultry South American air, a little more solid steel behind that samba beat.
Reforms were essential. Athletes were getting better and better trained. World records were being broken, time after time. Some countries were cynically playing the medal league table system by encouraging their young to specialise in the events they most excelled at. It was all getting out of hand. Countries and their athletes were all learning how to reach their greatest potential. It was obvious that things had to change.
EBacc and field
To the uninitiated, one young person’s efforts in a field may seem no worthier than any other and equally deserving of a possible gold medal. Experts, however, have identified that jumping, say, should be seen as a much greater human achievement than throwing. Similarly, being best in the world at running around a track 20 times is plainly a more important life skill than being best at running around it once. As for winning a gold by running for a mere 9 or so seconds? That is farcical.
Some distinction clearly needed to be made. So, this time, there are going to be substitute-metal medals for the winners of lesser events, with no podium or national anthem. They will be largely ignored in the medal table. All the competitors may have trained equally hard in their various disciplines, but we are never going to keep up with the Chinese if we keep pretending that new-fangled pursuits, such as cycling, are just as career-advancing as Olympic classics, such as chariot-racing.
Long and high jump
In a further reform – known as the Gove-Gibb adjustment – the only leap that will be officially measured by the judges is the athlete’s first attempt. A jumper may go on to beat personal bests (or even world records) but this will no longer count. The old three-attempt system allowed too many athletes the opportunity to get better, thereby distorting the all-important Olympic medal table.
Archers and others
Archers were starting to find it much too easy to score well, so their targets are now going to be moved even while they are taking aim. In one junior Olympic qualifying event this summer, 47 per cent of the young English archers missed the target completely under new and more complex rules. They are now classed as “substandard”. Hurdlers may also want to check new minimum measurements, as might gymnasts and weightlifters, among others.
Performance-enhancing coursework has been banned. Even under supposedly “controlled assessment” conditions, many countries have allowed or even encouraged abuses to thrive. This so-called “Russian approach” has become increasingly widespread, although perhaps the authorities need to ask themselves why such excessive intervention has come about (see below).
The removal of the exceptionally unfair and misleading national medal table would surely put an end to most of the corruption. Countries would no longer feel “measured” and the Olympics could go back to how they used to be – essentially about the best efforts of individuals. Countries could stick to coaxing and coaching young hopefuls, rather than controlling and corrupting them. Now there’s an idea.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire. Michael Tidd is on holiday