Monday, August 13, 2012

Nationality - Olympics and representation

Note to readers: Spelling conforms to UK English. I am going back to my pre-US days and since the Games are being hosted by London, it is a nod to the mother country of the English language. 

Not that there is any law stopping me from using whatever version of English I please, US, UK, Australian or even Hinglish (Hindi mixed with English) or, for that matter, pig Latin. Just thinking, I am going to try pig Latin one day and give you readers the legend, it will be like an encrypted message, ha ha.

There are always some heavyweights when it comes to international sports. Countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom along with some European countries such as France and Germany, always come out on tops in the overall medal tally.

As a native born Indian, I usually share the common lament of my compatriots: When, oh when, are we going to see our tricolour fluttering at the medal ceremony and hear "Jana Gana Mana" being played?

To their credit, Indians did win a handful of medals this time. And I wholeheartedly congratulate our athletes, Vijay Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and Saina Nehwal for keeping our 'jhanda/kodi' ('jhanda' - meaning flag in Hindi, 'kodi' meaning flag in Tamil) flying high. Check out this slideshow on Indian medal winners at this year's Olympics on India Today.

I really did not want to get into whining mode. Honestly. I am not going to whine about how our government doesn't do enough, how our parents don't encourage us to pursue sports, blah, blah, sniffle. This post is not about one particular country. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is about how many nations participate in the making of a champion or a series of winners.

Training away from home, or at home with foreign help -

Take the example of the 10, 000 metres winner, Mo Farah. He was born in Somalia, emigrated to the UK when he was about eight and trained in Portland, Oregon, United States with one of America's famous long distance running and marathon coaches, Alberto Salazar. His training partner, the American, Galen Rupp, took home the silver medal. Isn't that a sweet victory for the trio of coach and pupils?

To add to this pinnacle of achievement, Mo Farah also took home the gold for the 5, 000 metres.

I found this article on the British newspaper site, the Telegraph, about how his move to the US transformed his athletic career.

[Incidentally, Portland, Oregon was my residence of a few years and still is a place I call home in my heart. It is a verdant green city surrounded by the snow capped Cascades, forests, trails and waterfalls and gets a lot of rain, just like the British Isles.
The flag bearer of the US Olympic team at the opening ceremony in London, the fencer, Mariel Zagunis is from Beaverton, part of the Portland metro area, too, so that makes me doubly proud.]

Mo Farah's win is a prime example of a product of multiple nationalities. This goes not only for athletes who represent their home country but train abroad but also those who train at home with foreign coaches.

CNN had a few inspiring stories of athletes from lesser privileged backgrounds and impoverished nations, who were helped by either emigrating to a developed nation or help from athletes of well-to-do nations.
The runner who was born in Sudan but who trains in and represents the US, Lopez Lomong, and this Rwandan mountain bike rider, Adrien Niyonshuti, featured on CNN's site, are two such respective examples.

Then, there is the fabled Chinese 16-year-old swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who apparently had a lower split time in the last 50 metres of her 400 metre swimming race than many male greats. She trained in Australia.

Major International Sports

In recent years, India, with its mad craze for the game of cricket, had its national team coached by top notch former players from abroad such as Australians, John Wright and Greg Chappell. India's World Cup winning team of 2011 was coached by Gary Kirsten of South Africa. Many top Indian players have honed their skills on the green fields of English county cricket grounds, as mentioned in this article on Indian Express.

There are many athletes who have benefited from training and competing in the US. European and Asian basketball players such as Rudy Fernandez who played for Spain and Yao Ming who has represented China, have been members of NBA teams in the US.

Similarly, many international soccer players are members of top European leagues, helping them to compete with and learn from the best in the world.

Sponsorship -

Many athletes are sponsored by multinational companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiAdidas and Nike, who by their very definition owe their roots to one country but subsequent reach to many.

Immigration - 

If you noticed, there is quite a bit of racial diversity in the delegations of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, countries that typically attract a lot of immigrants from Asia, Africa and other European countries.

The US gymnastics team is the quintessential immigrant success story. I probably don't need to emphasize why I picked this, gymnastics nut as I am:) but there is another reason. Unlike basketball or tennis, gymnastics was not traditionally a US-dominated sport. Sure, America has a tradition of acrobatics, too.
However, utter the word gymnastics, and one would always be reminded of Russian and Romanian girls and guys, with their pointy toes and toned, graceful bodies like ballet dancers. The former USSR, Romania and some of the other Eastern European countries, along with China and Japan, were the leaders on the international gymnastics stage. Even today, Russia dominates events such as rhythmic gymnastics, just check out these London 2012 results on BBC.
Here is a great piece on Russian gymnasts in Splice Today.

In the 80s and 90s, this slowly started to change. Today, the Americans are a force to reckon with and it is very rare to not see the Stars and Stripes being raised at a gymnastics medal ceremony.

This is the site of USA Gymnastics with records of champions from the revival of the modern Olympic Games until now.

Here is a very informative slideshow on the history of US gymnastics on the bleacher report. I learnt that Americans did win medals at international events in the early 1900s but lost out later to European countries, Japan and China.

If you watched the drama of the women's balance beam final with Aly Raisman of the US initially being pipped to the bronze by Catalina Ponor of Romania, you might have noticed a certain grey-haired gentleman rise up in the stands, asking Aly's coach to appeal the decision.
There was a subsequent appeal and after re-evaluation by the judges, the bronze was awarded to Aly.

That distinguished gentleman was Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta Karolyi, was sitting right next to him. Bela and Marta Karolyi are the famous coaches of champions past and present, one of whom happens to be the icon, Nadia Comaneci, the first woman to score a  perfect 10, the shining star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. This couple defected to the US from the Romania before the fall of communism. Marta Karolyi was the Team Co-ordinator for the US this time.

Nastia Liukin, the Beijing Olympics individual all-round champion, was born in Russia to a father and mother who were both gymnastics champions. They emigrated to the US when Nastia was a little girl and the US got a gem of an immigrant family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Then there is Liang Chow. This is the coach of Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist in the individual all round final of the women's artistic gymnastics event in Beijing four years ago.
This year, he is the proud coach of the gold medalist in the women's individual all-round final, Gabrielle Douglas, known more famously as Gabby Douglas. She made history as the first African-American woman to win the title. I haven't seen any non-Caucasian win it before.

Liang Chow represented China as a world class medal-winning gymnast before emigrating to the US. Many former champion gymnasts such as Daniela Silivas and Nadia Comaneci of Romania and Svetlana Boginskaya of the former USSR have moved to the US, too.

The United States is not the only one to benefit from immigration. Among the young, pony-tailed, teeny-bopper brigade of gymnasts in London, there was a veteran, Oksana Chusovitina. This woman is 37 years old,  a gnarled old tree in the world of gymnastics where even 25 is considered over the hill. She is one of the two older gymnasts in competition in this Olympiad.
She managed to surprise us all with her somersaults and flips. Her story is remarkable not only because of her age. Her unique and trying circumstances have contributed to a life full of twists and turns, just like her routine. [Do read this column on Slate about the perils and triumphs of gymnastics and the book, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes". I got the link for the older gymnasts from the Slate article.]

Oksana originally represented the USSR when she was a young girl. After the Soviet Union collapsed, she performed for Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, her son was diagnosed with leukaemia and the quest for his treatment landed her in Germany, her current home. She now sports the German team colours. At this age, she still made it to the event finals of the vault. Oksana is truly an example of humans being parts of different countries and being a positive contributor to every one of them.

I heard of the American footwear giant, Nike's programme to encourage basketball at the grassroots level in China. [Nike is from Portland, Oregon, too, woo hoo!]. Read this article on Oregon Business.

I am just thinking, may we see a LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal coaching a budding Indian basketball team some day? Or a Russian coaching an Indonesian gymnastics team? It would be great to see more variety, more healthy competition in every sport.
The world would be a fitter place with more inspired youngsters both physically and mentally.

Many thanks to all the original sources I have linked to.

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