Lisa Pollack

Lisa joined FT Alphaville in September 2011 after a tour of duty through the guts of the financial industry, having worked as an analyst at a bank and for a financial data company. She's now the Head of New Projects for FT.com.

For all its foibles, shortcomings, and outright fails, the ticketing system of the London 2012 Olympic Games had us hooked. At its mercy, we were stuck refreshing the page again and again hoping to strike Olympic pay dirt.

 

Olympic Park in the distance. So close, yet so far… 

How far should we go to develop top athletes? Is it worth so much that a special “Olympic class” of people should be cultivated from a young age?

It seems that this has already happened in many competing nations. It reminds us of the strategy employed by District 2 in the The Hunger Games.

For those not familiar with this particular work of fiction, it tells the story of an entirely more violent set of games that involve a fight to the death by a bunch of teenagers (some even younger).

From each of 12 districts in the nation of Panem two kids are selected to do battle in a sci-fi version of a gladiatorial ring until only one remains and is proclaimed the winner by virtue of still being alive.

The “tributes”, as the teens are so-called, are mostly selected randomly. However, we are told that District 2 has “career tributes” who are entered into special academies at a young age. They then get to the ripe old age of 18 — at which point they are expected to volunteer themselves for the Hunger Games. Districts 1 and 4 have also been known to engage in this strategy, and all three districts that do this are wealthier than the other 9 districts.

This strategy, of having a specialist warrior class, makes tributes from these districts particularly successful at the games. (It also means that the rest of the kids in those districts don’t have to risk being selected by random draw.)

Our own distinctly real Olympic Games is gracefully free of such gratuitous violence. Instead, our Games represent to us sporting achievement in the context of universal ideals. Nations are brought together by them in celebration of values we share. 

What would you do about a table like this if you were the International Olympic Committee?

The table shows the complete domination of track cycling by one nation — Great Britain. The results are from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Britain’s 12 medals in this one sport were a touch over a quarter of the nation’s total medal count for the entire Games that year.

Also, what stands out in this list of track cycling events? Again from the Beijing Olympics:

•  Individual Pursuit Men
•  Sprint Individual Men
•  Keirin Men
•  Team Pursuit Men
•  Madison Men
•  Points Race Men
•  Olympic Sprint Men
•  Individual Pursuit Women
•  Points Race Women
•  Sprint Women

Notice how there are fewer events for women? Pourquoi?

Thanks to a number of changes, neither the domination by British cyclists nor the lack of parity in men’s versus women’s events will feature in these games. Rue Britannia. 

Everyone likes an underdog. The British, however, love them. It’s much more acceptable to cheer an unlikely winner than a likely one. How fitting then that Britain should host the Olympics — a competition where the entry mechanics ensure that underdogs will turn up by design.

We’ve already been treated to a number of spirited and inspiring performances. These are delicately chosen adjectives, for the winning attributes were admittedly not strength, speed, or precision.

In this, the XXX Olympiad, the crowds kept cheering all the way up to the 8 minute and 39 second mark in the men’s single sculls second repechage. For a full minute and 20 seconds of that, everyone’s hearts and minds were the sole property of a rower from Niger … until he also managed to cross the finishing line, that is.

On the same day, swimmer Jennet Saryyeva of Turkmenistan enjoyed a full minute and 18 seconds alone in the limelight at the end of her 400m freestyle heat.

Both are clearly impressive athletes, and both are clearly not up to Olympic standard. They will have known that when they signed up. Given this, how and why did they enter?