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2008 Summer Olympics Winner: Beijing Other Candidates: Toronto, Paris, Istanbul, Osaka, Seville, Bangkok, Havana, Kuala Lumpur


The Beijing Olympics was controversial from the start.

Beijing had already failed in its bid previously, but when the decision was announced in July 2001, it was surrounded by conditions and caveats concerning human rights, freedom of speech and so on. Some of those commitments were met, others not so much.

When the Olympic torch was lit in March 2008 and began its journey around the world, protestors managed to overshadow its progress. These protestors, mainly from the Free Tibet movement, aimed to highlight China's involvement in Tibet.

During the Games, atmospheric pollution led to complaints and concerns. Athletes pulled out because of concerns over asthma; others pulled out due to concerns over human rights violations in the People's Republic.

There were complaints that not all seat tickets had been sold at the inflated prices asked by the Chinese organisers, and tales of peasants being bussed in from miles around to fill the empty stadia.

Despite all these complaints, the Beijing Games ended up as a triumph.

Although the number of athletes was slightly down on previous years (10,500 compared with 10,651 in Sydney), there were more countries (205), more sports (35), more events (302, up by one) and more medals than ever before. Beijing was always going to be a sporting feast.

However, the politicians in Beijing saw this as an opportunity to prove China on the world stage, so China created world-class stadia (37 competition venues, with 10 in Beijing), top-of-the range facilities and spared no expense on the opening ceremony — a reported $100 million.

Thousands (2008, to be exact) of drummers beat in the Games with perfect choreography, and high-tech, illuminated drums counting down the seconds. Glowing drumsticks highlighted their synchronicity. The ceremony began at 8pm on 08/08/2008.

China invented fireworks and the Beijing games used them to great effect. 20,000 fireworks were set off during the ceremony and it took 600 people to set them off.

The show was directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

There were quibbles about the use of lip-synching by a young girl singer during the ceremony. While all the 'footprint' fireworks were set off, the version released to the TV broadcasters included mostly CGI simulations of the fireworks, as the atmosphere was too cloudy (or polluted) to show them properly.

Notable events:

Eight gold medals for Michael Phelps (USA) in the swimming pool. Ian (Thorpedo) Thorpe was not competing.

Three gold medals each for Stephanie Rice of Australia (swimming), Chris Hoy of Great Britain (Cycling), Kai Zou of China in the Mens' gymnastics and Usain Bolt of Jamaica in the athletics.

Not only did Bolt win three golds, but he smashed three world records in the flagship athletics events: the 100m and 200m and the men's 4 x 100m Relay.

The United States lost its dominance of the medals table, as the home country won more golds than silver and bronze combined, putting it ahead in the table (below). The US still won more medals, but its medals were split equally between gold, silver and bronze, whereas the table is built on the basis of gold medals.

The hosts of the next summer Games, Great Britain, did remarkably well. The nation usually comes around 10th in the medal table but this year finished fourth, both on gold medals and on total medal count. Like China, they won more golds than the lesser medals, and came ahead of European rivals Germany and France, but also Australia, to the surprise of both nations.

Top nations medal table


                  Gold   Silver  Bronze  | Total  Rank by total
                                         |
1   China           51      21      28   |  100      2
2   United States   36      38      36   |  110      1
3   Russian Fed.    23      21      28   |   72      3
4   Great Britain   19      13      15   |   47      4
5   Germany         16      10      15   |   41      6
6   Australia       14      15      17   |   46      5
7   Korea           13      10       8   |   31      8
8   Japan            9       6      10   |   25     11
9   Italy            8      10      10   |   28      9
10  France           7      16      17   |   40      7
11  Ukraine          7       5      15   |   27     10
12  Netherlands      7       5       4   |   16     16
13  Jamaica          6       3       2   |   11     20
	

Sources, further information

No nation left behind

Below is the complete table of all medal-winning nations in the 2008 Summer Olympics. As you can see, the countries are not ranked according to the number of gold medals won, nor according to the total number of medals. Because it is quite clear that a (G)old medal is more valuable than a (S)ilver medal, which in turn beats the (B)ronze medal. This leads to the concept of 'medal points', which can be computed according to at least two different principles:

MP = 4*G + 2*S + 1*B

or

mp = 3*G + 2*S + 1*B

People seem to matter

Both MP and mp have been computed in the table below. But as I have already argued in 2006 Winter Olympics, this would still be an unfair way of comparing the athletic achievements of all participating nations. For example, Great Britain, with its 60 million inhabitants, is bound to have a greater potential number of capable athletes than a nation with just a third of that population, like Australia (21 million). Hence some kind of adjustment for population size would be in order.

As was already discussed in 2006 Winter Olympics, simply dividing the 'medal points' by population size would probably give too much weight to the population factor. A reasonable modification is to divide the 'medal points' by the (L)ogarithm of the (P)opulation size in order to arrive at a fair comparison of the results of the nations, i.e. to compute the statistics MP/LP and mp/LP given below.

In the table below all nations have been ranked according to the statistic MP/LP. The statistic mp/LP is also presented, but the outcome is almost the same -- mp/LP gives a different ranking in very few cases, e.g. Cuba vs. Jamaica). And in both cases the US wins convincingly.

Money matters too

Isn't this rather close to a completely pointless exercise? Well, yes, to be truthful. But fisticuffs and even wars have been fought over disagreements about sporting results. So being armed with brainless statistics may give you an edge in your next pub brawl. Furthermore, if you happen to belong to a small nation, it gives you a nice pseudo-sense of grandeur. What about the Netherlands (pop. 16 million), beating populous Japan (127 million)? Not to mention minuscule Iceland (pop. 0.3 million), leaving several fair-sized countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Portugal and Greece behind -- merely by some creative (and in fact reasonably defensible) computing.

This fairness game could reasonably be carried on to even prouder extremes. Population size matters, yes. But as you can see from the table, poor countries seem to perform less well than rich nations. So wealth matters too. After the next Olympics (2010 Winter Olympics) it would probably be interesting to divide the 'medal points' by the logarithms of each nation's GDP, thus reducing the revoltingly unfair advantage enjoyed by rich countries in the sports arena.

Country               G   S   B    MP   mp     Population   MP/LP  mp/LP

United States        36  38  36   256  220    303 824 646   73,51  63,17
China                51  21  28   274  223  1 330 044 605   66,44  54,08
Russia               23  21  28   162  139    140 702 094   51,46  44,15
Australia            14  15  17   103   89     21 007 310   44,35  38,32
Great Britain        19  13  15   117   98     60 943 912   42,01  35,19
Germany              16  10  15    99   83     82 369 548   33,95  28,47
South Korea          13  10   8    80   67     48 379 392   29,80  24,96
France                7  16  17    77   70     64 057 790   27,44  24,94
Italy                 8  10  10    62   54     58 145 321   22,43  19,53
Jamaica               6   3   2    32   26      2 804 332   22,10  17,96
Cuba                  2  11  11    41   39     11 423 952   19,92  18,95
Ukraine               7   5  15    53   46     45 994 287   19,90  17,28
Netherlands           7   5   4    42   35     16 645 313   18,91  15,76
Japan                 9   6  10    58   49    127 288 419   18,68  15,78
Belarus               4   5  10    36   32      9 685 768   18,13  16,11
Spain                 5  10   3    43   38     40 491 051   16,49  14,57
Norway                3   5   2    24   21      4 644 457   14,40  12,60
Canada                3   9   6    36   33     33 212 696   14,28  13,09
Kenya                 5   5   4    34   29     37 953 838   13,18  11,24
Hungary               3   5   2    24   21      9 930 915   12,02  10,52
New Zealand           3   1   5    19   16      4 173 460   11,72   9,87
Kazakhstan            2   4   7    23   21     15 340 533   10,52   9,61
Slovakia              3   2   1    17   14      5 455 407    9,79   8,06
Poland                3   6   1    25   22     38 500 696    9,67   8,51
Georgia               3   0   3    15   12      4 630 841    9,01   7,20
Czech Republic        3   3   0    18   15     10 220 911    8,96   7,46
Romania               4   1   3    21   17     22 246 862    8,95   7,24
Denmark               2   2   3    15   13      5 484 723    8,62   7,47
Brazil                3   4   8    28   25    196 342 587    8,50   7,59
Mongolia              2   2   0    12   10      2 996 081    8,13   6,77
Slovenia              1   2   2    10    9      2 007 711    7,68   6,91
Ethiopia              4   1   2    20   16     82 544 838    6,86   5,49
Switzerland           2   0   4    12   10      7 581 520    6,38   5,32
Azerbaijan            1   2   4    12   11      8 177 717    6,27   5,75
Bahamas               0   1   1     3    3        307 451    6,15   6,15
Netherlands Antilles  0   1   0     2    2        225 369    5,67   5,67
North Korea           2   1   3    13   11     23 479 089    5,48   4,64
Estonia               1   1   0     6    5      1 307 605    5,37   4,48
Turkey                1   4   3    15   14     71 892 807    5,25   4,90
Latvia                1   1   1     7    6      2 245 423    5,18   4,44
Zimbabwe              1   3   0    10    9     11 350 111    4,87   4,38
Bulgaria              1   1   3     9    8      7 262 675    4,84   4,30
Bahrain               1   0   0     4    3        718 306    4,67   3,50
Finland               1   1   2     8    7      5 244 749    4,65   4,07
Argentina             2   0   4    12   10     40 481 998    4,60   3,84
Sweden                0   4   1     9    9      9 045 389    4,60   4,60
Uzbekistan            1   2   3    11   10     27 345 026    4,51   4,10
Lithuania             0   2   3     7    7      3 565 205    4,51   4,51
Thailand              2   2   0    12   10     65 493 298    4,26   3,55
Croatia               0   2   3     7    7      4 491 543    4,24   4,24
Iceland               0   1   0     2    2        304 367    4,14   4,14
Armenia               0   0   6     6    6      2 968 586    4,07   4,07
Trinidad and Tobago   0   2   0     4    4      1 047 366    3,92   3,92
Dominican Republic    1   1   0     6    5      9 507 133    3,03   2,53
Belgium               1   1   0     6    5     10 403 951    2,97   2,48
Mexico                2   0   1     9    7    109 955 400    2,96   2,30
Portugal              1   1   0     6    5     10 676 910    2,96   2,46
Greece                0   2   2     6    6     10 722 816    2,96   2,96
Indonesia             1   1   3     9    8    237 512 355    2,67   2,37
Panama                1   0   0     4    3      3 309 679    2,63   1,97
Ireland               0   1   2     4    4      4 156 119    2,47   2,47
Austria               0   1   2     4    4      8 205 533    2,09   2,09
Serbia                0   1   2     4    4     10 159 046    1,99   1,99
Tunisia               1   0   0     4    3     10 383 577    1,98   1,49
Iran                  1   0   1     5    4     65 875 223    1,77   1,42
Cameroon              1   0   0     4    3     18 467 692    1,76   1,32
Kyrgyzstan            0   1   1     3    3      5 356 869    1,74   1,74
Chinese Taipei        0   0   4     4    4     22 920 946    1,69   1,69
Tajikistan            0   1   1     3    3      7 211 884    1,61   1,61
Nigeria               0   1   3     5    5    146 255 306    1,58   1,58
India                 1   0   2     6    5  1 147 995 898    1,48   1,23
Singapore             0   1   0     2    2      4 608 167    1,20   1,20
Algeria               0   1   1     3    3     33 769 669    1,19   1,19
Morocco               0   1   1     3    3     34 343 219    1,18   1,18
Colombia              0   1   1     3    3     45 013 674    1,13   1,13
Ecuador               0   1   0     2    2     13 927 650    0,93   0,93
Chile                 0   1   0     2    2     16 454 143    0,90   0,90
Mauritius             0   0   1     1    1      1 274 189    0,90   0,90
Malaysia              0   1   0     2    2     25 274 133    0,83   0,83
Sudan                 0   1   0     2    2     40 218 455    0,77   0,77
South Africa          0   1   0     2    2     48 782 755    0,74   0,74
Vietnam               0   1   0     2    2     86 116 559    0,68   0,68
Moldova               0   0   1     1    1      4 324 450    0,61   0,61
Togo                  0   0   1     1    1      5 858 673    0,57   0,57
Israel                0   0   1     1    1      7 112 359    0,54   0,54
Venezuela             0   0   1     1    1     26 414 815    0,41   0,41
Afghanistan           0   0   1     1    1     32 738 376    0,40   0,40
Egypt                 0   0   1     1    1     81 713 517    0,34   0,34

NOTE: Decimal commas are used in the table, instead of decimal points. In taking logarithms, the populations were not counted in units of millions (MM), but in units of 100 000 (= 0,1 MM) thus avoiding negative logarithms for small nations with less than 1 MM (but > 0,1 MM) inhabitants.

As a six-year Beijing veteran, with not-totally-awful Mandarin, my experiences of these "16 days in Beijing" were always going to be unlike the experiences reported by the fly-in fly-out media circus that surrounds your modern Olympic Games.

Where the media generally reported difficulties with "getting around" and "security", my experiences at events (including both the men's basketball final and the Closing Ceremony) were completely fuss-free and a credit to the thousands of unpaid and endlessly cheerful volunteers who were everywhere in the city. I "waited" in the security line for the men's basketball final for approximately 90 seconds, and about 10 minutes in a queue for the Closing Ceremony. Considering both events were sold out, and that everyone was scanned, and every bag checked, that's amazing. I did notice more attention being paid to people sporting half-a-dozen "camera equipment" bags, so perhaps that, and the fact that journalists needed to have tickets to the designated "press seating" rather than turning up and waving a press pass, was the cause of the kerfuffle.

And if you were reporting on the rowing in the morning, and the judo in the afternoon, and relying on non-pool resources (say, a local taxi) to get from one to the other, and tried saying "The judo venue, please" in English to your taxi driver, I can imagine you might get annoyed enough to write home about it.

The feared "terrorist events" did not occur. With several (brave, though foolhardy) exceptions, the promised mass protests also did not occur. And while this may have been disappointing in a theoretical, column-inches sort of way to the various bureau chiefs in attendance, there was little justification for the repetitive "massive police presence" stories that went over the wires. Beijing is a densely populated place, home to over a hundred embassies (and their uniformed guards), and one of the ways it differs from big cities worldwide is the ubiquitous sight of uniformed "gate guards" (bao an for those following along in Mandarin) many of whom sport very police-looking clothing and hats, uniformed parking attendants (ditto with the clothing), and other people in blue-clothing-and-hats. There were no more "police-police" on the streets than any normal day, but if you were only here for the Games weeks, then I guess you reported what you "saw".

I spent 12 of the available "Olympic evenings" with athletes (thanks to an old Army buddy having a girlfriend on the Australian rowing team) essentially acting as a party coordinator, and so know that a premium was placed by athletes of several major Olympic nations on attending the sorts of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs where they would not be hassled by reporters. So I can understand the story, frequently printed/posted, that this wasn't an Olympics "for the athletes", to which I say, politely, bollocks. The "Closing Ceremony Eve" night in Beijing's Sanlitun bar area is something I will never forget. Picture block upon block of bars/restaurants/nightclubs and smiling police manning roadblocks (and turning away some very insistent local elites in their expensive cars, forcing them to walk like everyone else) which made the whole area into a pedestrian paradise, and then populate your mental image with 10,000 + athletes who are finished with all their events and just want to party and you'll see how unforgettable that experience was for everyone involved. Which, naturally, excluded the bulk of the journalists, who flew home the moment the competitions ended, leaving "designated hitters" to cover the Closing.

None of this, it hardly needs to be said, excuses a single jailed dissident, or un-poisons a single melamine-ed cat (or, tragically, baby). But as those are China issues -- actually they are mostly human greed and corruption issues -- and not particularly Olympic ones, it seemed to me slightly odd to try and tie them in some way to a festival of youth, excellence, and sport, but that view was not shared, as "tie-in" ledes of that nature were popular over the period. Everyone, surely, remembers how hugely successful the original 80's Olympic boycotts were in raising the profile of what an idiotic thing it is to do to invade Afghanistan. Surely it is self evident how well the world, and particularly the United States part of the world, learned that particular lesson. Does tying the current situation in Afghanistan to the Olympics make more or less sense now than it did in 1980 when the USA did it, and do either of those make any more sense than tying the Beijing Olympics to Tibet, a situation that has existed for decades, or Darfur, where the worst that can be said is that China is propping up an evil regime that supplies oil (hmmm, where have we seen that behavior before)?

Finally, it's worth sparing a moment to think about filters. Not the kind you put in your pool (or your coffee), but the kind that we each carry around to sift through the daily information overload. How is it that an event like Usain Bolt surging ahead to win the 100 metres in World Record time is bright enough to cut through our filters -- to see it as an awesome human achievement, and not as a "product" of all the above, a "product" of all that it is a product of -- but (mostly) not bright enough to illuminate those filters from the side?

Whatever else they were, those 16 days, here on the ground, were amazing. Experience an Olympics once in your life, if you can. And, in light of the above, I'd be very disappointed if you got this far and still believed (if you ever did) that "experience it" means anything at all like "read about it in a newspaper" and/or "watch it on TV".

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