Pool, track, field and ring: rating our politicos
Colin James's column for the Otago Daily Times for 31 July 2012
One important gold medal in these lofty Olympian weeks will not be celebrated on a dais. It will be the virtual (not virtuous) award to the most inventive therapeutics firm for "performance enhancements" which can't yet be detected.
Human physical endeavour and excellence were the Olympic ideal. And there are still many individual and team exemplars. But the therapeutics firms' endeavour and excellence make it hard to figure who's real and who's not.
The ideal has been wearing away since 1936 when Germany hijacked the Olympics to propagandise its folk and leader myths. China four years ago cleared out poor areas for its showcase and shut down industry to cut pollution so athletes could breathe hard. Britain hopes to show it is still in business, to attract tourists and investment and make sales.
The athletes are incidental to all that -- as they were to the rugby world cup here last year. This is a business. What happens on the field, in the pool, on the bars and at the range is the product. At home, slumped on couches or hooting in bars, are the consumers. The Olympics are A1 consumer economics, entertainment at its most dazzling.
Politics is a bit like that now.
There are sprinters. John Key, twice a gold medallist, is one. Contrast his off-the-cuffs with his earnest predecessor, now running one of the planet's slowest races at the United Nations. Labour's David Cunliffe can scoot, too, though he is more a 200-metre than 100-metre man. Cunliffe was a medal prospect but was eliminated in the first heat last year.
There are long-distance runners: the Bill Englishes and Lockwood Smiths and Annette Kings and Ross Robertsons. Jeanette Fitzsimons was one. Impressive endurance but no golds. Back in 2002 English ducked across to the soccer pitch where he landed an own goal. (Or was it hockey? Hard to tell.)
Then there are the marathon men. Phil Goff has been puffing since 1981 (though he took a drink break for three years) and still the end is not in sight. Peter Dunne is better classed as a triathlete, perhaps even a pentathlete, given his peripatetic history -- a durable runner, so far surviving every attempt to trip him.
Winston Peters flits between codes. He has been on the marathon but has twice been ruled out by the judges when he let down his supporters. He runs more in fits and starts than with a marathoner's steadiness. Perhaps he should be across with the boxers: floating like a butterfly and, just occasionally, stinging like a bee. He knocked himself down in 2008 with a "no" that meant "yes". But so far no one has put him down for the count.
Gerry Brownlee once was in the wrestling ring but the referee didn't approve his technique. He is more at home these days in weightlifting.
Over at the pool, where the youngest competitors are usually to be found, there is Jacinda Ardern, still sorting which stroke works best (politics is, after all, a medley) but looking Labour's best prospect for a gold. Up on the high dive is Steven Joyce, already with a stack of medals at the rifle range. He wants politics to make the country rich.
There are cyclists: the likes of Trevor Mallard (injured), Nikki Kaye (injured) and Kevin Hague. Key, also with an eye on enriching the country, has kindly been sponsoring a training track.
First-time contestant Maggie Barry slipped badly on the parallel bars last week presuming to disqualify Ardern from speaking on parental leave because Ardern is not (yet) a parent. Barry has yet to learn to breathe through her nose the Holyoake way. Amy Adams could help.
Across at the fencing is Russel Norman, rapidly improving and a bronze medallist last year. He has added to his support group a paralympian, Mojo Mathers. Grant Robertson has decided to take Norman on and has the eye but not (yet) the figure. Some reckon he is gold in the making but he ruled himself out last year as needing more practice.
Some don't fit any code. John Banks switched from major to minor and can't remember where the money comes from (or says he can't). Hone Harawira has made a life's work of protesting at umpires' rulings. David Shearer has been out of the game most of his life and has some way to go to get up to speed.
Some are trying to make a new code: Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples and Te Ururoa Flavell. Support is flagging.
There are also team sports and parties are supposed to be teams. But the types who turn up are not cut out for the rowing eight -- they are all single-scullers. Getting them in the boat is the whips' constant bother.
No modern Olympian would get to the starting gun without coaches, medics, managers and other hangers-on. Phil O'Reilly and Helen Kelly are pre-eminent but many others vie for a spot.
And don't forget the politicians' "performance enhancers": pollsters, focus groups, PR hacks, image-makers, political advisers, secret funders -- people who make MPs bigger than they can make themselves. Politicos get taxpayer help, too.
It's the Olympian way. Enjoy the show.