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Olympic Medal Feats Outside Of The Pool


It is time now for sports - or maybe this week we should say sport.


SPANDAU BALLET: (Singing) Gold, gold always believe in your soul...

GREENE: This means it is time to talk to NPR's Mike Pesca, who is across the pond at the Olympics. Hey, Mike.


GREENE: You like this new music? Usually, we say...

PESCA: Spandau from the '80s?

GREENE: Yeah, you got it. So, you're starting to call it sport - that's how people in Britain refer to sports, right?

PESCA: Yeah, they drop Ss - sport and math. No, they say maths. We say math. It's the opposite, yeah.

GREENE: I like that. We'll have to come back...

PESCA: We have an S exchange program going.

GREENE: Come back with that new dictionary with the language they speak over there, if you can, when you come home. You know, each week we have you throw us what we call a curve ball...

PESCA: Right.

GREENE: ...but there's no baseball at the Olympics this year, so what are you going to throw at us?

PESCA: Well, it won't be a throw. Let's call it an appel, because we're going to talk about fencing, and I want to start off with this 'cause it was amazing. I bring you to yesterday's women's foil finals - or actually, let's go right to the semifinals.


PESCA: Now, here's the situation: you have three Italian women in the semifinals probably because the most athletes that one country can send in any event is three, otherwise there would have been four, five or six. The one non-Italian was Hyun Hee Nam, and here she is facing Elisa Di Francisca. She's up by three touches late. But Di Francisca, boom, boom, boom, evens the score with seconds left and then wins in overtime. OK. Poor, poor Hyun Hee Nam. Now, she's in the bronze medal match. Her opponent in the bronze medal match, surprisingly, is Valentina Vezzali. Vezzali was about to become - had she won - the first woman ever to win five gold medals. That didn't happen. But what did happen was Hyun Hee Nam goes up really big. But with 11 seconds left, Vezzali mounts her comeback - boom, boom, boom - three touches within 11 seconds, then won again in overtime. Because of this dramatic turn of events, Hyun Hee Nam is literally foiled again.

GREENE: Mike, you sound really excited about fencing.

PESCA: Foil, yeah.

GREENE: What was that term you used at the beginning - appel?

PESCA: Yeah. It's like a half-step. It's like a little bit of a feint, if you will.

GREENE: OK. You're learning a lot over there it sounds like.

PESCA: Yeah. The dictionary is not just in English.

GREENE: When we follow the Olympics, I mean, in the newspapers and everything, we look at the medal count to see how countries are doing. Is that what you're looking at, too, as sort of a barometer of success?

PESCA: That's what everything does but, you know, it's a little unfair, because if you dominate in team sports - you can have 18 people playing team handball - that's just one medal for the country. And as we know, Michael Phelps, a swimmer who could hit eight events - he won't be doing it this Olympics - but, you know, swimming, you're allowed to, or you have the possibility of winning many multiple medals - same with gymnastics. So, different sports it's different criteria. It's not exactly a level playing ground.

GREENE: Well, are there other ways that we should be measuring success? I mean...

PESCA: Well, yeah. I think that looking at Olympics per capita, and especially where some of the Norwegian, I'm sorry, Scandinavian countries do well. East Germany used to do really well back when they were their own entity, and also judging by the amount of money per capita. In this way, if you were to judge not the best - 'cause we're talking about the Olympic countries - but the worst, Bangladesh has never won a medal. They're, I believe, they have 155 million people. Now, it's a very, very poor country but there are in fact countries poorer than Bangladesh that have never won. If you want to look at the worst Olympic performers, start down the list of the poorest countries and you'll find just country after country that haven't won medals.

But, you know, there are ways to bounce back from that and there are ways, especially if you're rising in income, to be good at the Olympics. China has, you know, made it a priority. They're great at the Olympics. But another one of these emerging nations, India, is a classic Olympic underperformer, though they're the second-largest country in the world and getting much, much wealthier. They do very poorly at the Olympics. And the main reason is their national sport is cricket. It's not contested at the Olympics. They're also very good at field hockey but other countries give more resources. And in the racquet sports, the love squash. They don't play that in the Olympics. They do OK in badminton. It just almost seems like the Olympics is constituted to be the anti-Indian games.

GREENE: Well, Mike, enjoy the fencing. Enjoy all the other sports there at the Olympics.

PESCA: En garde.

GREENE: Never foiled, our Mike Pesca who covers sports. And he is covering sports from the Olympic Games in London.


GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.