The latest element of sport that’s got me baffled is the idea that lesser nations battle it out for positions that don’t matter, such as anything below the usual medal slots.
It might be something that makes sense to a lot of people; national pride suggests that a ninth placed South Korea would be keen to beat a North Korean team that finished eleventh. After all, the Olympic medal table is not at all official, but is keenly followed and we revelled in the fact that Team GB finished way higher than the lacklustre Australia. But did New Zealand really care that they finished one place higher than Cuba, or one lower than Ukraine? Did the idea that 75th placed Greece came in with one more bronze than Bahrain remedy the fact that the Olympics’ country of origin had such a torrid Games?
These queries did come to mind a week or so ago as the Paralympics started to come to a close. I noticed that Team GB were participating in the final day of the 7-a-side football competition, despite having a dreadful week. Could it be that we had actually been good enough to fight for a medal? Of course not. Great Britain were duking it out with the United States for the “honour” of finishing in seventh place. Fortunately, we won it, fairly easily winning the match 3-1. This was actually GB’s second win of the competition, the first one also coming against America. So, it seems silly to suggest they needed this “7th place playoff” to decide who was the better team between the two. Their preliminary encounter had already proved this, with GB crushing their rivals 4-0. As this final deciding match went on, the true contenders were preparing for their medal matches. To say these were the games that actually “mattered” is up for debate. Home fans will take any opportunity they can get to see their heroes and it was a great chance for the team to convey their thanks. When it comes to the Netherlands/Argentina 5th/6th match… well, I can give substantially fewer reasons to go and watch.
7-a-side football was not the only sport that indulged in the idea of having as many games as possible, with the worst teams playing as many matches as the champions. The practice had been previously seen in 5-a-side football (with captain Dave Clarke saying an emotional goodbye – we finished 7th again, by the way), wheelchair basketball (finished 4th, although this was a bronze medal match), wheelchair fencing, sitting volleyball and boccia. In practically all of these final games, ParalympicsGB were not fighting for the medals, but instead were competing for pride and 7th place. It wasn’t even unique to the Paralympic Games, as our inexperienced Olympic water polo side also took part in the lower classifications.
I was reminded of this as Great Britain once again lost a baseball game in the European Championships, finishing bottom of their pool. Having suffered early on in the competition, they were always likely to continue to do so in the final game, a vital showdown with hosts Netherlands. The home side didn’t disappoint their 2,000 fans, thumping us 11-2. Aaron Hornostaj and Maikel Azcuy Perez scored opportune runs and did their best to attempt to make it into the play-offs, but Holland were too strong and consigned us to the bin. However, yet again, GB have been given salvation in the form of an 11th-12th place game against Russia. Despite finishing bottom of their respective groups, each have a chance to pretend they didn’t and finish second to last in the overall standings. Looking at match results, you’d probably suggest that, as in the 7-a-side football, GB have already done enough to secure 11th, having won a game when Russia didn’t. Russia also fell pray to the dreaded mercy rule on two occasions to Britain’s none and scored zero runs on one occasion. Even so, with all these theoretical statistics, does it really matter who is the worst team? To have qualified for the competition in the first place, they most certainly aren’t the worst teams in Europe.
The practice has been taken to its extreme here, with the Paralympics generally only offering a “prize” for eighth place. Perhaps if we saw this happen more often, we may get more used to it and I wouldn’t find it laughable. The FIFA World Cup (yes, two days in a row I’m mentioning football in a blog where it has no place, deal with it) has the third-place playoff, yet offers no prizes for anybody outside of the top two (I think). Just imagine if the sixteen teams that came bottom two in their groups faced off for the 17th-32nd place round, then the 17th-24th quarters and so on. I’m not entirely sure the team that finishes 31st would really celebrate their solitary win after already having lost six. Furthermore, imagine the blow to confidence an emerging nation would feel if they lost all seven, some of them against teams considered similar to them.
It just doesn’t happen and it shouldn’t, so why does it happen in a multi-sports event that is about “inspiring a generation” and embracing simply competing?