The fantasy Olympics

Kevin Davie

A friend who lives in the United States, and is of techno bent, has his rowing machine hooked up to the Internet. He can compete against other rowers from across the world.

This means, at least for this discipline, that you don’t have experience the Olympics from your armchair. You can participate, race against the very best in the world. You may take twice the time or more to finish, but hey, you’ve competed against the greats.

My friend’s techno sports go further than just rowing, though. He has his own fantasy league. You chose your team from the best of the players available, in this case the NFL, and then each week the statistics generated from actual plays pushes your team up or down the league.

Fantasy leagues mean your team can be tops in cyberspace, even though it never gets near the Superbowl finals. These leagues, I am informed, are hot around the globe and across numerous sporting codes. They are, for instance, big in cricket in India, as you might well expect them to be.

My web surfing tells me that there is a fantasy Olympics, but only for US athletes. Mine, aimed at medal-deprived South Africans, would be for any athlete who has a good chance of being in the medals.

The medal deprivation is so bad that twice last week at the office I experienced an entirely new thing, the phantom medal. This is like a phantom pregnancy, when a woman goes to term, complete with some of the physical hallmarks of the real thing, only to produce air.

The phantom medal creates a roar around the office as television watchers cheer as their athlete comes in among the medals. Hooray! But then, on closer inspection, you find that actually the bronze which you thought was ours went to New Zealand.

I can admit to being the cause of one of the two phantoms we won at the office. I was sure we’d got a canoeing bronze and told a colleague or two. Turned out, though, that we were not in the top three, and the event wasn’t a final.

The antidote to all of this is the fantasy Olympics. But before I tell you how this could work, you need to know a little more about me as a sports fan.

I tend towards the fickle. My loyalty extends as far as how well the team is playing. I am happy for my team to lose so long as it played well. But I will even support North Korea against the Boks if they make fewer handling errors.

I am not the loyal fan through thick and thin. If my team is facing relegation, so be it. I will click over to BBC Prime or BBC Food. I don’t care because I know I can always find another team.

With the Beijing games now winding up at the time of writing, I realise that I really needed to win some medals this Olympics. I did not need even to match the six that South Africa brought home from Athens.

I also do not also care what the discipline is. It could be wrestling in a cardboard box after taking a hot shower or for the most spectacular fall off a BMX after watching three bouts of Greco-Roman wrestling. But I needed at least one gold medal.

Thinking back I think I had a reasonable expectation of winning at least one, if not a clutch full of silver and bronzes.

It was not as though our athletes did not enjoy some profile. If swimmer Ryk Neethling, in particular, had been able to convert into gold the number of times he appeared showing his abs in woman’s magazines, he’d be up there with Phelpsie.

But if we have an icon for this Olympics, it’s not Mr Abs. It’s the Blade Runner, Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who runs on bladelike carbon fibre artificial limbs. He’s a fantastic story, winning the right to compete at Beijing against all the odds. He’s a bit of a phantom too, though, as he was too slow to qualify.

We also have Natalie du Toit, another disabled athlete who moved up from the Paralympics to the real deal. Du Toit competes in an incomprehensible discipline, the 10-kilometre swim. In my book if you can swim 10 kays, you should get a gold medal irrespective of where you finish.

If we’re going to be spectators rather than participants in the medal ceremonies, perhaps the fantasy Olympics is the answer.

My fantasy team would have been mostly of Chinese, but I’d be overweight in Americans compared to how they actually did at Beijing.

I’d have had more Australians than medals won and far fewer Poms relative to how they did. I’d have had a fair showing of Kenyans but definitely no Zimbabweans. I suppose, without knowing who or what, I’d have put us up for at least one gold medal.

If I was in charge of my own fantasy league I would have bought the national colours of my most favoured nations and been ready to don these colours for the medal ceremonies. I may have even had a go at humming the national anthems.

But forget fantasy and let me get back to reality. My new hero is Khotso Mokoena, the long-jumper who won South Africa’s single medal. I hope they take endless pictures of his abs.

As a journalist Kevin Davie is a Nieman Fellow and editor of numerous South Africa business magazines and newspapers. As an Internet entrepreneur he co-founded South Africa’s first online stockbroker and WOZA, the first news portal which was independent of a traditional publisher.

He divides his time between the Mail & Guardian, where he  runs the business section and pursues the twin interests of economics and environmentalism, and projects in construction (particularly green building) and a better way to search the Internet. He also makes time to paddle and ride his mountain bike.