Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Team GB

It's the first week of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and we're getting a heavy dose of Team GB here. What's Team GB? Well, it's Team Great Britain, of course.

Team GB's logo.
Hold on. "Great Britain" refers only to the three nations on the island of Britain:  England, Wales, and Scotland. By contrast, the "United Kingdom" adds Northern Ireland. So, does Northern Ireland compete by itself in the Olympics? Nope. Northern Ireland is a part of Team GB.

So, why isn't it "Team U.K."? Good question. No one has a good answer. The British Olympic Association invented the "Team GB" brand in 1999, and despite criticism, it's not going away. Even though athletes from Northern Ireland compete for the U.K. -- as can folks from the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey, as well as some overseas British territories -- they get left out of the name. Sorry.

I've asked a few Brits about whether they knew Northern Ireland was a part of Team GB. They had no idea.

Team GB just isn't very good in the Winter Olympics. The UK has participated in every winter games (as well as every summer games), and they have won a total of 23 winter medals. Nine gold, three silver, ten bronze. They tend to eke out one or two medals each Winter Games. Consequently, the Brits don't tend to have really high expectations. There's even a television show during the Olympics that mocks the games, called Alan Davies Après-Ski. The BBC does what it can to generate interest and story lines, and of course follows the Team GB athletes extensively. But ultimately, the television coverage (much of it live, by the way) gives more air time and attention to non-British athletes than does NBC to non-Americans.

Team GB's 23 medals isn't embarrassing, but it's certainly not distinguished. As a point of comparison, the U.S. has won 258 medals at the Winter Olympics, never winning fewer than four, and regularly winning seven to twelve medals each cycle. In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City the U.S. made a big jump forward, winning 34 medals, then 25 in 2006, and 37 in 2010. In each of those winter games, the U.S. won more medals than Team GB in its entire history. This year, just a few days into the games, the U.S. has already won five medals, tied with Canada and Russia, while trailing only Norway and the Netherlands with seven each.

Moreover, all of Team GB's medals have come on the ice, not on the snow. Never before had they won a medal for any type of skiing. Until this past Sunday. Snowboarder Jenny Jones, a thirty-three year old former maid at alpine ski chalets, won Team GB's first and only medal on snow. She captured a bronze medal in the slopestyle event. Needless to say, this was a pleasant surprise for the Brits.

Jenny Jones receiving her bronze medal for Team GB at the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
If they haven't won on the snow, what events has the U.K. won? Of their 23 total medals, they've won seven in figure skating, most famously by Torvill and Dean, who received the highest score of all time in Olympic figure skating in 1984. The Brits have also won five medals in skeleton, three medals in four-man bobsled (called "bobsleigh" here), two medals in curling, two medals in ice hockey, and one each in two-man bobsled, ice dance, short track, and now slopestyle.

Team GB has some hopes for further medals this year. One of the sports getting heavy play this year on the BBC is curling. The British men's team is ranked second in the world, behind heavyweight Sweden. The British women's team is ranked third in the world, behind heavyweights Sweden and Canada.

Scots are featured on both curling teams. Each team's captain, called the "skip," is Scottish. I'll be following the curling teams' progress as the Olympics progress.

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