Lily white Olympians and other bedside stories

You know, I deal with fractions quite often. I write maths textbooks, so me and fractions have quite a close relationship. I can write neat little exercises that’ll teach your 6-year-old to define fractions, compare them, convert them to a different form and whip them through any mathematical operations. Fractions, as far as I know, are useful little buggers as long as you’re lining up a set of equal parts of a whole.
Now, according to IOL yesterday:

Next year’s Olympians will be the last “lily white” team to represent South Africa at the world games, according to Butana Komphela, chairperson of the National Assembly’s sports committee. This was after several MPs baulked at the 74-member team’s racial composition, expressing concern that it was 37 percent black and 63 percent white.

Right. So we’re dividing up a sports team according to percentages. How very useful. A percentage, in case you’ve forgotten, is a fraction with a denominator of 100. So this little piece of journalism is really telling us that:

37/100 x 74 = 27,38 black people
63/100 x 74 =
46,62 white people

Terrifically useful. One wonders what 0,38 of a black person (or 0,62 of a white person) is; no doubt Dulux could put together a consulting team from the Old Guard and come up with a range of earth tones ranging from Titanium Albino to Ebony Stallion, with a fine mid-range of Skinny Lattes (with and without wings?) to guide us. Or am I being petty? Is the use of percentages so commonplace in defining the demographic breakdowns of human groups that we should overlook the fact that, really, people are different? OK, OK. Moving along. Now that our MPs have embarked on this useful mathematical endeavour, they offer the following little gem:

They also regarded the team’s gender make-up of 62 percent male and 38 percent female as being “unpalatable”.

62/100 x 74 = 45,88 males
38/100 x 74 = 28,12 females

I’m tempted to wonder about that 0,12 of a female. Is that the really effete guy on the rugby team? Or the gymnast whose prepubescent body is so pumped up on hormones that you can’t really distinguish it from a young boy’s?

Yes, yes, they’re stats, I hear you say. But why the hell convert a real team of 74 people into a hypothetical team of 100, I want to know. What USE is it? What would happen if you lodged the complaint without resorting to the obfuscation of mathematics?

I’ll tell you what I think. As soon as you word it sanely, you’re complaining that 74 people are going to the Olympics. The gender ratio: 46 men to 38 women. The race ratio: 27 black people to 47 whites. We’re talking about 74 exceptional individuals, each at the top of their field, each of whom has sacrificed most of their life to training and reaching a level of sporting excellence so finely tuned that most of them will only be able to maintain it for a few short years, at most. We’re not talking achievers, we’re talking super-achievers. These are the obsessive, tenacious, never-say-die few. They have genetic advantages. They have talent. They have the peculiar blend of mental attributes required to go the distance and train til they want to die and then train some more. They are lunatics. They are NOT average.

And Butana Komphela, bless his lily white socks, wants to apply a law of averages to them.

He said the team would have to get to the airport quickly as it would be the last time an unrepresentative team would be allowed through immigration.
He added that it was time the sporting federations felt the government’s whip after they had in many instances failed to transform their teams voluntarily.
It was not until people were severely punished that they would know that there was a rule of law in the country, Komphela said.

I’d like to challenge Mr Komphela to go to a school playground. Go play PT teacher for a day. (Sorry, make that Arts and Culture educator in charge of Phys. Ed. or whatever the OBE-speak is for that post these days.) Check out how fairly talent gets spread out. God doesn’t queue children up and dish out talent and commitment in equal measures. Sure, provide the opportunities as equally as you can across the board. Teach girls to throw and catch and kick balls; teach black kids to swim. Redress the balance, go for it. But don’t pretend all kids are created equal. Don’t pretend that we’re all equal parts of the whole. Equality is based on maths, not on humanity. Life doesn’t divide well into fractions. Life’s not fair, Mr Komphela. And you can’t severely punish anyone for that.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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One Response to Lily white Olympians and other bedside stories

  1. Alex says:

    I loved this. In the words of Bill Gates: “Life’s not fair! Deal with it!”

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