Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Observations

I have been obsessively following the Olympics. Many of you, I'm sure, have as well. The Olympics, like any sporting event (and certainly like politics) is susceptible to the creation of narratives. The first week of these games have had one major narrative: Michael Phelps as swimming God. The usual series of smaller narratives have also emerged: Gymnastics, natch, and the "Redeem Team" (Ugh on that neologism, by the way). Smaller sports struggle for their props, though they get more attention now than they will for the next four years, until the 2012 games in London.


I have always been interested in these smaller sports, though in some ways I am ambivalent about them. Let me express this ambivalence by way of anecdote. When I was in high school there was a guy a couple of years ahead of me who had grown up in the next town over but came to NHS for High School, and he was one of the best ski jumpers in America. As a result, he never set foot on the Newport ski team, and spent huge portions of his year in Lake Placid. Because of the change that caused the winter Olympics to stagger (so that there would be either a summer or a Winter Olympics every two years) there were two Winter Olympics in a two year span in 1992 and 1994, and as a result this guy was able to participate in three Olympics, 1992, 1994, and 1998. In a small town -- in any town, really -- this is an awesome accomplishment.


One day one of my teachers, a former college basketball player and an assistant football coach, as well as hands-down the most respected teacher in the school (debunking the bad-teacher-as-coach meme) said in a conversation about sports: well, x is obviously the greatest athlete ever to come from Newport. And in terms of accomplishment the argument was a tough one to dispute. And I did not begrudge this guy his stardom -- while he never even came close to medalling (American ski jumping is, let's just say, not so good) he was also no Eddie the Eagle. He was a fantastic American ski jumper and a legitimate member of the tail end of the world class, which is to say, he was world class.


At the same time, a little perspective is in order. I was a member of the ski team in high school for my 8th grade, freshman, sophomore, and junior years, until I became good enough at track to be a legitimate contender in my events at the state and New England level and decided to pursue indoor track as a solo competitor, since NHS did not have an indoor track team. My high school had very little in terms of material comforts, but as a freak of circumstances, we did have the best 30-meter ski jump in the state, a practice jump from the 1932 Lake Placid winter games, and thus in years when there was enough natural snowfall (and when insurance liability was covered -- which means not all that often) we had a ski jumping team and hosted the state meet. I competed on that team in one of the very few states to have high school ski jumping. And in the one year I could do so, I was middling in the most literal sense -- I finished in the middle of the pack in the state meet out of about 50 competitors. There are approximately 500-600 ski jumpers in the United States in any given year. I was one of those (and my high school team had more than 1% of the nation's whole), and I was not one of the very, very worst. So being a United States representative for the Olympic ski jumping team is impressive, but you are competing against a pretty small pool. I would be willing to bet that there are more long jumpers in New Hampshire and Vermont, where a huge swath of the US ski jumping team is drawn from, than there are ski jumpers in the United States. And there are no ski jumpers in the states that otherwise tend to produce more world class athletes than New Hampshire. Take that for what it's worth. I take it as an indication that while any Olympian is impressive, we are entering Animal Farm territory in the sense that some Olympians are more impressive than others.


On to observations about some of the specific events:


Swimming: The swimming competition has been riveting. I'm not too worried about the effects of the new swimsuit that has changed the face of the sport. This is not akin to performance enhancing drugs, the use of which is not only banned in the Olympics, but in most cases is illegal in most countries in the world. And the swimming suits pose no health hazard to their users, which means that no one has to engage in a moral or ethical or health debate as to whether to use them. That said, the world records are falling at such a rate that it does cheapen the value of world records in the sport even though it does not invalidate those records. I have no doubt that today's swimmers are better than those in the past, with superior physical skills, better and smarter training, and better facilities and, yes, suits. The competition is the thing, and the competition, even the non-Phelps competition, has been fun to watch. And swimming has enough parallels with track that I think I get not only the basics (which are hardly tough to grasp) but the scope and scale of the accomplishments and also the nature of the competition -- the splits, the training, the idea of peaking, the between-events preparation and so forth. Track and swimming may not be the same language, but they are mutually intelligible to enough of a degree to make conversation viable. Swimming is Portuguese to track's Spanish, if you will.


As for Phelps, I want to first say that I am fully on board this bandwagon. What he is doing is awesome. He is making a case, I think he has made the case, for being the greatest swimmer of all time, even if he does not win another gold. But let's slow the talk about Phelps necessarily being the greatest Olympian of all time. He is lucky and talented enough to compete in a sport where eight medals is part of the realm of possibility. This is not the case for a sport such as track, where competing in four events is itself an impressive accomplishment. Look how many ways there are to go 100 meters in swimming. Recall, meanwhile, 1996, when Michael Johnson pulled off the until-then unheard of 200-400 double. Track has more prelims, it takes longer to recover, and I would be willing to press the case that track is substantially more competitive than swimming in terms of the number of people you have to beat. This is not to say that swimming is akin to ski jumping. But I would also argue that a sport that pretty much is not competitive in sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of white enclaves in South Africa (and that in general is a sport of white privilege and affluence wherever contested) does not compare with track. Everyone has run the 100 meters. Even among people who swim a lot, very few have actually swum a 100-meter breaststroke or butterfly or even backstroke never mind done so for time.


And so when this conversation about the greatest Olympian happens, consider a Carl Lewis, who won gold medals in four Olympics in events that are far more globally competitive than the swimming events. I would be willing to bet that there are more 100-meter runners and long jumpers in the state of Texas than there are swimmers in any two of Phelps' events in the United States. And there are almost inarguably more people doing those events in the United States from the high school level on up than there are people doing all of Phelps' events combined across the globe. For these reasons, Lewis gets my vote for greatest Olympian, though others deserve a place in the conversation as well. (Thunderstick made a couple of great points to me the other day: First, Lewis winning the 100, 200, 4x100 and long jump golds in 1984 would be like Phelps winning the 100, 200 and 4x100 freestyle and then winning one of the diving competitions as well. He also argued that the various strokes for swimmers is like having running forward, backward, sideways, and skipping being seperate events at every distance in track.) And let's keep in mind that there are lots of athletes for whom more than one or perhaps two events would simply be impossible. Al Oerter won four gold medals in four consecutive Olympics in the discus. At that level there is not a lot of crossover even with the shot or the hammer throw. And what of boxers? Members of team sports?


So Phelps has been awesome in a sport most of us appreciate. And he deserves a place in the conversation of all-time greats, in and of itself an almost unfathomably awesome accomplishment. But let's not simply equate winning the most medals with being the best Olympian of all time, even if it certainly helps to bolster his case.


Gymnastics: Now let me bitch about everyone's favorite pixies, the gymnasts. I love sports, so I find myself willing to watch as the competitions get close simply because the language of sport is pretty universal. I watched some of both the women's and men's team competitions the last two nights. I was marginally interested. But here are two gripes:


Judged sports lose serious legitimacy points in my mind. When someone decides who wins rather than the competitors making those decisions, it tends to invalidate the exercise. (I exempt sports where without the default mechanism of judging people would be beaten to death. And Olympic boxing judging is such that I hardly see it as more legit than gymnastics in most cases anyhow.)


The second issue, which effects the women's competition, is that I have a hard time taking any sport seriously in which chldren are considered to have the advantage over adults and in which people lie about their age not to get an advantage of precociousness and thus opportunity down the road, as we see with lots of athletes in lots of sports globally, but rather because being young gives them a serious advantage while they are kids. Any sport where being 20 is a disadvantage because 20 is considered old is a dubious sport in my mind. Sports are about young people excelling, but in most realms that means young adults at their physical peak. Even granting the differing rates of physical maturity that makes many women tend to peak athletically at younger ages, women's gymnastics is a freak show outlier. W
in the end, women's gymnastics is the favorite sport of people who don't like sports (its winter corrollary is, of course, figure skating).


Basketball: I cannot get all that enthused about the Redeem Team. I tend to prefer Olympic sports in which the Olympics represents the pinnacle of that sport -- your track and field, your swimming, your ping pong (I assume). And I have a hard time getting too excited about a sport that we have historically dominated to the point where a bronze medal is not only a disappointent, but also a sign of utter failure. I hope the Americans win, I guess. But I am having a difficult time mustering up too much enthusiasm for the games the way that I know the Thunderstick is (though he is as concerned with how Coach K's role as coach will effect Duke basketball. The Olympic spirit: catch it!)


But enough griping. I think there is a badmnton final on tonight, and probably some kayaking. USA! USA! USA!

15 comments:

Slicer said...

Actually, I do believe Eddie the Eagle finished just ahead of our fair olympian from the Sunshine Town in one if not two of the winter olympics in which he competed. But nonetheless, he was in the game, which is impressive.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree...I've been addicted to watching the Olympic games along with watching Meredith, Matt and Al from the "Today Show" make total fools of how foolish some Americans are to Chinese culture. Beside all of this, I found myself screaming all alone in my apartment, cheering on the USA swim team. Blah...blah...I can't wait until the Track and Field events.
tramaine.

dcat said...

Slice --
No, Our Boy did fine in the Olympics -- was never close to even the top dozen or twenty, but legit, as opposed to the Eagle.

Tramaine --
I got to San Antonio tonight just in time to catch the swimming finbals and now am awaiting Phelps' quick turnaround in the butterfly, which is as fraught as things will get -- 27 minutes is a superfast turnaround.
Like you, I am ready for the track events. The 100 meter men's finals will be a dogfight and may be the fastest race in history, which is saying something.

dcat

Anonymous said...

the bbc is the best for olympic broadcasting, 24 hour surveilince, and are funny. one of our unknown swimmmers, who looks like micheal phelps, took a card board cut out of him, and went to the streets, and he was swamped by photographing, screaming chinese people. ha, it was funny, but cringeworthy.
ussr were once your rivals. remember that amazingly controvercial basketball final in munich. that was even more cringeworthy, but you have a new rival now.
usa, china came second in athens, but have finished 1st, here. DCAT, how do you feel about that, and how are you going to improve in 2012, in london? im a bit of an interviewer.

Anonymous said...

that was danny, by the way sorryfor poasting the extra comment for that, it is an anticlimax what you check and notice you have two new comments, and this is one of them, and as you read you are getting even more dissapointed that the message is still...still going on. any way, i will wait for your , hopefully more interesting reply, goodbye for now
DANNY

dcat said...

Danny --
You need to be aware that blogging here is a sideline for me and that I cannot possibly respond to every single comment with the sort of depth for which you are asking!
I plan to post on the issue of medal counts soon, so won't divulge much here, except to maintain that I still am not all that concerned, that I do not always reflexively support the American athletes, though I usually do, and that the medal counts are problematic and to me not all that important.

dcat

Anonymous said...

you must have misunderstood me, i did in no way press for you to reply. maybe you should do that thing and quote what i say, and explain your reply, for though that usualy irritates me, i believe we need it here. i am sorry if i sounded as if i was pressing, but i was not.
i think we get confused about whatone another sometimes means. yes i am aware you will not check everycomment, i only hope you check this one, so you do not believe me to b e pressing, when i am doing nothing of the sort. when i was talking about the second comment being ananticlimax, i was talking about the one i was posting at that present time.
sorry for the misunderstanding.
danny.

dcat said...

Danny --
Understood.
If you don't like those times when I quote you and respond, though, I have one thing to say: Too bad. If you don't like being quited and then having those words be fodder for a response, you need to learn to make better arguments.

dcat

Anonymous said...

qoute all you want.i was mearly staing that you one time i believe you should have quoted me, you didnt. i actually believe my arguements are fine ones, the probolem is, when you read what i say, you look, not for fact, just for faults, and please do not reply with a predictable 'i look for but, but there is not', for it is a cliche, and false. i find many people who look only for fault, and i find you to be learned, but i know a lot of what you say is stretched to say the least, but what you and i have in common, is the lack to admitt when we are wrong. i have looked over our past, and seen times when we are both wrong, but would never admitt it.i doubt you would admitt you were wrong at all during this discussion. it is strange we care so much, for what we believe and do make little difference on the world stage, it id the less learned people than you and i who make the decisions.
the DESCENDANTS of great men rule the world, now that IS, a fact! ONE I HATE.

Anonymous said...

i also believe i must coment on how i admire your highly intellectualt national chant of
'USA USA USA USa USa Usa Usa usa usa...', utterly aweinspiring, and yet i do not believe it beats Rule Britania, British Grenadia, Hearts of Oak, all the hits of clasicalimperial Britain.

dcat said...

Danny --
Stick to the topic of the posts or don't comment.

dcat

Anonymous said...

ok, excluding the last post, do you agree with what i said, or, more likely, what faultsdo you find?

Anonymous said...

ps, i would like to know your views on the georgian-russian cricis. perhaps you start a blog on that, and divirt my attention.

dcat said...

Russia-Georgia is complex and out of my bailiwick. I'd say that we have seen how fraudulent Bush's claim to see into Putin's soul was. We are also seeing some who are desperate to ratchet up the cozy us vs. them world of the Cold War.

dcat

Anonymous said...

if you do not mind me steering of topic, and continuing talking of georgia, i believe fully that souht ossetia and abkhazia should remain georgian. i was proud to see the EU flag in georgias presidents office when he spoke, even though he is not in the eu. i also liked seeing th flag being flew by russians in anti-russian protests. i can only see a lot of pressure halting russia, but i am certain this will fast forward georgia's time into entering the eu and nato. looks like russia's plan has already backfired.