Saturday, March 04, 2006

Late Olympic Round-Up

Yes, I know the Olympics ended last week, and that blogs are supposed to be updated as soon as things happen (how else are we going to take down the MSM?) Maybe I can spin this my way and say I'm a "post-blogging" blogger.

My favorite name for an Olympic athlete belongs to Norwegian ski jumper Roar Ljoekelsoey.

Is Apolo Anton Ohno just your quintessential Olympian, or what? I'd seen him win medals before, and he always seemed really happy about it. Then he appears in interviews and seems genuinely gracious, happy merely to have skated his best, supportive of his teammates, and unwilling to trash-talk his opponents even though he's apparently earned the wrath of the entire country of South Korea. Then, he won gold outright in the 500m race, and I don't think I'd seen anyone happier to win. Pure infectious joy, the kind of thing they made the Olympics for. Now if only he'd lose the soul patch.

Through some cosmic sense of balance, snowboard-cross is as fun to watch as parallel giant slalom snowboarding is boring.

I love the Winter Olympics. Snow is just so damn pretty, and there's few enough events that one can do a pretty good job of following close to the whole thing. Most sports columnists in this country, though, treat covering the Winter Games like an audit from the IRS. Most criticism falls into at least one of several camps:
  • "Winter Olympic sports are just so alien to Americans." OK, so we're not Norway, but we aren't exactly Brazil, either. Plenty of Americans ski. There are ice rinks all over the country. Most people do these things for recreation, not at a competition level, but most people don't swim, run, or life weights at an Olympic level, either. What do these people want, bobsled runs at every neighborhood park?
  • "The Americans are doing lousy at these games." There have been well-publicized flops like Bode Miller, but we finished ahead of everybody except Germany. Our 25-medal haul was our second-best in history, and only one fewer gold than in Salt Lake City on our home turf. It's almost twice our previous record (13) for a Winter Games outside of the U.S. As recently as 1988 in nearby Calgary, we only won a total of six medals. Even accounting for the increased number of events, we did great.
  • "The TV coverage is lousy." Actually, I congratulate NBC for covering things like hockey, biathlon, curling, and cross-country skiing live. But how many people besides me watched the 3 AM biathlon coverage (I had it recorded on my DVR)? NBC's not stupid. The marquee events happened while most of the U.S. was asleep or at work. Americans care most about the events where Americans are most competitive, and they want to see the Americans compete. So what options do they have besides a nightly 3-hour compilation program? Do these cranks who complain about the lack of live coverage really think all that many people would tune in during prime time to watch every last run by every competitor in real time down a slalom course or a skeleton run? I even thought NBC was pretty judicious with their use of the human interest cut-aways, using them just enough so that we'd get to know the competitors.
  • "Anything with a judge isn't a real sport---except boxing." This argument is idiotic. Athleticism and competition make an activity a sport. But not everything is easily judged by a stopwatch or just seeing if a ball goes through a net. But how on earth does that make it "not a sport?" Criticisms like this say more about the writer than they do about sports. Why is it that vast swaths of the American public can appreciate figure skating or snowboard half-pipe but professional sportswriters are so closed-minded that they can't appreciate the athleticism of anything that isn't a marquee sport in the U.S.A?
Finally, a lot of people have commented that the Winter Games are dominated by only a handful of countries, mostly full of white people. Well, that's the nature of weather and economics. It's still a fantastic competition and a great way to bring people of the world together. But especially when the World Baseball Classic is starting, it points out what a lie it is to say that baseball is not a game with international appeal. Baseball is played all across the Western Hemisphere, is very popular in the Far East, and has even made inroads in Europe and Australia. It's as international as the entire Winter Olympics.

And yet the IOC has declared that 2008 will be the last year baseball and softball are played at the Olympics. The argument about it not being international just doesn't hold water. So what else do they claim? That the best players --- the major leaguers --- don't play in the Olympics. Whatever happened to the idea that the Olympics were for amateur competition? Was there an official announcement that this part of the "Olympic ideal" now only holds in boxing, or has it just been chipped away slowly over the past 20 years? Remember when they stripped away Jim Thorpe's medals because he had played one semipro baseball game? The plain truth is that the IOC wanted to ditch baseball because they wanted to screw the United States, pure and simple.

Personally I think the Olympics ought to be a showcase of the best talent in the world, or if that is not possible, then we should see true amateurs. The point of this, though, is that the IOC is so inflexible with the enforcement of their rules and holds them up to be on a par with the Ten Commandments, when in reality these rules are changed with each Olympiad. You can see this in their anti-doping rules, where skeleton competitor Zach Lund was suspended for testing positive for anti-baldness medication Propecia, a drug which he had freely declared that he had taken for the past six years but which only became listed on the banned substances list a year ago. So Propecia went from being A-OK to making you into a cheat. Taking a pseudoephedrine for a stuffy nose can strip you of your medals. And training at a high altitude is hunky-dory, but artificially depressurizing your sleeping quarters (almost literally levelling the playing field) is banned. Of course they need to prevent people from cheating, but the pompous moral authority they attach to their rules makes me sick.


At Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 4:15:00 PM PST, Anonymous clynne said...

I don't really enjoy watching on-TV sports. But I think it is the sheer hubris of the IOC that really turns me off the Olympics. Well, that, and the whole U! S! A! thing, as evidenced by the sportswriting attitudes you detail.

Even at a live baseball game, I will cheer good playing by EITHER team. Even the Giants.

I hate the artificial drama created by a lot of the media coverage, and the whole "if the US isn't killing in it, it must suck" attitude. At the same time, the IOC's "baseball isn't a sport, but chess might be" attitude pisses the living hell out of me.

I have no point, I guess, other than to mostly agree with you.

At Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 5:14:00 PM PST, Anonymous Mike said...

Ohno's soul patch is stupid, but I like it. There's something charming about a dorky-looking champion.

At Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 5:15:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got nothing against the sports media stepping outside of itself to report on the public reaction to an event, but a lot of this stuff seems sort of self-fulfilling, based on the gripes of a handful of whiny male columnists who think it's un-macho to admire sports that require grace and/or precision. More people watched any given prime time night of the Olympics than will watch a single NBA game this year (or, for that matter, March Madness), but you're not going to hear the boys on PTI insisting that nobody cares about basketball.

Similarly, I'm already annoyed with the coverage of the WBC, which seems to insist exclusively of people talking about how nobody cares about the WBC. ("The games are on at 3am!" Dude, they're in Japan. If they were aired on tape-delay, you'd be complaining that nobody's watching because they already know the results.) I don't know that anyone besides me is going to watch a lot of the WBC. (But then I'm such a baseball nut that I'll watch pre-season games on ESPN.) Still, it would be nice if sports reporters would occasionally report on the on-field action, rather than trying to dampen viewers' enthusiasm in advance.


At Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 8:54:00 PM PST, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Yeah, it's definitely a macho thing. How many times have you seen a sportswriter declare that the sequins on the figure skating outfits somehow disqualifies it from sport-hood? These same guys will write at length about the aesthetics of baseball. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm all about the aesthetics of baseball. But trust me, you can feel free to write about how beautiful Johnny Weir's performance was without me thinking you're gay. Really.

Oh, and incidentally, just to name names, the #1 offending sportswriter is Bill Plaschke with the L.A. Times. You can find the links yourself; particularly disgraceful was the one where he declared that Sasha Cohen didn't deserve a medal. Why did they send him to Turin when it was obvious he didn't want to be there?

But hats off to Bob Costas. Bob is that rare broadcaster who is an utmost professional who never gives the network anything less than they expect, but can still speak his mind and sound intelligent doing it.

At Tuesday, March 7, 2006 at 8:28:00 PM PST, Anonymous Doafy said...


I heart the Olympics. I get all weepy about this stuff all the time. I actually think NBC does a pretty good job about getting you pumped about atheletes from other countries. e.g. the whole Norway/Italy cross country skiing rivalry. Fascinating. I also watched both entire marathons two years ago. The British commentators they were using for that and triathalon were fantastic.

I also heart Apolo Anton Ohno. In fact, I had a dream about him two nights ago, and he'd shaved off his soul patch. I think he's a bona fide hottie, even though the facial hair is silly.

My hero of the Olympics is Joey Cheek (sp?) This is the long track speed skater who donated all of his bonuses to that peace through sports organization, earmarking it for Darfur. I heard an interview with him today, and he was saying that the coverage of Darfur is so bad in America, and when he was interviewed after he won he could have talked about how happy he was, or about something that really mattered. I want a t-shirt that says "Joey Cheek is my hero".

The thing I like most about the Olympics is how they explain sports to you. I always felt behind in PE classes because no one would ever explain the frickin rules. Like you're born knowing how to play kickball or something. I like watching sports where they take into consideration the fact that not everyone knows the ins and outs, but they're able to do it without talking down to the viewers.


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