I was a big fan of this year’s Olympics, and I wanted to share my thoughts after a week of reflection.
First, the fantastic opening ceremonies, which, every four years, as one friend put it, gives the host country the opportunity to put on its own version of Cirque du Soleil. In the past, my family tended to tape opening ceremonies on VHS, and I’d tell myself I’d watch the whole thing. But, typically, after I watched a bit of it, I’d forget about it until three years later, when I would discover it while trying to tape something else. The only moment from past opening ceremonies I can remember was Muhammed Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta.
But I think it’s safe to say that this year’s in Beijing was by far the most captivating in recent memory. At $300 million, it was surely the most expensive theater production in history (not counting inflation — or maybe counting inflation). Opening Ceremonies can make me feel overwhelmed – there are so many countries out there, so many people in the world, and especially in China, where there are one billion of them, for God’s sake! But I felt like Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who oversaw the thing, did a great job of combining the grandness with a sense of the personal. We saw the beauty of 2,008 people banging on the drums all at once, but we also got to see this little girl in red fly above everyone. We got to see a parade of thousands of athletes, but when China’s most popular athlete, Yao Ming, came out holding his country’s flag, he was accompanied by a little boy who had survived China’s recent earthquake and who had helped save members of his class because, as he put it, he’s a hall monitor, so he felt responsible for helping his classmates (I found it oddly touching — and a little scary — that a silly little schoolroom title is what prompts such heroism).
As for the actual events, I’m always bothered by the sports that are judged, such as gymnastics — while at the same time fascinated by the absurdities of the way they work (It makes perfect sense that artistic pursuits such as watercolors used to be part of the Olympics, in the first half of the century). In most of the gymastics events, the only thing we lay people notice is the landing — whether they stick the landing, or hop a bit, or fall over completely. It’s the same in diving, where the only thing we recognize is the splash. The commentators try — and usually fail — to articulate any other reasons for why points are awarded and deducted. Those reasons must be there, as these commentators seem to instantly recognize what’s a good performance and what’s a bad performance (and in general seem eerily familiar with these sports that are rarely on TV). But we’ll never know what they are. I laugh the hardest at the floor routines, in which they try to extend their arms with a flourish and be “artistic” when all that really matters is the tumbling parts and all that matters in those tumbling parts is whether you stick that stupid landing. It also seems like a half-hearted imitation of figure skating, where artistry is much more of a factor (thus making figure skating silly in its own way).
In these judged sports, they try to make the judging as objective as possible, by creating rules for what gives you points and what requires point deductions, but that still doesn’t work. During one women’s gymnastics event, the commentators said that for one of the medalists, the judges simply didn’t deduct what they were supposed to deduct. And there’s no appeals process afterwards. That got me really angry, until I realized this does happen even in “normal” sports in which the scoring is more objective. In baseball, for instance, an umpire can make a bad call, and that call stands no matter what — which is why baseball is just beginning to use instant replay.
Another absurdity is the fact that in the Olympic’s, the athletes’ final performance determines everything — their medals, their legacy, their self-esteem. Sure, this happens in all sports and there’s nothing to be done: four times out of five, the Patriots beat the Giants, but in the Super Bowl they had an off day. But in the Olympics, the absurdity is made all the more stark, because no variables change. For one, these sports are purely individual — their opponents can’t alter their performance in any way. No variables change from one performance to another. So it seems rather absurd to arbitrarily decide to use this guy’s Wednesday performance instead of his Tuesday performance. Second, they do multiple performances Athlete A could break a world record during the qualifying rounds but then one day later, the final round, since the slate is wiped clean, they could do the exact same routine they could get stuck with the bronze. This happens not only in the judged sports but also in the more objective sports like track and field. World records seem like they should be a huge feat in comparison to a gold medal, but
Finally, I love that countries grade their Olympians on a curve. In the U.S., you need eight gold medals to host “Saturday Night Live.” But in other countries, smaller accomplishments can have a bigger relative impact on the hearts and minds of the people. During the Chinese games, commentators’ introductions during the finals frequently sounded something like, “Joe Smith became a national hero in Sri Lanka after his 2004 bronze medal in the discus.” What is it like to live in such a society? Do they realize they have low expectations, or is ignorance simply bliss?