06 August 2012

Olympic villages and such

The Olympics are an odd event for me.

I don't generally get into the whole "ra-ra-America! fuck yeah!" type rooting. If some Russian or Chinese gymnast or diver or swimmer is the best in the world, or Usain Bolt is running, I have no concern about country, I want to see something I haven't seen before done in a sporting event in front of millions of spectators around the globe. This is, for me, why people should watch and follow sports. The possibilities for some marginal achievement in athletic prowess and domination of an event flowing from years of training to focus on excellence of a single skill allow most of us to see what that would look like if we applied ourselves to some individual task or set of tasks for years of dedicated effort. I think most people follow these things for Cold War era nostalgia and expressions of "our team is better than yours", but they do at least see somebody doing something at a high level in their pursuit of this odd nationalistic quirk.

My thoughts so far
1) Team USA basketball still has not figured out how to stop a pick and roll, or at least didn't play the personnel that would have helped (Chandler or Davis, as a back line shot blocker). A team with hyper athletic basketball players should be running 4 guys around like crazy on the perimeter with one or two to help down low and ought to force turnovers like crazy as a result. They did force a lot of turnovers, but they didn't stop anyone from scoring the other night either. In general, I would say that that game ought to put to rest a lot of the "we could have beaten the Dream Team" trash. Lithuania is a very good basketball country, but they've not gotten much better over the last two decades either (in terms of raw talent). The 1992 team would have destroyed their squad, as they had the perimeter defenders and size and shot blockers to do it.

2) Usain Bolt is a freak of nature. Michael Phelps I guess is too, but I have to admit I find watching swimming incredibly dull. It's difficult to tell what is happening live without a ton of CGI glop on the screen and really all I'm watching is a lot of splashing water and some human shaped blobs moving along at what seems like a high rate of speed. I'm not saying that this means the achievements are less impressive, but it loses something in the translation to spectating that track does not lose for me. I have talked to people who used to swim competitively, and they seem to see things that interest them in those events, but that's not most of us. Watching a 100m race with 8 of the fastest human beings ever assembled. Where had one of them not pulled up lame all would have been sub-10 second times, and then watching Bolt blow right past that field, absolutely crush it, and still pull up short in the final steps with something extra in the tank, that's insane. I think it is apparent that an 80,000 seat arena for the track events (where over 2 million people applied to get tickets to the 100m final, and thousands were thus standing), versus the 20k for swimming venues, demonstrates that the general public consumes these events in roughly the same way I do here. Track has some events that follow the same confusing spectator roles as swimming (long jump seems that way), but by and large it is easy to follow; people are obviously moving rapidly or jumping far or throwing things far. Swimming only has that effect on much longer races. Which then take several minutes of suffering through watching people swimming. I'd rather watching diving as a result, where it can be pretty clear what is going on.

3) I have to admit also that I find gymnastics mostly uninteresting too. I think this has partly to do with the Cold War nostalgia factors that do not resonate for me (I don't care if "Romania" or "Russia" or "China" wins instead of "us"). I did however watch the vaults the other night, and it was, interesting, to see the favourite (the American) after a surprising fall, and her reaction. This was, I think, on the level of USA basketball losing in the gold medal game (something that's only happened once, and under suspicious circumstances) because she was so heavily favored. And you could read the disappointment and anger in her face afterward. That was an interesting taste of what it must be like to expect perfection as an ordinary event, and then realize one's human frailty in one quick swoop.

4) I find the arbitrary decisions in some sports (but not all) to exclude members of a national team from qualifying to a final on the basis of 2 or 3 person per country limits in the finals to be strange. I don't see a monetary basis. Most of the countries that could sweep a particular event are very large powerful countries that could sign very large TV rights (USA, China especially). Most of the sponsors of a particular event would also benefit from greater exposure, and more opportunities to sponsor the perceived successful athletes instead of less skilled athletes who get in on the basis of some kind of affirmative action by nation system. This rarely raises up as a significant issue that one country absolutely dominates some event. Table tennis is rather famously in this case because of limits put in for these games, such that China doesn't sweep the medals, and the USA (along with several others) could have had three competitors a piece in the finals for gymnastics all-arounds. I think I am spoiled because track certainly does not do this. I come to expect to see 3 Americans and Jamaicans in every sprinting final as a result because those are the sprinting powerhouses (right now, Trinidad used to be up there too). Fundamentally I don't understand the rule. The best athletes should be competing for a title. Period. And I'm not sure what the probable gains are to the Olympics and its board to do otherwise. Occasionally it means some random person from Italy or Brazil wins a medal or some random person qualifies to compete for a medal (and doesn't). Odd.

5) Watching Pistorius run the 400m with his prosthetic legs was a good story and I think he was somewhat disappointed in how he finished in the semis (he had already run well enough to be a considered as a possible finalist, but not medalist). What interests me in it moving forward are questions of transhumanism. I'd be fascinated to see how we would deal with a system where people might want to remove ordinary human legs (or arms) in favor of artificial ones to increase their speed or power or jumping ability. That's a different question than the status of performance enhancing substances, but mostly in form and extremes.

6) I really do not get the appeal of a tax break on Olympic medal winnings for US Olympians. It seems somewhat arbitrary to decide these people shall get a tax break for doing X. One supposition is that it is somehow a service to the country to do X. I'm not sure how true that is really. But as practical objections. There are already adequate incentives financial for Olympians to win or medal in events such that we don't need to give people more of them (sponsorships and commercials and publicity) and we already do way too many economic incentives for equally strange things (housing, health care insurance) through tax breaks.
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