Sunday, August 10, 2008

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 10 August 2008

(Diana Gandega and the other members of the Mali women's basketball team received a house and bonus for qualifying for the Olympics. Photo by Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images. Hat tip to Oak for e-mailing me the story from The New York Times.)

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 10 August 2008

Here's your daily subjective report on the Olympics and a chance to converse about it in comments. For the suggested guidelines, please read the opening paragraphs of my my original post.

SPOILER NOTE: Some results will be reported below for the competition of yesterday, so be forewarned.

I'll begin by linking to an excellent article in today's New York Times about women at the Olympics, "Inside the Rings: Once Banned, Women Now Center Stage at Games". In one paragraph, they state "Women were not allowed to participate at the 1896 Summer Games in Athens, the first Olympics of the modern era. They were expected to contribute applause, not athletic skill. Not until 1984 were women permitted to run the Olympic marathon, in reefer-madness fear that they might grow old too soon with such exertion; or worse, they might grow a mustache. Or their uterus would fall out, as if it were a transmission."

Yeah, it's a real hassle to pull out the WD-40 and reinstall that uterus. You have to anchor it back in place with cinch clamps.

The article also says "Now, women have become must-see TV at the Olympics, as well as the target viewing audience for NBC. Of the 11,427 athletes participating in these Games, 4,845 are women — 500 more than in Athens four years ago, 1,000 more than competed in Atlanta 12 years ago."

Much of the focus of the article was the ground gained by African women, who "have long struggled against more onerous cultural perceptions and restrictions than women in the West. Not until 1984 did an African woman — the 400-meter hurdler Nawal el-Moutawakel of Morocco — win an Olympic gold medal. It was 1992 before a black African woman gained the top step on the medal podium, when Derartu Tulu won the 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) at the Barcelona Games." I think it's important to point out that these restrictions are not simply due to religious and patriarchal beliefs embedded in some modern African cultures. Regional and national instability also play a role, and this is ultimately brought on by the machinations of superpowers like the U.S.: there is constant strife at the edges of empire, and this strife always hits women and children hardest.

So, I've watched some coverage here and there. As usual, what gets in-depth, at times obsessive focus on NBC (the broadcast version, at least) are only the events where Americans have a perceived medal opportunity. I cannot afford cable and don't know if it is better on other channels, or if this sham "patriotism" carries through everywhere. I feel like I'm missing the best, which is the international effort, not the medal count.

(Mariel Zagunis of the United States celebrates after defeating her compatriot Sada Jacobson during the women's individual sabre gold medal match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Aug. 9, 2008. Photo from Xinhua/Chen Xiaowei)

I enjoyed watching women's sabre, ignorant as I am of the sport, in part because one of the commentators was doing his best to explain things as they progressed. I also really enjoyed seeing female bodies with thick, muscular thighs and asses, instead of the anorexic model seen too often among professional female athletes. I'm presuming there's a reason for that particular muscular development in fencing. Can anybody elucidate? I'm also curious as the reason why the U.S. swept all three medals in women's sabre: Is it primarily because (as always) we have the money to pay for facilities and training, or is there another contributing cause? Third question: They screamed when their sabretip made contact. Is this because it is painful or a release of emotion? Fourth question: Did the fact that the top two medal winners here were both left-handed play any sort of role in giving them an advantage? Inquiring minds want to know.

REPORT: Women's Sabre -- Gold to Mariel Zagunis, Silver to Sada Jacobsen, Bronze to Rebecca Ward
NOTE: This was the first gold medal won by the U.S. at Beijing and a back-to-back gold for Zagunis (she also won in Athens). Interestingly, she is the child of Olympic rowers. Wonder if there's a story there.

I also liked seeing the men's road cycling and hearing the strategy employed. I have to confess, I kept thinking about Breaking Away, which I saw four times in the theaters, I loved it so much. I also appreciated the little bit of information they gave us about Tieneman Square (The Gate of Heaven to the Forbidden City). I recently saw a PBS special about China which was much more educational. It was intriguing that despite it having been constructed in 1651, it only got paved over in the 1950s. I find that unpaved stretches of land connect us much more deeply to the earth, even if they are lined with stone.

China's lone cyclist, Liang Zhang, led the peleton through the heart of Beijing. This appeared to be partly allowed by the other riders out of respect for the honor it meant to him, and partly because at that stage of the race, his choice to exert himself in this way meant he would not be a competitor at the end -- or might not be able to finish at all.

Some of the cyclists were squeezing what was called "energy gel" into their mouths as they raced along. I was curious and looked this up, finding a description here: "Energy gels (also called carbo gels) are a thick carbohydrate syrup or paste designed as an alternative snack supplement to extend your muscle glycogen stores and provide additional calories and energy for rides of more than 2 hours. They contain a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates (usually maltodextrin, rice syrup, or polysaccharides) packaged in a palm sized packet of plastic or foil with a tear off end to allow the contents to be 'sucked' out rather than chewed, and provide between 70 and 100 calories (17 - 25 grams of carbohydrate) per packet. An additional advantage is that they are completely fat free, minimizing any delay in gastric emptying. To provide the 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour usually suggested to supplement exercising muscle glycogen supplies, you would need a gel packet every 30 to 45 minutes." Sounds like maybe it's not something I'd spread on a biscuit.

I read an account once of a modern polar adventurer who was attempting to ski to the North Pole. She was using up so many calories, even chocolate bars weren't replacing enough. She began eating sticks of butter during her day's exertion. Wow.

The loss of liquid in the road race is a constant factor; the commentator said the cyclists could expect to lose about 3-5 liters of liquid. One method set up to help with perspiration loss is brand new to the Olympics: long strips of showers periodically by the side of the road that a cyclist could veer over and ride through to get wet. It was fun watching them discover these. Even so, heat and humidity took a heavy toll; of the 143 starters, only 90 finished. Another factor not mentioned in the press was, of course, the heavy pollution, euphemistically referred to as haze. When asked about the effect of this on the race, at least one cyclist, American Dave Zabriski, replied "On the advice of counsel, no comment."

Another first for Beijing is that the 152.2 mile race began and ended in different locations. It began in the heart of ancient Beijing, went past the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square, traveled 25 miles along the Badaling Expressway, and ended at the Great Wall, where cyclists took seven laps around a 24 km loop which involved a total 12,000 feet of climbing.

(Spain's Samuel Sanchez, left, outsprints Italy's Davide Rebellin, right, to win. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP)

REPORT: Men's Road Cycle Race -- Gold, Samuel Sánchez of Spain (the first cycling road race medal of any kind for Spain); Silver, Davide Rebellin of Italy (on his 37th birthday); Bronze, Fabian Cancellara (without the assistance of any teammates).

NOTE: For a great gallery of photos from the men's road cycle race, check out the Guardian UK.

I didn't watch the beach volleyball, regular volleyball, sculling, or men's gymnastics preliminaries. I did tape and later view the swimming heats and finals. As you cannot have missed by now, the first medal swimming race for men, the 400 meter individual medley, was won by Michael Phelps with a new world record time of 4:03.84. Silver was claimed by Hungary's Laszlo Cseh and bronze was also won by an American, Ryan Lochte.

Let me admit up front, I got sick of the hoo-ha about Michael Phelps at the Athens Olympics four years ago. Now I have a serious case of what I'd describe as Phelps Fatigue. Honestly, though, the commentators (especially Costas, who definitely has a crush on the guy) cannot talk about any other swimmer without needing to mention Phelps -- as in, "I wonder how so-and-so from (insert nation) feels about having to swim against Phelps" or "This woman swimmer once shared a training pool with Phelps." I'm not exaggerating. I would not have been surprised to hear Costas swoon "Phelps once loaned X his jockstrap" or "Phelps opened the door for Y to the Aquatic Center" as his only description of other swimmers. Is this just me, or is anybody else feeling the same way? I want to hear about the field, about what people from other places have to contend with in order to reach the Olympics.

And it would help if the objects of these fawning spots could actually articulate something deeper than "I just wanted to swim." I mean, that's a fine sentiment but don't give us five minutes of it rephrased in shorter and shorter sentence fragments. Let someone else talk, I do want to hear about the lives of committed people.

I enjoyed the spot given to Dara Torres, though it was a repeat of the interview done recently when she set a new world record at age 41. There's a shade too much emphasis on her having produced a baby (proving she's a Real Woman) but, interestingly, never mention of a husband or boyfriend. What I especially liked is how she is cleverly forestalling innuendo that her physical accomplishments are the result of doping by demanding more stringent testing for herself than most athletes receive and having her blood draws saved for eight years, against future refinement in testing technology. I mean, given this week's revelation in other arenas, it's possible she's a world-class narcissist who thinks she cannot be found out, but for the moment, I'm erring on the side of belief.

She swam today as anchor in the womens 4x100 meters freestyle relay, and the American silver in this event is clearly due to her. The initial leg by Natalie Coughlin was electric for 75 meters, but she faded at that point (uncharacteristic for her), swimming the 100 meters in 54 seconds flat, and she was overtaken by Germany, who held the lead for almost half the race. The next American swimmers in the relay, Lacey Nymyer, did not advance the team forward with a swim of 53:91. Following her, Kara Lynn Joyce swam her leg in 53:98 but this was enough to move the U.S. into second place. By the time Dara Torres entered the pool, the Netherlands team was a full length ahead of everyone else, and Australia looked poised to come in second. Dara's split of 52:44 gave the Americans their silver medal and contributed hugely to the new U.S. national record of 3:34:33.

This race makes Dara Torres the oldest Olympic swimming medalist in history and the first American swimmer to mark her fifth Olympics -- her first was in 1984, when she was only 17, where she won gold. She now has ten medals to her credit. She is performing in Beijing without her longtime coach, Michael Lohberg, who is gravely ill in Bethesda, Maryland with aplastic anemia. Dara will be competing later in the week in the women's 50 meter freestyle, where she holds the world record. Can't wait.

REPORT: Women's 4x100 meters freestyle relay -- Gold, Netherlands foursome of Inge Dekker, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Femke Heemskerk and Marleen Veldhuis (setting a new Olympic record at 3:33.76); Silver, U.S. as above; Bronze, Australia's team of Libby Trickett, Cate Campbell, Alice Mills, and Melanie Schlanger

Women's 400 meter individual medley -- Gold, Stephanie Rice of Australia with a stunning world record of 4:29.45; Silver, Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe; Bronze, Katie Hoff of the U.S.

Men's 400 meter freestyle -- Gold, Park Tae Hwan of South Korea, their first gold medal ever in swimming; Silver, Zhang Lin of China; and Bronze, Larsen Jensen of the U.S.
NOTE: Gold medalist Park Tae Hwan went to the 2004 Athens Olympics as a 14-year-old swimmer. However, he accidentally fell into the pool just before the race started and was disqualified for a false start in the preliminary heat of the men's 400m freestyle competition. He hid in the bathroom in shame. Way to come back, guy!

Final competition in:
Road Cycling

Non-final competition in:
Beach Volleyball
Football (Soccer)
Gymnastics Artistic