Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 12 August 2008

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 12 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 was born with severe asthma and spent most of my childhood as an intermittent invalid, excused from P.E. I was anorexic as well. Because my family was poor, and because I was a girl, my congenital orthopedic problems went unnoticed (despite my complaints of pain and difficulty) and undiagnosed until I was 45, by which time irrecovable damage had been done. My life-threatening hormonal imbalance also went undiagnosed until I was 40.

In high school, I went out for the girls' basketball team and, partly because it was a tiny school, partly because I had a ferocious will, I made it. I played for four years and was captain my senior year. I also played volleyball, softball, and threw the discus (all of them very, very badly). My sophomore year, I tried on the life of being a jock but found it stultifyingly boring after one set of goalS had been reached and gave it up for more creative pursuits.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of my 20s and 30s, where I was very physically active -- using public transportation or walking to get around, living up two and three flights of stairs, marching, hiking, and often doing manual labor for a living (baking, delivery, construction salvage). I was a hands-on parent and lived in collective households where the chores were shared but absolute. I pushed through the asthma, and also through the constant orthopedic pain. My latter choice was a grave mistake, according to the doctors and PT's I've seen since age 45.

Working class toughs: My mother's mantra was "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." That included bodies, of course.

I always identified with the disabled community because of my asthma, and because in the Bay Area they are the coolest folks around. Since becoming increasingly mobility impaired, I've joined the ranks of the visibly crippled. For four years I was a core writer and performer in Actual Lives, a theater troupe for disabled adults directed by Terry Galloway where all of our material was written by us, page to stage. I wrote some gorgeous stuff, I helped shape disability theory, and, even better, I got to live up close and personal with folks who have a multitude of diverse disabilities: Often, the kinds of disability that nobody wants to see on TV.

I watch NO organized sports on television except for the Olympics. I love community and school sports -- my daughter is a jock, thanks to Title IX -- but most of what makes it into "news" coverage is commercial sports, which is more accurately part of the entertainment industry than actual athleticism. I don't find it surprising that as, in my memory, sports have become a vast corporate-run industry (and claimed a share of the evening broadcast time that would have been unthinkable when I was a child), Americans have become less and less active. Watching sports is not about athleticism, it's about star-worship, reinforcing class and gender myths, and keeping us entertained so we don't notice the real issues of the day.

Why on earth, then, do I make an exception for the Olympics? Certainly, all of my objections above hold true for this event as well. I'm giving voice to them as they come up, including the clear political flaws related to how the Olympics are staged. But this is an international event bringing together, in however limited a fashion, representatives from 205+ nations who agree on a few basics, and as such, it's enormously important. Values and messages which can arise from this venue will be shared globally. That matters.

And on a physical, body level, I relate to the Olympics because it exists on the same continuum as disability. That may seem like a contradiction in terms: I know a lot of people see it as worship of physical perfection. I'm not sure how widespread that belief is.

For me and the disabled people I know, it's more revealing as a close examination of physical difference. Olympic-level athletes are as different from the average person as someone in a wheelchair (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Their bodies are abnormal. Different sports bring out different body types and unusual configurations, and for the most part, these differences are accepted without judgment. Many of the top athletes are unhealthy in some significant way, aside from the ever-present eating disorders. Many of them are, well, kinda ugly when compared to traditional standards of beauty. But we get a chance to look at all these through close-ups and long takes, often with smart people helping to explain what we are seeing, often without any of the commercial lens of sexuality and manipulation for profit.

Like being at a gathering of crips, in fact.

In addition, the powers of endurance called forth in Olympic athletes I find to be extremely similar to those found in disabled populations. When I see a muscle in extreme, sustained flexion, I am reminded of the severe contractures I sometimes have in my legs or hands, when my muscle goes into the same extremis, rock-hard and consuming all my attention. I am still able to either stand or move into a position (using another part of my body) which will force the contracture to end. I am in dread of the possible day when I won't have that option, like so many folks I know who live with constant contractures pretzeling one or more limbs, with all the pain and lactic acid release that athletes experiences daily.

One man I know, who was a teenaged athlete and became a quadriplegic from a hang-gliding accident, manages to mostly live alone still but the act of making himself a bag of microwave popcorn as a snack involves 20 minutes of all-out consuming physical effort before the bag is in the microwave and the button pushed. Opening the goddamned bag and eating it will require another massive expenditure of will and muscle once the bell dings. He certainly gets a gold medal from me, and this is part of why I keep complaining about how all the focus is on the top three, when the stories of those who simply manage to get to the Olympics at all are likely far more interesting.

Not to mention the rest of us, with bodies that are outside "the norm".

Having watched these events faithfully for 44 years also sheds light on trends and cycles. When watching the women athletes, I am occasionally nostalgic for the bad old days of the Soviet bloc nations who finessed steroids and produced women who were a dyke wet dream. (Looking like an "East German woman" was not a perjorative in my community.) Diving is increasingly rewarding those with no hips or ass to speak of, as they make less of a splash. Fortunately, water polo has gained in popularity which find those who are well-padded to be at an advantage for long, grueling hours in cold water.

As we begin, here and there, to emerge from a long period of right-wing domination around the globe, with its worship of the constructed myths of masculine/feminine and increasing societal pressure against androgyny, however natural, I noticed last night that every single female gymnast on the medal stand, 18+ from three diverse nations, had exactly the same hairstyle: A Betty-type ponytail held with a frou-frou scrunchie. What happened to the convenience (not to mention the cuteness) of short hair? It looked mandatory, that level of conformity.

I had thought it was just the U.S. up to that point. The American female gymnasts all looked so much alike that I honestly could not tell them apart (except one had light brown hair instead of blond.) It wasn't simply a body type, it was make-up which reminded me of circus performers dolling up to go to the mall, and a way of moving, sitting, talking on the sidelines which was extremely wooden and subdued -- moreso than even the men. Shades of a Stepford pommel horse...

On a more humorous note, it occurred to me that if you are a suburban girl whose first name is from a department/jewelry store, a small country in Europe, a kind of liquor, or sounds traditional but is spelled in classic white trash style (Tari instead of Terry, Lenzi instead of Lindsay), combined with a surname which is Germanic or Slavic, you are destined to become a gymnast and should be fast-tracked toward that goal.

Many records which I saw created with a thumping heart are now being demolished. I screamed for Janet Evans, Jenny Thompson, Ian Thorpe, and Carl Lewis. I've learned to enjoy their excellence but, like Charles Barkley reminded us, to not mistake their accomplishments in one area for role models. I prefer athletes who are plugged into community outside their speciality, who pursue art or cooking or working with kids, whom you know are not going to be pathetic once their 15 minutes of gold are over. Some of the old familiar faces I've come to care about -- Aaron Peirsol, Natalie Coughlin -- are likely not going to be competing in 2012, and I hope they really are as happy as they appear to be.

But I'm even more interested in the folks who are dealing with major life issues away from competition: U.S. swimmer Eric Chanteau who leaves these games to have surgery for testicular cancer; Polish swimmer Otylia Jędrzejczak who sold her Athens gold medal for $82000 to fund a children's cancer clinic, then had a car accident driving recklessly which killed her beloved younger brother, served nine months in prison for it, and is back in the pool, dealing with whatever ghosts that must entail; and Israeli swimmer Alon Mandel, whose father died accidentally the day before the Olympics began and who is flying back to Israel tomorrow to bury him.


(Norway's Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg, handball teammates and lovers, in Paris 2007)
Cheers to being able to compete while out (and thanks for doing your best while not out to Derrick Peterson, Greg Louganis, Alyson Annan, Rob McCall, and many others). From the Washington Blade, I've learned there are at least six openly lesbian/gay athletes completing in these Olympics. The list includes: Natasha Kai, a forward on the U.S. Women’s Soccer team; veteran Olympians Judith Arndt, a German cyclist, and Imke Duplitzer, a German fencer; a lesbian couple from Norway, Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg, competing in the team handball competition; and Matthew Mitcham, a diver representing Australia.

Jeers to the men's basketball team from Spain who posed for the Spain Basketball Federation with a racist gesture, pulling at their eyes in a slit-eyed fashion to mime "Chinese". Jeers also the Guardian UK article about this offensive photo which attempts to deny its obvious nature by saying it "could be interpreted so as to lead to accusations of racism". It IS racist, folks. Behavior trumps intention.

(Benjamin Boukpeti winning a bronze medal for Togo in men's single-seat slalom kayak)
Cheers to the international crowd enthusiastically chanting "Togo! Togo!" as Benjamin Boukpeti, ranked a seemingly impossible 56th in the world, paddled a near-perfect run in the men's single-seat slalom kayak to win the bronze medal, the first medal ever for Togo in the Summer Olympics.

Jeers to the official from the Chinese Politburo (name not given) who decided that the adorable girl singer Yang Peiyi was "not suitable" for the opening ceremonies, so she was replaced with Lin Miaoke who mimed Yang's rendition of "Ode to the Motherland". What was Yang's cosmetic flaw? Her typical seven-year-old's uneven teeth. Look at the photos for yourself in the Guardian UK article here.

And cheers to the Four Winds blog in their article "Photos of George W. Bush 'Drunk As A Monkey' At the Olympics" for giving us a plausible explanation for this baffling photograph of President Bush I saw two days ago in general news, tagged then as something about difficulty in finding a seat, but nailed by Four Winds with "How many secret Servicemen does it take to help a President stand up?" Read the article for more photos. The LOLDubya below was created by little gator (not to be confused with The Littlest Gator).

Because this post is going up late, I'm not going to report on all the various results, including Michael Phelps' MAJOR accomplishment of outperforming all other gold medalists, great swims by some of my favorites, gymnastics, etc. Too much to see and keep notes on while having a life with other demands in it, and you'll get the coverage (if not my take on it) elsewhere. Feel free to report and editorialize in the comments, as long as you avoid oppressive language or blogwhoring. I'll be back tomorrow.