Thursday, August 14, 2008


Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 13 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.

FEEDBACK: It's so predictable. I self-identify as disabled and at least one person thinks that means it's okay to call me retarded. This is classic able-bodied oppression. I do not have a mental or cognitive disability (although I did for part of one year, after anoxia during a surgery). If I did, I'd say so without shame. It's not funny and it's not "less than", it's simply a difference. Retard, on the other hand, is a hate term and is not welcome here. I'm leaving the comment up to make my point, but future hate speech directed against physical difference will disappear, poof.

I think commenting on the rigid feminization of certain sports is entirely appropriate, just as commenting on race and class as it limits those who can be at the Olympics is what a political blog should be doing. I used humor to change the pace, but I think it must have gone over at least one person's head: Pointing out sexism and classism is NOT part of the problem, despite the American myth that silence is the only (middle-class) way to be "nice". White, male, and upper class are default normal in this country. If you point out something contrary to the default, if you ask for attention to be directed toward the areas where people are still fucking dying daily because they are targeted in these areas, it is not identity politics or causing trouble, it is clarity and conscience which offers hope to every person who isn't comfortably included in (or allied with) the "default" categories.

Using "political correctness" as an attempted insult immediately marks you as having been stunted by the thinking of the Right, as begun by Reagan. Liberal, politically correct, compassion, and global are not terms of disparagement to me and other radicals. Political correctness is, at its baseline, a sincere attempt to avoid language, thinking and behavior which contributes to the oppression of others. If it seems hilarious or too much work to you, well, as Dr. Phil says, you might wanna take a look at that.

I also have a little trouble with the term "heatherish", which has the feel of pretending that the internalized oppression aimed by members of a target group at one another is what keeps those of in the target group oppressed and "in line". My self-reminder in any analysis is: Check the power flow, dummy. Me noticing how terrified these young women are of looking "not right" is NOT the oppression (which is a blend of class and gender).

One commenter made a great point, about objective scoring vs. subjective. Another commenter (at my own blog) made a related point when she voiced appreciation for the commentators who are taking the time to explain the sport to us as the action goes along. Understanding why deductions occur helps make it a much more enjoyable, shared experience -- and, incidentally, reveals where subjectivity has too much leeway. I'm still outraged that Torvill & Dean didn't win their ice-dancing competition years ago, and whether it was judge corruption or simple disagreement about technique, the presence of subjective scoring there allowed a decision that almost no one found fair.

Thanks to the white-water fans who explained more about why Benjamin Boukpeti's win was so exciting, and about how the current course is equalizing gender in this particular sport. And, again, thanks to earlier commenters who gave me a smidgen of education about fencing: When I watched the women's team saber finals today, I understood a great deal more and got very caught up in the action.

Back to the question of attire: Much was made of Michael Phelps having to swim last night with goggles full of water, which effectively blinded him for 100 meters. To his credit, he still turned in a world record time. Since he is poised to break Mark Spitz's record, the Today show featured an interview with Mark Spitz, who was extremely gracious and supportive. I remembered him (all the swimmers then) racing without goggles, so I went to Youtube and found a video of the 1972 games, below. It's blurry but does show all the men wore no goggles or hats, had often shaggy hair (including Spitz's mustache, which I don't think we'd ever see today), and not all of them had the skimpy Speedo that Spitz wore. There was a lot of talk about how revealing his suit was, as I remember, but he said it played a role in his superior swim times and, of course, he was right about that.

In December 1974, my partner and I with our four-year-old daughter were traveling through South Texas and we stopped at the Magic Time Machine restaurant in San Antonio (which is still there). This is a TGI Friday's kinda place whose gimmick is that all the staff dresses up like characters from history or current pop culture. We were shown to a table by a guy dressed as Benjamin Franklin and invited to go to the "salad car" right away. Folks dressed in wildly different costumes flowed back and forth, and our daughter was a little frightened by it all -- she didn't recognize most of who the actors were supposed to be portraying.

Back at our table, however, as our waiter approached she cried out with delight "Look! It's Mark Spitz!" Wearing a skimpy Speedo, with that brushy mustache and mop of hair, and seven gold medals bouncing back and forth on his chest, indeed, Mark Spitz's double took our order. My daughter shyly asked if she could touch one of his medals, and he consented graciously. I noticed, however, his skin was slightly blue and there were goosebumps on his arms. He must have been freezing, poor guy.

My daughter talked about meeting Mark Spitz for years, a thrill of her young life. We didn't let on until she was old enough to figure it out for herself.

This Olympics we're seeing an astonishing number of swimming world records broken, not just by Michael Phelps but across the board, even in qualifying heats. One possible cause is the widespread use of Speedo's Fastskin LZR Racer suit, which I think first appeared at the Athens Olympics but appears perfected at this point. Also, the newer Olympic pools manipulate water away from the swimmer, as if they are "swimming downhill". And I've heard that new chemicals to more quickly remove lactic acid from overused muscles gives a strong advantage to current athletes who must perform repetitively in a single day or over a few days.

I mention all this with no intention to draw away credit from the astonishing performances we are seeing. It's a swimming Olympics to remember, for sure. And -- as Mark Spitz's record is bested, let's remember the guy who did what he did without these advantages, without hype or much expected of him at all: Seven gold medals in seven races, with a new world record time in each race. We can't compare him to Phelps or anyone else, really, because that was then and this is now; his race times would not hold up now. We can honor both equally, for what they have done.

As if the commentators were listening to my earlier criticism (which of course they were not), they've done better about explaining instead of gushing and sharing the praise in more directions. I finally found out what Natalie Coughlin is so good on turns (she rotates her body sideways for a stroke, which creates less drag), why a big swimmer with Alain Bernard can negatively affect a smaller swimmer (backwash at the turn), and why Phelp's unusual body is so ideal for swimming (his arm span is 6'7", three inches longer than his height; his feet are size 14 and bend an extra 15 degrees at the ankle, allowing him to use them much more as flippers).

Interestingly, after Jason Lezak won Bronze in the only event where he swam individually at this Olympics, the men's 100m freestyle, he was interviewed by Rowdy Gaines. During the course of the interview, Gaines quite appropriately brought up the most exciting swim of this games so far, Lezak's anchor leg of the 4x100 free relay with a split of 46.06. However, Gaines veered off into Phelpsomania, stating "You got Michael his gold in that event." With a slight smile and a steady voice, Lezak replied "I did not swim that race to win a gold for Michael." Hear, hear! When this was replayed with Bob Costas present, Costas appeared unable to take it in, although Gaines did and seemed to appreciate Lezak drawing a lane in the pool, as it were: He is not Phelps' minion.

And, from what I can see, Phelps is very aware of that. He seems to be close to his male cohorts. It's the press who have attempted to make him into the Only Swimmer that Matters -- and for too many of them, it's for a commercial bottom line, not even from pure love of sport.

Speaking of commercialism: I don't remember previous Olympics' coverage showing every single heat and semifinal as this one has (51 in total). I personally love swimming, but it occurred to me that because of watching all these non-decisive races, I'm missing all the other events that could be covered. Track & Field begin tomorrow, which has a similar multitude of events and voluminous numbers of competitors to be winnowed down to final races. I'll be watching to see if all those heats are aired as well. If not, I'll raise the question of whether this is pure commercialism -- i.e., give viewers only what is most popular -- or, dare I say it, because most of the athletes in swimming are white and most of the athletes in track & field are NOT white? A discussion to be continued, after more observation.

Locally (I live in Austin, Texas) there's a great deal of credit being given to Longhorn Aquatics at the University of Texas, where a huge number of these swimmers train -- some of them not even pros yet, still students at UT. Since I should plug my home town at least once, the following swimmers are from the Longhorn program: Ricky Berens, Hee-Jin Chang (swimming for China), Ian Crocker, Susana Escobar (swimming for Mexico), Brendan Hansen, Kathleen Hersey, Aaron Peirsol, Scott Spann, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Dave Walters.

While I'm plugging, I discovered a blog I read regularly is running GREAT posts about the Olympics with cultural and sociological commentary, covering territory I'm not: Sue Katz Consenting Adult. I especially liked her report on the older athletes who find a niche in some sports, Boomer Olympians.

Also, the Guardian UK wrote a pre-Olympics article which is highly educational and entertaining, Game For Anything, in which they sent eight of their reporters out in crash courses for competitions. These intrepid writers report back on the finer points of steeple chase, front crawl, shot put, fencing, gymnastics, rowing, high jump, and BMX. It's a great read.

Returning to attire: The aforementioned LZR swimsuits show the men swimmers constantly adjusting their shoulder straps and arm holes as compulsively as the women. I was happy to see it's not just us: When you wear a tight garment that lets flesh bulge out, you simply are not as comfortable in it. (Plus the nervousness factor, I'm sure.) In my freshman year of high school, our basketball uniforms were the old-fashioned style with shorts that were more like panties and arm sleeves in a baby-doll style. I remember our coach screaming at us during one time-out because somebody had been pushing her ass-cheek back into her suit instead of catching the ball on a pass.

The next year, new suits were bought for both the boys and girls' basketball teams, and after heated lobbying on our part, we got the same style as the boys -- roomy sleeves, breathable fabric, long-legged and baggy shorts with wide waistbands. I still remember the glorious freedom I felt when I first put mine on, not only the ease of movement but, even more, the relief from having to worry about exposure. When I watch women doing strenuous movements in leotards and see them constantly reaching to their bottoms to make sure the fabric hasn't ridden up too far, I feel for them. I suspect, as one commenter said, it's about the look rather than the function -- otherwise, men would be wanting to compete in leotards as well.

And, finally, regarding commentary, race, and class inequality at the games: I was watching in 2000 when Eric Moussambani swam his heat for the men's 100 meter freestyle. I was leaned forward cheering for him every agonizing stroke of the final 50 meters, and also laughing wildly: How on earth had this guy gotten to the Olympics? The last few meters, it looked like someone might need to jump in and pull him out. He was immediately dubbed "Eric the Eel".

Turns out, according to Wikipedia, he "gained entry to the Olympics without meeting the minimum qualification requirements via a wildcard draw designed to encourage developing countries without expensive training facilities to participate." In other words, poor countries are given a ticket to compete but no funding to support their athletes. What I remember from interviews at the time, he had no access to an Olympic-sized pool and therefore trained in a hotel pool that was 20 meters long, so 50 meters was 2.5 times what he usually swam. He had only been training for eight months, and he did it for the honor of his country.

It stopped being funny at that point. Below is a Youtube video of Eric Moussambani's swim, the most respectful one I could find (and it's not entirely free of crap).

When I checked the NBC site to see who is competing from his country this year, I found under the entry for Equatorial Guinea a brief reference to Moussambani which stated "he had only learned to swim eight months before, and in crocodile-infested waters." This is directly contradicted by my memory of his history and also by that of Wikipedia, and it smacks of appalling racial stereotyping.

To make matters worse, last night the NBC anchor ran another video of a swimmer from who was the sole competitor for a poor African country (I didn't catch the name and I cannot find it by searching the NBC site). He was swimming in a heat and came in dead last. The commentator prefaced it by going from an image of (guess who) Michael Phelps to the heat, stating "And now, from the sublime to, well, also the sublime but in an entirely different way". He laughed throughout the video. His tone was utterly condescending. If you can supply the name of this swimmer and country, I'd appreciate it.

Professionalism in sports is not the problem: Paying athletes is on a par with paying artists and other non-profit endeavors, in my opinion. It's who is controlling the endeavor (i.e., community vs. corporate or government), and how fair is the access that matters most. Paying lip-service to access while providing no money for athletes to train is disingenuous at best. I admit it's a stretch to ask wealthy superpowers to set aside some of our largesse to create sports program for boys and girls in the countries we tend to exploit, especially since those kids will likely grow up to be crackerjack competitors -- but can you imagine the Olympics which would result from a truly leveled playing field? (Pun intended.)

(Stephanie Rice wins 200m individual relay, photo from China Daily)

Alain Bernard of France in Men's 100m Freestyle: 47.20 WR (in the semifinal)
Federica Pellegrini of Italy in Women's 200m Freestyle: 1:54.82 WR (won Gold)
Michael Phelps of U.S. in Men's 200m Butterfly: 1:52.03 WR (won Gold)
Michael Phelps of U.S. in Men's 200m Freestyle: 1:42.96 WR (won Gold)
Aaron Peirsol of U.S. in Men's 100m Backstroke: 52.54 WR (won Gold)
Stephanie Rice of Australia in Women's 200m Individual Medley: 2:08.45 WR (won Gold)
Ricky Berens, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, and Peter Vanderkaay of US in Men's 4x200 Freestyle Relay: 6:58.56 WR (won Gold)

Paolo Bossini of Italy in Men's 200m Breaststroke: 2:08.98 OR (in the heats)
Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe in Women's 200m Individual Medley: 2:09.53 OR (in the semifinal)
Daniel Gyurta of Hungary (beating record set by Paolo Bossini in previous heat same day) in Men's 200m Breaststroke: 2:08.68 OR (in the heats)
Leisel Jones of Australia in Women's 100m Breaststroke: 1:05.17 OR (won Gold)
Kosuke Kitajima of Japan in Men's 200m Breaststroke: 2:08.61 OR (in the semifinal)
Rebecca Soni of U.S. in Women's 200m Breaststroke: 2:22.17 OR (in the heats)
Coralie Balmy, Celine Couderc, Camille Muffat, and Alena Popchanka of France in Women's 4x200m Freestyle Relay: 7:50.37 OR (in the heats)
Ricky Berens, Klete Keller, Erik Vendt, and David Walters in Men's 4x200 Freestyle Relay: 7:04.66 OR (in the heats)


P.S. NBC, PLEASE stop doing segments on reporters trying to eat fried scorpions. It's junior high "let's make fun of what other people eat" behavior. Get over it.