Saturday, August 16, 2008

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 14-15 August 2008

(Photo finish between Michael Phelps, left and Milorad Cavic, right, in men's 100m freestyle -- photo by Patrick B. Kraemer/EPA)

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 14-15 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.

We've got a jam-packed weekend, and yesterday's events required more viewing on my part than usual, so I'm just going to get started.

NBC's Olympics has daily highlights, what they consider the best from Day 7 (August 14): Phelps' 7th Gold and the briefly contested race against Cavic; men's tennis controversy of Blake vs. Gonzales; women's volleyball of U.S. vs. China; women's basketball, U.S. vs. Spain; women's water polo, U.S. vs. Russia; women's soccer, U.S. vs. Canada and Japan vs. China. Yeah, it's all about the U.S. in this recap, and there's an obnoxious commercial at the beginning. Sifting through the NBC site, you can find more balanced (and interesting) coverage on your own.

As you undoubtedly all know by now, Michael Phelps accomplished his goal of matching Mark Spitz's seven gold medal in a single Olympics (though not world records in each of those races). The highlights video below will cover part of the race that gave him his seventh gold by 1/100 of a second. The race is worth watching in full, however, and can be found here. Milorad Cavic of Serbia outswam Phelps until that last 1/100 second. At the very end, Cavic glided in on a final stroke while Phelps took another half-stroke, and even though Cavic's fingers appeared to be touching the wall, Phelps swung his hand in and actually made contact first.

In the days of Mark Spitz, that row of portly men in matching bright blazers who stand at the end of each lane and stare down into the water would have been the judge (along with camera verification) of who touched the wall first, and from the footage that was replayed endlessly, I can easily imagine the decision having gone in Cavic's favor. His coach immediately filed a protest with FINA, but the electronic touchpad system now in use appears to be inviolate and Phelps' win was swiftly upheld. It ain't over till the fat circuit sings.

NBC later had an extended split-screen exchange between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps which, I have to admit, I did not watch. I appreciate the past champions coming to cheer on those who are breaking their records (as have Mary Lou Retton and Janet Evans at these games). I appreciate it especially when they make a generous comment, as Janet Evans did before the women 800m freestyle where her record, the oldest record in swimming, would be bested by three seconds in a fabulously strong run from Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain, who was six months old when Janet swam her best in 1989. Janet's cheerful comment to her mother was "It's going to go." From the few snatches I heard later, Mark Spitz was equally happy and congratulatory. But there's no need to drag out the changeover.

For all you guys and gals out there who want more of an opportunity to study the body of Michael Phelps, NBC has created a video, Aqua Man: A Study of Phelps' Perfect Physique (narrated by Costas, whose every heartbeat throbs for Michael).

Speaking of Mary Lou Retton: I was never caught up in the idolatry about her, either, partly because she was a born-again Baptist who couldn't shut up about how great she thought Reagan was, and also because her ability to win gold at the 1984 Olympics was heavily advantaged because of the boycott by all the Eastern European nation athletes who held the world records in those sports. Existing in a subculture often divorced from popular culture during those years, I didn't realize what a iconic figure she was until the episode of Friends where Ross gets permission from Rachel to name five fantasy "free dates", i.e., women he could sleep with and not be considered to have broken their monogamy agreement. Ross listed Mary Lou Retton as one of his five, which astounded the female contingent of his friends but not the males -- they all nodded in understanding.

All right, back to these games. There's much else worthy of notice as well. I was riveted as Cesar Cielo Filho blazed from one end of the pool to the other on a single breath, winning Brazil's first-ever gold medal in swimming and setting a new world record at 21.30 seconds. (Okay, that's today's news, but I can't help jumping ahead -- watch the video here here.) I was even more moved when, after beginning the apparently mandatory-for-males angry fist-pumping and pounding the water savagely, he allowed himself to burst into tears and continued crying on the medal stand. I think crying on the medal stand is absolutely normal, and the ultimate display of human connection to the moment. I loved how Nastia Lukin's face showed her overwhelm on the medal stand, and her mother's weeping for her. I also prefer winners who know their country's national anthem and sing along, which used to be widespread among U.S. athletes but not so much any more. The Chinese, though, sing along joyfully -- haven't seen one yet who didn't.

And, speaking of the anthem -- the U.S. version being used in these games is very different from what we usually hear at sporting events here. During the middle part, what usually comes across as very martial with lots of horns and blasts of tympani is instead rendered sweet, almost haunting by a preponderance of strings. Even when it transitions to the final section and some drums return, it isn't the fake cannon-blast I'm used to. It's musical, and an homage, rather than a belligerent thump on the chest kind of music. Striking, what a difference it makes.

Another highlight from yesterday was Dara Torres swimming her heat for the women's 50m freestyle -- not the swim itself, but what she did immediately prior. Instead of her usual intense focus, she was antsy and walked over to an official at the side of the pool, talking animatedly. Nobody knew what was going on. She went back to her block, yet did not get on it or put on her goggles; instead, she was talking in a reassuring way to the other swimmers nearby. Turns out, the Swedish swimmer in lane 2, Anna-Karin Kammerling, had a torn Speedo. Dara had tried to help her fix it, but it was unsalvageable and Kammerling had rushed to the bathroom to change. There is no rule which says a race has to be held for a suit malfunction. So Dara, in an incredible display of sportwomanship, went to the official to insist they delay the race until her competitor returned, then backed that up with persuading the other racers to likewise not get on the blocks, either.

When Kammerling returned, the heat went on and Torres came in with an easy second. She was beaten by 16-year-old Cate Campbell of Australia in the lane next to her, and after checking her time with a grin, Torres swam to Cate and patted her on the back, saying "Great job!" with exuberance. As the story about the torn suit emerged, everyone couldn't take their eyes off Torres. When she was interviewed about it, she brushed it off with "In the pool, they're my competitors; out of the pool, they're my friends." This is what maturity and greatness looks like, folks, whether it's in sports or another arena.

(Dara Torres after 50m heat; photo by Timothy Clary AFP)
There's a good article about Dara Torres' father and past in the Los Angeles Time, Dara Torres is propelled by her father's memory. One item I found interesting is that she attended "Westlake School for Girls, an academy established in 1904 with the school credo Possunt Quia Posse Videntur. ('They can because they think they can.') A lot of accomplished individuals have come out of the now co-educational school, renamed Harvard-Westlake, among them astronaut Sally Ride and actors Shirley Temple, Candice Bergen and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal."

On the other side of the sporting-attitude scale, in men's tennis James Blake of the U.S. lost to Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in part because the referee missed a call. The ball hit by Blake struck and glanced off the racket of Gonzalez, which means a point for Blake. The referee did not see it, however, and refused to change his decision despite Blake politely bringing it to his attention. The bigger issue, though, is that Gonzalez had to know the ball struck his racket from the impact, clearly visible on replay. In a later news conference, Blake was poised and eloquently honest when he said "I'm 100% sure [it hit his racquet]. Fernando looked me square in the eye and didn't call it. If the roles were reversed, my father would have pulled me off the court if that happened to me." Beautifully said.

So far during these games there have been three captured incidents of doping, one of them the use of propranolol by a male shooter, which helps reduce trembling. A female gymnast (who did not medal, in any case) was also disqualified because diuretics were found in her testing. I'm curious: Why would diuretics be helpful to a gymnast? Anybody out there know?

(Elena Kaliska of Slovakia in the whitewater women's K1 semifinals at Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, August 15, 2008; photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images AsiaPac)
I watched the finals in women's single kayak slalom, where Elena Kalisk√° of Slovakia did a perfectly clean run past 21 gates to win gold by an unprecedented almost 15 seconds, her second straight gold. I have to say, I love watching white-water anything. I appreciate that, in order to do it well, those in a craft must read invisible terrain (that under water) by how it is revealed from water flowing sometimes several feet above it. This is an ancient human skill calling on multiple portions of our specialized brain anatomy. I also love the language used by rafters and kayakers, which is succinct and descriptive (as jargon must be) but still frequently poetic and beautiful: To describe a rapid, you might use terms like pile, boil, curl, riffle, greenwater, pushy, shelf, slot, gnar, chute, sticky, horizon line, manky, eddy line, or eddy wall.

I haven't kayaked myself, but I did go white-water rafting with a group of women for an entire day on the American River in California during 1986, a class IV run. My roommate had a good friend who ran tours and taught boating, and she put together a special outing for us one summer. I took my 16-year-old daughter with me. During the preliminary instruction, we were told to avoid falling out of the boat if at all possible, despite wearing life vests, because the boulders in some sections were deadly: If we had to fall, aim for inside the boat, she said.

Sure enough, at one stompin' backroller, our huge raft doubled up on itself, then flipped backwards as it righted, giving those of us on the sides a bronco ride that tore my hand from the rope. I held onto my paddle but was flung into the center of the raft as it hurtled onward, our leader yelling instructions to keep us from broaching. The bounce and boil of the water below my back was hilarious to me, and I rode that cataract in hysterics. Finally we reached enough calm for me to resume my place. All the other neophytes highly enjoyed my laughter; the teacher did not, glaring at me suspiciously.

Late in the day, we came to a stretch called the Devil's something (certain terms are used over and over in naming geographic features), which was a run of easy washboard ripples, free of dangerous rocks. We paused while the teacher offered half of us the chance to jump in and ride the riffle to the deep pool beyond, between high cliffs. My daughter immediately looked at me with beseeching eyes, and I said "Sure. Just wait for us at the end." I had a little flip of my stomach as she went over the side, but she's a consummate swimmer (I'm no slouch myself) and I could hear her screeches of delight as she bobbled down the river and out of sight around the bend.

Those of us left in the raft followed more slowly. When we reached the pool around the curve, I began looking for my kid -- there were quite a few beached rafts here, with folks swimming. I couldn't find her for several long seconds. Then I heard her voice calling my name jubilantly, from a baffling direction -- overhead. I stretched my head back along the steep cliff next to the deepest part of the river and there, 50 feet above us, were a few folks in lifevests, standing in diving poses. I screamed her name but she was already in motion. I watched her fall to the surface, dying inside as she hit (with nicely pointed toes, I have to admit) and disappeared beneath the dark green water. She was up in a few more seconds, joyous and swimming toward the raft.

My hair went entirely grey the next few years.

After some of the discussion here and at my blog, I realized the tension I experience when watching certain events (especially gymnastics and ice skating) arises from not only the subjective nature of scoring, but also because a single error is (a) much more obvious than in a lot of other sports and (b) can have such terrible consequences. The pressure on these young people to be perfect really gets to me. I agree with Anne Lamott when she says "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

So I gave myself permission to tape these anxiety-inducing routines and watch them later, fast-forwarding through the ghastly bits where someone falls. It helped. Offering the same to you, at this link is a compilation of individual all-round gold-medal winner Nastia Lukin's routines, according to NBC. This collection is fairly straightforward and illuminating of Lukin's extraordinary ability.

I also watched a small "see the athlete at home" clip about Shawn Johnson of the U.S., who won women's all-round gymnastics silver. She and her mother were at the local grocery store in their Iowa town when Shawn noticed her image was on a box of ice cream sandwiches. Most top athletes earn the money to go professional by endorsements -- Michael Phelps is a multimillionaire from it, and his seventh gold medal yesterday resulted in a flat $1 million bonus from Speedo alone. But Shawn Johnson reacted by turning to her mother and saying "I didn't know I was promoting those." Her mother breezed past it, and I wondered, who's making the decisions about Johnson's endorsements? She's a teenager in high school, yes, but my own daughter at that age would have absolutely demanded to know where her photograph would be appearing. She would not have agreed to someone else signing off on it without her notification and consent.

Under way Friday in Track & Field are heats and semifinals for women's heptathlon (which includes 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin throw, and 800m, but only the first four of these were completed on Friday); men's 100m; women's 800m; men's hammer; men's 1500m; women's 3000m steeplechase; women's discus; women's triple jump; and men's 400m hurdles.

Completed Friday in Track & Field are:
Men's Shot Put: Gold -- Tomasz Majewski of Poland; Silver -- Christian Cantwell of U.S.; Bronze -- Andrei Mikhnevich of Belarus
Women's 10,000m: Gold -- Tirunesh Dibaba (of the formidable Dibaba sisters who keep coming back to thrill us all) of Ethiopia; Silver -- Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey; Bronze -- Shalane Flanagan of U.S.

(Hyleas Fountain celebrates a jump in the Women's Heptathlon High Jump Final at the National Stadium, August 15, 2008; photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts)
As of Saturday morning, Hyleas Fountain of the U.S. had won three of the four women's heptathlon events. I have to say, if I were going to award the title of "greatest Olympic athlete ever", it would not be someone who medaled in one sport, no matter how many medals they accumulated. It would be a heptathlete or pentathlete -- or Jesse Owens, of course.

NBC did a brief feature/interview with Fountain's coach, Lynn Smith. Returning to an Olympics took particular courage on Smith's part: He was one of 111 severely injured at the terrorist bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and he survived only by a miracle. When trying to talk about his recovery, he welled up and covered part of his face.

Two people were killing during that bombing, Alice Hawthorne directly and Melih Uzunyol from a heart attack in the aftermath. The terrorist who set off the bombs, Eric Rudolph, is serving a life sentence without parole. He went on to bomb two abortion clinics and a lesbian nightclub, killing another. His justification for the Olympics bombing was that the games promote "global socialism". Clearly, however, woman-hating was also part of his agenda in the later bombings. Like the majority of domestic terrorism cases in the U.S., this one was solved without the use of goverment-sanctioned torture or stripping citizens of their constitutional rights.

The track at these Olympics was declared by sprint analyst and commenter Ato Boldon to be "the fastest track surface ever". If his expert opinion is correct, we should see a lot of new world records set here in running events. Boldon also explained the purpose of the spandex-looking sleeves being worn by some runner, such as Walter Dix: They compact the lower arm muscles and that compaction has a positive effect on drag. The commentators called these "gauntlets", but gauntlets are technically gloves. Since these items of apparel extend from wrist to forearm, they are more accurately known as vambraces.

There was also much speculation about whether Tyson Gay's hamstring injury is recovered enough for him to compete here. I was watching earlier this year when he fell during the trials in Eugene. Boldon pointed out during the heats yesterday, Gay was wearing a hamstring brace not-quite-concealed under his running shorts. We'll see how he does. I hope he doesn't suffer further injury. And, I'd love to hear the story of whether his first name, Tyson, was deliberately chosen by his parents to offset the inevitable teasing he was going to receive for his last name.

Cheers to the font and text choices used on television to list the names of athletes: For the first time that I can recall, names which in that particular culture would be listed surname first are rendered intact but with a larger font on the surname so you can instantly tell which is their last name, which is their first. This way, everybody's preferences are respected without confusion. I hope this practice is kept. (And if it was China who instituted it, kudos to them.)

Jeers to the mysterious stomach virus which is hitting so many of the athletics in the Olympic Village, a few of them with lasting consequences. Nicole Teter of the U.S. did not finish her heat in the women's 800 meter race, stopping after 150 meters because of weakness from not having been able to eat anything the day before after contracting the GI bug, plus some residue from a recent Achilles tendon injury. She wandered off the track sobbing, looking pale and impossibly skinny. Others who have been sick but recovered (among the U.S. athletes) include Dara Torres, Ryan Lochte, Hazel Clark, Shalane Flanagan, Dee Dee Trotter, Torri Edwards, and Angela Williams.

Cheers to swimmer Cesar Cielo Filho of Brazil, not only for winning Bronze in the Men's 100m Freestyle (tying with Jason Lezak of the U.S.), and for setting new Olympic records in the heats and semifinals for the men's 50m freestyle, but also for having the most intriguing name so far. His last name, Cielo Filho, means "Son of the Sky" in Portugese. (Anyone else out there skilled in translation who can tell us the meaning of other interesting surnames among the athletes?)

Zige Liu of China in Women's 200m Butterfly: 2:04.18 WR (won Gold)
Ryan Lochte of U.S. in Men's 200m Backstroke: 1:53.94 WR (won Gold)
Michael Phelps of U.S. in Men's 200m Individual Medley: 1:54.23 WR (won Gold)
Rebecca Soni of U.S. in Women's 200m Breaststroke: 2:20.22 WR (won Gold)
Bronte Barratt, Linda MacKenzie, Kylie Palmer, and Stephanie Rice of Australia in Womens 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay: 7:44.31 WR (won Gold)

Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain in Women's 800m Freestyle: 8:18.06 OR
Milorad Cavic of Serbia Men's 100m Butterfly: 50.76 OR (heats)
Cesar Cielo Filho of Brazil in Men's 50m Freestyle: 21.47 OR (heats, broken in the next heat by Amaury Leveaux of France)
Cesar Cielo Filho of Brazil in Men's 50m Freestyle: 21.34 OR (semifinals)
Ryan Cochrane of Canada in Men's 1500m Freestyle: 14:40.84 OR (heats, broken by Grant Hackett of Australia two heats later)
Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe in Women's 200m Backstroke: 2:06.76 OR (heats)
Jason Dunford of Kenya in Men's 100m Butterfly: 51.14 OR (heats, broken two heats later by Milorad Cavic of Serbia)
Grant Hackett of Australia in Men's 1500m Freestyle: 14:38.92 OR (heats)
Kosuke Kitajima of Japan in Men's 200m Breaststroke: 2:07.64 OR (won Gold)
Amaury Leveaux of France in Men's 50m Freestyle: 21.46 OR (heats)
Britta Steffen of Germany in Women's 100m Freestyle: 53.12 OR (won Gold)

OLYMPIC RECORDS SET IN TRACK & FIELD FOR AUGUST 15: (No World Records set on this date)
Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia in Women's 10,000 m: 29:54.66 OR (won Gold)


If you'd like to know more about an individual athlete or to search among athletes for those representing a given country, sport, hometown, birthdate/birthplace, college, etc., go to the search page at NBC.