Monday, August 11, 2008

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 11 August 2008

(Jason Lezak after winning the men's 400 meter freestyle relay for the U.S.)

Daily Beijing Olympics Thread for 11 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.

Sorry about this going up late. I needed more rest, which always comes first. And there's a LOT to cover.

Feedback first: Kudos to commenters Moonglum, Bjacques, Dj, Dksbook, Trey, and Thomas in Berlin for much edification and interesting conversation about women's fencing in general and the question of how sexism has impacted it. Clearly swords were reserved for men in Europe (think Jeanne d'Arc and what, among other transgressions, she was burned alive for), but I love seeing a more detailed look at what kinds of weapons were used when and where with a cultural (not just military) analysis included.

Thanks to Seitan Worshipper for the nuggets about Dara Torres -- the fact that her father was named Torres AND was Jewish makes me wonder if he is of Sephardic origin. I'll be checking out that possibility. I appreciated the respectful tone of those who wonder how she has achieved such physical excellence at the "late" age of 41 without doping. One theory I heard in one news broadcast, which could be entirely gender-based crap, is that pregnancy in her late 30s created a hormonal shift which allowed her to reinvigorate certain metabolic processes and musculature. I am as suspicious of this but wanted to at least mention it. Thanks for Queequeg and little gator (not the littlest) for adding to this discussion.

Much thanks for Liza for talking about how certain sports expression has been gendered. I was already paying attention but am looking even more closely now. While the sport of beach volleyball is equal for both sexes, the camera coverage is different -- obnoxiously so. On viewing (in part because of Bush's leering visit), I now observe the camera shots of the women players often goes to their navel first, not their faces, or starts at their bare feet and trails lingeringly up their legs to the crotch before cutting away. No shot of men's legs or bellies is ever made like this. Pornification of sports: Nothing to do with athleticism.

Lastly, regarding the murder of Todd Bachman, assault on Barbara Bachman and a Chinese tour guide by Tang Yongming, with subsequent suicide by the attacker: No, I haven't commented because the facts are not yet in on this case. No connection has yet been made between the attack and the Olympics themselves, except circumstantial, that one of the members of this family is Hugh McCutchan who coaches men's volleyball for the U.S.. As someone who has lived in Calcutta and Brazil, and traveled through Mexico, I'm well aware of the generic hostility Americans encounter in other parts of the world -- and why. (They don't "hate us for our freedoms", they hate us for how our country negatively impacts the rest of the world.) I want to hear from those present at the attack, Barbara and Elizabeth Bachman and/or the tour guide, before leaping to conclusions and nationalist-based conjecture. I am struck by the fact that in all the English-language reporting of the incident, the name of the also-injured Chinese tour guide (a woman) or her current condition is never mentioned, as if she were of no consequence. If there is an Olympics-based reason for the attack, I'll report it here. In the meantime, grieving for that family's loss does not demand we immediately assign blame and "make sense" of it: There is never a sensible reason for murder.

Now, to coverage of yesterday's events, subjective as always. (You can add your own coverage in comments.) I didn't watch the entirety of the women's road cycle race, but I was glad for the region around Beijing, as well as the racers, that it rained all day. It provided a break from the punishing heat experienced by the men cyclists earlier, and possibly helped clean the air, even as it created slick road hazards for the women.

Sixty-two women began the race, and only 27 posted finishing times, a loss of over 50% of the riders. Of these 27 who finished, 15 were European, confirming what a commentator stated during the race that the current status of women's road cycling depended on a core group of 10-20 who were well-funded by their nations and thus able to dominate the sport. Africa had only three cyclists (two from South Africa, one from Mauritius); six were from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Kazakhstan; 11 were from North and South America (Venezuela, the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba); and four from Australia/New Zealand.

Personal note: I enjoyed the camera coverage from the chase motorcycles because the lenses rapidly became coated with rain blowback, creating a blurry montage of speed and color. Also, one of the racers was Natalia Boyarskaya, and every time I heard her name, I flashed on the song "Natalia", sung by Joan Baez, about Natalia Gorbanevskaja, Russian poet and civil rights activist who was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for four years during the 1970s for her demonstrations against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia:

Where is the earth
Where is the sky
Where is the light
You long for
What hope of you
Where you are now
Natalia Gorbanevskaja

Regarding the desperate need for rain around Beijing, however, the real story is among Chinese farmers. The Miyun Reservoir, which supplies water to Beijing, was earlier this year down to one-third of the water it had ten years ago. Water is being diverted to create flowing taps for the Olympics, and this is far more grave than the air pollution. Vast areas of farmland have had their water turned off, throwing families which have farmed for time out of mind into desperate circumstances, and dropping the water table below into dire conditions.

And, as if to symbolize just how very clueless our corporate-stupid nationalism keeps us, at the conclusion of the race, when Nicole Cooke of Great Britain was celebrating her victory, the American commentator said "Today the British Empire extends into China." Click.

Women's Road Cycle Race -- Gold, Nicole Cooke, Great Britain (Wales); Silver, Emma Johansen, Sweden; Bronze, Tatiana Guderzo, Italy.

I briefly checked into the sculling heats, considering once again how much money it takes to buy and maintain these boats, what kinds of water access it demands, and how therefore the class and race demographics of who's competing in this sport are utterly nonrepresentative. And where class/race restrictions apply, in most nations this means women's access to the sport will also be affected. This triumvirate of oppression, a solid cord that cannot be meaningfully teased apart, is not identity politics but instead the foundation upon which every aspect of national power in the world currently depends, directly or indirectly.

I also watched some of the synchronized diving finals. This is the first time U.S. women have competed in this event, with Kelci Bryant and Ariel Rittenhouse coming in fourth. As if these dives don't present enough pressure on an athletic, having to match your body to the motion of another is mind-boggling.

Men's Synchronized Diving -- Gold, Lin Yue and Huo Liang, China; Silver, Sascha Klein and Patrick Hausing, Germany; Bronze, Gleb Galperin and Dmitry Dobroskok, Russia

Women's Synchronized Diving -- Gold, Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia, China; Silver, Yulia Pakhalina and Anastasia Pozdnyakova, Russia; Bronze, Ditte Kotzian and Heike Fischer, Germany.

I checked in on the gymnastics qualifying trials. An NBC closer look focused on the ancient tradition of acrobatics in China (which is also true for some other Asian nations), especially for girls, which creates a bedrock for Chinese women to move on to gymnastics. I don't how accurate my perception is, but I've always felt like gymnastics in the U.S. was a place where white trash girls (like me) could find easier access to sports, because it combines individual and team effort (solo effort and glory is contrary to working class ethics) and it emphasized sexual dimorphism/female infantilism (also congruent with working class ethics).

Perhaps this is all a carryover from peasant culture and ethos. Several years ago, a prominent genealogist who was sick of the "hereditary societies" found in genealogy which are almost always racist and classist in nature retaliated by created what he loftily titled "Society of Descendants of 11th Century Peasants", limited to those who could prove such descent. The joke was, of course, that every human being on the planet is descended from at least one 11th century peasant. (Feel free to create your own gilt-edged membership certificate.)

Peasants were dependent on farming and community for survival. The values which emerged from this reality, no matter the local geography, included manual labor over other forms of labor, limiting education to only a few, sexual division of labor (which eventually became mythologized as the result of biological difference, but was mostly an economic response to non-biological pressures), conformity and collective action valued over individualism, dependence on community rather than institutions, suppression of angry response to oppression because of reprisal against the entire community, and the development of a certain body type after generations of repetitive labor on limited nutrition.

Perhaps gymnastics is the sport preferred by modern-day descendants of peasants.

Later in the coverage was another special report, this time on the Soviet boycott of the Olympics in 1984. Part of the point of this story was to illustrate how beneficial rejoining the Olympics community has been for Chinese athletes, which is clearly true. But a lot of political narrative and outright deception was folded into the story. To set it straight: The FIRST use of boycotting the Olympics for the purpose of political pressure and grandstanding was done by Ronald Reagan. His claim of the "noble" cause as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is belied by the fact that his administration constantly invaded, manipulated, and wreaked havoc on Central American nations, primarily for U.S. corporate interests.(Sound familiar? Those men found new life in Bush administration.) [NOTE: Part of this paragraph contains an error, corrected in comments: It was Jimmy Carter who ordered the boycott, not Ronald Reagan.]

Reagan paid for his illegal assaults on other nations by illegal sale of arms to Iran. I wonder if his contacts in Iran were the same men who helped delay release of American hostages until it cost Jimmy Carter the election.

After the farce of our 1980 Olympic boycott, we had no moral high ground to protest the equally stupid Soviet boycott in 1984. I hope such idiocy is behind us, but I won't be assured until every last Bushie is removed from any access to decision-making on a governmental level.

The rest of my Olympics attention for yesterday was consumed by swimming, where breaking world records (and stereotypes) became almost matter of fact. Eight new world records were set, many of them during qualifying races instead of finals. This kind of surge forward begs the question why? The streamlined suits so popular were in use in 2004. I'm reminded of the past Olympics (I want to say 1976, but I'm not sure) when a revision in the pool structure itself resulted in an explosion of new world swimming records. I particular remember new dampers at the sides of the pool then, as well as perhaps a shift in depth and lane ropes all designed to minimize waves and turbulence. Does this ring a bell with anyone else? Any theories about why we're seeing the current extreme improvement in swimming times?

After winning silver the first day of the Olympics in the women's 400 meter individual medley, Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe during the semifinals set a new world record in the women's 100m backstroke with a time of 58.77 seconds. The previous record of 58.97 set by Natalie Coughlin this past July, and Coughlin had set five consecutive world records in the event before Coventry took the record off her. Coventry is the second woman to ever break 59 seconds in this event. Her swimming style makes her strong as a closer, where Coughlin tends to get her best work in early. Perhaps ominously, in the heat for the 100 meter backstroke, Coughlin (who is the world record holder) swam in the lane next to Coventry and lost the heat to her. Coventry is a swimmer whose boundaries are bursting open, keep your eyes on her.

Also during the trial heats for the women's 400 meter freestyle, Katie Hoff of the U.S. broke Janet Evans' record which had stood for 20 years. This was after she raced to win a bronze in the morning's 400 meter individual medley.

Only minutes later, in the next heat for the women's 200 meter freestyle, Federica Pellegrini of Italy set another world record at 1:55:45, replacing the old record set by Laure Manaudou of France.

In the men's 100 meter breastroke final, Kosuke Kitajima of Japan not only won gold, defending his title from Athens, but set a new world record at 58:91, breaking the old one set by Brendan Hansen of the U.S.

Michael Phelps also set a new record during his heat for the men's 200 meter butterfly, beating his own old Olympic record at 1:53.70.

Early in the evening, a personality close-up focused on U.S. swimmer Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to appear on a U.S. Olympics swimming team. Jones talked about his experience of nearly drowning at age five in a water park, when his inner tube flipped over, he sank and swallowed enough water to become unconscious. CPR was performed, and he coughed up a pint of water. He tells this story to children as part of his outreach work teaching African-American children how to swim. He stated that African-American children are three times more likely to drown than other children.

(Cullen Jones gives swim lessons to Tavion Traynham at the Butler-Gast YMCA in Omaha on in March 2008; photo by Daniel Johnson, AP)

I was thrilled to see him take head on the racist myth that African-Americans are somehow deficient in knowing how to swim. This is vicious stereotype which saw public exposure in 2006 when Tramm Hudson (white Republican) running against Katherine Harris for Congress decided to declare "I grew up in Alabama and I understand, uh…I know this from my own experience; blacks are not the greatest swimmers, or may not even know how to swim." (For great coverage of the incident, check out Crooks & Liars.)

The reality is, of course, African-Americans have the same swimming ability as anyone else. However, as a population subject to racism, they have been prevented from the chance to learn, originally by slaveholding practice which (no doubt correctly) interpreted the ability to swim as beneficial to escaping from slave territory. Later, segregation denied urban blacks the chance to use public swimming pools. This became intensified during the 1950s when polio swept the country, seeming to target children. I remember clearly hearing adults (whites) state that polio was being spread by black children at public pools. This was broadcast on the radio in Southern Louisiana, where the term used for black children is not something I can repeat here.

This is living memory for a huge section of the population. Racism is deeply imprinted on our culture, whether you know about it/admit it or not. To read more about Cullen Jones' work, check here.

Cullen Jones returned to the spotlight in the most electrifying swim of the day, the men's 400 meter freestyle relay. The French team was heavily favored, and without Jason Lezak of the U.S., the French certainly would have won. But the U.S. took the gold with a world record time of 3:08.24 and an astounding performance by Lezak who swam his 100 meters in 46.06 seconds, absolutely shattering what anyone else has ever done.

And let's be clear here: All of the American men who swam this relay deserve the gold, but some deserve it much, much more than the others. Michael Phelps is getting a lion's share of the credit, despite the fact that his lead-off leg lost to Eamon Sullivan of Australia, who swam it in 47.24, a new world record. If everyone had performed at Michael Phelp's level, the U.S. might have wound up with only the bronze.

Garrett Gale-Weber swam the second leg for the U.S., and he managed to catch and pass the Australian swimmer for that leg, Andrew Lauterstein.

During the third leg, however, the French surged, with their Frederick Bousquet passing both Cullen Jones and Australia's Ashley Callus. At this point, all three of these top teams were swimming noticeably faster than world record pace. I was sitting up screaming at the TV. My cat Dinah went to hide in the closet.

In the final leg, Alain Bernard, powerhouse for France, was off the blocks first. Jason Lezak, looking almost the entire length of a swimmer behind, entered the pool. At 350 meters, the turn, Bernard was ahead by 0.18 seconds. It looked like a done deal.

But Lezak got close to the lane marker between himself and Bernard, and he began the swim of his life. At 30 and 20 meters, Bernard was still ahead. Lezak kept closing, and in the last few meters, he evened up with Bernard. Lezak touched the wall first by 0.19 of a second.

It's Jason Lezak, my darlings. He did the job.

Women's 400 meter freestyle final -- Gold, Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain; Silver, Katie Hoff of U.S.; Bronze, Joanne Jackson of Great Britain

Women's 100 meter butterfly -- Gold, Libby Trickett of Australia; Silver, Christine Magnuson of U.S.; Bronze, Jessicah Schipper of Australia

Men-s 100 meter breastroke -- Gold, Kosuke Kitajima of Japan (new world record); Silver, Alexander Oen of Norway; Bronze, Hugues Duboscq of France

Men's 400 meter freestyle relay -- Gold, U.S. (Michael Phelps, Garrett Gale-Weber, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak); Silver, France (Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, Frederick Bousquet, and Alain Bernard); Bronze, Australia (Eamon Sullivan, Andrew Lauterstein, Ashley Callus, and Matt Targett)