Olympic-Sized Thoughts

I haven’t really written much about the Olympics yet, but it not because I’m not watching or don’t care. It’s quite the opposite. Watching the games at night has taken away some of my time and I’ve built up so much to say that it’s a bit intimidating. To help me out a bit, I’m not going to write anything here about how the US Men’s Basketball team should have been better and I’m not writing about the Paul Hamm situation with gymnastics. I’d like to avoid writing about gymnastics at all, but it is the Olympics, so I do have a little something.
I should say up front that I love the Olympics. I know that some say it’s just a big commercial event filled with hypocrisy and cheating. I won’t argue that those issues aren’t real, but for me they don’t really take away from the games. For the vast majority of athletes there, these games are the pinnacle of their sporting lives. Actually, if you consider how much time these people have spent training and competing, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Olympics are the pinnacle of their entire lives. The games only come every four years, so for many athletes they get only one shot. If they fall down in their preliminary heat or come down with an ill-timed cold, four years or more of training could be washed down the drain. These people wake up at dawn and run 10 miles while their friends sleep. They go to their jobs with regular people, and then go out and train while their coworkers are at happy hour. Most don’t earn any extra money for competing; they do it for the love. They long ago learned that they had a special talent and they want to see how much they can refine and improve their ability. The Olympics aren’t just their chance to show people what they can do, but they’re a chance to compete against the best in world and see how they stack up. While they may have trained in relative anonymity in Akron for four years, they get to see how they compare to others who have been doing the same thing in Oslo or Beijing.
One thing that gets me every time is a medal ceremony. I love seeing someone up on that stand watching their flag and listening to their anthem. On top of the tremendous personal pride they must feel for realizing their dreams, they get a jolt of nationalistic pride as well. I get choked up just watching on TV. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to actually be standing there.
One sport that doesn’t quite fit into that picture of anonymity I drew above is men’s basketball. For the most part, those players are pros making a lot of money, especially those who play in the NBA. Like I said, I’m not going to beat up on the US team; that’s been done enough. Instead, I’m going to focus on the good part of the US losing three times and taking the bronze. Back in 1988, we sent a team of college players for the last time. That team was led by David Robinson, but lost in the semifinals to the Soviet Union before taking the bronze. That loss shocked Americans, so we decided never to send a team of college players again (by the way, that team finished the Olympics with a record of 7-1, while the 2004 pro team finished 5-3). The international teams had gotten too good. In ’92, of course, we sent the Dream Team (and will people stop calling other teams that name? No one dreamed of a team with Lamar Odom and Richard Jefferson and no one dreamed of the US Softball or women’s soccer teams either. Enough already.) and they steamrolled the competition. In ’96 and 2000, we won gold again, but with narrower and narrower margins. This year, the dam burst. We can make all the excuses we want, but the bottom line is that the world has caught up. It caught up to our college kids 16 years ago and our pros now. And that’s a good thing. It makes the games that much more interesting. If we’re no longer a shoo-in to win, then the games will be more fun. Players can go knowing that they can impress us. The prevailing attitude a few months ago was that a win was expected (and boring) and a loss unacceptable. I don’t think anyone thinks that any more. The other countries can play and that’s not gonna change. Maybe basketball will become like soccer, where dozens of countries have a chance to be the best. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
The other great aspect of what we saw from men’s hoops is that the international game is pretty damn fun. They mix up defenses, they cut, they pass and they can shoot. It’s basketball the way it should be played. Actually, it’s basketball as it’s still played in college, but with better players. I think the NBA could learn a thing or two. Zone defense don’t mean the end of offense. Hell, these Olympic teams were routinely scoring over 90 points in a 40 minute game! One key difference from the NBA is the amount of hand-checking the refs would allow. The NBA has become a defensive league in large part because of the ever increasing amount of hand-checking. The Pistons started that trend and Pat Riley’s Knicks and Heat took it the next level. As teams started grabbing and holding more, refs started allowing more of it. Otherwise, they’d be blowing whistles left and right. It’s time for that to stop. Cut back on the hand-checking to give the offense some room to maneuver. At the same time, allow real zone defenses to force teams to acquire pure shooters. Believe me, no one is going to play a zone D for too long against a team that can shoot, but it’s great to have that option to mix things up and penalize teams that can’t shoot.
As expected, NBC showed a lot of coverage of men’s basketball. I didn’t mind so much, because I like basketball, but at the same time, in the Olympics I often want to see the other sports. I want to see the sports that you don’t get to see too much elsewhere. Overall though, I thought NBC did a really good job this year, certainly better than in years past. Their use of the cable channels really helped, as they could leave the corny melodrama on the main channel and focus on actual competition on CNBC, USA and MSNBC. Also, it seemed like they showed a little less gymnastics this year. It used to be that you got the impression that gymnastics was the only sport in the Olympics, but they were more selective in what they showed this time. Maybe it’s just because Tim Daggett annoys them too.
Speaking of gymnastics, man what a screwed up sport. How can it be a true competition when the results are in the hands of judges? I think the fact that they feel the need to show the nationality of each judge pretty much tells you what you need to know. If the judges’ nationalities are relevant, the implication is that they are playing favorites. Politics comes in to play. Don’t think that wasn’t at least part of what South Korea was trying to pull. They knew they might not get the All-Around gold for their guy, but they might get some sympathy points in the individual competitions. It’s a joke. One of the eternal themes of the Olympics is supposed to be no politics. How is that possible in sports where the outcome is entirely controlled by judges? While I respect the hell out of the gymnasts themselves, I think the sport needs to go (and take diving and boxing with it). For a sport to be fair, the winner needs to be obvious – who gets there faster, goes farther or scores the most points. Your music selection and reputation should have nothing to do with it.
One thing about the Olympics is that you get to see so many different sports at the same time. You see sports predicated on endurance, strength, speed, swimming, jumping, team play, aim, etc. Each different sport requires different talents and skills and therefore different body types. Sprinters are small-to-average height and muscular. Distance runners are short and lean. Swimmers are tall and wirey. Gymnasts are tiny and strong. Sometimes those body types line up nicely with the gene pool of some ethnic group or region. In track, the sprints are dominated by west Africans while the distance events are dominated by east Africans. There are hardly any world-class Asian sprinters. Diving however, is dominated by the Chinese. Romanians seem to make great gymnasts and weightlifters. Almost every sport shows some of this pattern, and I find it fascinating.
I think this partly explains why the US does so well at so many sports. We are a nation of immigrants. We have people from every nationality and ethnic group here. Need gymnasts? We have former Romanians. Need sprinters? Plenty of west Africans here. Obviously, America’s wealth and love of sport are just as significant to our success, but you can’t discount our diversity. That’s just one more reason to feel pride when our anthem is played. It’s like a celebration of the melting pot.
This has gotten long, so I’ll wrap it up with a mention of one of my favorite moments. Rulon Gardner had just won his bronze medal match. Obviously, he wanted to win the gold, but I’m sure he was proud with the bronze. When he won though, he showed no emotion at all. He was exhausted, but I think it was partly the big, tough guy attitude. Real wrestlers don’t preen and they don’t show emotion. Just after the match though, as he had said he would, Gardner walked to the center circle and sat down to take off his shoes. He intended to leave his shoes in the center of the ring to indicate that he was retiring. (Seeing the rituals and cultures that are part of so many non-mainsteam sports is yet another intriguing part of the Olympics.) So anyway, Gardner is sitting there unlacing his shoes (wrestling shoes have a long laces) and he starts breaking down. This big, strong guy who maintained his stoic demeanor while winning his medal was crying. The thought that his career was over was too much. It summed up what competition is all about – putting everything into your sport. You don’t do it for the money or fame (that Gardner became famous as a Greco-Roman wrestler is about as long a shot as there is), you do it for the love of the game. He was giving up his love. It got a little dusty in my house about then.
So yes, the Olympics maybe do have too much commercialism, too much politics and too much cheating, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the Winter Olympics in 2006.

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