Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five Little Rings

When I was a kid, I really looked forward to the Olympics. They only took place every four years, and the summer I was 4 years old, I had a chance to go to the Summer Games in Los Angeles. It was the first time I'd ever seen a Port-A-Potty and I remember seeing Greg Louganis dive. Other than that, all my memories are limited to Sam the Eagle Olympic mascot pins that my mother still has stashed away in a drawer.

Over the years, I loved the Opening Ceremonies and watching people from all the different countries come in waving their flags. Geography and international travel always appealed to me and this quadriennial event was my equivalent of the Thrilla in Manila. Nowadays, the Opening Ceremonies are essentially just an opportunity to ogle attractive people from around the world. During the Athens Games, my siblings and I agreed that Croatia had the hottest team. Way to go, Croatia!

Also, since the 1990s when the games switched off to every two years (one Winter, one Summer), it became somehow less exciting. I wonder if Halley's Comet came around every 10 years instead of every 76, would people be so stoked? Coincidentally, when Halley last appeared in 1986, I recall my dad driving our family out to the desert with our miniature telescope to check it out. To this day I remember the drive more than sighting the comet.

But I digress. For me, the 2008 Beijing Summer Games mark the nadir of my Olympic sport watching. However, I've squeezed in enough TV time (sorry, Facebook is really seductive!) to learn a few things.

1. I no longer know who has the hottest team because NBC seems to only show the competitors from the U.S. and China. There are enough prepubescent Chinese girls at my local JCC, I don't need to see them throwing themselves up into the air. Show me more of the Russians, they were always more artistic anyway.

2. As my British friend Simon pointed out, they only seem to show the competitions where American athletes have a good shot at medaling. The Ukrainians have been cleaning up in wrestling and New Zealand seems to dominate in sailing and rowing. Somehow, the only sports that get airplay in prime time are swimming, diving, a little running and a shit ton of gymnastics. And with a 12-hour time difference to the East Coast and frequent broadcasts of events from the night before, I think the broadcasters could come up with more diverse coverage.

3. Michael Phelps may be a god, but there's a pretty fucking awesome Hungarian guy who made him sweat. Laszlo Cseh is a 23-year-old native of Budapest who took silver medals in three of the races where Phelps won gold. And since many of those races came down to mere seconds, I think Cseh is worthy of some praise. Magyar Pride!

4. The Olympics are full of heroes, most of whom are unsung, underpaid and who come from underpriviliged backgrounds. Yeah, it's a bummer that Shawn Johnson's gym got flooded. But what about Henry Cejudo, a wrestler from Phoenix born to undocumented immigrants who won a gold in men's freestyle wrestling?
What about Cullen Jones from New Jersey who overcame a near drowning to become the third African-American to be on the American Olympic swim team and to win a medal in swimming? Jones also holds the distinction of being the first black person to hold or share a world record in swimming?
These athletes have incredible stories and stirring aspirations and they don't all come from the States. If the Olympics are all about international brotherhood, why can't we hear about the heroes from other countries on the morning news? Where is the heartfelt story about Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia's gold medalist in the women's 10,000 m walk?

5. Jamaicans can run really fast. Which is a good thing because I hear their bobsled team sucks.


SaraK said...

I love it that the Summer & Winter Olympics alternate, otherwise I think I would feel that I spent a whole year parked in front of the TV. I agree with you about the unbalanced TV coverage, but it's all about ratings and revenue, and I am such a sucker for American heroes that I don't seem to mind it. I mostly only watch swimming and gymnastics anyway.

Simon said...

New Zealand seem to dominate sailing and rowing?? Ahem....but in Sailing GB were top with 4 Golds to Australia's 2 (and 6 total medals compared to 3 for Oz) and again in rowing GB were top..... gawd now I'm starting to sound like what I was complaining about with biased American coverage. Actually I'm impressed you know things like sailing are in the Olympics as I've not managed to catch any of it on TV.

Michel Phelps is undoubtedly the greatest ever swimmer but to call him the greatest Olympian as all media have (including the BBC to some extent) is just wrong. In no other sport do they have the opportunity to win so many medals (apart from maybe gymnastics). To me there are far more impressive feats and at the risk of sounding biased again (but obviously I am more aware of) someone like (Sir) Steven Redgrave who won a gold at 5 consecutive Olympics (i.e. over 20 years and was 38 at last one) in rowing which is one of the (if not the) most physically demanding sports, not to mention that during this period he was diagnosed with various conditions including ulcerative colitis and diabetes. Or there is Rebecca Romero who won medals in two completely different sports - a Silver in rowing at Athens and Gold in cycling this year. And then there are numerous people (I believe) that have won medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

As to the most impressive athlete this year - there is no question that it is a South African swimmer Natalie du Toit. As a 16 year old she just failed to qualify for the 2000 Olympics. A year later at the age of 17 she lost a leg in a motorbike accident. Yet she qualified for the most difficult swimming event this year - the 10k. She came in a respectable 16th (out of a very large field) only a minute or so behind the winner.

Shtetl Fabulous said...

Unsung Olympic heroes are sadly far too numerous for us to list them all here, so I'll just pick on one.

My cousin, Agnes Keleti holds 10 Olympic medals, the most of any female Jewish athelete. You can read her bio on Wikipedia.

What's most impressive is that she won all her medals in her 30s - at the 1952 and 1956 games. In 56, she won three of the four golds in the women's gymnastics individual events AND she shared gold with her Hungarian teammates.

Nice to know you can still peak in sports in your 30s.

Josh said...

I think I said on my blog that Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time, but not the greatest athlete. I'm so, so wrong. Jim Thorpe was both. Imagine Phelps winning all of those medals AND being an NFL star, playing in the baseball major leagues, and dabbling in semi-pro basketball.

Elisha said...

I don't disagree with everything you said - the main NBC stations are horribly focused on those sports that people tend to watch in greater numbers (swimming, gymnastics, apparently the women's marathon - for 2 1/2 interminable hours). Apparently all of NBC's channels showed a variety of Olympic events, however I doubt they publicized that well.

Back to Phelps - I have to disagree with you about Cseh. Yes, he's a great swimmer (it's impossible to shine when Phelps is in the pool with you), but to say he was behind Phelps by mere seconds actually says a TON. In swimming, as we saw with some of Phelps' other swims, coming down to tenths, if not hundredths, of a second is an amazing feat. To be beat by Michael Phelps in the 200 IM by 2.29 seconds and in the 400 IM by 2.32 seconds isn't all that close. A valiant effort, but not close.

Stacey said...

I heart the Jamaican Bobsled Team. John Candy is one hell of a good coach.