Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The 2008 Beijing Olympics

I've been watching the Olympics this year more than perhaps ever before. Growing up, and even into my early adulthood, I always enjoyed watching the Olympics, although I generally preferred the Winter Olympics to the Summer games. Still, I always have liked the major Summer events – swimming, diving, gymnastics, track & field, etc.

In 2004, I don't recall watching any of the Summer Olympics. That was the summer after Melanie and I had split up, and I was living in a crappy little apartment in Richmond with no cable. I could get a couple of the networks with my antenna, though no station was clear. I don't even remember whether I could get NBC or not – that's how rarely I ever watched television during that year. In fact, the only specific memory of seeing something on TV during that summer was when Phil Mickelson won the Master's – his first major. I did watch that on a Sunday afternoon, and I recall jumping for joy as he sank the last put, and subsequently banging my knuckles into the very low ceiling, scraping them.

I have no recollection whatsoever of watching the Olympics that year. A few days ago, after hearing a reference to Carly Patterson – who won the 2004 women's all-around gymnastics gold – I looked her up on the internet. Not only did I not recognize her name, I didn't recognize her face either.

This year is a different story. I've been almost obsessed with the Olympics this year, watching every night, and DVR'ing it when I haven't had time to watch. I saw all of Michael Phelps' races, and I've seen the vast majority of the gymnastics. In addition to Phelps, I saw most every other pool event, and am now watching the track & field and diving. I've even watched some doubles table tennis, rowing, boxing, and the marathon.

Funny story about the doubles table tennis thing: when I turned it on, the USA was playing in a semi-final against South Korea. Huang and Gao were very good. The South Koreans weren't bad either. Seriously though, it was funny to see the USA playing South Korea, and all four of them were Asian. Growing up, I attended a church that had a fairly large Korean population (there was a separate Korean church that met in our building, and many of them ended up just attending our church). My friends and I played a lot of ping pong and I came to realize that ping pong is a big sport in Asia – South Korea, anyway. They have an unusual way of holding the paddle, gripping it in the space between the thumb and forefinger and resting the handle on the side of the hand. In high school, we always referred to that as the "Korean grip." Sure enough, the two South Koreans were holding their paddles that way.

I was, of course, thrilled to watch all the Phelps events, although it began to grow tiresome after a while. NBC just milked that whole situation for all it was worth. And if I never see Phelps' mother again, it'll be too soon. I'm not sure who was the bigger star – him or her. I nearly died when they won the first team relay, coming from behind on the last 15 meters to beat the favored French team. And, of course, I sat in shock during the "Fingernail Finish" where Phelps' kept his gold dreams alive with a win by 1/100th of a second.

The women's gymnastics, however, is by far my favorite. What normal male isn't a fan of pretty girls running around half-nekkid? No, dear undercover police officer reader, I don't look at the ones under 18.

Seriously though, I've discovered that I've gotten too "emotionally" involved in the gymnastics this year. I care more than I should. Tonight, watching the hi-lo bar finals from last night (which I DVR'd), I literally found myself getting angry at the way Nastia Liuken was being scored, in comparison to the Chinese. I actually yelled at both the kids and Melanie, and realized later that I was taking my frustration with the Olympics out on them!

It just has seemed since the very start of this gymnastic competition that the Chinese are getting higher scores than they deserve, the Americans are – at least some of the time – getting lower scores than they deserved. The latter has happened a few times, but more than anything else, it's the Chinese getting these unreasonably high scores, over and over and over again. Yes, they are good. But their performance hasn't warranted all the scores and medals they've gotten. On the vault finals, the Chinese team leader, and a very prominent and successful gymnast – Cheng Fei – literally fell down on her second vault. She didn't stutter-step. Didn't hop. Didn't wobble and catch her balance. She literally landed on her hands and knees, almost face down. In addition to that, the replays and commentary showed that she had made a number of other dramatic technical mistakes in executing the vault – which is, of course, why her landing was so awful. Despite that, she not only beat out the American gymnast – who executed two very good vaults, easily landing them both – but she actually edged her out for a medal! The girl fell down on her landing, and committed a number of deductible mistakes besides that in her vault, and yet she still medaled.

When someone can nearly face-plant on the landing of a vault, and still get an Olympic medal, something's wrong. It makes a farce not only of that competition, not only of gymnastics in general, but of all the Olympics. It's honestly one of the most insane things I've ever seen in any Olympic games. And the fact that her unfairly high score also caused her to edge out the American chick, who executed her vaults very well, just makes it all the worse.

It really isn't a "my country vs. their country" thing though. Those of you who know me know that patriotism and nationalism aren't my shtick. I consider myself first and foremost a citizen of the world, and I also happen to be an American. But of course I root for the Americans, and feel good when they win. However, to simply see, night after night, the Chinese gymnasts getting unreasonably high scores, despite glaring mistakes, you have to start wondering what's going on. They've argued on NBC over and over that there is no "home field advantage" because it's not like the judges are all Chinese. In fact, the judging is set up so that there are no judges from the same country of any gymnast who is performing. They are constantly being switched in and out to prevent that potential bias. But that means that judges may be sitting in on just a few performances a night, and may not be as well-trained as others. Furthermore, I think it's clear that crowd support has some kind of subconscious influence on the judging. There can simply be no other explanation for how the Chinese have put up some of the scores they've put up.

And that's not even touching on the issue of the fact that they are all about 10 years old, and underage to be performing.

Anyway, that's my Olympic blog. I guess I'll end up sleep deprived for the rest of the week, until these things are over. Not sure what has caused me to get so involved this year, as opposed to years' past when I have always preferred the Winter Olympics and have never spent a great deal of time with the Summer Olympics. I guess NBC's hype of the American gymnasts and Michael Phelps drew me in. I'm just a pawn of NBC.

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