Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympics: Some Early Thoughts

I admit it: I'm a sucker for the Olympics. Winter, summer, whatever. I still remember the 1980 Winter games in Lake Placid. Not so much because of the Miracle on Ice, and Eric Heiden - those stories I only learned and came to appreciate later in life - but because my parents were so into it. As for myself, I'd build little skaters and skiers out of Lego to entertain the family.

Some random thoughts on this year's games:

  • The fatal training accident that killed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili seems like it could have been prevented by a wall to stop out-of-control competitors. Such a wall was built after the accident, before competition started on Saturday. It is truly tragic that such a simple measure could have saved a life. But it's also hard to blame the engineers who designed the Whistler Sliding Centre; the course was approved by the IOC, and over 5,000 successful runs had been made prior to the accident. These sports are simply dangerous and it's not possible to eliminate every risk.
  • I felt bad for the Canadian organizers of the opening ceremonies when the fourth Olympic cauldron pillar refused to rise. There's such a curse on these things, almost like missions to Mars. Other than that glitch, it was a terrific ceremony, highlighting Canada's technical accomplishments, free-wheeling spirit, and artistic sense. Unlike the obsequious NBC commentators, I didn't think the Beijing ceremony was so wonderful that nothing else could ever top it. These events are all different and tell us different things about the host nations. Beijing's told us that China can get thousands of its people coordinated. Great, and pretty to watch. But Canada's more individualistic endeavor was more aligned with Western values.
  • One thing I love about short-track speed-skating is that there is a gold-medal heat in which the first to cross the finish line is the winner. An irritating necessity of long-track speed-skating is that each heat is basically just a time trial. There are two skaters, but by and large they are skating against the clock, not each other. Some of the thrill is lost when the eventual gold-medalist skates early and all the tension is in watching other competitors fall short. Can you imagine, say, the running or swimming events from the Summer games in a similar format? Snoozerama.
  • One thing I hate about short-track speed-skating is the role played by cruel fate. In the first medal event, the men's 1500-meter, the powerful South Korean team entered the final turn in first, second, and third place. They were on track to sweep the medals. Then the Korean in third tried a risky pass, caught an edge, and wiped out, taking his second-place teammate down with him. Americans Apolo Anton Ohno and J. R. Celski, in the right place at the right time, ended up second and third respectively. Many of these newer "extreme sport" events have this roller-derby aspect to them, and while it's entertaining in a way, it can be very frustrating to watch. Where's the pure sport in it?
  • The pairs figure skating event left me conflicted. I was happy to see Russian dominance of the event ended - they are the Yankees of pairs figure skating - but wish it had been by anyone other than the Chinese. Their athletics program is so inhuman, so collectivist, so identity-destroying, that I find it hard to root for them. This is not the fault of the individual athletes, though, and many of them, including the gold-medalists Shen and Zhao, have remarkable stories that compel admiration. And there was no question that the Chinese team was the best on the ice.
  • When watching events that feature cross-country skiing, I'll take Nordic Combined over any of the others. The other events, even biathlon, feature many of the worst aspects of sport: staggered starts mean that you can only figure out where competitors rank while on the course by comparing times at checkpoints, and, let's face it, watching a skier struggle up a hill, then coast down it, is about as boring as it gets. At least with Nordic Combined, you get the soaring thrill of the ski-jumping part, which determines the start sequence for the cross-country part. So the finish is a real finish: if I cross the line before you, then I beat you, period. No comparing of times or racing against the clock.
  • Since I started this with a tragic note on the luge, let's end on a lighter note also on luge. Is it really a sport at all? This question came up last night at a dinner party. The arguments on the "yes" side were based around the fact that it's physically challenging. I'm sure this is true: the G-forces can be extreme, the visibility is poor, the speeds are high and the tolerance for error small. But does this qualify something as a sport? Flying a fighter aircraft is physically challenging, but that's not a sport. Moving furniture is physically challenging. Although either of these could be made into sports; Ultimate Frisbee, the Highland Games, and Chess-Boxing all seem to prove the point that any physical activity humans can engage in will at some point be turned into a competition.

    But I think the reason people question luge is different. It's that the run times are so close and it's so hard for the uninitiated (of which I am one!) to distinguish a "good" run from a "bad" run (without checking the clock). The gold-medalist in Vancouver, German Felix Loch, finished his four runs in a total of 3:13.085. The tenth place finisher, Austrian Manuel Pfister, finished 2.184 seconds back; that's just 1.1%. The thirtieth place finisher was only six seconds, less than 3%, behind the winner. That would be all eight runners in the 100-meter dash finishing within 0.1 seconds of each other. If that happened, we would rightly wonder whether most people can run about the same speed, but sometimes one person happens to get a good start or a lucky break, and wins.

    But that's (one reason) why they have multiple runs in luge. For reasons that I can understand intellectually but which are too subtle for me to perceive, a slider like Loch can consistently herd that luge down the track faster than anyone else. And I think that makes it a sport. Unlike short-track speed-skating, cruel fate doesn't seem to play much of a role. What an awful tragedy that the one time it did in Vancouver, it took a life.

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