Ten days in, one week to go, and the Summer Olympics in London have been… Well, they’ve been the Olympics.
Depending who you are, that statement will mean different things:
- The Olympics have provided compelling, once-in-a-lifetime narratives that we will never forget; the Olympics is the one time every four years where we buy into teary storylines and spend a few weeks deeply caring about sports cut from university budgets.
- The Olympics are a shining example of the ideals of athleticism, amateurism, and community; the Olympics are cash cow controlled by a corrupt governing body and served up by exploitative corporations.
- The Olympics are a beautiful display of the world’s finest athletes; the Olympics are fifteen minutes of fame for folks who’ll be back to the ‘real world’ when the global audience gets bored and goes back to watching the major sports.
So far, the Olympics have done everything possible to fulfill those pre-conceived notions, and many others. Personally, I fall on the positive side of those notions. I mean, you could weigh very similar platitudes and criticisms against NCAA football – the only difference being that I don’t really care about NCAA football.
Which is why I am about to attempt an entry in the Addison Recorder’s diary of the Olympics. I will try to cover angles that haven’t been plastered across magazines, blogs, and websites by hundreds of others. Some people might call it a Quixotic attempt, and those are the people who probably own the same thesaurus that I do.
Is It Still ‘Edgy’ to Dismiss Soccer in the U.S.? Every sport has its critics (see my colleagues’ point & counter-point about Major League Baseball), but it’s amazing the vitriol and cynicism that U.S. sports writers still direct towards soccer. It’s like an initiation into the fraternity: you can’t prove your seriousness and gravitas as an American sports writer until you’ve taken a potshot at The Beautiful Game. And every time there’s an important soccer match that ends in a 0-0 draw, or goes to penalty-kick tiebreakers, this fraternity is required to renew its membership by snidely remarking about the excitement of a scoreless match.
And yet these are the same writers that will profess undying love for low-scoring, “gritty” football games between defensive powerhouses who “battle for field position.” Or maybe they prefer the pitching perfection of baseball’s no-hitter – the joy that comes from the anticipation of one team doing absolutely nothing all game.
You get the point. Every sport has “unexciting” aspects that its fans enjoy, whether it’s the foul & free throw tactics at the end of an NBA game, or the possession play of soccer or hockey. Not every NHL fan wants to see the Canucks pass around the puck ad nauseum – but there are die-hard fans who love the skill and strategy displayed. Just like some people enjoy the brilliant and mind-boggling midfield skills of the Spanish soccer teams.
Bringing this all back to the Olympics, I am not a fan of Spanish teams – partially because of their recent dominance of the sport, partially because I enjoy teams that actually employ forwards. Thus, I enjoyed watching Spain implode in the men’s soccer event. Sure, it was basically a U-23 team on the field, but still – there’s schadenfreude in watching the world’s top dog be humbled in ridiculous fashion (and by players from the MLS, natch).
Much more enjoyment has come from watching the U.S. Women’s team, especially the dramatic back-and-forth semifinal match against Canada. It was a controversial, exciting, and – erm, gritty – win that came down to a goal in extra time of overtime, off the head of Alex Morgan. It was an amazing finish that provided an abundance of storylines for sports writers.
But it did lead to an interesting question via Twitter: Why is it that the U.S. can produce one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world, but the men’s team seems to have a glass ceiling above it? Is it because the other (men’s’) sports are so much cooler in the eyes of American sports culture, and therefore get the lion’s share of attention and dollars?
I Would Also Like to See More TV Time For…: Indoor volleyball. The common hipster remark about the Olympic games is that it’s a bunch of sports we only care about once every four years. And there may be truth to that. But I would gladly watch the hell out of televised volleyball games outside of the Olympics. Sure, we do get beach volleyball every so often on ESPN2, but I prefer the strategy and athleticism of the standard 6-on-6 game.
The highlight for me so far is this play by U.S. volleyballer Don Suxho, where he saves an errant dig using his foot – not only saving the volley, but setting up his teammate for a spike.
(There’s only that link for the video – apparently NBC is making sure to nail down its video footage extremely tight.)
And even though I advocate for the acceptance of many and varied sports…
Everyone Has Their Sports of Antipathy: Which is to say, we all have events and sports that leave us scratching our heads and thinking, “I don’t get it.” This most popularly manifests itself on Twitter or in online comments sections, in the form of “How is ___________ a sport, and why is it in the Olympics?” (There are many variations on this form, some including exclamations and expletives, others including poor grammar or Internet shorthand.)
For me, one such event is field hockey. Not that I think it ought to be booted from the Olympics, but it’s just… I can’t get into it. I mean, I enjoy the mayhem of a penalty corner, but the rest of the game and strategy simply don’t do it for me. (Realize that I also have a similar antipathy towards basketball, so this isn’t necessarily a condemnation of the sport, merely personal preference.)
If there was an event whose presence I wouldn’t miss at the Olympics, though, it would be the dressage portion of equestrian events. I know, it’s low-hanging fruit to knock dressage, but…. Look, I get that it’s like ‘ballet with horses,’ even though the Olympics doesn’t have ‘ballet with humans.’ And I get that some may compare it to gymnastics routines. All I know is that, after watching it, the best way for me to describe it is to compare it to a stylized driver’s test – but with a horse & skilled rider, instead of car & teenager.
One of my Recorder colleagues rhetorically asked, via Twitter, how is dressage an Olympic event when baseball & softball are nowhere to be found? Speaking of…
I Miss Baseball & Softball: Sure, I’m not hurting for baseball options on my cable package. But I miss the storylines of Olympic baseball. Will collegiate and minor league players from the U.S. be able to hold their own against the contenders from Korea and Japan? What teams from Central America will play spoilers? Will there be a defection from Team Cuba?
Sadly, bats & balls are no longer welcome at the Olympics. There are reasons given for why this is, but in the end it’s simple. At their core, the Olympics are European. Baseball is a game of the Pacific and the Caribbean. That’s not the reason the IOC gives; they’ve said a sport needs “universality” (which is why you see so many equestrian entries from Africa, Central America, and East & SE Asia); they’ve said a sport needs a following (another way of stating you need European fans); they’ve said an event needs to the sport’s best players (which is why men’s soccer is missing most of its stars); they’ve said a sport needs to not have a doping problem (hello, cycling).
The IOC president also said, after all this, you still need to “win hearts.” Unless he was talking about beating the IOC in a game of cards, I assume he simply meant that Europe has no interest in our silly ball games.
Then again, maybe the IOC plays a mean game of Hearts.
The ‘Human Error’ Has Lost Its Charm, pt 1: This is less a criticism of the Olympics, and more of the sports that comprise its Games. Ironically, it’s a criticism leveled at baseball (and some of its obstinate fans), as well.
Mistakes by referees and officials are not wistful. They are not a charming part of the narrative. They are avoidable and embarrassing. There are three areas we can talk about in this realm; let’s start with the blown call.
I’m not talking about the subjective rule interpretation. In the women’s soccer semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, the referee gave the U.S. a free kick after the Canadian goalie engaged in delaying tactics. During the free kick, the ball ricocheted off a Canadian player’s arm akimbo – which resulted in a penalty kick for the U.S. When Abby Wambach knocked home that PK, it tied up the game, which was won in overtime by the U.S. squad.
It’s controversial, but it’s not what I’m talking about. Technically, the ref was well within her rights to call both fouls. Just like, technically, a basketball ref could probably call 50 traveling fouls during your average NBA game. These are subjective interpretations of the rules, not “blown calls.”
A blown call is when the U.S. soccer player didn’t keep the ball inbounds, but the ref missed it. This resulted in a corner kick, which easily could’ve turned into a goal. A blown call is when the Spanish water polo player scored a tying goal in the dying seconds of the game, and the ref disallowed it – even though the replays in the stadium supported the score. A blown call is when the volleyball ref awards a point to the U.S. women’s team, indicating the Turkish player hit the ball into the antenna (i.e., out of bounds) – despite replays that showed the American player hit the antenna, not the ball.
Technological ability continues to outpace human observation; when combined with the split-second plays at top-level sporting events, it makes referees look foolish. Not even human, but utterly foolish and incompetent. They’re not, and there is no reason that if your average audience member can see that a call is blown seconds after it happens, a referee should be kept in the dark. Baseball and soccer have often made the case that these obviously-rectified errors are part of the compelling drama of the game.
They’re not. International soccer has since had to change its mind after embarrassing and critical non-goal calls in both the World Cup and UEFA Euro championships. Baseball has had its own cavalcade of blown call embarrassments. It’s not compelling. It’s frustrating and dehumanizes the refs. And we can rectify it pretty easily.
The ‘Human Error’ Has Lost Its Charm, pt 2: Another lesson of the 2012 Olympic games is that, if you do employ the latest technology, you still have to know what to do when it breaks down or can’t break ties. Remember the controversy surrounding the run-up to the Olympics for the U.S. track & field team? Two runners finished in a dead tie, a tie so close that no technology could break it – not the video, not the timing devices, nothing. So, what how are the organizers supposed to break the tie?
Oh, right. Nobody thought of that. The technology was thought to be so advanced that there could be no tie. Oops.
What about the timing error that occurred during a women’s semifinal fencing event, in individual epee? It’s a story that’s been covered by all media outlets: in the bout between South Korean & German fencers, the clock locks up at 0:01, giving the losing (German) fencer extra seconds to make a few last attempts – one of which lands, and reverses the outcome. After discussion, the German fencer is given the win. To add humiliation to defeat, the South Korean fencer had to sit on the piste during deliberation and subsequent protest. After the unsuccessful protest, she was led away in order to prepare for the bronze medal match – which she lost.
Nobody figured what ought to happen if the timer jammed. More importantly, it forced an existential question onto the officials: is fencing a sport where you “play until the whistle” (like American football), or a sport where the clock is king (like hockey). Because everybody relied so much upon technology, it left the officials in a no-win deliberation with no clear answer.
The ‘Human Error’ Has Lost Its Charm, pt 3: Then we come to the sports where someone erred in consideration of human nature. Here’s what I mean:
What are sports? They, like games, are a collection of rules and guidelines. The governing bodies agree that, for example, certain elements of a gymnastics routine are worth a certain amount of points (due to degree of difficulty). Or they agree that a handball must be of a certain diameter. Or that the only soccer player who is allowed to use her hands is the goalie. Sports are all about rules and formatting, and how we perform, excel, and compete within those constructs.
Which is why, when the Badminton players started throwing games in the prelims, so as to get a better draws in the knockout stage, nobody should have been surprised. It’s the Olympic version of expecting that a wealthy man would pay anything more than the minimum amount of taxes legally required. This is not meant to bring politics into the mix; it’s an illustration. Whatever one can legally do to gain an advantage (monetarily, competitively, what-have-you), someone will do it – ideals and ethics be damned. Within the construct of the badminton sports tournament, it was advantageous for certain teams to not win.
This was the choice: lose the battle for an easier path to win the war, or win the battle and potentially set one’s self up for losing the war? Many reasonable people would choose the former. The only reasons not to do so are intangible ideals about the purity of competition, or somesuch thing. I don’t mean to knock those ideals, but competition is about competing, and there’s nothing “pure” about it. Competitors will use any advantage they can get; it’s just rare when a sport’s format is able to turn losing into an advantage.
A similar thing happened in women’s soccer. The Japanese team purposefully attempted to achieve a 0-0 draw in its final opening round game, even though they would’ve had little challenge in winning. Why? Because if they won, they would have to travel over 400 miles to their next game. The format of the soccer event gave them an incentive to not win. So they didn’t. And it seems to have paid off: Japan made it to the final match in women’s soccer.
Once Every Four Years: As I draw to the close of this entry, I notice that this has had a rather tone throughout most of it. I hadn’t expected that; I have immensely enjoyed the Summer Games so far (even though I’m a bigger fan of the Winter Olympiad). I think it goes back to the comment about a plethora of sports that we care about only in four-year cycles.
It’s a valid comment. Whether because of viewer apathy, or because sports networks can’t wring enough money from these events in between Olympiads, we don’t have the desire or ability to view these sports on a daily basis (though online streaming can and has started to change that).
But we do care during the Olympics, because it’s the big stage. It’s like theatre, really. In the U.S., there are so many regional and university theatre companies and performances. And yet, most folks only care when it’s Broadway. Or, y’know, when it’s a touring Broadway show.
And many of these athletes, most of who aren’t going to earn exorbitant salaries or endorsement deals, are getting their only chance to play their part on the massive stage that is the Olympics. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up being critical of the stagehands, producers, and directors. If I’m going to score a game-winning goal on the biggest stage, I’d want my country to witness live rather than five hours after the fact. If the odds are that I won’t qualify again four years from now, I don’t want my dramatic goal disallowed because the rules don’t allow the ref to see the same thing everyone else does. I don’t want to be known as the person who got screwed by a piece of equipment I had no control over. I wouldn’t want, after years or decades of training, to be scapegoated and dismissed for violating the ‘spirit’ of the Games just because I made a tactically sound decision.
We love the Olympics because of the breathtaking athleticism, the competition, and the great storylines that are writ large due to the size of the stage. There is tragedy, heartbreak, triumph, and drama. But it’s a good idea not to forget that the athletes aren’t fictional characters playing out a narrative for our entertainment. They’re people trying to achieve the pinnacle of their sport. I guess I expect the same from the organizations and companies putting on the games.