Olympic Comments

I am generally not hugely enthusiastic about the Olympics, and I really wasn't following the run-up to the Beijing games this year. The games turn out to be great mindless distraction while SteelyKid is between feedings, though, so I've ended up seeing a fair amount of them. I know you're dying to hear my comments, so:

-- There's this kid for the US, a swimmer, something Phelps? You may not have heard this, but he's pretty good...

-- Nobody who has met me will mistake me for a great runner, but I was on the track team in high school, so I have some small appreciation for track and field events. Usain Bolt's victory in the 100 meters was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen-- he shattered his own world record, while high-stepping across the line and thumping his chest.

The only other time I've seen a margin of victory like that was when Ben Johnson was on the juice. It's a sad commentary on modern sports than I can't help wondering if Bolt is on something.

-- Thanks to NBC's policy of exhaustive coverage of sports Americans are good at, we've seen a good amount of beach volleyball. Which has produced some pretty entertaining moments-- the comeback from being down 6-0 in the third set was cool.

I share Matt's curiosity, though-- do indoor and beach volleyballers make fun of each other? How?

-- Why do they have tennis and soccer in the Olympics, anyway? The tennis players play each other all the time, anyway, so there's nothing new or unique about the matches, and soccer already has a bunch of national-team championships. They both take forever, and tie up tv minutes that could go to something we don't already see on tv every week.

-- Speaking of things that I don't want to see on tv, I could really do without three hours a night of gymnastics coverage. Diving, too, for that matter, though at least the competitors in women's diving look like healthy adults.

In the end, judged sports are rubbish. This is also why I don't like college football.

-- All the "Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever" blather is starting to trigger my contrarian impulses. Yeah, he's won more golds than anybody else, but he has the good fortune to compete in a sport that gives him lots of opportunities to win medals, both individually and in relays. And really, he seems to mostly just swim the butterfly and the freestyle.

If you want to start up "greatest athlete" talk, I'm probably more impressed by people who do a wider range of things. You never hear about the decathlon any more, because there aren't any Americans who do it really well, but on some level, isn't being able to do that wide range of things more impressive?


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I agree on the "greatest". He's the most medaled, in a single games and in lifetime achievement. This is not bad, it's just not "greatest".

It's akin to the "World's Fastest Man" for the 100m dash, though that label has a tradition going back a century or more in Olympic athletics.

Personally, I think the label of "greatest athlete" should go to the winner of the Decathlon every time, but American's haven't remembered it even exists since Bruce disappeared from the Wheaties box 25 years ago...

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 17 Aug 2008 #permalink

There has been some debate about soccer in the Olympics. The men's teams are all U-23 otherwise it would be just another world cup. Most of the regular national team players are starting their seasons because soccer is a Fall-Winter sport in the rest of the world.

But for the women, many of them don't have women's leagues in their own countries or have small leagues like the US, and thus don't get to do the national and international competitions each year.

Most other sports have national and international competitions as well. We just don't get to see them here in the US because they aren't televised.

I had similar thoughts about the decathlon, but it seems like they are just really good at all ten events, not really really good, or some of them would also be medaling in all ten of the individual events, and some track and field person would have 10 individual golds and would have Phelps beat in the count. I know nothing about the sport, but I suspect the decathletes get beat in the individual events, which they are really good at, by specialists who are really really good at them.

So is it better to be really good at ten things, or really really good at two? Who knows? In the end it comes down to millions of dollars being tossed about to watch people run around in shorts and throw balls around. All sports are pretty idiotic on that level anyway.

Personally, I think the label of "greatest athlete" should go to the winner of the Decathlon every time, but American's haven't remembered it even exists since Bruce disappeared from the Wheaties box 25 years ago...

No, there were those "Dan and Dave" spots back in '92, when the US had not one but two good decathletes. Of course, one of them failed to qualify at the US Olympic Trials, ruining Reebok's whole summer...

Most other sports have national and international competitions as well. We just don't get to see them here in the US because they aren't televised.

That's my point, though: every sport deserves to have one giant international televised competition. Soccer already has the World Cup and the European championsips, and so on. Tennis is on tv every other week. They don't need the air time as much as, say, field hockey, which is on as I type.

I know nothing about the sport, but I suspect the decathletes get beat in the individual events, which they are really good at, by specialists who are really really good at them.

I believe that's the case, yes. I don't think the Olympic decathletes come anywhere close to the pole vault world records, for example.

The best recent-ish example of someone who was really world-class at multiple activities was probably Carl Lewis, who won gold medals for both sprinting and long-jumping.

I have my own opinion of NBC coverage that advertised "athletics" at the time the 100 m was run live, only to show it "live on tape" thirteen hours later. (See my blog.) Why they thought California needed it at 8:30 pm PDT so they could see an east-coast American take third place in prime time is beyond me. However, Bolt's run was right up there with Beamon's jump. If NBC had used those 13 hours to advantage, they could have broken down the HD digital imagery to figure out his time and speed at 80 m and extrapolate to the finish line. Could he really run 9.59?

I also state my view that Phelps failed to equal Spitz when he failed to break the WR in his last individual event. Spitz nailed every event, and didn't wear a bathing cap like my mother does.

Do you think that rugby is a "judged" sport because it also has referees? I'm not sure what American football would look like without officials, but I suspect death would be as common as it was before Teddy Roosevelt led the movement to reform college football circa 1900. I mean, if they allowed the return of suitcase handles on the pants of running backs, today's athletes could probably throw the guy into the end zone from 10 yards out. [I'm wondering if it will take a major injury from a 300 pound lineman hitting a runner from behind to bring back the penalty for assisting a runner. I see it all the time and it is never called.]

That said, the best basketball game I ever watched was a fairly private "call your own fouls" pickup game involving mostly current and future NBA players. Street ball at its finest. It wasn't quite at the "no broken arm, no foul" level, because professionals have an income to worry about, but it was played with reckless abandon.

So is it better to be really good at ten things, or really really good at two? Who knows?

That's been a debate in American education for decades. See the story "The Animal School" (lots of variations out there) for a metaphorical view about what happens when all students are forced to show competence at all skills and how they gain mastery in none, including the one they know they're naturally talented at.

In "real life", I find there's still a lack of respect for the "good at all, but best at none" children, including myself as I was growing up, in the educational system.

In athletics? In the general climate, probably not, 'cause you don't get any attention unless, like Jenner, you win.

As a role-model source, however, I would like the decathlon to have more coverage and respect for the achievement, for showing growing children that one doesn't need to specialize too early or too absolutely, in contrast with the NBC athlete profiles, and in *sharp* contrast with athletics and sports in China and the way the Soviets used to do it.

Not being "the best" at anything can be one hell of an esteem killer if one is not shown how successful and fulfilling a broad, "renaissance man" life can be. The decathlon can be a good example of that in sports terms that kids might be able to relate to.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 17 Aug 2008 #permalink

Another Olympiad, another chance to trot out my ageing list of ...
sports that should be banned from the Olympics:

Sports they don't play in my country.
Sports that are played in my country, but I didn't know about it.
Sports that are played in my country, but we're not very good at.
Sports that are played in my country, but only by children.
Sports I've never heard of.
Sports I find boring.
Sports that are difficult to follow on TV.
Sports I don't understand.
Sports with judges.
Sports that don't require a high level of cardiovascular fitness.
Sports based on the exploitation of pubescent girls.
Sports involving animals.

All national TV broadcasts focus on their own country's athletes. Its only natural. Here in Japan I've seen more Judo than I even knew existed, along with a fair amount of swimming (too many categories - way too many). Until this post I had no idea diving had even taken place. When I look at the news coverage in Swedish newspapers, on the other hand, it's all full of rowing, sailing, canoe, pentathlon and stuff. Not a word on Judo (or beach volleyball - is that an actual sport?).

By the way, I know Decathlonists (?) and Pentathlonists do go back and forth between the combination sport and their preferred individual sports, and they do sometimes excel in them.

In the end, judged sports are rubbish.

THANK YOU. Someone else who is sane.

Letter from Beijing
The Only Games in Town
Week One at the Olympics.
by Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
August 25, 2008

According to Pythagoras, there were three types of men, just as there were three types of visitors to the Olympic Games. First and lowest were those who came to sell. Next, halfway up, were the competitors. And last, at the top of the pile, were the people who wanted to watch. The more you look at this ranking, the better it gets. Applied to life, it means a shoo-in for the slacker, the couch potato, and the tremulous voyeur. Applied to the Olympic Games, it makes it simpler for ordinary mortals to gaze upon Michael Phelps--half man, half osprey, with a wingspan three inches greater than his height. "To be honest, I had no idea I was going to go that fast," he said, addressing a press conference as if it were a bunch of traffic cops... [truncated]

You can find the full article online.

Chad, it's posts like this that make me wish I knew you personally/socially.

Hi Chad,

I skipped across all the comments so this may be repeated. I have also been keeping up with Michael Phelps' races, and I also think it's an exaggeration to say he's the greatest Olympian of all time, but here are some thoughts:

Although he does seem to only compete in the Butterfly and Freestyle, he also competes in the individual Medleys at both 200 m and 400 m, which combine all types of strokes. Also, for the non-medleys, you notice he competes in the slightly longer distance. This is because his body is trained this way. Him and his coach are trying to train him for shorter, sprint distances for the next olympics.

When you say there are more chances to win Gold medals, I do agree, but also it is interesting to consider that the other swimmers don't participate in multiple events- leaving open the possibility that they actually train only for their one event. The fact that Phelps can dominate across the board says more encouraging things about him.

So it would be silly to say he's the best Olympic athlete, since we are comparing across all sports, and we can't really compare apples and oranges. It would be better to say he's the best all-around swimmer. In a few years, he may be the best sprinter...

Here on the local sports talk radio station there is an ongoing debate over who is the fasteest ever at his discipline, Phelps or Bolt. Clearly each is currently the fastest at swimming or running, but they are discussing whether any human, ever, in the last 200,000 or so years, has been faster.

Currently the consensus seems to be that Phelps is probably the fastest swimmer of all time, while at some point there was probably some guy who needed to run faster than Bolt just to survive-lions and tigers and bears being pretty fast in their own right.

Sort of germane to the post, but odd.

Earth to whiners:
Given that the decathlon doesn't even start until the 21st, how much coverage can you expect to have occurred?

As for the specialization issue, Jim Thorpe won the pentathlon and the decathlon in 1914, while placing 5th in long jump and 9th in high jump.

That, plus a professional baseball and football career lead some to consider him the greatest athlete of the 20th century...

...he also competes in the individual Medleys at both 200 m and 400 m, which combine all types of strokes.

Hmmm, so how do we create something like this for track? A 4x400 medley with a sprint leg, a hurdle leg, a race walking leg, and....? Maybe in an homage to the triple jump, a skipping leg?

I might even pay to see a group of people skipping around a track. ;)

What do you mean that there aren't any Americans who are competitive in the decathlon? Brian Clay is the reigning World Champion (and if you know anything about track and field, you know that the athletes respect World Champions as much as Olympic Champions). Here's his resume:
2005 World Outdoor champion; 2008 World Indoor champion; 2008 Olympic Trials champion; 3-time USA Outdoor champion ('04, '05, '08); 2004 Olympic silver medalist; Two-time World Indoor silver medalist ('04, '06); 2000 NAIA champion; two-time NAIA LJ champion ... not to mention that Chris Huffins (recently retired) and Tom Pappas (2003 World Champion) ....

The first week was great EXCEPT after the women's biathalon on Sat., Feb. 13 when there were NO BUSES to take us back to Whistler!! We stood in the pouring rain for 2 hours beside tents that couldn't be used because "they were for security check in". The Olympic Committee gave us transportation to the venue but then must have forgotten we were out there. Everyone in our party got sick, some needing medical attention & having to miss future events.