30 August 2004

A last look at the Olympics

Cybershrink takes a last look back at the 2004 Olympic Games. And awards some wooden medals.

Cybershrink takes a last look back at the 2004 Olympic Games. And awards some wooden medals.

After the welter of golds, silvers, and bronzes, I've decided to award, to the greatest Flops of the Games, some wooden medals to people we wouldn't like to see again.

The greatest bore of the contest
Top of the list, surely, must come that soggy mass of self-pity, the British athlete Paula Radcliffe. She must surely be the greatest bore of the contest, and gave the most consistently nauseating performances of the Games. The British media have been falling over themselves to come up with excuses for her, none of them acceptable.

She arrived over-confident and under-prepared, but we're told she was defeated by the heat - as if it was magically much hotter for her than for all of the other athletes who completed both of the races from which she cravenly deserted. In two races, she persisted only until it seemed clear that she wouldn't win a medal, and then just stopped.

For days afterwards, SKY TV news was unwatchable, replaying her pathetic news-conference, showing her snivelling and blubbering. There was hysterical talk of her "trauma" and "bravery". Disappointment is not trauma, and giving up is not usually brave. There's a great difference between managing good athletic times occasionally, when, amongst many different races under varying conditions and against differing runners, you meet a combination that happens to suit you; and being able to compete as an equal, master whatever the conditions are, and beat the world's best.

This world record example of choking on the big occasion suggests more psychological than physical problems. Just giving up when you can't face not winning, is not admirable.

Twit who scuttled the marathon
A close second to her must come the steaming Irish twit, the idiot who, dressed in a red mini-skirt and black beret, leaped stupidly onto the lead runner in the marathon, destroying his chances of winning the race. Where was he when Paula needed an excuse for not finishing her own race?

What a contrast to the delightful young English boxer Amir Khan (oh, boy, but he Khan, Khan't he?) who triumphed in the Boxing, while remaining well-mannered, confident but modest, and succeeding the old-fashioned way, by hard work, guts and skill.

A second wooden medal for the medical staff
A second and even bigger Wooden Medal for the track medical staff for their outrageous neglect of a runner in seriously precarious condition. There was at least one spectacular failure to provide proper care and service to athletes in urgent need of medical attention. Now one can accept that the likelihood of anyone becoming really ill or at risk in events like table-tennis is negligible. But in some events medical complications and problems are not merely possible, but likely.

Suffering athlete left for 6 minutes
This was especially clear in the 50 km Walk, in which the leading athletes were strenuously engaged for nearly 4 hours in really hot weather. But when Denis Nizhegovorodov arrived in the main Olympic stadium as No. 2 in the race, his clinical condition was very alarming to see. He appeared to be not merely exhausted but severely dehydrated, his eyes sunken, his face flabby and expressionless, his limbs floppy, his head slumped forward on his neck, at times looking disorientated.

Utterly disgracefully, as he staggered across the finish line and lay down on the track unable to move further nobody lifted a finger to help him. Whereas he should have been immediately placed on a stretcher and taken to medical facilities for rapid assessment and a drip, he was left lying there, medical aides very conspicuously absent, not even a race official bothering to check on him, for 6 minutes or more. This was appalling neglect, and recklessly dangerous. The medical and track officials on duty for this event are all awarded a large, clunky Wooden Medal.

Third wooden medal for judges and scorers
And the third winners of Wooden for conspicuous failures, have to be far too many of the judges and scorers.

The most flagrantly objectionable example was in the boxing semi-final in which the British boxer, Amir Khan, had to battle against one formal opponent, and several judges, either blind or pushing the wrong buttons when scoring. Time and again they ignored perfectly clear points he scored, even regularly awarding a point to the other guy when it was Amir who had scored. Even though he probably only received one point for every 4 he actually scored, he quietly persisted and still won.

There were rather too many dodgy decisions, including episodes of booing of the judges. A Russian gymnast, known as Sexy Alexi, performed brilliantly but was given suspiciously low marks, and the crowd almost unanimously booed vigorously, preventing the competition from continuing. Eventually a couple of the judges moved their scores a little higher, but the boos only died down after Alexi himself called for calm.

Then there were the odd and peculiar happenings in the equestrian event, where a German rider flagrantly broke the rules, had penalty points subtracted, whined to the judges who promptly removed the penalties and gave her and her team a clearly undeserved gold medal, and only after an appeal to a higher authority, was their definitively daft decision reversed, and the scores and awards corrected.

How is the scoring done?
There's maybe too little scrutiny of the judges, who work on a complex system where in many events most of us can't comprehend, and which is never fully explained to the viewers, who accept the scores on trust, until, as in this case, the marking is too obviously askew to be ignorable.

The doping issue
Lastly, the matter of Doping. There's some deranged suggestions that doping should be ignored, with the cracked argument that this would somehow "level the playing field" between athletes. Firstly, this would turn the contest from one between athletes, to one between chemists, and make the playing field about as unequal as the Himalayas. Does anyone really think that athletes from Burundi and Chile could afford the designer drugs that could be afforded by the Americans and Chinese? And the performance-enhancing effects are useful enough that despite their known and sometimes serious health hazards, any athlete wishing to be a serious competitor would be forced to accept the risks to their health.

There were uncomfortable rumours, hopefully false, that some drug test results might have been suppressed so as not to damage "the Olympic spirit", though such dishonestly could only have the opposite effect. Weirder and weirder There were odd examples, like that Hungarian weightlifter caught trying to switch his urine sample and another medallist refusing to provide a sample. And the utterly unbelievable story of the Greek runners who evaded their dope tests, who looked as if they might have faked or exaggerated an accident (who needs to be admitted to hospital for several days with only minor bruises and scratches?) and a fishy story. Then they retired or withdrew from the Olympics - was that an attempt to evade further scrutiny? Surely all those excuses about "forgetting" or not being informed about drug testing sessions should be avoided by placing the onus squarely on every athlete to discover when and where they are to be tested and to present themselves, or be presumed to have failed the test?

Now to some more light-hearted observations.

Much dull commentary, but I enjoyed the comment that one athlete "loves to lead from the front". Have you ever seen anyone lead from the back? And a reminder - it is very rarely worth interviewing any athlete. They're often worth watching, but rarely ever have anything interesting to say. Listening to an athlete speak, is like watching an author or preacher run.

Notice the superstitions, and small rituals which some athletes invoke before seeking their peak performance, kissing medals and mumbling various prayers (I'm never clear on what grounds they expect God to intervene directly in a race, favouring one devout athlete over another). This was especially clear with the great Russian pole vaulter, Elena Isinbayeva. Before each attempt, she has a very elaborate ritual, muttering what appear to be complex prayers, her lips fluttering and dancing, and a ritual series of manipulations of the grips, the pole, a quick gaze up heaven-wards, before she starts her run. And it worked for her, in a most exciting finish, when, having already unassailably won her Olympic gold medal, she finished off by breaking her own World Record on her last jump. A more equitable scoring system? So many people in the audience seem to be muttering into cellphones. Why? Providing a private commentary to someone at home, but watching on TV? Calling their bookmakers? And as for the medals tables, it seems imbalanced when big and rich countries can afford to enter so many masses of athletes. Wouldn't it be more interesting to compute a kind of system where medals that were won were scored related to the size of team and economic GNP of the country? The US and China would come far further down in that league, while a single medal for Burundi or Costa Rica would be seen for the larger achievement it represents.

All events are not equal in the amount of attention they get from the crowds and TV networks. It seems hard to take wind-surfing as seriously as track and field events. But some I find just rather endearingly daffy.

All shapes and sizes
Athletes come in varying shapes and sizes, and some, like the woman's shotput or hammerthrowers, you'd never guess were athletes - even I look sleek by comparison. But the two groups of athletes that look funniest are surely the weightlifters and the walkers, though the synchronised swimming, with its fixed smiles and curious movements, can also be rather amusing. The lifters are so curiously misshapen, bulging in unexpected places, asymmetrical, replete with their dramatic facial expressions and grunts. I unexpectedly found myself riveted to the 50-km walk. So many seem to be bandy-legged, as they endearingly wobbled rapidly down the road, arms pumping, hips swinging, bulges undulating.

The Olympics on TV
The Olympic TV coverage seems to have been oddly distributed. For all the Channels DSTV boasted about, much of the time I found nothing but a timetable on display, and otherwise, whatever time we tuned in, we seemed to see an enormous amount of badminton, basketball, and hockey. And there were so very few repeats of the most interesting events.

And time to wonder about some of those TV ads, especially the ones for varieties of vacuum cleaner. What sort of people live in these houses? Piles of potato chips on the couch, dry instant coffee on the carpet, fruit loops on the coffee table, popcorn under the cushion, Smarties on the stairs. Coffee grounds in the drawers? And have you noticed these homes also suffer from clichés. It's always stubborn dirt, never friendly old compliant and co-operative dirt, and messy chips, not the tidy ones we prefer.

Finally, I really appreciated Jay Leno's comment about how every opening and closing ceremony, no-matter how brilliantly designed and conceived in its non-athletic parts is burdened by the ceremonial procession of the athletes, taking some four hours to wander past, waving and calling Mom on their cellphones. These are athletes, for Pete's sake couldn't they jog past a whole lot faster than that?

Professor Michael Simpson


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