19 August 2004

Cybershrink on the Olympics

There's no shortage of commentary on the sporting aspects of the Olympics. But I like to watch other aspects of the events, those that are much less easily scored.

There's plenty of commentary available from the strictly sporting point of view. But I like to watch other aspects of the events, those that are much less easily scored.

Victory reactions
For instance, the South African men's victory in the 100 metres swimming relay race was a splendid performance. But more dramatic was their huge reaction on realising that they'd won. It teetered on the brink between pleasingly delighted, thrilled and even triumphant, and over-the-top crowing and exulting, pushy and cocky. Not just grinning, they preened, beat chests like King Kong on coke, and held their arms aloft in the traditional posture used by circus acrobats when begging for applause. The Americans whose swimmers have been performing rather dismally in these Games, seemed to be generous and pleasant losers, while the oh-so arrogant Aussie swimmers, previously tending towards the boastful and condescending, looked physically sick.

Of olive wreaths and flowers
As the SA anthem was played, only one tried to mouth the words of Nkosi Sikilele, and none attempted the Die Stem portion. But overall, watching medal ceremonies, very few athletes seem to know their words or sing along. Medals are fine, and the wreath of olive leaves a nice touch.

But I have to wonder about the purpose of giving every medallist, especially the men, a bunch of flowers. They all tend to look embarrassed and wondering what to do with them. After the swimming relay ceremony, several of the swimmers gaily tossed their bouquets to the cheering crowd, which seems reasonable. Though one got so carried away he flung his Olympic olive wreath after it, and nearly followed that with his medal, as well. I do hope that in the equestrian events, they give the bouquet to the horse to munch. At least those excellent competitors would probably enjoy the snack.

Let's hear it for the little guys
It's nice to see the little guys win. For instance, when the literally smaller Puerto Rican team heavily beat the strutting and conceited U.S.A at basketball. Being of normal height, among the giraffes of America, they looked really small, they played clean, decent and very skilled basketball. Meanwhile, the hugely overpaid and over-praised American all-stars, used to constant adulation, failed so comprehensively, and then reacted o their loss with disbelief, not of the sort that leads you to feel healthily challenged and to try harder, but looking annoyed and rattled, as if a victory belonging to them had been stolen by a pickpocket.

What's in it for the viewer?
Notice how we armchair athletes soon pick up enough of the jargon from the commentators, to fake it convincingly as we watch. "Nice dismount!" we remark, "And lovely extension!"

One of the things I actually enjoy (I must be becoming a real old softy) is seeing people becoming so very, very happy after they've won. The TV is so usually filled, with the 24 hour news channels, with misery and mayhem, that it's genuinely nice to see people who have worked hard for something, succeed, and feel happy.

It's also pleasant to watch some of the sports you wouldn't normally even glimpse, like the white-water kayak event. But I wish they'd schedule a wider range of events when I'm temporarily free. I always seem to face the choice of a softball game between large lumpy ladies from Mongolia and a similar bunch from Peru, or endless badminton.

Some events are so directly personal, person-to-person, such as fencing and wrestling, with direct contact and battle between A and B. Others involve each contestant against themselves, or an ever-increasing challenge - weight-lifting, or the high jump, for instance. The winner is the guy who is last to be beaten by the escalating task. But I find it hard to grasp the complex and lengthy events like the long-distance cycling, where there are dozens of blokes whizzing past, and it's difficult to remember who is who, and who is winning.

The geography challenge
Then there are the team events, where it's refreshing when your own nation is not competing, and you can watch without feeling the need to root for either side, and just enjoy the quality of the performance. Between the Ukraine and Fiji, I have no inbuilt concern whether either of them wins.

Now you find competitors from countries where you'd be hard pressed to point out on the map. Moldova, anyone? And in the listings of competitors and scores, it is even harder to work out some of the abbreviations used. PNG had me stuck for a while, till I figured it out: Aah, Papua New Guinea! But I'm still puzzling over ISV and SCG. I thought they were IT companies.

Compatible gymnasts
The Romanian gymnasts seem to be such very nice guys, especially considering they come from the country that gave rise to Dracula. They're visibly pleasant to each other, friendly to the cameras, just generally affable, so very easy to aff.

Fashion notes
The costumes worn by most competitors are rather traditional and standard. But the swimmers are evolving. They vary in how they're adopting the new high-tech body suits. Some are covered almost completely by these synthetic skins, between suit, goggles and cap, there's not much contestant to recognise. Some wear the body suit only from the waist down, which puzzles me a little. If this modification of one's body surface actually makes a real difference to your speed through the water, shouldn't it be an all-or-nothing affair? Or are hairy legs supposed to be the main drag? Actually, I suspect that either there's a gene that causes both physical hairlessness and high swimming skills, or most swimmers have been having a go with razors, depilatory creams, and suchlike, to achieve their notable smoothness.

And still other swimmers wear only tiny traditional form suits. Are these the one's who can't afford the fancy body-suits, or the one's clever enough to recognise that it makes little difference? Voyeurs of my acquaintance, who used to enjoy ogling swimmers of whatever persuasion, deplore these new-fangled suits, as there's so little flesh visible these days. Divers seem to prefer brief attire, though, and Beach Volleyball, though a horribly boring game to watch from any other point of view, does seem to feature the skimpiest outfits.

Oh, and another feature that intrigues me, considering that the competition is taking place in mid-summer in a warm climate. The swimmers parade out to the pool so heavily clad in tracksuits that I anticipate seeing some adding a scarf and hat to the ensemble; then they rapidly strip it all of for the race, then enrobe again before stalking back to the change-rooms. This seems so much unnecessary effort. Similarly, the gymnasts, generally solemnly don their jackets each time they need to wander the short distance to the next apparatus, only to remove it as soon as they arrive.

Out to lunge.
Then there was the Fencing. In itself not the most riveting of sports, but the general demeanour of some of the competitors, can be fascinating. I tuned in when a young Italian had just won the Bronze medal, and his delight was enormous. He rushed up and embraced one old man (his coach, I guessed) then another (maybe his dad?). Then he worked his way round everyone else who didn't move away rapidly - passionate embraces, sometimes leaping up to clutch onto the recipient with arms and legs clasped round them.

The final match, between an Italian and a French fencer was splendid for its sub-text. The Frenchman just efficiently got on with the job, though at one point he lunged with his epee, with such vigour that he ended up with a sadly bent and droopy sword, looking as if it urgently needed a dose of Viagra. But the Italian was positive operatic. A swashbuckler, I'd guess, though I confess I haven't ever actually witnessed someone swashing their buckle (or buckling their swash, whichever it is). If there had been point awarded for pouting, shrugging, and posturing, he'd have been far ahead in the scoring.

(Michael Simpson, 2004)


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