Monday, August 18, 2008

Olympic Notes, 2008

* First off, who knew the Jackson Five was still big in Japan?

* Second, did you see that great final in the 100M Fly? Boy, it would have been really embarrassing if the clock had showed Phelps winning by 0.01 seconds and he had finished in third!

I kid. Upon further review, Phelps did win, fair and square, despite how it looked at first to the naked eye. But two thoughts occurred to me watching that race:

(1) How in the world would they have called that finish before touchpads?

(2) Imagine the outrage there would have been if these Olympics had been held in the U.S. All of Europe would have cried about how we had somehow fixed the results. Thank God for the ChiComs!

* So how great is Phelps? He's plenty great. The greatest swimmer of my time, to be sure. (And by the way, did you see who was seated in front of Ma Phelps for the final race? The Thorpedo! He did not look particularly pleased at Phelps's achievement. Maybe Xenu can comfort him.)

But I think the fixation on his 8 gold medals in one Olympics is a little much for two reasons. First, only swimmers have any shot at winning that many medals in a given Olympics because of the number of different events open to them. They have a bunch of distances very close together (50M, 100M, 200M) in different styles. Plus the medleys. Plus the relays. It takes major greatness to be able to compete in different distances in different styles--don't get me wrong. But if you play tennis, you've only got two medals open to you. Most of the sports at the Olympics only have a couple medals at stake. Even track and skiing don't have that many opportunities for one athlete. It's no accident that the two most decorated Olympians are both swimmers. And if someone breaks Phelps's record, it will almost certainly be another swimmer.

Second, because of the reliance on medals from relays, only swimmers from a handful of countries have a realistic shot of winning 8 golds (Russia, Italy, France, Netherlands, Australia, Japan, USA, and a couple others). If you were the greatest swimmer of all time--even faster than Phelps in all of his events--but were from Rhodesia, probably couldn't win more than 5 golds because you wouldn't have the athletic infrastructure around you to create other top-level teammates to win in the relays.

So when people talk about how long Phelps's record will stand, it's as much a function of the very, very small pool of athletes who can challenge it (only swimmers from big, organized, developed countries) as it is the untouchable nature of the sheer number of gold medals.

* Finally, I did a small item about the theological sophistication of boxer Demetrius Andrade over at First Things. Omitted in it is my non-understanding of Olympic boxing. It seems like the safest sport at the games--badminton players probably get hurt more often. I understand why you'd want to design a set of rules to protect the boxers from injury since they're fighting so many times during a fortnight. I get that and understand that this necessarily leads to an arrangement guaranteed to produce almost no knock-downs, let alone knock-outs.

But what's with the scoring system? So far as I can tell--and if anyone actually understands the Olympic rules, please correct me--the system they use only counts clean blows to the head. Which means there's almost no reason to go for, or to guard, the body. If both fighters are just guarding their head, and punching for the head, doesn't that make what they're doing sufficiently different from real boxing that it's almost not the same sport? It's like have basketball without allowing layups.

(And when does MMA come to the Olympics? Oh sure, you can scoff, but if I had asked you 25 years ago when snowboarding would be an Olympic sport, you would have laughed at that, too.)


Anonymous said...

My childrens' TaeKwanDo instructor is a former Olympian (no medals). His school (in Irving, TX) has started giving MMA lessons. It has clearly caught on and is much more fun to watch than Olympic boxing. I only hope NBC shows a quarter as much TaeKwanDo as they've been showing of boxing. I actually understand some of the scoring in Olympic TaeKwanDo.

jjv said...

Rhodesia? And John McCain gets crap for Czechloslovakia! The people in the country that was Rhodesia don't get enough food to swim, never mind win gold.

Another triumph of decolonization.

Unknown said...

It seems that the gymnastics teams have a chance at 8 medals, team, individual all-around, and each apparatus. "Vitaly Scherbo won six out of the eight possible gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, representing the Unified Team. "

But your point about Phelps is well taken. If you compare what he did to what Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor have done (107 consecutive victories and 68 consecutive matches won) they are just as deserving of 8 medals, but they'll walk away with only one gold medal.

Ralphie said...

Ha! You said, "...small pool of athletes..."!

Anonymous said...

MMA? Don't see how you solve the injury problem that forced the UFC to abandon tournaments. "Competitor forced to withdraw after breaking his hand on his opponent's face" and all that.