Olympic Soup — London Style


My favorite Olympic quote so far came this morning from Allen St. John at Salon: “Over the first weekend, I’ve watched equestrian, dressage, women’s table tennis, women’s fencing, archery, bicycle racing, volleyball, team hand ball, and men’s water polo. It’s like Wide World of Sports on steroids.

“Just this afternoon I learned that when you shoot over the goalie in water polo, it’s called a bunny, that it’s really, really hard to get a dressage horse to just walk in a straight line, and watched a one-armed Polish table tennis player quietly compete against able-bodied rivals without a tenth of the hype surrounding amputee track star Oscar Pistorious.”

Myself, I’m wondering what the ratings were like for dressage and whether anyone would have watched it at all if not for a cameo from the Romneys. Or, perhaps, I should say for the inevitable endless David Letterman bits on “horse dancing.”

When I went to camp, I was pretty good at archery, but our bows look
nothing like the ones they now use in Olympic competition. I went to a
tough camp; we were given axes, told to go into the woods and carve our
own bows. For bow strings we used strips of intestines from a moose
we had hunted and killed ourselves. All this crap they’ve got on them
now – rods, and tubes and stabling screws. What a bunch of wimps. And
the Italians, of all nations, win the gold in archery. Jennifer Lawrence
didn’t need any of those gizmos in The Hunger Games, and neither did Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in “The Avengers.”

I think to have a genuine Olympic competition you should have to make
your own bow in a style unique to your nation. The Brits should have to
use the Robin Hood-type longbow, Chinese and Mongols should have to
come up with a collapsible bow that Asian horse archers perfected, and
Italians should be required to use the cross bow their ancestors
invented in the Middle Ages. Americans should have to use some kind of
bow peculiar to American Indians (only with artificial feathers because
I’ve heard most of the birds they used are now endangered. I’ve sent
this plan to the IOC over the years, but it always falls on deaf ears).

Of all the sports I don’t follow until I watch the Olympics, I think
gymnastics are, far and away, the most thorough, strenuous, and
beautiful of all athletic endeavors. For sheer physical virtuosity it
surpasses everything else in all the competitions. Nothing seems so
impossible as those triple turns on the high bar; every time I see it I
wonder “What must that have been like the first time he or she did
that?” What courage it must take to try that for the first time. A
diver isn’t risking his life the first time he tries a triple
somersault. But a gymnast, damn, you could break anything in your body –
including your neck – because of the tiniest slip-up.

This is why it was so heartbreaking watching our men’s and women’s
teams screw up. I say screw-up because even the worst gymnastic
performance – by Olympics standards – still places the gymnast in the
top 12 or 15 in the world. But fifth place for the American men? How did
that happen? We were supposed to be competing with the Chinese for
gold, and we ended up two spaces behind the Brits?

Our two top men, Danell Leyva and New York’s John Orozco, ranked fourth
going into today’s competition, seemed oddly out of kilter and had
serious trouble on the pommel horse. How bad were they (relative to the
other athletes)? Well, I only watch gymnastics every four years, and it
was obvious to me.

But why did they falter so badly? Why did they fail to live up to such
high expectations? Nothing in the analysis, even when their
performances were replayed in slo0mot, could explain it. That’s what
bugs me about so much Olympic commentary. Too many commentators make it
sound like it’s all heart and magic and the will to win; they never say
something like “The Chinese believe in starting slowly and accelerating
midway through the performance” or “The Americans don’t have proper
wrist technique when dismounting the pommel.” Stuff like that.

The most baffling failure, though – in fact the one that’s going to
hurt most when we add up the medals — Jordyn Wieber missing the
all-around finals in women’s gymnastics. A number of critics are now
bemoaning the fact that Aly Raisman is now our best hope because of the
rule restricting each country to just two competitors.

Yes, there are probably better U.S. women’s gymnasts than Raisman who
aren’t even on the team – Elizabeth Price, who finished 4th in the
Olympic trials, didn’t make our five-member team because of a
technicality. Yes, our own rules should be changed to include the best
all-around gymnasts. But even after that happens, it won’t explain how
an athlete of Wieber’s caliber performed so poorly.

The best Olymoic writer I’ve found, Bill Oram of the Salt Lake City Tribune,
described her performance: “There was a step out of bounds on the vault
and a break in form on the uneven bars, and Wieber never quite seemed
to achieve balance on the beam. On the final rotation, the floor
exercise, she stepped beyond the corner boundary. (That’s how I would
have written it if my eye was as sharp as Oram’s).

Anyone can have an off-day, but I can’t remember an Olympics when three
top American athletes all failed, badly, to live up to expectations
within 24 hours.

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