Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Note to Readers + Olympic Withdrawal Syndrome

I want to begin by thanking all J's Theater's readers. I haven't done this in a while, and these are slow days, but the site stats state that people are dropping in, mostly from the US, Canada and the UK, but also from other parts of the globe (most recently and most frequently, Russia, France, Indonesia, Ukraine, and India, which amazes me), so I appreciate it. I also wanted to let readers know that because I've instituted Ghostery (which blocks Net trackers) in two of my primary browsers, I cannot seem to comment on posts. I had figured out a way around this by allowing Google Friends and Google Connect to pursue me without hindrance, but that no longer seems to work. If anyone has any suggestions, do let me know. I can read your comments, but I haven't been able to respond for months.


All around women's artistic gymnastics gold medalist Gabby Douglas
As is always the case every four years when the Summer Olympics roll around, I say I'm going to watch only a few events and not get sucked into the vortex of compulsive viewing, and then, when the two weeks of competition are over, I feel hung over, or perhaps more accurately, feel withdrawal symptoms. Until 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, there will be no more Olympic track and field races. There will be no more Olympic men's and women's artistic gymnastics. There will be no more Olympic men's and women's tennis, or road racing, or track cycling, or swimming, or rowing, or any of the other sports I love to watch.  There won't even be any more Olympic diving or women's beach volleyball--Hallelujah! But today I even miss the three-time US champions in that sport, although I really wish we saw a bit less of them and a bit more of some of the other sports, smaller though their viewership may be.

The world's fastest man ever, Jamaican Usain Bolt
Like many others across the Net I found myself complaining about NBC's TV and Net coverage, which was alternately excessively jingoistic, infuriating, infantilizing, sentimental, soporific, and as the awful video focusing on women's bodies exemplified, just plain sexist and misogynistic. It began with the annoying delayed broadcast of the opening ceremony, which I enjoyed (it felt very British; I mean, what positive things is the UK commonly known for? Its royalty, its long, continuous successful government, its monarchy, its extraordinary literary contributions, its amazing contributions to contemporary popular music, its mostly successful multicultural aftermath to its brutal colonial and imperial history) and mostly grew worse. There was the incessant focus only on American athletes and on those sports that the US teams and individual competitors were most likely to earn gold medals in. There were the human interest stories that were tiresome 20 years ago--we can look this stuff up online, NBC!, there's a thing called the Google, and another thing called the Wikipedia, and...--and still are. There were those extremely grating Mary Carrillo outings hither and thither, that simply ate up time that NBC could have devoted to, oh, sports! And then there was that interminable, maudlin Tom Brokaw paean to Britain's steadfast response to the German threat of invasion during World War II. (Why oh why do we ever have to see or even hear clips of you-know-who? Just. Stop. Giving. AH. Airtime. Stop. It!)

Gold medalists Mexico celebrate their victory over Brazil in the men's soccer final

Perhaps it all had to do with money. I took that to be the rationale behind the sports it showed in prime time and late at night (which was always better). The best aspect of NBC's offerings, however, turned out to be the streaming video. Yes, there were commercials every 15 seconds--or however long it was--but the quality, at least on my home cable modem connection--was quite good, and I could watch any sports in real time. I did this for a few, like men's and women's artistic gymnastics. Mostly I checked Yahoo! and the London Olympics 2012 website, which was so easily to read and follow, listed all the athletes, times and results, and should be the model for future games.
Félix Sánchez of the Dominican Republic, after winning 400 m hurdle gold
I won't recount the numerous highlights, since they've been amply covered, but I will list a few of my favorite moments. First, there was the incredible performance by the US women athletes; they accounted for the majority, I believe, of the US's 104 total medals, especially the golds. Congratulations to them, and of course to all the competitors at the games. Congratulations also to host UK, for pulling off a drama-and-terror-free extravaganza, from start to finish, and for also achieving its astonishing medal haul. Among the individual athletes, perhaps my favorite was 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, who became the first African American woman to win the gold in the women's artistic gymnastics all around, and the women's team also taking the gold. I still get a little choked up about the former achievement, and Douglas has been a delight to watch since. I hope she inspires many other young people to keep pushing even when, as was the case for her family, it was an incredible financial and logistical trial to keep going.

Louis Smith of Great Britain, on the pommel horse; the UK team took bronze

I also must give props to Michael Phelps, who, despite the hype, really showed what a champion is, by coming back and winning even more golds and other medals, in individual and relay races, and setting a standard that probably won't be equaled anytime soon. There was main man Usain Bolt, who despite the naysayers blew past his competition in record time in the 100 m and 200 m, and with his Jamaican teammates, set another record in the 4 x 100. I was as riveted by all the American women runners too: Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, Sanya Richards Ross, and the rest, who won their races and relays, and let the world know that even if the male athletes weren't keeping pace, they were ready to set it. Double amputee Oscar Pistorius showed tremendous heart in his races, getting as far as the finals in the men's 400 m and 4x400m, while American Manteo Mitchell ran a leg of the 4x400m prelims with a broken leg, yet did not give up, helping the US men to advance to the next round.

The women's 4x100 record-setting relay team
I loved that some older athletes also did wonderfully at the games. There was Dominican American Félix Sánchez, now 35, winning the 400 m hurdles again for DR, reprising his 2004 gold in Athens, after having faltered badly in 2008 as his grandmother was dying. He broke down after winning and was so shaken with joy that he could not stop crying on the medal stand. Also, Kristin Armstrong, at age 39, returned and won a second gold in the women's cycling road individual time trial. There was Serena Williams, now 30 and a Grand Slam tennis winner (with five singles titles at the Australian Open, 1 single title at the French Open, five Wimbledon titles, and 3 US Opens) earning her first gold in women's singles, and then returning the next day to win the doubles gold with her sister, tennis champion Venus Williams, now 32.
Kirani James of Grenada celebrates his victory in the men's 400 m finals
Some newbies also took surprising golds. There was American Jordan Burroughs, from Camden, New Jersey, who defeated his Iranian challenger, Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi, to win a gold in the 74 kg freestyle competition. There was 19-year-old Kirani James, of tiny Grenada, winning the men's 400 meters, a race Americans have long dominated. In another surprising outcome, 19-year-old Trinidadian Keshorn Walcott received the gold medal in the men's javelin throw. A number of young American women took golds, silvers and bronzes in swimming, including 15-year-olds (!) Katy Ledecky (US) in the 800m freestyle, and Ruta Meilutye (Lithuania) in the 100m breaststroke, and 16-year-old Ye Shiwen (China) in the women's 200m and 400m individual medleys. A US coach, however, cast Ye's victories in doubt, publicly questioning whether she had been doping, which enraged many Chinese officials and fans. Several athletes were sent packing for doping, including one for having (accidentally, he claimed) ingesting a little weed. Uh huh. Though the gymnastics judging required some redos, bringing a silver to the Japanese men's team and pushing the British into bronze status, and a bronze as well to American Natalia Raisman in the floor exercises final, the shakiest sport this time through appeared to be boxing, where some of the officials calls looked more than subjective, and accusations have since flown about possible match fixing.
The finals in the women's keirin race, which Briton Victoria Pendleton won
I'll end by recounting a response to a friend and fellow sports lover who was questioning the relevance of one particular competition, equestrian dressage. Why, he asked me on the phone, was this elitist sport--one could easily throw sailing and a number of others, including diving into this category--still part of the Olympics? Only rich people had ever been interested in and could afford to do it, as he put it. Perhaps he was reacting to the brouhaha surrounding Rafalca, the horse owned by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife Ann. I don't know. But I pointed out to him that in fact dressage had a much older history; it was the purview of infantry officers as much as the aristocracy, going back centuries. I was reminded as we spoke of a question I always asked my Northwestern undergraduate introduction fiction writing students whenever we read the opening of Anton Chekhov's famous story "The Kiss": "What," I will often say to them, followed by some prompting, "is he describing." Almost none of them, except the few who ride horses regularly, knew. Here is the Chekhov quote (translator unknown):

At eight o'clock on the evening of the twentieth of May all the six batteries of the N---- Reserve Artillery Brigade halted for the night in the village of Myestetchki on their way to camp. When the general commotion was at its height, while some officers were busily occupied around the guns, while others, gathered together in the square near the church enclosure, were listening to the quartermasters, a man in civilian dress, riding a strange horse, came into sight round the church. The little dun-coloured horse with a good neck and a short tail came, moving not straight forward, but as it were sideways, with a sort of dance step, as though it were being lashed about the legs. When he reached the officers the man on the horse took off his hat and said:

     "His Excellency Lieutenant-General von Rabbek invites the gentlemen to drink tea with him this minute. . . ."

     The horse turned, danced, and retired sideways; the messenger raised his hat once more, and in an instant disappeared with his strange horse behind the church.

In this opening section, I let them know, Chekhov not only tells you what's going on, with concrete facts and details, but he shows you who you're dealing with. That horse "moving not straight forward, but as it were sideways, with a sort of dance step, as though it were being lashed about the legs," and which "turned, danced, and retired sideways," is an emissary of a military officer, an aristocrat, Lt.-General von Rabbe[c]k, and is performing dressage. Chekhov could have just used this term or its Russian equivalent, but instead, he describes, and thus shows, the gentility of the officer extending the invitation. This officer's home will be the site of the accident that transforms, at least momentarily, the story's protagonist, as all readers of "The Kiss" know.

Yonemitsu of Japan celebrates his victory against Kumar of India during the men's 66 kg freestyle wrestling final
Where am I going with this? There are sports, like track and field, wrestling and rowing, that probably date back to the oldest Olympics games.  Few of us ride horses regularly or can afford to, but in the long history of human existence, horses, like dogs, cats, cows, pigs, chickens, and a few other species, have been beside us every step of the way. What now seems very elitist once had specific meaning and importance, and we ought not forget this. Moreover, like Chekhov, in London, at least for two weeks, athletes from all over the world didn't just tell us what they could do, that they--we--could compete side by side without rancor or enmity--but they showed us, for the most part, the best of what human beings can do in competition and working together, whether competing on a BMX track or in a kayak on whitewater rapids or on a soccer field. It's four years till Rio, and it's going to be an impatient wait for me!

1 comment:

  1. I, too, was an Olympics junkie. I share your feelings about the NBC broadcast. I thought I would at least be able to catch some of what was not aired, On Demand, but they kept that "lean" as well. I have to give a mention to my John Orozco, of the men's gymnastics squad, who although he didn't perform as well as he would have liked, still inspired me with the amount of heart he has. We'll see him in 2016!