Sunday, August 24, 2008

XXIX Olympics Wrap-up

With the Olympic closing ceremony taking place right now -- or having already taken place many hours ago, if you're going by reality, rather than NBC's TV schedule -- it seems as though these Games might be remembered as much for scandal and poor sportsmanship as much as Michael Phelps or the beautiful opening ceremony.

--Of course, the whole Olympics began under a cloud with the fatal stabbing of a former Olympic volleyballer's father. Way to put your best foot forward, China.

--Jamaican Usain Bolt caused a stir by showboating across the finish line in his record-breaking performance in the 100 meter dash. Closing in on the tape, Bolt looked around at the other sprinters, and actually slowed down to gesture at the crowd and thump his chest. Some would defend it as playful athletic enthusiasm, and I am certainly not against an athlete enjoying himself while becoming the fastest man alive. But you celebrate after the race. To slow down during the race: to me that's taunting, plain and simple, and that's being a poor sport.

--Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian discarded his bronze medal on the mat during the medal ceremony. He was then disqualified and stripped of his medal. He was protesting a disputed call in an earlier match, which lost him a chance at the gold, and more specifically he was protesting being denied a review of the call. Judges later ruled that his objections were correct, and he should have been allowed to challenge the ruling. But by that point, after having to be restrained from going after the officials in that match, and dropping the medal, he had so thoroughly violated the spirit of the Olympics that there was no question he deserved to be DQ'd.

--Another athlete succeeded in going after the officials: Cuban taekwando competitor Angel Matos and his coach were banned for life after Matos pushed a judge, then pushed and kicked a referee in the face. The ref had disqualified Matos for exceeding the injury time limit. His coach, Leudis Gonzalez, rather than offering any kind of apology afterward, instead charged that the match was fixed, and that the Kazakh team had tried to bribe him. All this accompanied controversial calls in at least two other matches. Taekwando is a borderline sport at the Olympics; after Beijing, I wouldn't expect to see the sport return in 2012.

--Gymnastics were rife with controversy, with questions about both the judging and certain athletes' ages. The rules and point values seem to have been followed accurately, but that still didn't stop a huge uproar being raised when American Alicia Sacramone finished fourth in the vault behind Chinese competitor Cheng Fei, who landed on her knees rather than her feet. Similar rule-following generated similar protests when Chinese He Kexin and American Nastia Liukin received tie scores on the uneven parallel bars, but only He won the gold after an obscure tie-breaking rule was invoked. And China denied that at least three members of their team were too young to compete, in spite of overwhelming evidence that He Kexin is only 14, two years under the age limit of 16.

--And of course there were the usual doping violations, including North Korean shooter Kim Jong Su, Spanish cyclist Maria Isabel Moreno, Ukrainian heptathlete Lyudmila Blonska and Vietnamese gymnast Thi Ngan Thuong Do.

--I've read and heard a lot of complaints, almost entirely from Americans, about the judged competitions being unfairly biased in favor of the Chinese. No real evidence that I've seen has been offered to justify these claims, other than the bitterness Americans feel when other countries best us in the Olympics. It's not enough that America has more medals than any other country; we need to have more gold medals than any other country to be satisfied. And if I'm not mistaken, the final count will be China with 51 golds, the U.S. with merely 36, 13 ahead of next-closest Russia. Bizarre, misguided claims that America would win the "real" gold medal count (or at least have been much closer) if sports requiring judging were discounted seem to be popping up everywhere, which I think demean both China and America, as well as the Olympics as a whole. There's enough weirdness out of these Beijing games without Americans spoiling things more by being poor winners.

And still, these was plenty to cheer and be touched by in these Olympics, from countries like Mongolia and India winning their first ever gold (or individual gold, respectively) medals, to U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson being gracious and respectful about winning silver while American journalists and fans carped about the judging and expressed disappointment in Johnson for failing to achieve gold (even though she eventually did get a gold), to German weightlifter Matthias Steiner holding up a picture of his wife, killed in a car accident last year, during the medal ceremony, to, yes, Michael goddam Phelps.

I didn't get to see nearly as much of the Games this year as I would have liked, but even with my limited viewing, and NBC's best efforts to make that limited viewing experience awkward, confusing, untimely and unsatisfying, I enjoyed it, as I always do. See you in Vancouver in 2010!

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