Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thoughts on the Olympics

Random observations as the Beijing Olympics come to an end:

Bottom line, it’s great to see the U.S. atop the medal count.

I don’t remember the British being anywhere near this successful in the past. They finished fourth in the standings, ahead of perennial powers Australia and Germany.

The superiority of the Jamaican sprinters was the most dazzling spectacle of these games (sorry, Michael Phelps).

Though the U.S. once ruled the sprinting world, Caribbeans have been dethroning us for two decades and the dethroning is now complete. Even the great Canadians from the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s, who had lots of success against the U.S., were born in the Caribbean.

It may make us angry that the Chinese appear to be cheating when it comes to how old their female gymnasts are, but let’s face it: That is a large part of what makes the Olympics so energizing. Without all those years of East German steroid controversies and figure skating judging controversies – not to mention the scandalous way the 1972 basketball gold was stolen from the U.S. – we would not care about (or pay attention to) the Olympics as much as we do.

The U.S. women dominate basketball even more than the U.S. men used to.

And speaking of basketball, the U.S. men would regain their dominance if they simply got back to playing as a team and rediscovered how to shoot from the outside. Compared to 2004, they’ve already made significant progress on the first issue, so hopefully they’ll start making progress on the second.

I have mixed emotions about the dismal performance of U.S. boxers in these games. Since the modern Olympics began 112 years ago, the U.S. has won more boxing medals (109) than any other country, and our list of gold medalists includes such luminaries as Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard. But this year the U.S. managed just one bronze, and there’s no denying that American boxing has been declining for years while countries such as Cuba have been on the rise. This seems to support two theories that are closely related: 1) that disadvantaged populations tend to produce the best boxers, and 2) that America’s best athletes no longer go into boxing because they have better opportunities available to them. If either of those is true, it says something good about present-day America, even if we don’t like seeing our guys absent from the medal stand.

Lastly, whenever someone says politics have no place in the Olympics because the Olympics are all about sports, I shake my head at their naivety. The Olympics have always been more about politics than sports. This is true even of the Olympic torch relay, which was invented by the Nazis as a way to depict Aryan dynamism. Olympic medal counts have always been tabulated by nation, with the flags of only the medaling countries being raised during the medals ceremonies - and with the only national anthem played during each ceremony being that of the gold medal winner.

And on the same topic, do you notice how the only Olympic rivalries that remain in long-term memory are between athletes whose nations are rivals? The Miracle On Ice is remembered not because the U.S. hockey team beat Finland for the gold, but because the juggernaut they beat en route to the gold medal game was the U.S.S.R. Had that juggernaut been Sweden, America's gold would have been just as incredible but nowhere near as legendary.

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