As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been watching the Olympic trials. Well, almost exclusively the women’s gymnastics competition. By the way, does it freak anybody else out that some of the track and field events had to be postponed yesterday until the heat abated to a bearable level? In Oregon? Not good.
Anyway, every time the Games are opened or closed, the chosen speaker’s remarks invariably include lines about bringing the best athletes from all over the world to compete honorably, for the sheer sake of sport, and so on. What any viewer knows is that the actual purpose of any country’s involvement is to WIN MEDALS, preferably as many as possible. And, in the cases of several long-time rivalries, to beat the Russians, or the Canadians, or the Chinese, or the French or Brazilians. The goal is most definitely not to amass participation points, although I think the Jamaican bobsled team should hold the crown there, in perpetuity.
I get it that the Olympic motto is Citius – Altius – Fortius, meaning, “ Faster – Higher – Stronger.” Athletes in the Games should strive to be the best they possibly can. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I can’t speak for the mindset of any other nation, but I’ve watched the Games all my life, and paid close attention to all the commentary from the American side, for the sole reason of understanding the nuances and criteria of any given sport (is there a point deduction if a runner knocks over a hurdle?). As it is with any [U.S.] sport, the commentary is all about rooting for “our” team. I understand, up to a point, but if the Games are held to celebrate the various sports, isn’t it about the individual performances, regardless of the athletes’ nationalities? I mean, if I’m at a baseball game, and a player from the opposing team makes a spectacular catch or hits a grand slam, I’m enthusiastic in my applause, ’cause whoever he plays for, the guy did something way cool. Obviously, I’m not popular in the home team’s cheering section, but I believe in credit where it’s due. I mean, I was outraged when the Canadian figure skating pairs team lost out in 2002, when their performance was better than the gold medalists’ (I know this because there are skating judges in my husband’s family). I was very happy to see the allegations upheld that the judging was fixed, and then the rightful granting of co-gold medals to the Canadians. Even though they weren’t Americans, I took umbrage at the original unfairness. As a corollary here, it has always annoyed me that U.S. network coverage of the Games consistently omits all sports in which the U.S. does not compete, or, even worse, does not have a chance at a medal. Aren’t all the disciplines supposed to be equal? We decide not to cover the javelin throw, for instance, because our only participant is Tom Smith, and he’s ranked #15 in the world? Singularly tacky.
But, to specifics, and the issue that perturbs me about the selection of athletes. I realize it costs money to send teams to the Games. Given the vast opportunities for corporate sponsorships, however, I don’t believe funding is the obstacle. Greed for medals is what governs the compositions of the teams. Friday night and last night (6/25 and 6/27), I had the thrill of viewing women’s gymnastics excellence. The announcers made it a point to assert repeatedly that the United States has medals locked in. I saw so many extraordinary maneuvers, I ran out of superlatives. The cameras didn’t scruple to focus in on the tears at a missed dismount or the exuberance of a nailed somersault series. Thanks to the commentators’ research, I learned that so-and-so had won a national championship on such-and-such apparatus, or this or that woman had suffered an injury; some of them, multiple injuries, and yet, there they were, infinitely devoted to their sport, performing their hearts out. At the end, when a woman took an awful fall during her floor exercise and had to be helped off the platform, she got a standing ovation as she struggled to walk upright between two coaches. THAT is what it’s supposed to be about.
Nevertheless, only a few can go to Tokyo, those who are most likely to end up on the podium and thus bring glory to our country. In my view, that’s just wrong. The scoreboards tracked the standings throughout the trials, with the commentators explaining in detail what the numbers meant. Frequently, upon a woman’s turn at a particular specialty, her national ranking was displayed, down to, I believe, 15th in the country. At the conclusion of the trials, there was a half-hour of inane chatter from the analysts, while the decision of the judges as to the “wild card” participants was formulated. Then, just in time to squeak in before the 11:00 news, to much fanfare, the primary team going to Tokyo was announced, along with several alternates, just in case. The top two slots had long since been filled, according to the accumulation of points; the drama surrounded the remainder of the slots, the choices of athletes determined behind closed doors, per some arcane judges’ criteria. Taken into consideration was each candidate’s performances in a selected combination of events: balance beam, vault, uneven parallel bars, etc. Meaning that, for example, someone who had a high score on the vault but for whom the bars weren’t a strength….didn’t make the cut. The woman who performed next-to-last in floor exercise had a stunning set of movements, hit all her tumbling passes on the mark, and scored well. But, as that was her only stand-out, she’s going to the Games as one of the “in case” team members.
My question—admittedly rhetorical—is this: why not let that woman go to Tokyo and compete in floor exercise? Period. Let the #5 woman in the country compete in the vault, and so on, even if any given woman only enters in one specialty. Take as many athletes as the structure of the competition will allow. Each of the women I watched during those two nights had devoted as much time to training, had worked as hard as the headliners, those darlings of the press (not to take anything away from those stars, of course), had agonized and been injured, and essentially given her all for her sport. But because of the obsession over medal counts, over winning, a whole list of women had their hopes dashed, and all their time, energy, and expenses come to naught. I realize I’m figuratively cheering for the opposition again, but it seems to me that the mindset of making winning the only thing is contrary to the spirit of the Games, as expressed by the orations of the VIPs who so ceremoniously open and close the proceedings.