Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic musings

They're calling it "The Great Haul of China". In an amazing display of swimming superiority the past week, American Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in Beijing, sweeping all of his events, shattering world records like cheap porcelain plates, and establishing himself in the annals of sports history as one of the greatest Olympians (some would argue THE greatest Olympian) of all time. My brother was at The Water Cube when Phelps grabbed gold #8 as he and his compatriots placed first in the 4x100 medley relay. I had to content myself with watching on TV, and though I'm not a fan of Team USA in general (isn't it enough that they lord it over the rest of the world in all other aspects?), I couldn't help but get goosebumps when Phelps was awarded his medal, along with a special award from FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation). The kid is truly a phenomenon.

Watch Michael Phelps in a TV commercial for Arrow's Ellis Island campaign here.

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Speaking of Team USA, I'm a little peeved at how some American media (e.g. Yahoo, NBC, Fox News) keep putting the US in the top spot in medal tallies just because their total number of medals is higher than China's, even if the host nation has far more golds than the US (as of this writing, 45 to 26). My parents pointed out that it's just like saying a country with 3 bronzes fared better than a country with 2 golds. I don't know if it's arrogance or denial, or both, but whatever the case, it's clear the US is not coming out on top at the Beijing Olympics, and I don't think they'll be getting much sympathy from other countries. Gee, I wonder why.

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This year's Olympic medals have a distinct Oriental touch, with jade rings of different shades accenting each (dark jade for bronze, pale jade for silver, white jade for gold). They're so pretty. I want one.

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Last week, Roger Federer broke my heart by losing to James Blake of the US in the quarterfinals of men's tennis. It wasn't so much that he lost, it was the way he lost. The Fed seemed a different person, playing almost listlessly, like he didn't really want to be there, much less win. I was so disappointed that when it was painfully obvious he was going to lose, I switched channels. I couldn't stand seeing a player I respect so much not even trying, and it was hard to admit to myself that he didn't deserve to win.

It was a good thing Roge redeemed himself in my eyes by playing like himself again in his doubles finals match with fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka against Sweden. After they won match point, Federer was so jubilant he jumped up and down, then smothered Wawrinka in a bear hug that had them both toppling to the ground, laughing and even engaging in a little silly horseplay. It's the first time I've seen Roge act like a kid and take an almost giddy delight in victory.
After the dismal year he's had, losing to Nadal in Wimbledon and crashing out of a couple of non-Major tournaments, and with critics dismissing him as washed-up, I was relieved and happy that he finally got something to celebrate-- his first taste of Olympic gold.

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When Novak Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal in the tennis semis, I was genuinely moved by the emotion he showed at the end of the match. He lost to Nadal in 3 sets, and it was a pretty close fight. On match point, Djokovic dished out 2 overhead smashes which Nadal, through a combination of skill and luck, managed to chase down and return. Djokovic tried for a 3rd overhead slam, but it went long, and the look of anguish on the Serb's face was heart-rending. Djokovic was in tears as he walked off court, and I really felt bad for him, because it was so apparent how badly he had wanted to win. Thus I was very glad he still managed to claim the bronze by beating Blake. During the medal awarding, although gold medalist Nadal was the center of attention, Djokovic was beaming like a light bulb as he stood on the podium, and as he paraded around center court draped in the flag of Serbia. He was practically bursting with national pride and sincere happiness. It's moments like that that I love so much about the Olympics.

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Much hullabaloo has been made about China's female gymnasts' being younger than the 16-year-old age minimum, and even I myself suspect that at least one of them is 14, tops. However, I read a Sports Illustrated online article where one of their senior writers was quoted as saying:

[The age limit in gymnastics] was instituted primarily for the mental health of the athletes. Being 14 and having those Olympic or world championship expectations put on you is unreasonable and very difficult. There's also the question of the physical health of the athletes because their bones are still growing and they are trying--and often completing--these very difficult and complicated tricks.

Which brings me now to this question: how come there is no such age restriction in diving? Great Britain fielded a 14-year old diver, Tom Daley, and all the buzz about him has been nothing but positive, even if he failed to qualify (apparently people find him adorable). If we were to apply the logic that athletes under 16 can't handle the mental and physical strain of competing in the Olympics, then shouldn't all sports set an age limit as well? Why is gymnastics apparently the only one that does so? And if most insiders acknowledge that almost all countries break the rule anyway (possibly with the exception of the self-righteous Americans), then they might want to review the motives behind the rule, their means of enforcing it, and whether or not they should scrap it all together.

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Last night I watched the US women's volleyball team notch a come-from-behind win over Italy. The Americans are being coached by Lang Ping, a former member of the Chinese national volleyball team, whom my dad describes as the best spiker China ever had. I find it funny that in the Olympics, coaches can hail from a country other than the one the team represents. One could say that while players are doing it for the honor of their country, the coaches are merely doing their job. But how much satisfaction can there be for a coach when his team beats his/her native country? Especially in the case of a former national player like Lang, there must be a certain sense of being torn when her players go up against her former team, and perhaps even a pang of guilt if they beat them, just as the Americans prevailed over the Chinese a few days ago. To think that the hometown crowd greeted Lang with a warm round of applause, welcoming one of their own back home. Anyone who's human would surely feel a bit like a traitor in that situation.

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What's in a name? In Usain Bolt's case, everything. Dubbed "Lightning Bolt", the Jamaican sprinter is simply incredible. I saw him win the 100-meter dash, breaking his own record time, and it didn't even appear as if he was exerting much effort. He loped past his competitors in an almost lazy manner, celebrating 20 meters before he crossed the finish line. Some have criticized him (American media, surprise, surprise!) for such "disrespectful" behavior, and while I concede the guy is indeed a cocky showboat, I don't think he meant any disrespect with his actions. That's tantamount to saying the US basketball team disses their opponents every time they do a chest bump after making an awesome dunk, or American football players are being disrespectful when they dance and strut after scoring a touchdown. Bolt may be overconfident, but hey, with his tremendous talent, and after winning the 200 meters today in record time again (and becoming the first to break both the 100-meter and 200-meter records in one Olympics), I think he's earned the right to pound his chest and dance to some reggae, don't you?


At Friday, August 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to CNN: In women's gymnastics, younger teenage girls can have an advantage over older competitors due to their often smaller, more agile bodies and lighter frames.

At Saturday, August 23, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Well everyone knows THAT. But the same thing goes for diving-- having a slim, lithe frame is an advantage. And training for diving is just as rigorous as training for gymnastics, and it puts the same kind of physical and mental strain on a teenager. So how come they haven't instituted an age limit for diving? Or any other sport for that matter? That's what I want to know.

At Sunday, August 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not true. Otherwise, the 8 diving golds will belong to teens. There is a need to set age limit for gymnastics because age provides an advantage in this sport only, and not the others.

At Monday, August 25, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

"There is a need to set age limit for gymnastics because age provides an advantage in this sport only..."

Sorry, but I find that logic flawed. It's like saying there should be a height limit in basketball because being taller gives the athlete an advantage. I think that's precisely the problem: the age limit in gymnastics is there not so much out of a genuine concern for the athletes, but to prevent countries with promising young talent (and Asian and former Soviet countries tend to be more willing to exploit them more than their Western counterparts) from having too much of an advantage.

The FIG CLAIMS the basis for the age rule is to protect the physical and psychological well-being of teenage athletes. I get that. I even partially agree with it. What I don't get is why gymnastics is the only sport making such a big deal out of it, when there are other sports out there who put youngsters through the same kinds of ordeals, yet don't observe an age limit. 14-year old British diver Tom Daley's right eye was twitching like mad up on the 10-meter platform. I felt immensely sorry for the poor kid. But no one hears FINA proposing to institute an age rule.

If the sports federations truly have the athletes' best interests at heart, then they should be consistent across all events, and not just wag their fingers at gymnastics. I find the selective application hypocritical, and the rule itself nothing more than a farce.

At Monday, August 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being young doesn't provide an advantage in any other sport as much as it does to gymnastics. Athletes need time to get faster and stronger. You are perhaps right in saying age limit should be imposed in all sport, but there is no need to do so explicitly. Why bother? Who will field a 14-year old in Track? Only in gymnastics will 12-year olds be all over if not for this limit.

I don't think this is hypocrisy. Athletes train from their teens anyway to become world class by the time their bodies mature. The age limit is probably to discourage countries from finding 6-year olds and concentrate on finding talented 10-year olds instead

At Monday, August 25, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

"Athletes train from their teens anyway to become world class by the time their bodies mature."

Exactly. Which counters the FIG's rationale that they are out to protect teenagers from the physical strain of training in the sport. They're all going to start young anyway. 10, 6, 4... there is no governing body in the world that can stop children from beginning their training early on. The age rule is not just too idealistic, it becomes inconsequential.

IF I were a proponent of the rule, I'd argue the psychological aspect, but then I'd pitch it for ALL sports, not just gymnastics. AND I'd raise the age limit to 18.

And there IS a need to explicitly state it. Chen Ruolin, the Chinese diver who won gold in the women's 10-meter platform competition, is just 15. Tom Daley, 14. The US had some 16-year-olds on their women's swimming team. They even had a 16-year-old girl competing in pentathlon! With the way the human anatomy is evolving over generations (with better nutrition, improved health care, changing environmental factors, etc.), we might soon see some 13-year-old giant playing basketball or lifting weights in the near future. A clear line has to be drawn, or we'll be seeing athletes barely out of puberty having nervous breakdowns up on diving platforms or in the middle of the track.

At Tuesday, August 26, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correct. There are some teens in the Olympics, but they are only a handful of the thousands who performed. Put it in another perspective, only in gymnastics do athletes peak at 14/15. In all other sports, this age is just about foundation.

Training is just traning, and all athletes train. But to train so hard as to peak at 14? That's another story.

At Tuesday, August 26, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I get your point, but I don't think it's an issue of how many teenage athletes there are in other sports, just the mere fact that there ARE, no matter how few. Just because gymnastics is the event most dominated by teens doesn't mean those teens are the only ones that deserve protection.


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