Monday, September 01, 2008

Olympic thoughts

The Opening Ceremony: I thought the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony was magnificent--but at a cost of $300,000,000, they were hardly worth it. That's nearly $30,000 per athlete! Ooops, I forgot. The ceremony isn't for the athletes--they don't enter the stadium until most of it is over. Hopefully they had screens set up in their holding area so they could watch it.

Architecture: The "Bird's Nest" stadium and the swimming building (I refuse to call it a cube, because it's not one) are wonderful. I was a bit surprised at how attractive a lot of the Beijing architecture is. Somehow I expected it to be heavier, more practical than stylish. But even the extremely solid-looking tomb of Mao Tse-tung has playful moving fountains in front.

The NBC coverage: It was pretty good--I'll give them a B, maybe a B+. They handled the time difference quite well, even beyond insisting that events like the swimming finals be held in the morning Beijing time, so they could be shown live in prime time in the U.S. They managed to show the recorded events quite naturally, without pretending it was live. Only once did I notice an announcer giving the results of something that had not yet been broadcast. One problem, though, was NBC's tendency to wait until prime time to show the events that the U.S. athletes did well in. For instance, they showed the rowing finals during the day, except no mention was made of the women's 8 event, which the U.S. boat won. That they saved to show in the evening.

Personally, though, it was a pain avoiding news reports of the results of events that were not yet broadcast. I read the sports section of the newspaper a day late, just to make sure.

The level of NBC's expert commentary varied quite a bit. Some of it was over-technical (like fencing), some was lacking in depth (like gymnastics). Speaking of fencing, I found it impossible to follow. Even with slow motion replays, I couldn't really tell what was happening.

They kept the number of features down--there were just enough to give viewers an occasional break from the events, while still using most of the broadcasts to show the competitions. I was not the least bit surprised that there were no coverage of the living quarters of the average Beijing residents, however--let alone any mention of the rural poverty found throughout most of the country.

I did miss having a daily wrap-up. I suppose that might be difficult with the time difference. The only thing they did each day was to give a medal count.

The competition: Michael Phelps' winning 8 gold medals was tremendous--significantly more difficult than the 7 Mark Spitz won in 1972. For one thing, Spitz only swam the freestyle and the butterfly, while Phelps used all four strokes. Also, Phelps swam 17 races to Spitz's 13, I think it was. But also, I think the level of competition is just a whole lot greater today than it was 36 years ago. There was one factor, never mentioned in the broadcasts, where Phelps had it easier. Spitz completed his feat in the aftermath of the Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes, and there was concern that Spitz, who is Jewish, might also be a target. It was a nice touch, though, for NBC to have Spitz electronically join Phelps in an interview--not that Spitz really had all that much to say, other than to congratulate Phelps.

In a way it was unfortunate that so many of the U.S. teams did so well. Their games took up a huge amount of the broadcasts, and I think coverage of individual events suffered because of that. I never saw a minute of wrestling, a sport I like a lot.

Officiating: As for the officiating, there was far too much controversy, particularly in the judged events. I don't ever remember there being problems with diving in the past, and there weren't any in Beijing, outside of some widely divergent scores occasionally. But gymnastics had some, and boxing was a complete mess. The winter games' figure skating has managed to come up with a pretty good solution to its problems: a change to a somewhat more objective system, and the use a large panel of judges (14, I think) from which a computer blindly picks a smaller number to actually use. Gymnastics would greatly benefit from a similar system. However, there would be a problem: gymnastics has multiple events going on simultaneously, 6 for the men, 4 for the women. So you'd need a huge number of judges, and I doubt there are that many who have enough experience judging world-class competitions.

To its credit, gymnastics has made some changes. It has made the judging criteria more objective. And quite some time ago it went to "neutral judging." All of the judges are from countries that do not have athletes competing in that event. But from that a different problem arises--although the possibility of biased judges has decreased, neutral judging increases the possibility of incompetent judges. Simply put, if a country is not able to develop gymnasts good enough to compete at the Olympics, it may not be able to develop judges that are good enough to officiate there. At the very least, they probably will not have been seeing very much of the Olympic-level skills back in their home countries. I think this was the reason it took so long for some of the scores to arrive sometimes, particularly in the early days--the "technical committee," which does have officials from the competing countries, were checking the judges' scores to make sure that at least the objective part was done correctly.

Then there's boxing. Without getting into the question of whether it belongs in the Olympics at all, its judging system just doesn't work right. They tried to make it objective, but what they came up with is totally inadequate. Five judges are arranged around the ring. Each has a button for each fighter, and they are supposed to push the button for a contestant when he lands a legal punch. If three of the five judges push the button for a fighter within one second, he gets a point. Fine. But the problem is that very often one, two, sometimes even three of the judges are not able to actually see where a punch lands--the fighters' bodies, or the referee, is blocking their view. The result is that many good punches result in no score. My prescription: increase the number of judges. Put two (or even three) on each side of the ring, so more of them will have an unobstructed view at any one time. Then score a point if half of them push the button within a second.

Miscellaneous: The Beijing Olympics were far more spectator-friendly than the Montreal games that I attended in 1976. The announcers in the venues were far more informative than we had. Except for the main stadium, none of the venues had viewing screens in 1976, and even the one there (this was one of the first ones anywhere) showed no replays). We had no cheerleaders at basketball games (forget about the bikini-clad dancers at beach volleyball--the sport wasn't in the Olympics in 1976 (Was it even an organized sport back then?)). We didn't have a pre-show to entertain us before the actual Opening and Closing Ceremonies took place. We were required to arrive an hour early, and then twiddle our thumbs.

Natalie Coughlin had the best smile of the entire games.

Sometime since 1976, I think fairly recently, gymnastics changed its competition format somewhat. First, they eliminated the compulsory exercises in the team competition. It got extremely boring watching gymnast after gymnast do the exact same thing, especially since these exercises were rather easy compared to the optional ones they did in the competition. (And with the women's floor exercise, they all used the same music!) Also, previously all of the athletes competed on all of the apparatuses (apparati?--I guess not) in the team competition. Now they have specialists. This has increased the average skill of the athletes actually competing (though I suspect is has made the selection of the team members a whole lot more difficult).

The floor they use for the gymnastics floor exercises is a whole lot more bouncy than it was in 1976, I think.

I looked at the website the first night of competition, but almost never after that. Besides my not wanting to find out the results of events that were going to be televised later, the live broadcasts on the web had no audio commentary, and very little visual either.

I never had the time nor the inclination to look at NBC's auxiliary channels very much. They had channels for basketball, soccer and boxing, plus one general one, all in high-definition, using MSNBC and CNBC among others. In addition, they occasionally had broadcasts on other channels--for instance, they had a couple of hours of the equestrian events on the Oxygen Channel, at least some of the days.

I doubt all of the Chinese women gymnasts are 16 years old as the current rules require, but I'm not sure they should have such a rule. I'd rather see minimum height and/or weight rules--that might reduce the over-emphasis on tumbling skills that we currently see. They certainly would be easier to enforce.

It was great watching the U.S. men's basketball team, the "Redeem Team," win the gold, after its bronze medal performance in 2004. It was great watching all these millionaire superstars put the team first and themselves second--especially the ones that rarely were used in the game. And it was very classy of them to drape their medals around their coach's neck for a team picture--coaches don't get a medal, only the athletes themselves.

My "Olympic records": The number of hits my glob got from people looking for information on Mary Carillo was huge--nearly 15,000 over the course of the two weeks. Each day about 95% of my visitors went directly to my Mary Carillo lesbian? post. The single day high: 2,228. (This last week it went down, of course, but there was still some residual Carillo effect. And it went back into triple figures yesterday, as she's now back here in New York, broadcasting from the U.S. Open.)

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