1. The Olympics, London 2012: a postscript

    Olympics_closing_ceremony

    I am sorry to see the London Olympics end. It was a jolly old time: lots of surprises, lots of upsets, lots of new friends. Glad about so many things:

     

    ·       Glad to see Michael Phelps win his eighty-two medals and announce his retirement, which means we don’t have to look at his ugly sub-primate face anymore, except maybe in Subway Sandwich advertisements.

    ·       Glad, in a different way, to see Usain Bolt (from a much smaller country than Michael Phelps) prove once again that he’s the fastest runner in the world, and be smug about it, and we’ll probably see him again in 2016, and he will be at least three times as smug, and probably even faster.

    ·       Glad to see lots of smaller / less populous countries win medals of all kinds: Grenada, Mexico, Tunisia, Ireland, Slovenia.  (Grenada, with its one gold medal, has the most gold medals per capita of any country in world. In your face, Michael Phelps!)

     

    (Which reminds me: I truly want to see India win a gold medal one of these days. They’ve never won a gold, in all these years. It will be madness in Chennai and Mumbai when that day comes.)

     

    The London closing ceremony, like the opening ceremony, was controlled chaos, slathered with lots of music. The opening ceremony was meant to be thought about, and talked about. This closing ceremony was just meant to be fun. (There’s a very heavy message in listening to The Who – the members of which are in their sixties at least – sing “My Generation.”  It makes me feel strange. Isn’t there a line in there that says “Hope I die before I get old”? Doesn’t Roger Daltrey feel funny when he sings that?)

     

    Also Eric Idle, leading a huge chorus of everything and everyone imaginable (including nuns and Roman soldiers) in “Look On the Bright Side of Life,” from the Python movie “Life of Brian.” This bookended the Rowan Atkinson “Chariots of Fire” number in the opening ceremony, with that kind of deranged I-don’t-care British humor that the world has come to cherish. And it turned into a singalong with the audience!

     

    And then Boris Johnson, the highly peculiar Mayor of London, handed over the Olympic flag to Jacques Rogge, who handed it over to Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, where the 2016 Olympics will take place.

     

    (Can you imagine what that opening ceremony will look like?  We had glimpses: there was a samba spectacular, and Pele made an appearance! And one of the performers was dressed as the Santeria goddess Yemanja, goddess of the sea!)

     

    See you in Rio, kids!

     

    (If I live that long.)


     

     
  2. Again with the Olympics

    Kirani

    Are you bored with the Olympics yet? Not me! It’s been a thrill a minute. Not so much the events, which I find mostly pretty dull. But the stories, egad, the stories!

     

    Roll the presses:

     

    Two brothers from Yorkshire won (respectively) the gold and bronze medals in the triathlon. (No, I didn’t know what the triathlon was either. It’s an endurance event, something like the American Iron Man events; contestants have to swim, and run, and cycle, in quick succession.) The UK is over the moon about this. According to Oma, my informant who lives in Luton, not far from London, the brothers wanted to cross the finish line simultaneously, but were told they couldn’t.  (Have you heard about this? Me neither, until Oma tipped me off, and then I read an article in the Financial Times on Wednesday morning. I know: we care mostly about American athletes, and NBC figures we couldn’t care less about a couple of nice young men from Yorkshire. But what a story!)

     

    A weightlifter from Germany dropped the barbell on himself. It was a pretty horrible scene: a German athlete, Matthias Steiner (who won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008), was hoisting 432 pounds over his head, and his arms buckled, and the weight came down on top of him. It gave me pause. Some of these events are dangerous. You can at least sprain or injure yourself while weightlifting (for example), and at worst you can actually drop a huge weight on yourself, as happened here. Remember the poor young Georgian in Vancouver, Nodar Kumaritashvili, only twenty-one years old, who wiped out on the luge and died of his injuries? Remember poor young Greg Louganis, who hit his head on the diving board back in 1988? He said it didn’t hurt that much, but I cannot imagine hitting your head on a diving board while spinning around in the air feels all that great. (There are certain events that carry little risk of personal injury; table tennis comes to mind. Yes, I know, things can still happen while playing table tennis, but – you know? I could go in the kitchen right now to make a sandwich, and slip, and hit my head on the counter.)

     

    The beach volleyball matches have turned into the hot ticket at the London games. A FT columnist wrote a very funny column on Wednesday about the matches: it’s like a party, everyone in the stands is drinking and having fun, there are dancers on the floor of the arena between matches, and the announcer is more like a party DJ. Now: don’t you wish you were there, even though you don’t care two bits for volleyball?

     

    Grenada has a gold medal. Remember Grenada? The USA invaded it in 1983, for some reason I don’t quite remember. Well, they have a gold medalist, Kirani James, in the men’s 400-meter. The whole island has gone properly insane, and was given a half-day holiday to celebrate. (I remember, when I was in Morocco in 1984, we (Moroccans) won two gold medals. The country went berserk. I was in Casablanca on the day the athletes came home from Los Angeles, and it was proper bedlam. It puts Michael Phelps’s smirking about winning seventy-five medals into perspective. Who cares if you’re a medal-winning freak from a country that always wins anyway? We like to see the less-represented countries win. It’s kind of what the Olympics are all about. Right?)

     

    Iceland keeps trying to win a gold medal in handball. I will not even try to tell you the backstory on this one. Here’s the outline: Iceland has had a hard time over the past couple of years, economic collapse, blah blah blah. They won the silver medal in handball in Beijing in 2008. (There is a museum in Reykjavik which displays a sculpture called “The Icelandic Handball Team”; it’s a set of full-sized silver penises, which denote national pride.) Iceland was hell-bent to win gold this year. As of this writing, they have lost their chance. But they are doughty. And there’s always 2016, providing the Maya are wrong about this whole end-of-the-world thing

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    Swans win gold in London. From Wednesday’s FT: “London is now so obsessed with the Olympics the very wildlife turned to imitation: on the Serpentine a five-strong group of swans broke away from a peloton of Canada geese.

     

     

    Even the swans and geese are getting into it.

     

     

    As Oma, in Luton, wrote to me the other day: “It’s been a great games so far and I’m loving it, loving it, loving it.”


     
  3. Olympics update, dateline August 7, 2012

    Pistorius-and-little-girl

    I am enjoying the Olympics this summer.  They are chock-full of peculiar stories, and give me many a laugh and tear.

     

    For example:

     

    There was a badminton scandal. Apparently, eight players from South Korea, Indonesia, and China were throwing their own matches, in order to play against (and presumably beat) lower-ranked teams. The press threw up a couple of images of indignant badminton players, which were pretty funny; also there was a spate of badminton jokes on television. My favorite was: “Isn’t badminton something you play at your family reunion?”

     

    A man with no lower legs or feet is competing in a track-and-field event. Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, who was born without fibulae and had his legs amputated below the knees in childhood (see photo above), uses “running blades” to compete. He does pretty well. There has been a sniffy little argument about whether the blades give him an unfair advantage; they’re pretty bouncy, apparently, but they also give him a disadvantage at the beginning of the race, so it sort of balances out. And, says I, what’s stopping the other runners from having their legs amputated and using blades themselves? I know that I myself would not be able even to stand upright on running blades. So: good on Oscar Pistorius, as my British friends would say.

     

    Doping has entered the GATTACA era. A Chinese swimmer won her race by swimming at unbelievable speed. An American official insisted she must either have been doping, or – more insidiously – undergone some kind of genetic modification. (This is all the rage at the moment – have you seen the trailer for the new Bourne movie?) The Financial Times ran a very sober article about this last week, citing the example of “Marathon Mouse,” which (after genetic modification) can run twenty-five times farther than an average mouse. This is creepy, and (to date) undetectable. Who can say what’s going on?

     

    Upsets are fun to watch.  Why do we root for someone who’s already a champion? Isn’t it more fun to watch an underdog win? I hate tennis, normally – it’s just bip-bap-bip-bap to me – but I was lucky enough to tune in on Sunday just as Andy Murray aced his match point past Roger Federer, and I thought that was just fine. I hate to see the same six or seven people winning all the time. (Hear that, Michael Phelps?)

     

    I’m baffled as to why some sports are in the Olympics and others aren’t. I’ve made fun of badminton today, and trampoline last week. One of my colleagues at work thought “canoe slalom” was a person’s name rather than an event. And yet: no lacrosse in the Olympics. No squash. No cricket. No camogie. (Usually it’s because they’re not universally played. Lacrosse, for example, is pretty much limited to the US and Canada. Cricket is popular in the UK and a handful of Commonwealth / former Commonwealth nations. Camogie – well, give yourself ten points if you even know what camogie is. But what about rugby?)

     

    Now and then it makes sense to me why something is an Olympic sport. Judo and taekwondo, for example: it’s easy to train for these, and inexpensive – all you need is a bathrobe and a floor mat.  There were dojos everywhere in North Africa when I was there in the 1980s. Archery and shooting are modern transformations of hunting skills. Wrestling is about as primal as you can get. (Also, it’s fun to watch.)

     

    I’ve been learning stuff every day through these Olympics. I hope it continues right through the closing ceremonies, when (according to the Financial Times) the seven young athletes from the opening ceremony will hand the Olympic flag over to seven elderly CEOs, who will bill back the young athletes for tuition fees.

     

    More soon.


     

     
  4. Tough girls: Olympics edition

    Gabrielle

    The Olympics sometimes gives us athletes with nice backstories. This year is especially fruitful in that regard.

     

     

    (Not so much with the guys. We were just told – by his mother! – that Ryan Lochte likes one-night stands best. Also, Michael Phelps is looking and acting more like a douchebag every single day. Let them have their various medals, and they can go stand in the corner.)

     

     

    Now let’s talk about the girls.

     

     

    Tough girl number one: Kayla Harrison, 22 years old, is the first American to win a gold medal in judo. This alone is a wonderful thing. But listen: she was abused by her first judo instructor, one Daniel Doyle. She hated judo, naturally, because she associated it with her abuser. Then, at the age of 16, she came to a place with the unlikely name of Pedro’s Judo Center, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and the father-and-son team of trainers there worked with her, and showed her what she could become.

     

     

    Six years later, she is an Olympic gold medalist in the sport she hated.

     

     

    Here’s another tough girl: Gabrielle Douglas. At sixteen, she won the gold in all-around gymnastics. Her form looked perfect, even to a nearsighted old gaffer like me. Apparently, it looked that way to the judges too. She’s been dubbed “the flying squirrel” because (I guess) of how tiny she is. Can’t we come up with something nicer than that? (How about “the Seagull”? Because she is beautiful as she flies.)

     

     

    (I remember Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci in the 1970s and 1980s, and even in those Cold War years, we Americans still marveled at them. Now, in 2012, we have someone else to marvel at.)

     

     

    Third tough girl: a British weightlifter, eighteen years old, named Zoe Smith.

     

     

    People were writing online that she was “manly” and “unfeminine.”  She responded as follows:

     

    [We] don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, andwhat makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?!Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.

     

    Oh but wait, you aren’t. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?!We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.

     

    As an acquaintance on Tumblr said the other day: I wish that I’d been that smart and verbal and logical at eighteen. Evidently, being strong doesn’t keep you from being smart, even when you’re a girl.

     

    And number four: Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a Saudi competitor in judo. She lost. But she was cheered by everyone, as one of the first two Saudi women ever to compete in the Olympics.

     

     

    “Hopefully,” she said, “this is the beginning of a new era.”

     

     

    Sister, we can only hope.


     

     
  5. Olympics update

    Nk_weightlifter

    I used to know nothing about athletics, but I know all about them now. Over the past year I have employed a gymnast and two football players in my office, and I just hired a lacrosse player, and they have all taken great pains to educate me in their various sports. Partner, naturally, still tries to instruct me. And now, with the Olympics, my education is proceeding wonderfully.

     

    Here’s what I now know:

     

    -        Synchronized divers do not have to be exactly the same height. To be frank, I didn’t know there was such a thing as “synchronized diving” until Tuesday morning, when I saw two adorable young Mexican athletes execute a simultaneous quadruple mid-air flip. But one diver was an inch taller than the other, and it offended my sense of symmetry. Shouldn’t the shorter one have been wearing flip-flops, or something?

    -        Trampoline is an Olympic sport. I learned this on “Jeopardy!” the other night, and I told my student assistant Gunnar about it, and we both thought it was pretty funny. I’m sure it takes loads of strength, coordination, etc., etc.; it’s just that I associate trampolines with kiddie parties and circuses. Gunnar found a video of the Canadian trampoline finals online, and we watched a bit of it, giggling quietly. “This guy’s actually pretty good,” Gunnar said. “Until he breaks his arm when he falls off the side,” I said. And then we started giggling again.

    -        A North Korean weightlifter just lifted three times his own weight. This has only been done twice before in Olympic history, and it’s pretty amazing, apparently; Gunnar (who’s a football player in training) was blown away by this. The North Korean, Om Yun Chol, is five feet tall, and he weighs only a little less than I do (and I’m almost a foot taller than he is), and he’s adorable. Look how happy he is in the photo above! Apollonia, who doesn’t like short men, called him a “nasty little troll.” I pointed out that he was extraordinarily strong, which is always a selling point (we all like men who can lift and carry), and she grudgingly took her insult back, and we are now calling him “our pocket Hercules.”

    -        Swimmers are almost never attractive. Swimming develops all the wrong muscles. A classically well-built man is not, how you say, hydrodynamic. Champion swimmers are built more like otters or harbor seals. My friend Cathleen told me that she can’t help noticing the Olympic swimmers’ hugely developed trapezius muscles, which look eerily unnatural.

    -        Road cycling is very dull. Watch the replays if you don’t believe me. Pedal pedal pedal pedal pedal; curve straightaway curve straighaway curve. I mean really.

    -        Women’s beach volleyball is more or less soft-core pornography. Yes, Misty May-Treanor, I’m looking at you.

    -        An athlete from Niger, Hamadou Djibo Issaka, who only learned to row a few months ago, came in last in the single sculls event. Shades of “Cool Runnings”! And good for him! And the crowd cheered him on! (This is what makes the Olympics (at its best) feel like a world event: cheering for someone who’s in last place, or someone from a different country, or someone who isn’t a consummately-trained athlete.  Or all three.)

    And we’re only a week into this!  And I didn’t even mention the badminton scandal!


     
  6. London 2012: the opening ceremonies

    Queen-with-daniel-craig-in-james-bond-spoof-shown-during-the-london-2012-opening-ceremony-245353966

    I think the Olympics are great. I especially like the opening ceremony.

     

    Actually, the opening ceremony is pretty much the only thing I like. I find the athletic events dull. (Over the past few days I have watched bits of volleyball, and cycling, and swimming, and I cannot stifle my yawns.)

     

    But the opening ceremonies – yowzah! They are an opportunity for the host country to tell a story about itself. We all remember the powerfully choreographed opening of the Beijing Olympics, with 2008 drummers in sync with one another, and later the adorable children from all over China, in ethnic costumes. (I vaguely recall that one of the children was lip-synching a song, but let us not speak of that.) I also recall the Vancouver Olympics, with a sort of rippling pool of light in which we saw Native American images, and a huge bear, and fiddlers, and – well, all kinds of things.

     

    The London ceremony was huge, and sloppy, and very endearing. We knew in advance that it was going to be the “English countryside,” and snippy commentators were predicting sheep and cottages. Well, we did in fact get sheep and cottages. We also got the countryside (literally) rolled away. We got the World-Tree ripped from the top of Glastonbury Tor. We got Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” growing out of the floor. We got suffragettes, and the Jarrow Marchers, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

     

    Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” did a wonderful thing: he tried his very best to include everything. And I think he may well have succeeded. (I think he put up a posterboard: “What is the UK?” And he, and everyone, put up notes, for days and days. And he included everything that everyone suggested.)

     

    We got music, and weather reports, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” and “Jerusalem.” We got J. K. Rowling. We got Tim Berners-Lee. We got the Stones, and Cruella de Ville. We got Paul McCartney! We got the Sex Pistols. We got the Queen (the actual Queen!) and her corgis, with Daniel Craig as James Bond. We got allusions to Austin Powers and J. R. R. Tolkien. We got Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

     

    We got an elaborate salute to the UK’s National Health Service, right in front of Mitt and Ann Romney, and I would have loved to ask them how they enjoyed it.

     

    The Beijing ceremony in 2008 was about unity and power. The London ceremony was about diversity. The choreography – dear God! – was elaborate in the extreme, but it seemed almost random: groups of marchers drifting together, marching through one another’s ranks, and separating again.

     

    One of the Financial Times commentators last weekend said, nicely: “The parts that didn’t work highlighted the parts that did.” Exactly right. The rock-and-roll section was a little long, and maybe Rowan Atkinson / Mister Bean was a little over-the-top, but it all worked. (A lot of people on Tumblr seem to think that the Olympic cauldron, which only came together in the last moments of the ceremony, was the Eye of Sauron. I don’t think so. But – who knows?)

     

    Sadly, I had to watch this ceremony on American television, on NBC. Matt Lauer (whom I thought was smarter than this) treated it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and  giggled and talked through the whole thing. Bob Costas (to whom I am used by now, after many Olympics) thinks he has to do color commentary through the whole thing. My Tumblr idol, wellthatsjustgreat, wrote some wonderfully scathing commentary on Messrs. Lauer and Costas, which I encourage you to read. In effect, they almost ruined the thing, especially the Parade of Nations. (Well, NBC helped; they decided that we didn’t need to see whole chunks of the ceremony, and dumped in a fatuous interview with Michael Phelps. Also, I am told by a correspondent in the UK that the BBC coverage was even worse.)

     

    I have the ceremony on the DVR. I have already watched bits over again. I still haven’t gotten all of the British-culture references. I probably never will.

     

    It was wonderful, nonetheless.

    (And now I have to go back and watch the Vancouver ceremony from 2010, because I still don’t have all of that one figured out either.)