Monday, February 10, 2014

Winter Olympics 2014

by Bill Holmes

Unless you live in a cave without an internet connection or satellite dish you probably know that the 2014 Winter Olympics are underway in Sochi, Russia. I watched a little of the opening ceremonies and have caught glimpses of some events. The opening ceremonies were technically and logistically impressive, except for the four Olympic rings and an asterisk logo that Putin introduced. I actually saw the faux pas on Twitter first since I wasn't watching on TV at the time of the live (taped) event. I don't really enjoy four hour displays of pomp and circumstance combined with national chest pounding and sanitized versions of history. This post is not a critique of opening ceremony extravagance or a comparison of Russian to Chinese to British choreography. That's what host countries do. This is my view of the Olympics in general and the Winter Olympics in particular. So let the ranting begin.
New Olympic Logo

Let's get some facts on the table first. I have spent about 90% of my now kind of long life living far below the Mason-Dixon line. All but less than 1% of the other 10% was when I was an infant or toddler. The 90% is made up of my time living in Florida, Georgia and Texas. Not exactly rabid Winter Olympic sports territory. I am a big sports fan but I very much favor sports where there is a defined way to score points (or runs, goals, strokes) and the person or team with the most points, except for golf, at the end of the competition wins. Simple things like runs in baseball, points in football and basketball, goals in hockey or soccer. Those sports without defined scoring should be determined by the fastest or farthest or heaviest. Maybe a sub 10 second run in the 100 meters, a 20+ meter toss in the shot put or a 500+ kg bench press.

That means for me many of the events at Sochi hold little or no interest. I freely admit that I am not qualified to judge most sports played in the cold. They are held on snow or ice and judges decide the winners. Some of the events have other problems for me too. They require music, makeup and sequins. One event is named Ice Dancing, not Ice Sports or even Ice Skating. It apparently is different from pairs figure skating. My opinion is those type events are performance art and not sport. I'm not suggesting that those participants aren't athletes, they are. But so are the dancers at the Bolshoi Ballet or the acrobats in the Cirque du Soleil. The figure skating folks train just as hard as those who compete in timed events like bobsled, slalom or 100 yard dash. They sacrifice just as much as other athletes who throw the discus the farthest or teams that score the most goals in hockey. The problem is there is no fair way to determine who is really the best, just like the Oscars are bogus when deciding the best actress or movie.
Ice Dancing - Sport or Pornography?
There is another problem with the Winter Olympics, they are making up sports. There are twelve new events at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Most of them require judging to determine the winner. In the new ski and snowboard slopestyle events the courses have fake jumps and, get this, handrails on a downhill course. Those handrails are not for holding onto on the way downhill. They are there to be skied or boarded on top of. When is the last time you saw a handrail in the middle of a ski run? Of course judges decide who wins these events.
One Diamond for Difficulty -
One Diamond for Handrails on Trail

Yes, most sports have referees who can have an effect on the outcome, but they do not usually have the power to determine the winner. Even if they did, most fans can pretty easily tell if their rulings are right or wrong. In these judgmental sports who knows what the judges are judging? In figure skating or gymnastics are they giving extra credit for a fabulous costume or great haircut, how about a stirring musical accompaniment? 

Some of these performances can be thrilling but they are not valid competitive sports in my view. Why, because the scoring is completely SUBJECTIVE. As long as the judge from East Germany (an old reference) can nuke one competitor and pump up her countryman there will be problems.

Here is another point, Curling is a Winter Olympic sport. This is not a judged sport, the team with the most points wins. It is basically shuffleboard on ice with brooms added. It's played on ice but the participants don't wear skates but they do use brooms. You do have to give the teams credit for fun uniforms. I think they celebrate wins  with a cold beer. Kind of like the Wednesday night bowling league but with housekeeping skills added.
Norway Curling Team
I don't know the answer to this situation. I think we should at least stop adding new events that require judges to decide the outcome or that have fake fields of play. The gymnasts and figure skaters participate in an unscored, freestyle performance a day or two after the medals are awarded. Maybe that should be the emphasis for those disciplines and added for others. There is one other sticking point that has nothing to do with the athletes, well maybe the ex-athletes. Most Olympics announcers and analysts are unbearable. According to them, whatever sport (performance) they are describing is the most difficult, the most pressure packed, the most outstanding, the most (fill in the blank). Figure skating commentators rate right up there as the worst but there is a lot of competition for the top spot. NBC has to pull in many extra commentators for the Olympics. Most of them haven't covered the sport on TV for four years. Doing something once every four years for a couple of weeks doesn't exactly hone the skills. Chris Collingsworth, a former Gator, really does cover football better than opening ceremonies. Am I judging the media commentators? Yes I am but my vote doesn't decide the gold medal or the Emmy.

I may watch a little Curling to see what the latest fad is in pants, my youngest son will probably want some. Maybe there will be some new developments in broom technology. Not much else this Winter Olympics will interest me. I also don't expect this trend to stop or even slow down. I figure I have three or four more Olympics before I'm senile or dead. Maybe technology will eventually solve this problem. Rules and criteria can be programmed and the performance video would be fed into the computer. It can logically and objectively (unless it is hacked) evaluate each performance based on strict criteria. Of course if somebody does a spectacular move never seen before, the scoring program might crash.

None of this stuff is easy. I'm just glad that baseball season is almost here. The team with the most runs at the end of the game (no ties allowed) wins. No doubt, no controversy, unless the umpires blow a critical call or two but they have expanded replay this season to fix that too. Batter up. 


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