Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Update

I couldn't help but do a quick post today after watching the Olympics last night--in particular, women's gymnastics and men's and women's swimming.

There are a few items I've been considering that I want to put down in writing.

The first one has to do with doping. As I sat there watching Michael Phelps and his team absolutely destroy the world record in the 4x200m freestyle race, I felt a rush of excitement and support. Their time of 6:58.56 was 4.68 seconds faster than the previous record (also set by U.S. men in 2007). I had never seen such a huge lead in a swimming event. At one point, the commentator even noted that the camera had to pan back and forth between the U.S. swimmers and the rest of the field because the lead was so great that the swimmers would not all fit into the same camera frame. The accomplishment was amazing to watch, and I was proud of the U.S. men!

And while I was grinning from ear to ear watching their victory, my smile faded as I thought to myself "These guys just aren't human." It occurred to me that elite sports in this day and age are plagued by doping scandals. The athletes undergo enormous amounts of testing throughout the year, however you have to wonder if some of them slide under the radar. I believe that athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong may just be "inhuman"...maybe every-so-often, nature actually does produce those unique bodies that outperform fellow human beings in "inhuman" ways. But for the rest of the field, I wonder if they feel that they must resort to performance-enhancing drugs just to keep up.

An ex-UC Berkeley swimmer, Jessica Hardy, tested positive during one of her tests leading up to the Games and eventually withdrew from her spot on the US team, unable to mount a huge legal defense in the week and a half she had before events began in Beijing. We have heard so much about the messy world of performance-enhancing drugs in men's cycling, but I don't remember hearing as much about these issues in women's sports. As I watch the Olympics and witness the pure love and passion for sport that these athletes possess, I am completely endeared by their trials and tribulations. But I have also grown more weary as I realize that these athletes are desperate for success, and some will do whatever they have to do (illegal or not) to achieve their goals. I can only hope that most of whom we see on our screens are competing through legitimate means.

Another topic that came to mind was the vast difference between the women's U.S. and Chinese gymnastics teams. I was literally biting my nails and sitting on the edge of my seat as I watched these girls throwing their bodies into picturesque cartwheels and back flips on a 4 inch slab of wood, or spinning madly around an elevated bar, suddenly freezing in perfectly executed handstands, then spinning around again to launch their bodies to a bar 5 feet away. The events were riveting, and the rivalry between the U.S. and China, both as gymnasts and as political nations, was palpable.

I want to provoke you to think about the differences in how the two teams were formed, and how that process reflects the culture in which these girls were raised. NBC commentators noted that many of these Chinese athletes were literally plucked up from their daycare centers at 3 years of age and entered into rigorous gymnastics training programs. After spending their entire childhoods in the gym, they appear 12 years later on our TV screens as the poised, graceful, and often-far-too-small athletes competing for gold medals.

Then there's the U.S. team, with girls whose bodies at least appear to be much "thicker" (though still tiny), and who seem to smile just a bit more than their Chinese counterparts. They have gone through their own rigorous training for years, but they happened upon their sport in a much different manner. Many probably chose to head to the gym and learn how to do somersaults when they were toddlers, then developed a passion for the sport and stuck with it until they achieved their Olympic dreams.

I see China producing its athletes in a vast national machine, where the love for the sport is often eclipsed by the pressure to succeed. The US athletes face their own pressures to achieve greatness, though they do not often look as though the weight of 1.2 billion fellow countrymen is weighing them down. They seem to respond to their own internal expectations and suffer much more personal failures, while the Chinese athletes seem to look to the faces of the crowd to gauge their self-worth.

In the sports industry in the U.S., athletes can easily lose sight of their pure love for their sport as heavy endorsement deals and salaries require an increased sense of responsibility and "work." But I can't help but think that the Chinese athletes take on this burden at such an early age that they may never get to experience that same love for their sports as U.S. competitors. This may be a reflection of the political and national goals instilled by each country in its citizens, where China focuses on being "one of many that collectively make up The Republic of China," while the U.S. encourages individualism and personal fulfillment.

These are thoughts that came to me as I watched and I have not filtered them in the hopes that I will stir up the pot and ruffle some of your feathers as you think about the nature of the Olympic games and what they might actually mean to the athletes whose careers are on the line...

1 comment:

Judy said...

I've been noticing that the way NBC presents the games is very much USA v. China, and I wonder how much of this Chinese-as-machine characterization can be attributed to the framing by NBC. You write, "NBC commentators noted that many of these Chinese athletes were literally plucked up from their daycare centers at 3 years of age and entered into rigorous gymnastics training programs"...especially for the US gymanists who are the kids of past medal-winners, I would posit that that "plucking" also holds true for the US kids, it's just that the US commentators would rather highlight potential kidsploitation in China.