Saturday, August 30, 2008

Barack Obama: Un Dieu Du Stade

The French call their sports superstars "les dieux du stade," gods of the stadium. By delivering his acceptance speech at Invesco Field, home of the NFL Denver Broncos, amid a crowd of 60,000 adoring fans, Barack Obama became a god of the stadium in his own right.

Many commentators referred to the symbolism of Obama speaking on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But Obama added another layer of symbolism by appropriating the luster of a major sports hero.

This is nothing new. Politicians have frequently tapped into the world of sport in an effort to enhance their popularity or strengthen their political capital. French prime minister Lionel Jospin pointed to the 1998 World Cup champion French team as proof that the French model of immigration worked (the team was made up of a number of black and north African players). U.S. presidents frequently throw out the first pitch at important baseball games. And politicians clearly use the Olympics as a means to demonstrate national strength. Etc., etc....

So let's give Obama and McCain sports scores for their national conventions.

Doing the math, the NFL is by far the most popular sport in the U.S. (2 points for speaking at Invesco Field). Obama also appeared and spoke at the Pepsi Center where the Nuggets and Avalanche play. The NBA is one of the big three (1 pt.) and the NHL is usually considered the one-half in America's "big three and a half," but we are talking about the home of the famed Denver Avalanche so I'll give him another 1 pt.

McCain will be speaking at the Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis... home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild. I think I've heard of them: 1/2 pt.

Final sports symbolism tally for the political conventions: Obama 4, McCain 1/2.

Wow... our political analysis is as insightful as CNN's...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Beijing Best & Worst

Best moment: women's marathon, won by 38 year-old mom Constantina Tomescu. I'm 38 and I can barely walk up my stairs.

Worst moment: opening ceremonies when 2008 drummers taught the U.S. a lesson in demography.

Worst commercial: Of course there were the nationalistic McDonalds commercials and the schmaltsy Coca-Cola spots, but the worst goes to GE for the Chinese man who finds true love with his doctor after he injures his foot while destroying a village. Ahhh, those cute Chinese lovers! Makes me want to run out and buy a toaster.

Worst uniforms: All the gymnasts "in the whole world" (to quote esquelito from Nacho Libre).

Most Inspirational: Ara Abrahamian throwing his medal on the mat. An example to us all...

Least Inspirational: Of all the cheesy spots NBC had to do, the worst I saw was Mary Carillo's adventures with Chinese food. With an apparent gift for precise, descriptive vocabulary, after tasting every dish she would open her eyes wide, nod her head and repeatedly say, "That's great. That's great." That's bad. That's bad.

Most Annoying Commentator: Bela Karolyi had a coronary every time a gymnast even came close to "sticking" a landing. Plus, when I see him I can only think of the time he encouraged Kerri Strug to do one more vault on her broken ankle: "You can do it!" he kept shrieking to her. "That's child abuse!" I kept screaming at my TV.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Olympics Post Mortem

So did the Olympics help China's global reputation?

Probably on some levels. But...

If you had asked people a month ago what they thought of China, many would have said, "Ummm... they make a lot of cheap stuff."

Ask most people what they think of China today and you'll hear them complain about lip synced anthems and underage gymnasts.

And the media have told as many stories of censorship, human rights abuses, Chinese arms sales to Sudan, and China's official misinformation campaigns as they did stories on the Great Wall or local cuisine.

If the former kind of media heat continues, the Olympics certainly will have helped China's global reputation--by weakening it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jacques Rogge To Usain Bolt: "Stay Proper Old Chap"

Jacques Rogge, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, recently told reporters that he did not approve of Usain Bolt's behavior after winning the 100-meter sprint (1). Bolt thumped his chest and looked over at the camera and broke into a dance... then he crossed the finish line in world record time.

Rogge said of Bolt, "I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands, give a tap on the shoulder to the other ones immediately after the finish and not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 meters."

I have argued before that Coubertin (founder of the modern Olympics) wanted to keep sports a domain for the elite and wanted the athletes to adopt the aristocratic values of "honor, chivalry, and detachment" (2). I have also suggested that the pressures of professionalization have turned sport more into a money making spectacle, creating an inherent tension between Old Regime and commercial values. Zidane, Abrahamian, and now Bolt, have, in a sense, stood up for (arguably brutish) professional spectacle and pushed back against the (arguably hypocritical) mores of coubertinian elitism.

Rogge's advice is straight out of the play book for aristocratic detachment. "Congratulate your opponents, shake their hands." He could have added, "Invite them for brandy and to visit your private art collection at your home in the Alps." It is easy to be detached if you come from wealth and if winning is about as important as getting into an exclusive country club. Detachment, however, is not a virtue if your future professional life and your ability to afford a house is on the line. When winning means going from rags to riches, a little chest pumping is justified.

(1) AP reported the story. ESPN picked it up here.
(2) From Coubertin's Mémoires olympiques. For more listen to the interview I gave on KBYU's "Thinking Aloud" or read the last chapter of Playing at Monarchy (forthcoming).

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Doping In The Olympics: The Early Years

Jean-Pierre de Mondenard's history of doping in the Olympics unsurprisingly points to the marathon as the first event with confirmed cases of doping.

In 1896 in Greece, Spiridon Louys stopped after 30 km and drank a big glass of wine. It either numbed the pain or gave him the necessary energy to dash to the finish line and become the first gold medalist in marathon history. Mondenard reports that as a reward, Louys was given 123 kg of wine. To your health!

But leave it to Americans to introduce the hard stuff. In St. Louis (1904), marathon gold medalist Thomas Hicks received strychnine and cognac from trainers in order to make it to the finish. Instead of expressing outrage, journalists were amazed that drugs could have such a beneficial effect on athletes. That's American know-how at work.

In London (1908), Dorando Pietri took strychnine and atropine to help him cross the line first. But the Italian was later disqualified--not for doping, but for receiving "physical assistance." Onlookers actually propped him up and helped him across the line.

In 1920 the first official marathon anti-doping rules went into the books.

P.S. Isn't strychnine used to kill rodents? Who knew....

Source: Mondenard, Jean-Pierre. Le dopage aux Jeux olympiques: La triche récompensée. Amphora, 1996.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Olympic Soap Operas

The blogosphere (of which I am now a recalcitrant part) was incensed that Natasia Liukin received the silver while He Kexin of China won the gold, despite their identical scores on the uneven bars. But sports are about determining differences between almost equal competitors, and many times the outcomes are more arbitrary/subjective than not. Take a 7 game playoff series in baseball: there is enough subjective judging of the strike zone to change the result of the series. And in basketball, many players make it a point to try and trick the refs in order to earn foul shots. The difference is that gymnastics events, like figure skating, tend to wear their subjectivity more openly. And the rants against this subjectivity are misplaced.

Why? Because the judging and potential back-room deals make gymnastics more like a soap opera than a sport thereby bringing in viewers who are not sports fans, viewers who are more interested in the drama of the competition (and even the outrage over the results) than the actual events themselves.

If gymnastics officials know what's good for them, they'll make it even more subjective and, like figure skating used to do, include scores for costume and music selection (the old "presentation" score). Let the soap opera continue.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Interview With A Boycotter

Sven Wilson is a professor of political science and director of the graduate program of public policy at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He received his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. He is also a sports fan who decided to boycott these Olympics. I talked to him about it this week.

Sports Academic: How are you boycotting the Olympics?

Professor Wilson: We're not watching any of the coverage. I've read some tidbits about it in the press since I read a lot of the news anyway so it's kind of hard to avoid.

SA: So this is a TV boycott, you're boycotting NBC... why?

PW: In a sense the Western institutions that allowed this to go to China are responsible. And it's not so much that I thought about who I wanted to target--it's the idea that way back eight or ten years ago when this decision was made I was so appalled that I decided not to participate. And I wanted to do a larger protest. I wanted to get more people involved, start a website, I had some good T-shirt designs--Olympic rings dripping with blood--things like that, but I was really sick in July for most of the month so the media coverage didn't happen.

SA: What does your family think of the boycott?

PW: That's one of the main reasons I decided to go through with it. In fifteen years my children probably wouldn't remember any events... they might remember Michael Phelps winning but they're more likely to remember taking a stand against oppression and victimization of the human spirit.

SA: What particularly upsets you about the authoritarian regime in China.

PW: Well, the list is so long it's really hard to start. I'm particularly sensitive to basic civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly and the press and those kind of things. I think it goes back to 1989 when I was a new college graduate living by myself in New Jersey and I was getting caught up in the student protests there in China. You remember there was a lot of media coverage and the big networks were there. So when the tanks moved in I really took it personally. The world is full of human rights violations but that one affected me more on a personal level. You know, China hasn't changed much. The only thing they would do differently today is they would do a better job hiding it from the world. They would still move the tanks in.

SA: There are a lot of multinational and American corporations that do business in China. How is the International Olympic Committee's agreement with China different from these other corporate ventures?

PW: I don't know. I'm pretty upset about these companies that help China restrict access to information as well. I'm not into boycotting everybody that facilitates the Chinese regime. It would be pretty hard to function and the only one who would suffer would be me (laugh).

SA: Do you think it's possible the Olympics could move China in the right direction?

PW: Yes, I think that's conceivable. But in most cases I think that argument is an argument of convenience in order to ignore human rights violations. In other words, giving us a market for our products isn't justification for ignoring human rights violations. That seems to have been the driving force behind a lot of U.S. policy towards China: we benefit economically by having good trade relations with China. Personally, I'm willing to pay higher prices at Wal-Mart and have trade relations suffer. [...]

SA: Have the Olympics been positive in that they have opened peoples' eyes in the West to some abuses in China?

PW: If they move toward thinking China has a horrendous record on human rights, then that would be nice. Most people still think China makes cheap stuff and now they think the Chinese are petty cheaters. The Chinese are a lot more than petty cheaters.

Update: Sven sent me a link to this NY Times article that exposes the way China has cracked down on even benign dissenting voices during the Olympics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Did You Hear?" Why The IOC Selected China

You have probably heard a conversation like this one at least once since the beginning of the Beijing Olympics:

"Can you believe those Chinese gymnasts are 16? I can't"

"Well, they have passports that say they're 16."

"That just means the government is involved. They fudge on athletes' ages just like they fudged on the identity of the singer and the phony fireworks. And did you hear they [insert offensive authoritarian move here]. Everyone's afraid to call them on it because they're the host country."

"You're right. The real mistake was that they agreed to let China host in the first place."


I've not only heard that conversation, I've initiated it once or twice.

So is the International Olympic Committee to blame? Or is it solely China's fault since they did not respect all of their commitments?

Why did the IOC choose China? The IOC is an autonomous body and its voting members are free to vote for the host city they feel will best serve their cause. But one number, more significant than any of Michael Phelps' world records, stands above the rest. The number is 62. At least 62% of the IOC's total revenue comes from the United States. More than three fifths. Sesenta y dos por ciento. Soixante-deux. In other words, a truckload of Olympic cash is American. Three out of every five truck loads to be precise (1).

No international corporation would vote against its biggest client's interests. The IOC, a large international corporation itself, out of simple self preservation, would never vote in such a manner as to alienate its golden goose, the good ol' U.S. of A. (2). So why would the IOC have selected China, home to an authoritarian regime, a communist country that violates international human rights, a country whose values stand in apparent opposition to those of the U.S.?

62% says it is because the U.S. wanted China to host the games.

Politically and economically the U.S. had a lot to gain. In fact, the U.S. has probably benefited more than China itself. The Olympics act as an international moral cleansing agent. If the IOC can do business with the Chinese, then global corporations, many based in the United States, can justify doing business with the Chinese (despite their human rights record and unfair market practices). In addition, western consumers can continue to buy $4 shirts and $7 watches made in China without feeling that nagging guilt about sweatshop labor or low environmental standards in Chinese manufacturing.

The U.S. political class can also point to the Olympics as proof that the Chinese are opening up to western ideas of democracy (even though the opposite is true). A huge sporting spectacle covers a multitude of diplomatic sins.

And this may be why the international community, including the U.S., will not protest too much if (alleged) thirteen year-old Chinese gymnasts continue winning gold.

(1) From The Chicago Tribune.
(2) It could be argued that the IOC did alienate the U.S. in 1980 when the Olympics were awarded to the USSR. However, this was before the huge TV money started pouring in. The 1984 Olympics in L.A. mark the beginning of the modern corporate ($) era for the Olympics.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympic "Injustice"?

Well played China...

The Chinese government refuses to recognize the genocide taking place in Darfur and Americans are angry... angry that Chinese gymnasts appear under age.

The Chinese authorities won't allow even peaceful protests of their ruling party and America is outraged... outraged that Nastia Liukin took silver even though she tied for first.

The Chinese are the biggest suppliers of arms to the Sudanese government and Americans are standing up to say "Stop!"... stop lip syncing national anthems like we do every year at the Super Bowl.

In China many news websites are censored or entirely blocked by government authorities. As defenders of free speech, we've had enough!... enough free speech, that is. Will someone shut those gymnastics judges up, please? Or at least tell them what to say.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sports Academic On The Air

Mon. (Aug. 18) at 11 AM I'll be interviewed on a half hour KBYU radio program called Thinking Aloud, hosted by Marcus Smith and produced by Wes Sims. The topic is Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympics. If you'd like, you can listen to FM 89 in Utah (rebroadcast at 8 PM) or tune in online here. If you miss the broadcast Monday you can find the program in their online archives or download a podcast from itunes (search for "Thinking Aloud").

Thanks to everyone who has been checking this blog during the Olympics. We're approaching 40 visitors a day.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tour of Utah photos

The Tour of Utah sped past this morning. A few photos to mark the event taken from Sundance:

The Sports Academic (left) can't believe he made it up the hill on a bike... Scott (right) was not surprised to make it, even though he had to drag me along.

The lead group.

The front of the peloton.

Book Review: The Naked Olympics

Tony Perrottet's book (The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, Random House, 2004) is a fun, almost novel-like description of the ancient Olympics, held in Olympia (not to be confused with Olympus) from around 776 B.C. until A.D. 393.

The book's unstated thesis may be that those ancient games had as much ego, politics, and corruption as our modern Olympics have. Perrottet describes a Greek world positively sports "crazed," and claims that our current sporting events "hark back to those energetic pagans--as does our correlating obsession with youth and the body beautiful."

Perrottet outlines gymnasium culture in ancient Greece as well as spectator culture and the accompanying difficulties in traveling to and enduring the Olympic spectacle. Fans routinely dealt with poor accommodations, lack of clean water, and disease that ripped through the isolated Olympia.

He then describes the games themselves. The original ceremony had a single event: a sprint of some 210 yards (a distance marked out by Hercules himself). Other events were later added: a longer sprint (2 x 210 yards) and a distance race; wrestling, boxing, and a no-holds-barred fight called the pankration; a four-horse chariot-race; and the pentathlon, where athletes competed at javelin, discus, standing long-jump (with weights), a foot-race, and wrestling (apparently as a tie-breaker).

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes: references to ancient Greek graffiti; details about disruptions of the ancient games; stories of cheaters; a discussion of the role of women in Olympic culture; and depictions of victory celebrations and banquets.

The book's biggest weakness may be that in his mad dash to show the modernity of those ancient games, Perrottet does not sufficiently explain the specificity of their antiquity. While he refers to the "sacred track," the "ritual importance" of oil, the shrines and sacrifices at Olympia and the "holy pilgrims" who attended the games, he calls all of this merely a "divine sideshow" and fails to completely make the connections between sports and religion in the ancient world.

When he describes wondrous sculpture of Zeus as being continuously massaged with oil, he does not link this to the athletes and their well oiled bodies (a link that would make the athletes avatars of the gods). Nor does he give much weight to the fact that the athletes performed the same feats as gods did before them, or that the games began in response to an order from the oracle at Delphi.

Seen in this light, what we might view as the ancient games' excesses, could be seen as forms of extreme devotion, a devotion different from ours to be sure, but devotion none the less. "Fans" attended the games to see the exploits of the gods reenacted. The thrill of spectatorship--the "sports craze"--could be interpreted as a sort of spiritual communion with the supernal forces--fans act as if possessed when their team or athlete wins. The nudity can be seen as a way for the athlete to offer his mortal body up for sacrifice to the gods. Even the partying (imbibing large quantities of wine) can be seen as a form of divine communion, drunkeness being an altered state that imitates the ecstasy of heavenly inspiration. Some of those who leered at the young athletes were certainly, as Perrottet claims, lecherous old men, but some were perhaps attempting to be intimate with the gods, represented by the victorious athletes.

Despite this omission, Perrottets book is compelling and enlightening; a good read to supplement the twelve hours a day spent in front of the TV watching the modern Olympics.

A final word on the book's title: I have read elsewhere that ancient Olympians weren't entirely naked: Olympians apparently tied their foreskins shut. What prudes!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Medal Charts (presented by ExxonMobil)

Here is the medal chart from

2008 Medals


And here's a chart from a Chinese website:
Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 China
26 9 6 41
2 United States
14 13 19 46
3 Germany 8 2 4 14
4 South Korea
6 9 3 18
5 Italy
6 4 4 14

Hmmm... Which is it. China or U.S. #1?

My students tell me Wikipedia is the most reliable resource on the web. Here's Wikipedia's table:
Rank ↓ Nation ↓ Gold ↓ Silver ↓ Bronze ↓ Total ↓
1 China 26 9 6 41
2 United States 14 13 19 46
3 Germany 8 2 4 14
4 South Korea 6 9 3 18
5 Italy 6 4 4 14

So it must be true. China really is the best country in the world, apparently... but NBC knows Exxon Mobil does most of its business in the U.S. so... "USA! USA! USA!"

Monsieur Coubertin, Meet Ara Abrahamian

I wonder if Ara Abrahamian would agree to be the spokesman for this blog?

Abrahamian is the Swedish wrestler who, upset with officials who penalized him during his semi-final match, dropped his bronze medal on the mat before storming out of the venue in protest. It was all or nothing for Mr. Abrahamian, so when he ended up third he threw what the Telegraph called an "Olympic hissy fit." And on his way out of the building he "whacked an aluminum barricade with his fist." Nice.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, stressed three values he hoped would be transmitted via his international games: honor, chivalry, and detachment. Abrahamian pretty much rejected all three. But in Abrahamian's defense, the values Coubertin hoped to propagate were values of an aristocracy struggling to maintain relevance in the late nineteenth century, not values of working class professionalism.

Detachment, in particular, is a virtue only accessible to those whose livelihood does not depend on the outcome of a match. If I live off of money built up in my family over centuries or money produced via my vast land holdings, it is easy for me to say, "nice game old chap" to the person who just defeated me in the fencing finals. But if I work for years and need to win my next fight in order to pay rent, "winning-at-all-costs" is an attitude I am forced to adopt. And if I feel cheated out of an opportunity for success, I'm going to complain about it.

Since sports were once the exclusive domain of the nobility, it is not surprising that the ethos of detachment and chivalry live on in sports while they have died out (if they existed) elsewhere.

Imagine that a corporation loses out to a rival company on a huge contract. And imagine the losing corporation feels it has been wronged and that proper procedures were not followed. Would anyone (except the other company) accuse them of a lack of decorum for suing or filing a complaint with the S.E.C. or another regulatory agency? Probably not. Business is business and companies do everything they can to come out on top.

Consider Abrahamian a corporation and his actions become less reprehensible. They can even be seen as a clear rejection of Coubertinian ideals and as a defense of working class rights. Like Zidane's head butt, Abrahamian's "hissy fit" can be interpreted as the act of a behemoth juiced up on 'roids or it can be viewed as a symbol of defiance, a repudiation of Olympic elitism, and a validation of an individual athlete's independence.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gross Domestic Gold

Earlier we mused about the connection between national strength and Olympic success. I suggested that Olympic success may, in fact, be little more than a distraction from domestic troubles. It does turn out, however, that there is a connection between national wealth and Olympic gold medals. The top 10 countries in GDP are similar to the top 10 in Olympic gold.

Gross Domestic Product rank, 2004:
  1. U.S.
  2. China
  3. Japan
  4. India
  5. Germany
  6. U.K.
  7. France
  8. Italy
  9. Brazil
  10. Russia
Gold medal count rank, Athens 2004
  1. U.S.
  2. China
  3. Russia
  4. Australia (gdp rank #17)
  5. Japan
  6. Germany
  7. France
  8. Italy
  9. South Korea (gdp rank #15)
  10. U.K.
Another question is who is squeezing the most medals out of their national economic resources. Among the top 10 gold medal winners, Australia fares the best. Here are the numbers.

World average = 166 billion in gross domestic product per gold medal.
  1. Australia 34 b/gm
  2. Russia 48 b/gm
  3. South Korea 95 b/gm
  4. Italy 105 b/gm
  5. France 150 b/gm
  6. Germany 175 b/gm
  7. U.K. 185 b/gm
  8. China 202 b/gm
  9. Japan 223 b/gm
  10. U.S. 305 b/gm

It could be equally interesting to look at population as a factor. China wins one gold for every 36.8 million inhabitants. The U.S. one gold medal for every 8.4 million. France, one for every 5.8 million. And Australia, one for every 1.25 million.

If anyone out there knows an economist, it would be interesting to see what spending where results in more athletic success. Does spending in health care have a direct influence? What about spending on athletic programs or facilities? Is there an inverse correlation between obesity and Olympic success? Does the existence of major professional sports leagues increase medal counts for a country? P.E. classes in elementary school? Presidential fitness programs? Regular church attendance (proving once and for all that, as in ancient Greece, the gods do determine outcomes)? etc.

As usual, what the numbers don't show could probably be the most interesting. Why is India not on the list of medal winners (in 2004 they won a single silver medal)? Is their sports program not developed? Are they primarily interested in sports, like cricket, that aren't included in the Olympics? Is their media infrastructure underdeveloped to the point that people just don't care since they can't watch the Olympics? Or (more likely) is it that their economic strength has come about suddenly and it will take a generation for their athletic might and infrastructure to catch up?

And what about doping? Are some countries further ahead of the anti-drug agencies (with genetic treatments, for example) than others?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Opening Ceremonies in 2012

After the opening ceremonies last weekend, many journalists remarked that the organizers of the London games in 2012 will have a difficult time competing with Beijing's spectacular show.

What London should do, I think, is reject the very notion of the outlandish spectacle. Perhaps they should simply stage a minimalist Beckett play with a single spotlight in the center of a huge, dark stadium. The plays Play (with three characters stuck in funerary urns) or Breath (a play that lasts 25 seconds and centers on trash blowing across the stage) would be perfect.

Take that China!

Update (8/17): The Economist reports that London 2012 is encountering all sorts of financial problems and is going way over budget. Maybe now they will take the Beckett idea seriously. Think of all the cash they could save. I'll even volunteer my time to stage the play.

The "Amateur Sometimes" Rule

In his very interesting article in the NY Times ("Let The Games Be Doped"), John Tierny begins, "Once upon a time, the lords of the Olympic Games believed that the only true champion was an amateur, a gentleman hobbyist untainted by commerce." This statement (which admittedly has little to do with Tierny's argument) is only partly true warrants a closer look.

In the early days of the Olympics, amateur rules were primarily enforced in events with participants from lower classes. Sports such as yachting and fencing, seen to be exclusively aristocratic, were exempt from the rule. The cost of a yacht limited participation to society's upper echelon and membership in fencing clubs was expensive and meant being socially connected. But in track events, expensive trophies and excessive travel allowances were banned to limit participation to those with means.

As architect of the modern Olympics, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin's primary interest was using the Olympics as a means to reinvigorate Europe's aristocracy and return them to political and cultural prominence. Consequently, the "amateur only" rule was really an "amateur sometimes" rule, applied when the sport in question did not present natural barriers to working class participants.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Innate Fist-Pumping

A recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (via NPR) suggests that victory celebrations (head back, chest out, arms raised) are more biological than cultural. Researchers say these behaviors reflect pride and are evolutionarily triggered to make the victor appear larger to potential enemies.

Maybe. But I'll really believe it when I see a chimp disco after spiking a football in the endzone or a gorilla pull his jersey over his head after scoring a goal.

TVs On The Juice: Doping Olympic Coverage

Derek sent me this link to an article claiming the Chinese animators spent a year creating digital fireworks to broadcast worldwide. Some of the fireworks were real, but some of them were, well, about as real as Peter Jackson's Gollum.

So, to summarize, the Olympics offer us fake fireworks, fake crowds, and fake athletes.

But world-class entertainment.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Chinese Officials To Crowd: "Applaud Or Else..."

The NY Times reports that Chinese authorities are herding fans to certain contests in order to make it seem like they care about foreign athletes: "Many of the spectators were from China and wore matching shirts. They were brought in by Olympics organizers to help fill the venues and add to the atmosphere with choreographed cheers."

Like the cheerleaders who clapped wildly for over two hours as athletes marched in during the opening ceremonies (creepy), fans, too, must be told where to sit and when to applaud.

And a note on Podium Café indicated that, despite promises to the contrary, many fans were not allowed along the route of the men's cycling road race. Maybe they couldn't read the cue cards written in Mandarin telling them when to cheer and so were kept away from the cameras.

There is nothing like fake spontaneity and choreographed cheers to get my Olympic fever spiked... (the ellipsis = irony). While I despise the overly enthusiastic flag wavers, too much crowd control and forced enthusiasm may be even worse.

Note to Chinese organizers: half empty stadiums would be better than cheers from the Stepford Wives.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Nationalism As A Means To Attract Non Fans

The last post was written tongue (keyboard?) in cheek, but I really do think minimizing nationalism--even if this means a broader role for corporate sponsors--would be a good idea (see the last post and Scott's comment).

Not because nationalism in sporting events leads to violence (or, because as Scott suggests, it minimizes it by channeling violence ritualistically into sport), but because defining national superiority by sports victories can mask much more serious problems. It is the old bread and circus problem of ancient Rome.

Too many Americans think "WE'RE NUMBER ONE" and "These colors don't run" because we won the gold medal in hockey at the 1980 Olympics, or because we won more gold medals than China in 2004. China is certainly hoping to prove their superiority by winning more medals than any other nation this year.

I, for one, would rather see our nation do better in education, health care, or environmental leadership, than to beat Lithuania at basketball.

Nationalism, though, is the primary way of bringing in viewers who otherwise would never watch a two-man scull race or the 200-meter breaststroke. Non-fans want to see the home nation athlete win, even if they only watch downhill skiing once every four years.

Energy crisis? Sorry, I didn't notice; the glint of a gold medal was in my eye...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Of Opening Ceremonies and Nationalism

How stunning! The fireworks! The drums! Those Chinese can really put on a show!

The problem, though, is that the opening ceremonies serve to reinforce the worst of the Olympics: nationalistic fervor.

Grouping athletes by country and showcasing the host nation's prowess is a spectacle that coincides more with the era of the two world wars, but that in the age of globalization rings anachronistic.

For an Olympics that is primarily in the service of global corporations (and that justifies their business ties with China), it would be better to group athletes by their sponsors. "Go team Nike!" and "Go Speedo!" would replace the oh-so-obnoxious chants of "USA! USA!" that make me wish I were Canadian.

The best athletes would be on Team Pepsi or Team Adidas, the less gifted on Team Enron or Team Chuck-a-rama.

And instead of the traditional playing of national anthems, winners could be serenaded by their sponsor's corporate jingle. "Please rise for the playing of McDonald's theme song, 'I'm Lovin' It.'"

It already can't get much more corporate... and it would be a little more honest than the current system. But since nationalism sells better than any jingle, I better get my earplugs dusted off to muffle the chants of "USA! USA! USA! USA!" etc.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


A survey published in Le Figaro (8 July) reveals that Europeans think Italians are the biggest cheaters when it comes to both sports and business.

When asked "Who cheats the most in sports?" 39% of French respondents said "Les Italiens," as did 17% of all European respondents (tops on both lists). What makes this survey's results the most convincing, however, is that when asked the same question, Italians answered, "que cosi, it's us." 32% of Italian respondents (again, tops on the list) said Italians are the biggest cheaters.

True, the Italians may be the best at flopping in soccer, and yes, the French have lost to the Italians in the last two major international tournaments (World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008), perhaps explaining why the French ranked them #1 . But the Italian survey results suggests that they truly are European champions--at cheating. I guess Berlusconi really is the man for the job...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Cleaning Up" Before The Olympics

In yesterday's post, I wrote about China's censorship of some websites in the lead up to the Olympics. If I joked about it, it is because, as far as these things go, blocking the BBC remains pretty mild, especially for a country where free speech is far from a given.

In addition to the website closures, the Chinese have launched a campaign to curb spitting in the street's of Beijing and they have limited driving to clean up the air (they are calling these the "green Olympics," but a report on NPR suggested they are "green" not because they are ecologically responsible but because a lot of the color green is being used to decorate the city) . More disquietingly the Chinese have displaced many poor to make the city more presentable and have used police/military to repress pro-Tibetan and anti-Chinese protesters.

Similar things have happened before during the lead up to the Olympics. Atlanta tore down homes to gentrify their downtown before the Summer Games of 1996. In the run up to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when workers refused to work on construction of Olympic venues, Quebec's government abolished their right to strike in order to assure the games would go on.

But the worst may have been in Mexico in 1968. Nine days before the opening ceremonies, students protested in Mexico City. To maintain Olympic "peace," the government shut down the university and brutally repressed the protest, killing some 300 and attempting to cover it up.

The problem is that local organizers know the International Olympic Committee cannot change venues days before the start of the Games so they get away with murder. Literally. The IOC should have a backup venue in Switzerland, ready to go at a moment's notice (even if this means postponing the games by several weeks). This way, when "cleaning up" becomes "covering up," the IOC can pull the games away from host countries that do not respect Olympic values.

Monday, August 4, 2008

China Reopens Website Under Pressure From IOC

Journalists in China covering the Olympics were surprised to see the BBC's web site shut down by Chinese censors. Shocking! Improper! Highly irregular, Jeeves! How in the world would journalists find out the latest updates on cricket matches? And more importantly, why would the Chinese government be afraid of the BBC? They are clearly afraid rice farmers will start drinking afternoon tea: the gateway drug to bourgeois feelings of superiority. How disturbingly subversive!

Censors had also blocked Amnesty International's site, the site of Reporters Without Borders (a group opposed to China serving as Olympic host), and (gasp...) Wikipedia!

IOC leaders met with Chinese officials and got the BBC back online. Jacques Rogge explained that he was idealistic in assuming that China would keep its end of the bargain by granting journalists full access to information.

Now if they can just get Wikipedia back up, the journalists will be able to go ahead with their source checking...

A final thought, I wonder if I could get this site banned in China during the Olympics? That would truly be an honor.

Full story in Le Monde.

This Year The Winner Of The Tour Will Be Clean

From Charlie Hebdo via Scott.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Biggest Cheats?

I recently ran across a survey about cheating. Pollsters asked people from all over Europe which country had the biggest cheats in sports.

Before I reveal the results, I'll ask for your guesses here. The first person to post a correct answer (in other words, which nation, according to other Europeans, has the most cheaters) will earn a place on the Sports Academics Honor Roll.