Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Notes on the Olympic Summer Games

I can almost imagine that the web site is experiencing a high rate of traffic today, as sports writers, bloggers, and email writers search for superlatives that accomplish the task of describing the performance of Michael Phelps. It is now official that he has set his place in sports history with the two gold medals he added this morning to his total of 5 in the Beijing games and a career total of 11, the highest number of gold medals ever won by a single individual, since stats have been kept.

(I visited, but I wasn't there to look up athletic superlatives. I was there to explore alternatives to the word "sham". The web site gave me "simulate", "assume", "feign", "dissemble", "pretend", and "act" in response to my query.

Though I could watch the Olympics in real time (Beijing is an hour ahead of Bangkok) I seldom get a chance during the daytime and even during the evenings I only take occasional glances at the television as email, conference calls with the U.S., and practical demands like preparing a meal, or pressing a shirt, uses up my time. Still, I watched news clips of Phelps accomplishments this morning when he added two more golds (and two more records) to his weighty pouch. What he has done so far adds up an incredible feat but we need to be reminded perhaps, that Phelps has already announced his decision to compete in the next staging of the global pageant and he has a few more cracks at gold in the current affair in Beijing. His moment of truth arrived this morning. As usual the pace of the swimming events was brutally rapid, as schedulers worked hard to clear the water and get the next race underway in rapid time. I assume it all had to do with the televising schedules and prime time. One news report stated that this morning there were ten events in 76 minutes counting the commercials. Athletes in the water at the end of each race were whistled out of the water. Imagine...if you were Phelps...and had no time to even contemplate what you had just accomplished. No victory laps, no waves at the crowd except as you exited the venue. The key word here, in case you haven't guessed, is "commercial".

We can easily predict that the athletic greatness debate will be brisk following this morning. There is a distinguishing characteristic of such useless arguments that there are all kinds of equivocations used, and numbingly detailed statistics and contentions at the heart of them.

Within the context of Phelp's incredible performance, there will be discussions about the suits, and the pool design (it was wider and deeper, and had been designed to minimize adjacent competitor turbulence). Perhaps someone may bring up the "top secret" experimental flow measurement techniques used by the U.S. swim coaches to help their competitors shave micro seconds of their times. Someone may even observe that the Rensselaer researcher that pioneered this work is a Chinese American. Is Phelps already the greatest athlete, or Olympic competitor of all time? Does anyone with one iota of wisdom care to venture an answer? I hope this is really the stuff of bars, locker rooms, and stuffy gentlemen's clubs, where, unless you engage in arguments as a form of sport itself, which many do. In my humble opinion there are far greater issues then this one, but then, everyone needs a diversion now and then, and all of us need our heroes. I think Phelps suits just fine in that role. I hope he can live up to it and I wish him well.However, the ideation of heroe, in our heads, is one of a self made, disciplined, person whose peserverence, with an ability for strong individual performance. We normally do not consider the institutionalization of the Olympics, and how each country fosters a network of athletic research and modern coaching techniques. Sports performance has become a science of immense complexity. It is really that organized effort that we witness when we watch our heroes swim, or shoot seemingly impossible scores in basketball, or overcome odds against higher rated competitors. If past Olympics are any evidence, we may even be witnessing the edge that some athletes gain through chemicals they take.

In this regard we may want to consider how we view the results of any sport event these days. I mean events that can command bags full of corporate money, dedicated research staff, and soon. I sometimes ask myself, what does it all mean?

P.S. Incidentally, since I wrote my opening line above Fox Sports just released a N.Y. Post commentary entitled "Running out of words to describe Phelps' feats" in which the writer opines about his exhausted Thesaurus. I do not mention this as some sort of evidence of literary secondment. I mention it for the contrary purpose of providing fair warning. What you read here is not necessarily useful,nor well written. It is the N.Y. Post and Fox Sports after all.

1 comment:

"Simplifried" said...

my brother wrote:
"I would point out in response to your musings, that Phelps probably is the best swimmer of all times but not necessarily because of his new World Records which may be due to the pool, the suits, and/or the sciences behind sports.

He is the best relative to the other swimmers who cannot match him.

When I went to Madrid for the World Championships, the brand new specially constructed pool was very slow. Among 48 American swimmers swimming several events including prelims and finals, only four personal best times were recorded. Usually the bigger the event, the more personal bests are achieved. The swimmers were extremely disappointed in the new pool.