Tuesday, September 20, 2016

OLYMPIC IMPRESSIONS FOR 2016

Since a fairly young boy I have always been obsessed with the Olympics.  Thank goodness they only occur every four years (now every two years with alternating summer and winter games).  As a young parent I once took my kids to a three ring circus.  I had heard the expression before and had seen regular circuses, but the three ring concept was mind blowing.  Wild animal act, acrobats and horses and clowns all at the same time meant there was no time to get bored.  The Olympics is like that but only on a much bigger scale.

When I first watched them it was delayed tapes (which had to be flown over), but even then one was aware there was many world sporting things happening at almost the same time).  When the Olympics were held in North America time zones were less of a problem, but technology improved for overseas.  Cash rich Americans could doctor the schedule for their audience and when it didn't suit them go back to taped delays. Now viewers can switch from one event to another at their whim.

Most of the time I enjoy casually following a few local  professional teams and got a little more excited when tournaments (like March Madness) or playoffs raised the intensity  Most of the Olympic sports get my attention only during the Olympics or if they are close by.

As I get older my focus is changing.  The media excitement is mostly around the winners and their stories of how much they and their families sacrificed to provide this opportunity.  Most of us aren't winners in life, at least not in the overblown publicity given to Olympic winners.  The losers also have a story.  Some are just looking for an excuse to take part in the big party.  Others really do sacrifice on a scale very comparable to the eventual winners.  And let's face it we cannot all have the necessary talent, but we can appreciate talent and effort.

What it boils down to is entertainment.  Lots of sports we are unfamiliar with and athletes from exotic places.  We learn a little as we wait for the more familiar.   Brazil has always been a fascinating place and I regret a little bit that I didn't win the lottery so I could go.

Brazil seemed at the selection time to be a worthy host.  South America had never hosted the Olympics before, they were an upcoming economic power (in fact part of the BRICS conglomerate) and with a reasonably stable government.   But now like many other countries they are suffering from the 2008 recession and politically are in the midst of corruption impasse.  To top all that there is the Zika virus that has frightened away many athletes and visitors.  Pollution is another issue (as it was in China) Violent criminal behaviour has reared its ugly head with Brazilians resenting money being spent on the games while ignoring the poor.  Probably all that accounts for what seem to be poor crowds at many of the venues.

As usual there was scandal.  Four US swimmers (including commercial star Ryan Lochte) claimed to have been robbed, but apparently were covering for some vandalism.  People ready to believe police incompetent, but evidence backed the police. Earlier a robbery right in the Athlete's village of Australian athletes.  There was also an IOC executive caught with an illegal ticket scheme.

In the end with few exceptions  it seems the host country mostly loses money.  Some like Russia and China really wanted the games to be a showcase to illustrate their power and modernity.  Some cities like Boston have opted not to be a host.  To me one solution would be give the host nation more of the television/online revenue.  The richer nations could help support rotating hosts or a permanent site.

Another big issue is drugs.  Canadians were stunned when just  a few days after watching Ben Johnson set a new world record winning the 100 metre gold medal, perhaps the most prestigious event it all fell away.  It seems he couldn't pass a drug test.  Years later it appears that many of his competitors including the new gold medal winner had experience with performance enhancing drugs.  The International Olympic Committee took the praiseworthy step of banning the whole Russian track and field team and apparently the whole Paralympic team.  I hadn't realized that drugs were being used for impaired athletes, sometimes as an extension on pain relievers.

Eric Lamaze, a Canadian equestrian hero at one time faced a lifetime ban.  After a positive test he was so discouraged he contemplated suicide and in his despair smoked a cocaine laced cigarette and tested positive again.  However his previous test was over ruled and his second test disregarded.  He has gone on to be a world and Olympic champion including winning a bronze medal in 2016.

Two things stand out to me--drugs give an unfair advantage to some athletes that choose not to play by the same rules as the rest.  More importantly drugs have bad effects on the population that is striving to win medals or to emulate their heroes, not to mention the athletes themselves who may not be fully aware of the danger.  It is an ongoing battle.

The CBC has done a great job.  They have formed partnerships with other networks that allow them to farm out events.  Online live and replay videos ensure more people can see what interest them the most when it suits them.  The Canadian ratings were up while the American ratings were down, supposedly by prioritizing tape delays.  There was less access to Paralympic events, but still much more than in past years.

Tv commercials were tailored for the Games--favorite was an American and a Canadian playing off one another and advocating a quick payment system for VISA--didn't realize they were married with one being an American Deacathlon champion and his Canadian wife a champion Heptathlete and they both went on to win medals.   In the Paralympics Bell stood out by presenting applications for the handicapped.  SportChek did ads pointed directly at the impaired athletes.

As always a few heart warming events.  A New Zealand runner fell and caused an American runner to fall ended up helping her and not finishing the race.  A German coach died with four organ transplants that saved other people.  Canadan walker, Evan Dunfee declined to follow a complaint foregoing a possible bronze medal and later socializing with the Japanese bronze medalist.

Politics does intrude in a variety of ways, but still present a facade of non politics.  The ultimate would be no countries, only individuals.  The problem with that is it takes organization and money to make it work and where would be the motivation for anyone.  I remember in the Mexico Olympics two blacks protesting injustice on the medal podium and were punished for it.  I remember boycotts by both the Americans and Russians.  In this Olympics it was noted that an Egyptian refused to shake hands with an Israeli.  Also an Ethiopian made a protest gesture against his government as he earned a silver for the men's marathon.  On the other hand there was a South Korean taking a selfie with a North Korean.  There will always be politicians and corporations trying to exploit the Olympic spirit, but why throw away the good with the bad.

The Paralympics abandoned by original financing and losing the entire Russian team went on to illustrate a few interesting points.  The local Brazilians came out in greater numbers to watch the competition because it was more affordable and found the competition exciting.

Classification is a key part of the Paralympics.  How to compare the degree of impairment?  Inevitably one athlete is slightly more impaired than others classed the same, but this also paralleled in able bodies where some are taller, have better vision, etc.  The idea is to give competitors a relatively level playing field.  Many competitors were included with non visible handicaps such as intellectual.  It gives more people a chance to focus on a goal and on physical activities.

Four visually impaired runners actually beat the 1500 m gold medal winner from the Olympics.  It is true that with the Olympic version the runners were employing strategic decisions and had run much better personal bests.  Still you can appreciate the standards are creeping up as more impaired athletes take a serious approach.

The medals were adapted for disabled.  Each medal had a unique sound component and had a Braille statement.

Wheelchair basketball and rugby draw big crowds  It is true the large track stadium was only partially filled.

Some heroes.  I missed most of the events, but couldn't help admiring  Aurélie Rivard from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu chosen as flag bearer with a winning smile  Penny Oleksiak a Gold medal winner in the Olympics also had a radiant face when competing.

Both closing ceremonies were full of fireworks, light show and great music.   The single person who impressed me the most was Japanese dancer, Koichi Omae with one leg shortened above the ankle who was a very acrobatic ballet dancer.  Jonathan Bastos, a Brazilian was born with no arms and but learned to play the guitar with his feet.  A minute of silence was given for Iranian cyclist who died in competition the day before.  The guitarist for Nacao Zumbi flashed a sign telling the Brazilian president (who replaced impeached Dilma Rousseff) to get out.

After all my cynicism I will not be able to resist the 2018 and 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.  Brazil exceeded expectations.  Although there is lots to be cynical about the lure of a three ring circus is too much.  The international pageantry gives one some hope for the future of mankind.

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