Monday, August 25, 2008

Matthias Steiner of Germany won gold in the heaviest weight class in Beijing

As a kid, I used to watch a lot of sports on television. It didn’t matter if the event was a sport  I deeply loved and played a lot, such as baseball, or was one I couldn’t imagine playing ever – such as boxing, which took up all of prime time on Fridays. Of course, what was on television in the 1950s, when there were just three networks, was a tiny percentage of what there is now, with ESPN, ESPN-2, the Sports Channel, the Golf Channel, a channel just for road racing & such pay packages as MLB-TV for baseball. One could watch sports 7 by 24 if one wanted. Indeed, one could watch a single sport 7 by 24 if you were willing to pony up to do so. I suppose that we’re just a few years away from universal access to all of the sports all of the time. At that point, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch any of them – the inundation level simply reduces the competition to a level of irrelevance. I’ve always thought that baseball lost something special when its customers no longer had to skip out of work for a day to attend a game.

So I can’t say that I’ve been riveted to the Olympic coverage the past couple of weeks. I enjoyed the whiz-bang of the opening ceremonies (I’d seen some of the choreography, it turns out, right here in Philly several months ago) & saw most of Michael Phelps’ races, thoroughly dominating a sport about which I care not a whit. But the two sports I really enjoyed watching were beach volleyball & weightlifting, the latter of which turned up at odd hours on the extended cable coverage of the games.

I’ve rarely played volleyball & have been dreadful whenever I tried, but as a kid I used to play a game called tetherball, where a ball is literally roped to the end of a pole. One player serves and the two combatants try to wrap it around the pole in their direction, not that of the opponent. My usual opposite in these games was my best bud from the middle school years, Bruce Downing, who later on would grow up to become an All-American volleyball player. The last time I saw Bruce, who now is a science & computer teacher in the East Bay, I noted just how much tetherball – the court was in his backyard – resembles the blocking game at the net in volleyball. Which is exactly how I watch volleyball today. Beach volleyball feels like the real deal to me, unlike the hyped-up variant on hard courts indoors with larger teams that make it almost impossible to see the strategies being used.

Weightlifting is a sport I got to know by accident in the early 1980s. I was working as the director of development & outreach at the California Institute of Integral Studies, then located on the border between the Mission & Noe Valley in San Francisco, and I was looking around for a way to stay in shape. The Sports Palace was a gym down the hill on Valencia & proved quite a bit less expensive than any of the other gyms in the area. What I didn’t know when I signed up there was that half of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team worked out at the gym, including Mario Martinez, who won a silver medal in the 1984 games (which I believe is still the best an American has done in the past quarter century). In those days, there were three gyms in the U.S. where a “serious” weightlifter could aim for competitive mastery – the Sports Palace, a gym in Colorado Springs & another in York, PA (home, not so coincidentally, to York Barbells). I was fortunate to get trained on free weights by Jim Schmidt, who in those days coached the Olympic team some years & served as the trainer in others. As I soon learned, the Sports Palace was so widely known, that it was used as the location for a Streets of San Francisco episode that focused on a homicidal weightlifter who killed off his opponents. This had been the acting debut of one Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in those days was just starting to gain credibility as a thespian of a certain type.

While I was generally pathetic myself, I could always see exactly how far away from the very best in the world I was, a great motivator. Weight training is still my favorite form of exercise all these years later, and I’ve benefited greatly from Schmidt’s tutelage. The Sports Palace itself closed down, a victim of San Francisco retail rental costs, tho I hear that Schmidt has a gym now somewhere down the peninsula.

Martinez got the silver in 1984 in part because that was the Olympics where the Soviets boycotted. There is, of course, no Soviet Union today, but what that nation’s disintegration left in its wake is a series of countries that all tend to be quite good at this sport, and take it seriously. Thus, for example, in the men’s 94 kilo category, the winner was Ilya Ilin of Kazakhstan. He was followed, in this order, by lifters from Poland, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Germany, Spain, Ukraine, Moldova & Moldova.

No Americans competed in this weight category, and indeed just seven Americans competed in weightlifting in the Olympics at all, four of them women. Women only began to be allowed to compete in the 2000 Olympics, and I believe the last US medal of any sort in this sport was the bronze won that year by Cheryl Haworth. Haworth finished sixth in her weight class this year, as did Melanie Roach, the best the U.S. could do.

So even a sport as elemental as weightlifting – it’s just you and gravity and mass – is changing. Watching the Olympics in 2008 was all about change – new vaulting platforms for gymnasts, new suits for the swimmers that have made all existing records obsolete, new sports (my favorite is a version of handball that looks like a combination of soccer & dodgeball), new rules for extra innings in baseball. It seems inevitable that in a few years, skateboarding & other extreme sports will all end up being included in the Olympics while some of the more traditional ones will disappear or else become marginalized, a fate that could happen to weightlifting.

One change that I have not been fond of this year has been the largely dishonest way the medal competition has been handled in the media. In past Olympics, the media has routinely reported this by counting first-place finishes as worth three points, second-place finishes as worth two and bronze as worth one. This year, instead, they’re simply totaling the medals without regard to finish. The result is that most coverage shows the U.S. as having won the most medals by virtue of finishing second and third so often. As of early Friday morning, when I calculated this, the actual medal count under the old system would have looked like this:

                                    Gold           Silver           Bronze       Total        Points
China                               46                 15                  22             83            190
United States                  29                 34                   32              95            187
Russia                             16                16                    19              51             99
Great Britain                   17                12                    11              40             86
Australia                         11                13                      7              31             66

Since the first four columns are how this is being reported on the official Olympics website, no doubt official decisions were made to ensure this kind of reporting, but it should be instantly clear just who benefits from not taking into consideration whether your athletes won gold, silver or bronze.