Joy In Sports

The normally-sensible Kevin Drum gets all Wimbleton on the ass of what he calls the ‘Pseudo-Sports’ we’re seeing in the Olympics – halfpipe, snowboardcross, etc.

By coincidence, we’re sitting and watching the prelims on women’s snowboardcross – an event where four competitors on snowboards race down a narrow track – at the same time – jostling, passing, falling, all kinds of crazy stuff.

It’s the opposite of elegant, it’s wild and wooly. And the competitors – unlike the programmed athletic cyborgs we see at the highest levels of most sports – are pretty out of control as well.

The top American woman, Lindsey Jacobellis, lost her gold when, leading at the final jump, she stunted and fell – a showboat move which infuriated Kevin.

I loved it.

It’s the Olympic Games, not the Olympic Job.Look, I spent two years racing bicycles full-time. I know how hard people work to get to the level where they can seriously try and get to the Olympics. I know what it’s like to get up at 5:30 every morning and train for three hours, and then go to the gym at night. I feel a pang whenever the camera tightens in on the fallen athlete – a closeup on the realization that twelve years of pain and effort was wasted in one slip of a ski or skate.

But it’s still supposed to be fun; the moments I connect most closely with are those where the sheer pleasure of performance comes through.

In the women’s halfpipe, Hannah Teter the gold medalist had won the event before her final run. She could have sideslipped down the whole pipe and walked up to the podium. Instead, she threw down a brilliant performance – out of the sheer joy of doing it.

Let’s have more of that, please.

[Update: I just caught this editorial in the NYT:

Meanwhile, the potential champions in sports like figure skating grimly go about their business, trying to pretend that it’s all for the love of the sport, that the whole world isn’t watching, that a king’s ransom in endorsements doesn’t hang in the balance.

At times, the atmosphere gets downright gloomy. When the American figure skater Johnny Weir missed the bus to the rink, he got upset and skated badly, and finished without a medal. “I didn’t feel my aura,” he said. “Inside I was black.” Meanwhile, the Russian skater Yevgeni Plushenko accepted his gold medal with a stone-faced stare, “looking completely unamused,” as The Times’s Juliet Macur reported. “I tell the truth, this is my dream, yeah, and I am so happy,” Mr. Plushenko said unconvincingly. “Believe me, I am so happy.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Jacobellis had an amazing race, built a huge lead, got exuberant and went splat. What did she think these were — Games?


4 thoughts on “Joy In Sports”

  1. You’ve got guys on snow or ice, who have to perform under difficult conditions, showing grace, balance, skill, and yes power all together.

    I LOVE it.

    The wild exuberance of the snowboard folks. The grace and skill and balance of the skiers, who perform at astonishing speeds. The grace and artistic beauty of the Ice Dancing women who are stunning. The sheer guts of the cross country endurance folks or the speed of the speed skaters.

    Kevin Drum doesn’t like it because the sports emphasize balance and grace and the athletes are recognizably human instead of comic book physiques.

  2. For me, in all this, there’s also a strong resonance with the subtext of the movie “Strictly Ballroom”. In a telling moment, one of the apoplectic superannuated but highly-situated-in-ballroom-dancing figures says in a mixture of fear and outrage, to his equally outraged cronies, “If you don’t know the steps, you can’t teach the steps!”

    …meaning “We’ll all be out of jobs! (if we let this whippersnapper do whatever he wants and win the Pan Pacific Championship)”.

    For the would-be top figures in dancing in that movie, “making it” meant that they could stop having to work their day jobs as landscapers, hot tub salesmen or what have you, and open a dance studio where they could bask in their glory, maybe crank out a few high-priced “secrets of winning ballroom” DVDs, and coast.

    Having FUN? Grow UP.

    Do see the movie if you haven’t. It’s a fine piece of work (for a chick flick :) )

    And don’t get me started on the cannabis + snowboarding tip. What’re the athletic unions going to do? claim that it enhances performance? Hmmmm.

  3. By the way, “Strictly Ballroom” is on my top-ten list of all movies — much better than the whole lot of ballroom dance movies that followed — unlike any other dance movie, it takes itself so unseriously, and whatever message it has to the ballroom world, that message equally applies to the figure skating, gymnastics, competitive cheerleading, etc. worlds. The people in the movie were serious, but the movie was unserious about the subject to serve as serious satire.

    As to the seriousness of sports and games, there is this phenomenon of the adult world I called “Hey, look at me!” If I were ever to do a serious social-cultural documentary on this, I would chronical 1) the National Flute Association Convention, 2) a model railroad show, and 3) the EAA Oshkosh fly-in of experimental aircraft — these three events are really all the same thing. But if I did that, it would be my “Hey, look at me” for making the documentary.

    “Hey, look at me” dawned on me one fine August afternoon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin when the antique air racers made exhibition passes over the airfield. After the third pass, we all kind of got the idea what the antique air racers looked like in flight, but no, the air racers were not through until the 7th, 8th, or more pass while the audience started to get bored with the whole proceeding. There was one air-racer plane with a hornet’s buzz coming from the propeller that was faster than the rest of the air racers; the plane kept passing everybody and he got in 9, 10 or 11 passes.

    The idea was no longer to entertain the crowd. The concept was “Hey, look at me!” I put my life savings into this antique air racer, I am within a hair-breadth of divorce on account of all the time I put in, and I have slaved for hours restoring this thing, it is my time slot to show off at EAA and get the envy of fellow pilots, so I am just going to keep flying orbits around the field until the audience is fidgeting waiting for the next act.

    I am not sure if the Olympics, however, are “Hey, look at me!” They were at one time, but they have become, “Hey, look at my kid!” The idea of the “Chariots of Fire” style amateur Olympic athlete has been gone for at least 50 years if not more. The modern athlete is kind of like the Saturday Night Live satire of Tiger Woods where the pretend Earl Woods Sr. proudly talks about his son while the pretend Earl “Tiger” Woods Jr. complains about the time his dad glued the golf club to his hands. If the Olympic athletes seem joyless, it is probably on account of “Hey, look at me” by proxy for their parents.

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