The Wonderful Weirdness of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio
The beauty of the Olympics (well, not the beauty, it’s more just a thing) is that every four years, a host of different sports nobody gives a stuff about poke their heads above the dustbin of public apathy and engage us. And it’s because they’re in the Olympics. You feel compelled to watch. It’s the Olympics. Something about ‘em.
The Games offer us vaulters and scullers and all manner of synchronised leapers, the best of their type, the elite of their discipline, the masters of their craft. They’re the fastest, strongest, most accurate of our humankind. And every four years, they gather to throw and leap and run. It’s compelling.
Yet a few days in at Rio and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of, um, spectators at events. It’s very colourful, for sure. Because you can see so many multicoloured seats. Even Brazil vs. Russia in beach volleyball on Copacabana Beach, there were many spare seats.
But let’s not be churlish. It’s the Olympics. Everyone’s doing their best. And there’s some funky stuff going on. And while the following is not the world’s most definitive guide—indeed it’s a pastiche of half-mad musings I made while binge-watching the first few days—it’s one view from Australia. And it’s likely—as you might expect—not what you might expect.
Gymnastics: Discipline, Dexterity and Magical Elves
Love this stuff. All the backward somersaults, the twisting ribbons and balls tossed into the air, all those dextrous and nimble manoeuvres performed by squat, finely muscled little people with superb balance and strength, and a look in their eyes like they’ve been kept in a dungeon for many years and fed protein shakes through a straw in a hole in the door.
It’s a haunted look, one that says: "Someone please save me. They picked me as a child, trained me each day, I know nothing else. I’d rather be a pastry chef or a financial planner, or one of those website designer guys who work from home and design apps and hang out in rustic little coffee shops and grow a big hairy beard. Anything but this. Anything but this…"
There is an exception: Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan has been to seven Olympics. Her first one was Barcelona in 1992. She was junior champion of the USSR, the former Soviet Union. She is 41, the gymnastics equivalent of Morgan Freeman playing the role of that kid who saw dead people.
And there she still is, this tiny elfin creature—whose longevity in a sport of teenagers provides a magical air about her—sprinting flat out toward a little springboard thing and shooting off it onto a vault and contorting in the air into all manner of twists and somersaults, and then sticking the landing and saluting the judges. And good luck to her. She has the commitment of a snakebit happy-clapper.
Fencing: Blood Lust of the Beekeepers
Nimble, agile people dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers wearing modified beekeepers’ masks, like faceless droids, attached to a heap of computer equipment and sensors and saying, "En garde!" and squealing in victory. Lot to like.
How would you get into it, though, fencing? You’d have to have come from a long line of fencers. Or maybe be a prince, like that guy in Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix, trained by experts in sword play. Or maybe you’d be like those historical re-enactment people, the ones who get into all the old kit and pretend they’re swordsmen from olden days.
Interviewed a fellow once who was a medieval re-enactment person, and he said that once he was in that full suit of armour and chain mail, and swinging around a mighty broadsword or mace, he got so into it that he almost had to remind himself it was not an actual fight from medieval times. Seems when the blood was up and he was in the full kit, and in a fight with someone else, even a mock one, he almost forgot he was a modern-day person and not a knight from England in the 12th century.
Fencing probably isn’t like that.
That we know.
Archery: The Stone Killers of South Korea
Watching Ukraine vs. Japan in an elimination final of the women’s team event, a commentator said the women’s team event has been run on seven occasions and won on seven occasions by South Korea. They would win their eighth consecutive gold here. Which means one thing: Don’t get into a knife fight with a South Korean woman if she’s 75 yards away with a bow and arrow.
What makes Korean women so good? Stillness looks to be the main factor. Practice, too, would help, one would warrant. But stillness is key. Archers draw back the prehensile wire of their perfectly weighted modern marvels of lightweight carbon-fibre tungsten and engineering, purse it against their lips and stay extremely still until there’s a little click—which is the bow telling the archer to let go—and let go. And away flies the arrow, and…that’s it.
The team event sees three archers taking turns. There’s floppy hats. Quivers. Lots of little doodads—forearm guards, breast guards. It’s not the blue-riband event of the Games of the XXXIst Olympiad. But it is sort of interesting, in a not extremely interesting sort of way.
Rowing: A Feral Bender on White Water
The rowing course looks terrific. Surrounded by green and jagged mountains and the cityscape, the waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas look tremendous for a spot of boating. But the lagoon’s been rougher than the whitewater kayak course.
Speaking to reporters, Australian rower Alex Lloyd described the water as “feral” and “wilder than a subbies Mad Monday,” which is a comparison to an end-of-season, daylong drinking bender by lower-grade rugby players. That’s rough water.
Rough? The water was so rough two Serbians fell out of their boat. These are the elite rowers of the earth and they can’t pull off what you’d suggest a fairly simple discipline of a rower: Don’t fall out of the boat. The poor bastards. Train four years, and come the Olympics, they can’t achieve the fairly critical don’t-fall-out-of-the-boat component.
Equestrian: There Are Better Events Than Eventing
USA had a rider at the London Olympics called Rich Fellers, which is a pretty accurate description of those with the financial wherewithal to compete in Olympic equestrian “eventing.”
There’s a bit in the dressage section which seems to be how well one can make a horse “walk.” There’s an Australian expression that sums up the appeal of dressage which is: “Yeah, nah.” Which means no, and I mean it. An affirmation of one's negativity.
Sorry, horse people.
Swimming: This Is Not Sexy, This Is Animal
A lot of people in the country of Australia love the swimming because Australians are very good at it because most of us live on the coast of the world’s biggest island. Swimming is how we survive, much less win gold medallions. And while it’s somewhat heretic to admit in these parts, I think it's crap.
Heap of splashing, some thrashing, by half-submerged giant seal people. What can they say in those poolside post-race interviews? "Yes, I dived in, swam to the other end, turned around, swam to the other end, turned around, swam to the other end…"
I admire the discipline it takes to be very good at swimming. These people sacrifice and flog themselves like horse thieves. But if ever a sport needed a lane for other members of our animal kingdom—think dolphins, hippos, gentoo penguins, platypus, giant frogs—to demonstrate the relative speed of human beings, swimming is it.
Rugby Sevens: A Riot of Speed and Gleaming White Teeth
Chances are you missed it, but if you can dig up a replay of USA vs. Australia, I urge you to check it out. Ninety seconds into the match, there was the biggest hit you’ll see outside a prison riot. There followed a succession of high-speed breakouts on both flanks by athletic, fit women chased by other fit, committed women.
These people are runners, with the cracking physicality of 400-meter runners. They’re fast, skilled and physical. And they can really run.
In the men’s sevens, look no further than the Fijians, who are more squadron of circus performers and Bond henchmen, huge humans with huge hands and athleticism, and great long legs, and agility who rip off audacious skill at high speed. And all the while smiling through great gleaming white teeth. And if they win Fiji their first Olympic gold medal, the country will just about give them islands.
Field Hockey: Big Flickers Are the Best Kind
According to a commentator in the Australia vs. Spain Group A pool match, Chris Ciriello “has a massive, massive flick on him.” That means Ciriello can, if it is his wont, trap the ball and whack it hard into the net at super-high speed in a flicking-type motion. It’s the field hockey equivalent of the slap shot, and if you’re packing a massive one, you’re a weapon from penalty corners.
Penalty corners? They happen when there’s a penalty in a big semicircle near the goal and the team awarded the penalty shoots the ball low toward the centre of the semicircle, and there’s jiggy-pokery among attackers before the one with the massive flick on him attempts to flick the ball into the net, as old mate Ciriello did a few times in this match.
Australia still lost to Spain, 1-0, however.