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Monday, May 4, 2009

Equestrian events and yachting

Just read this morning on Page Six of the NY Post (I have an enquiring mind, as they used to say) that Georgina Bloomberg, the mayor's daughter, competed this past weekend in her quest to make the 2012 US Equestrian team for the Olympics.

What a travesty. Two events which should never have never been part of the Olympic program are the Equestrian events and yachting.

The Olympics are supposed to be a continuation of the ancient Greek games determining who could jump the furthest, run the fastest, wrestle the best, etc. There has always been a certain military flavor to the modern Games (pistol shooting, archery, the pentathlon), and horseback riding was certainly an important part of warfare through the ages. But the equestrian events as currently constituted are all about being able to buy the most expensive horses, stable them, hire the best trainers, etc, which leaves them closed to all but a very few. (As best I can recall, the Greeks never had an event called "Who's got the richest Daddy?")

It wouldn't be so bad if all the riders competed on the same set of horses, to see, say, who could shoot a standard bow and arrow most accurately from the back of a moving animal. But that's not the way the sport works. What counts now is how much horse you can afford. (The gold medal should really go to the horse, not the rider.)

An Olympic champion in dressage is a great athlete in pretty much the same sense that George Steinbrenner is a great athlete.

Yachting, by the way, is somewhat of a misnomer, as the boats used bear much more resemblance to Sunfish than to the monstrosity owned by Larry Ellison. Still, how many people is this open to?

These two sports are holdovers from the old days of Avery Brundage, a rich man who felt that his friends ought to get to play in the Games while anybody who needed financial help, i.e., lower or middle class people who might take sponsorship dollars, should not.

Admittedly, sports like gymnastics and swimming require at least a middle class background (poor people have neither the money nor the leisure time to participate), but those at least are about physical ability. We watch the Olympics to marvel at the prowess of athletes who make us think, "Wow, I could never do that!" (Not to think, "Damn, I wish my parents had had more money.")

While I'm ranting: no sport for which the Olympics does not represent the peak of achievement should be in the Olympics. Runners, wrestlers, swimmers, and gymnasts grow up dreaming of becoming Olympic champions. Tennis players grow up dreaming of Wimbledon, and basketball players grow up dreaming of lucrative NBA contracts. Those sports should not be part of the Games. The basketball situation is a little more complicated, the former Soviet bloc countries generally don't have professional basketball the way we do (even though their players sometimes come to the NBA), and their basketball teams can be a source of great national pride (witness Lithuania). Nonetheless, the NBA does beckon, and there is professional basketball in Europe, so I'd vote no on basketball. Tennis should definitely not be a part of the Games. Recently they've even talked about including golf; thank goodness that idea was tabled.

The Olympic Village should be filled with people for whom those two weeks are the highlight of their lives, not with people who are slumming.

One sport which should be expanded is the triathlon, which is now contested at only one distance. A longer event, perhaps a half or full Ironman, should be included, since many people compete at those distances and the physical fortitude required is certainly in keeping with Olympic ideal. One sport which currently isn't included at all, but should be, is (UFC-style) mixed martial arts, which comes closer to the ancient Greek sport of pankration than any of the individual combat sports do.


Anonymous said...

Good points. Soccer is another sport where the Olympic medal is not the pinnacle of achievement. And the Olympic soccer rules - the team must be under 23 years old, with three over age players allowed - define this as a sort of junior championship. How does that fit an Olympic ideal? But it does fit the Olympic business goal of bringing in a lot of ticket sales.

There are so many sports in the Olympics that housing all the athletes in the Olympic Village is a limiting factor. Eliminating some sports that do not fit a well defined Olympic ideal would open up spots for genuine Olympic sport competitors - like expanding the triathlon events, or allowing Nations with three of the worlds top swimmers in a single event to bring them all to the Olympics. Swimming presently allows only two National athletes per event - a rule that, I believe, was put in place to punish the United States for boycotting the 1980 Olympics.


John Craig said...

Thanks Ed. I hadn't know about the age rule in soccer. And I hadn't heard the theory that the two swimmers per nation rule was punishment for the 1980 boycott; I had always thought it was a way to "democratize" the Games after the many 1-2-3 US sweeps in swimming in '76.