Search Box

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Olympics, Part I

As a dumb swimming fan (I hadn't checked the schedule to see that the swimming events don't start till 9PM Eastern time), I sat through an hour of gymnastics before they started the swimming.

The best thing about watching the Olympics for me is seeing people do things with their bodies that I could never dream of doing; the gymnasts are a good example of that. I envy them their powerful shoulders, arms, and v-shaped torsos. They're wearing the right outfits though: sleeveless athletic tops with long pants. A lot of them seem to have disproportionately skinny little legs. Big legs would be a disadvantage for gymnasts the way huge arms would be for a distance runner: it would be superfluous weight which would prevent them from performing as well on the parallel bars, the pommel horse, and the rings. They do need to use their legs on the floor exercises and vault. But they still end up looking pretty lopsided.

Two things hit me yesterday that had never occurred to me before. The first was that a fair number of gymnasts must use steroids, since strength is obviously a big advantage in the sport. Some of the gymnasts had the telltale veins in the front of their shoulders, and the convex traps which often indicate juicing.

The second was, a fair number of the male gymnasts must be gay. Several of the guys last night seemed to have "gay face." They tended to be very huggy with one other after their routines. The expert commentator had "gay voice." And some of the gymnasts tended to get very emotional after their performances. This was particularly true of the Brazilian team, among whom tears are almost de rigueur, though that seems to be partly a cultural thing. (The top Brazilian swimmer of the past decade, Cesar Cielo, who doesn't appear to be gay, would invariably cry after each winning performance.) And gymnastics is a sport, like diving and figure skating, where you're scored on artistic merit.

I'm not making a moral judgment here, merely an observation. Nor am I saying all gymnasts are gay. Anyway, it's interesting I'd never noticed this before; I guess those big deltoids and triceps and biceps served as an effective disguise.

Swimming is a very formful sport, meaning, the swimmers generally perform as they're expected to. Kosuke Hagino was expected to win the 400 IM, and he did. Sarah Sjostrom in the 100 fly and Adam Peaty in the 100 breast were expected to have the fastest times in the heats and semifinals, and they did. And the Australian women won the 4 x 100 free relay, as expected.

Katinka Hosszu was expected to win the 400 IM, and she did, smashing the old world record. (This post got over 2000 hits in the past 24 hours; a lot of people evidently had the same thought after seeing the muscular Hosszu.) If they want to find out what vitamins she is taking, they ought to test her husband and coach (and Svengali), the volatile Shane Tusup, since he's likely taking the same ones:

Unexpected performances are the exception, not the rule, and so races expected to be close are generally keenly anticipated. One such was the men's 400 free, expected to be a close one between Mack Horton of Australia and Sun Yang of China.

To the delight of most swimming fans, Horton won. Yang had splashed Horton in the warmup pool the day before (not in a playful way), had gotten into a physical altercation with a female Brazilian swimmer at the World Championships last year, has served a suspension for doping, didn't bother to show up for a 1500 final at a world championship once, has been suspended by his national federation of not attending team training camps, and has spent a brief amount of time in jail for driving without a license in China.

In swimming, a relatively bland sport, it's rare to have the good guys and bad guys delineated so clearly.


Luqman said...

I think they are mostly cheating. At the top levels of performance the differences must be relatively minor, and the reward for getting away with it is very significant incentive. If one or two cheat, it would make the playing field lopsided (especially for women, where the gains are relatively greater) in a way we dont really see. The only possibilities then become almost no cheating or rampant abuse. With all the revelations over the course of the last few years (or if one paid attention, decades) it does not seem to be the former. Really, as you noted, it seems quite obvious. Everyone involved must be aware of it at some level as well, once you think about it. It is the competitors one would expect to care and notice most. Probably the hosts have the greatest advantage in this regard, if so I expect Brazil to significantly improve its overall performance this olympics.

When it came out that Russia was being significantly penalized I was quite amused.

John Craig said...

Luqman --
Maybe this will make me sound biased and naive, but I think swimming is a relatively clean sport. I tend to be a suspicious guy, and my list of suspects in swimming is longer than that of most swimming fans. I think Russia and Brazil and China have a high proportion of dirty swimmers, and I can think of several prominent US swimmers over the past decade and a half who I'm pretty sure were doping but never got caught. And the French have had a couple of fairly obvious dopers too. But I do think most swimmers are clean. I think Phelps, Lochte, Ledecky, and Hagino are clean.

Track and field and weight-lifting and cycling are traditionally dirty sports. I doubt there's been a single winner of the 100 meter dash in the past two decades who's been clean. (And I'm a big Usain Bolt fan.) But there, I almost hold it against the dopers less, since doping just puts them on a level playing field with everyone else.

Luqman said...

Not at all John, I trust your intuition and reasoning in this matter far more than my own conclusions. I am not particularly interested in swimming and it is easy to be either totally credulous or utterly cynical. Those who appear to be the most cynical (e.g. `of course they all cheat, everyone knows that`) often dont really seem to have much of a clue at all in my experience.

That said, I was reading Razib Khan`s blog before I read your post and a few things stood out to me in this link (plus the NYT excerpt it contains):

- The enormous social pressure to keep mum about doping
- The possibility of more subtle methods of cheating
- The obviousness of it even in the 70s
- The results generally being as expected despite the above

Do you perceive a difference in apparent doping between men`s and women`s swimming?

I certainly agree with you that the moral crime of doping in an environment where nearly all your competitors are doing it is significantly less serious. At some level it is always an abuse of the trust of the people who watch and emotionally invest themselves in these sports, but yeah, would not hold it againt Bolt for instance.

The doping arms race itself seems so fascinating, I am sure I would eagerly watch events in which it was accepted. Push mankind as far as it can go without the worry of shame breathing down your neck. Not saying it would be a good thing but certainly entertaining!

John Craig said...

Luqman --
Agreed, the all or none approach (which includes total cynicism) is often wrong too.

Yes, there are more subtle, i.e., less visible ways to cheat. Steroids are the most visible form of cheating: if you take them, the changes in your body will be visible to anybody who's observant about these things. And they don't just make you all around thicker and meatier, they do so in very specific ways: they makes your trapezius jut up from your shoulder, they give you a very defined line between your pectoral muscles, they displace blood veins (and force them to pop to the surface), that's how you get those veins in the front of your shoulders. Plus they make your deltoids sharply defined and convex, and make the muscles on the outside of your forearm bulge. At the same time, they can leave your neck relatively skinny, and will generally not increase the thickness of your legs as much as the thickness of your torso.

The more subtle ways to cheat are with human growth hormone, which helps you recover more quickly from workouts but doesn't really change your outward appearance all that much; with blood doping, which increases your endurance; and with EPO, which also increases your endurance.

A number of people have suggested what you have, just saying screw it, everything is allowed. I actually wouldn't mind having a separate league for that, the way they effectively do in body-building. Then they can have their separate set of records, all of which would have an asterisk next to them. But I wouldn't want to open up ordinary competition to that. And right now, the pity is that a lot of the existing records should have asterisks next to them, but don't.