Let the Games Begin

And the gold medal for pinochle goes to...

1. Get used to the snow. MacAloon says the organizers of the Summer Games, like those of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are committed to reducing the length of the show (with the same level of success). That's why the category of "demonstration sports" -- televised competitions whose winners don't receive medals -- has been nixed altogether.

Winter Olympics officials, on the other hand, are more or less desperate for new acts. This explains the admission of curling as a medal sport and why the World Bridge Federation is petitioning to get into the games alongside such comparable activities as the giant slalom, luge and ice hockey.

2. Let the girls play. The IOC now frowns on games that only boys play. A sport must be played in 75 countries to be admitted as a men's sport into the games. For women, it's only forty countries. That's why much of the Summer Games' recent expansion consists of adding women's divisions to existing sports.

3. Let everyone else in the world play, too. Most of the contests in the modern Olympic games are either European or North American sports or up-to-date derivatives of them. The IOC is looking for a little diversity. Indeed, the next event reportedly in line to be admitted to the games is sepak takraw, a Thai game that looks like volleyball played with your feet -- and that most Americans probably haven't seen unless they've happened to channel-surf past ESPN2 at 3 a.m.

This past spring, the Takraw Association of Thailand staged a contest for IOC president Samaranch. The demonstration (first a match between the country's top men's teams, then -- see No. 2 above -- a women's match) was preceded by a display of 500 children waving Olympic flags. Samaranch, whose words and actions are dissected like those of a politburo member, appeared "interested" in the game, according to the Thai newspaper The Nation. It is "a wonderful sport," he was heard to say.

4. Be modern, or learn to get that way. Nothing in the Olympic Games is as antiquated as the modern pentathlon, an event originally conceived by the military. Although each of the events singly is a fine way to pass some time -- riding, shooting, fencing, cross-country running and swimming -- together they're a mishmash of events that, according to the sport's official Web site, "arose out of the romantic, tough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse is brought down in enemy territory."

Yet, to their credit, the powers that be in pentathloning have received the message and have adapted. This year will mark the first time women will compete (see No. 2), and the event has been shortened from four or five days down to a much more viewer-friendly one (see No. 1).

Indoor volleyball has also been forced to keep up with the times. The games in Atlanta marked the debut of beach volleyball, a far sexier sport than its sneaker-squeaky, gymnasium-bound cousin. So this year, to win viewers, the 2000 indoor volleyball matches will sport a new feature: A roving free-safety-like player called the "libero" will attempt to spice up the game.

Fencing, too, is struggling to stay relevant. One of four original Olympic sports, formal sword fighting has become arcane and -- a far worse sin -- un-telegenic. In an attempt to bring the event into the 21st century (at this point, even the 18th century would be nice), fencing bureaucrats have experimented with a clear plastic mask that at least would put a human face on the contestants.

Many fencers have resisted the changes, but they remain purists at their peril. Events such as the standing long jump and standing high jump did not keep pace with the times (although it's hard to imagine how they could have) and so were canned from the games. Can Greco-Roman wrestling be far behind?

5. Be correct (politically). No one's saying this out loud, but to qualify for the games a sport must be socially acceptable to everyone. That's why there is a quadrennial outcry against boxing. Though it is appealing because medals often go to Asians and South Americans (see No. 3), it is also violent. And, says MacAloon, women will never be permitted to earn medals because most IOC members, many of whom are well into their seventh or eighth century of life, consider female boxing barely a step above soft-corn porn.

(Synchronized swimming faces a similar complaint, but from a different angle: Men will never be allowed to do it, and feminists complain that by exposing only bare, isolated limbs as they shoot out of the water -- albeit in unison -- and not the total female, the event objectifies women.)

Trying to keep everyone satisfied is also the dilemma with the IOC's decision to admit tae kwon do as a medal sport in Sydney (it was a demonstration one in Seoul and Barcelona). Like it or not, martial-art forms are linked to their countries of origin. According to MacAloon, China is now aggressively wondering why their ancient enemy, the Japanese, have their own Olympic form (judo), and their other traditional enemy, the Koreans, have theirs (tae kwon do), while the Chinese are being left out in the cold, table tennis notwithstanding.

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