Guest post by SAJAN VENNIYOOR
Now that the 2012 London Olympics has established its progressive republican credentials by recruiting former cold-war assassin, James Bond, to hurl Britain’s 86 year old Queen from a helicopter, following it up with tributes to labour unions, suffragettes, people of colour and the National Health Service (or as the Tories say, ‘leftie multicultural crap’), could we ask some fundamental questions like, what the hell is an ‘Olympic sport’ and how does a 71 year old man in a top-hat sitting on a very expensive horse exemplify the virtues of going faster, jumping higher and being stronger, unless the medal goes to the horse?
Not many weeks ago, Nivedita Menon, in these columns, explained why women get such a raw deal in sports. I’m a little weak on the details, but it seems many male athletes benefit from atypical chromosomal variations and way too much testosterone. If Michael Phelps has an arm-span like an albatross due to (suspected) Marfan Syndrome, more power to his biceps, says the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But woe betide the poor female athlete with hyperandrogenism, which gives her a muscular advantage over other women athletes. Like Pinki Pramanik, Santhi Soundararajan and Caster Semenya, her gender is oppugned until very sophisticated, cutting-edge political tests are applied to clear her.
Nivedita makes a compelling argument. “All men do not run faster than all women,” she muses, “all men are not stronger than all women, all men do not jump higher than all women. Why should athletes not be categorised on the basis of physical characteristics relevant to the sport, rather than on the basis of sex?”
Let me mention in passing that most male athletes do run faster than most women athletes, are stronger, jump higher and earn more through endorsements. It is just one of those male things – like baldness and an inability to ask for directions. If athletes were categorized on the basis of physical characteristics relevant to the sport, women would win fewer medals than the Indian Olympic team. (To those who are tempted to whisper ‘Bobby Riggs’, let me add that Riggs was 55 when he lost to Billie Jean King, age 30, shortly after he beat the world champion, Margaret Court, also 30).
To put this in citius, altius, fortius perspective, the current men’s world record for the 100 metres sprint is 9.58 seconds, set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt while Florence Griffith-Joyner holds the women’s world record of 10.49 seconds. Had she raced against men, even Indian men, she would have barely made it to the semi-finals of the last Delhi Commonwealth Games and would have placed 14th.
In high jump, Javier Sotomayor holds the world record with a jump of 8 feet, while the Stefka Kostadinova, the women’s high jump record holder could, in her heyday, have just about jumped over Sotomayor. Among weightlifters, Galabin Boevski, the Bulgarian, has cleaned, jerked and snatched his way to 357 kg which, I need hardly add, is more weight than Liu Chunhong and her 286 kg world record put together.
Sexism apart, the Olympics have built-in prejudices ranging from the historical and geographical to the nutritional and sartorial that make a mockery of the pious incantations and bromides that the weasely Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin liberally borrowed for his Games from more quotable men.
On the issue of gender, to be fair, men and women do take part in all sports, though not necessarily together or against each other. With the addition of women’s boxing, there is no Olympic sport that is exclusively male, though men are excluded from synchronized swimming and that other thing women gymnasts do with hoops and ribbons.
Forgive my ignorance, but in which cockamamie universe is synchronized swimming a sport? For three Games, until 1992, there was an event called ‘Solo Synchronized Swimming’, a metaphysical sport which underscores the difficulty of being in harmony with oneself. Since it didn’t fall into any known category of sporting or – given those macabre smiles and nose clips – human activity, it was then discontinued.
Swimming, as a sport, will do nicely to underline some of the many prejudices that go into the making of an ‘Olympic sport’, beyond the merely sexist. It took more than a hundred years for the first black swimmer to make the US Olympic team (Sydney 2000) – and win a gold – though Anthony Ervin was half-Jewish, had Tourette’s syndrome and a history with drugs. I don’t think any of that helped either.
What really loads the dice against dark-skinned swimmers is probably not their higher bone density which apparently causes them to sink to the bottom of the pool, as Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea nearly did in Sydney, but the possible lack of swimming pools in Equatorial Guinea, US inner cities or, for that matter, rural India.
On the other hand, ten of the top 100 metre sprinters in the world are black, as are most of the women sprinters, while Kenyans are among the most successful distance runners. Roads and other running surfaces are plentiful in most parts of the world. (It has been said, though, of black US athletes that “the classic argument that blacks succeed in sports to escape poverty is less and less plausible and increasingly racist every day.”)
1968 was a watershed year for black track and field athletes, both American and African, who won so many Olympic medals and broke so many records that, suddenly, mysteriously, swimming events began to multiply like sardines. While track athletes ran the gamut of races, from 100 metres to 10 kilometres, by putting one foot in front of another, swimmers discovered four different ways of getting from one end of the pool to the other. There was free-style swimming, which is how most mammals propel themselves across water bodies. But then, presumably after a careful study of otters, FINA, the swimming federation, discovered the possibility of swimming on one’s back (the back-stroke) and then throwing one’s arms about in various ways (breast-stroke and butterfly). The swimming pool became a welter of arms and legs, until 32 separate individual pool events were recognized by the IOC.
In contrast, no runner has ever been called upon to run backwards or hop along on both feet, except in a sack at school.
Exclusive and elitist sports are a recurring feature of the Olympics from its earliest days, with physically undemanding but expensive sports like shooting and horse riding not only persisting down the years, but spinning off ‘events’ and medals like a Catherine wheel. Shooting was reduced to just two events by 1932, but has since spawned so many variations – pistols, rifles, kneeling, standing, prone – that they are a menace to air traffic. One wouldn’t be surprised if they re-introduced some past events like the 100 metre Running Deer (they didn’t use real deer) and Live Pigeon Shooting (they used real pigeons).
Equestrian events – or ‘the fucking horse-prom’, as Jon Stewart calls it – are so incredibly expensive that a single horse, like the dressage stallion Totilas, is worth more than the twice the Indian team’s expenditure on sports equipment, even after factoring in Kalmadi. Like the International Olympic Committee itself, equestrian events are a trumpet call of titles, from sheikhs and barons to the occasional princess, all astride their magnificent, tax-deductible steeds.
Or consider other wildly exciting and popular events like fencing, practised mostly by military officers and Europeans with hyphenated names, which consists of “two masked genderless figures on leashes trying to poke each other”.
Or golf, to be added in 2016.
The masked genderlessness of fencing at least has the virtue of persuading women from conservative nations to take part in the Games. But what of other Olympic sports which demand a quick intake of breath followed by a WTF? The IOC assures us that, to qualify for the Summer Olympics, a sport has to be widely practised around the world. Widely practised, I assume, like the trampoline, popular in four continents and suburban Utah. Or beach volleyball. Or bicycle motocross. Or even basic cycling which, against all logic, manifests itself as an event called ‘Madison’ whose rules are so obscure as to be virtually incomprehensible.
Since no one, including cyclists, could make any sense of Madison, it has now been replaced by the Omnium, only slightly less baffling. Other than road races, cycling is done in velodromes that cost millions of dollars and are of no practical use thereafter, except for storing grain.
The ancient Greeks, until they started including chariot races and other fopperies, limited their Olympics to muscular contests like running, boxing, wrestling and something that resembled mixed martial arts. The history of the modern Games has been a history of discrimination against physical fitness and common sense. Robust working class sports – like tug-o-war, rope climbing, putting out a blaze (for firemen), mud-fighting and climbing a greased pole – have been largely eliminated, to be replaced by abominations like beach volleyball.
All right, beach volleyball is popular and calls for physical fitness, but so does the Pirelli calendar shoot.
Despite the Jamaican bobsled team, Europeans and North Americans have a natural advantage in the Winter Olympics. Even so, the notion that geography is sporting destiny is sometimes carried too far by participating countries, of which the Special Area Games (SAG) scheme of India is a wondrous example. Having decided that children from tribal, coastal and hilly areas have ‘genetic geographic advantage’, the Sports Authority of India adopted children from tribal and hilly areas, fed them well – malnutrition being rampant among tribal groups – and trained them in the finer points of modern archery, swimming, rowing, wrestling, badminton and fencing.
Fencing?! Very big in tribal and hilly areas.
Anyway, it worked as well as any sports programme involving young people given good nutrition and sustained training will work, and it produced some very good archers, for instance. On the other hand, the notion that the children of Tellicherry (Kerala) have a ‘natural talent and aptitude’ for gymnastics just because most of the great Indian circus companies were founded in Tellicherry is rather moot.
Such geographical advantages as may exist in Third World countries are easily neutralized by that ‘unelected, unaccountable, faceless global big business super-quango’ a.k.a the IOC. When field hockey, played on grass till the 1970s, was dominated by India and Pakistan, the IOC switched to Astroturf. This caused the Indian team to trip over their own feet and implode, making another Olympic boycott by 65 countries essential if we are to win another hockey gold. (And now they have dyed the Astroturf a vivid blue, in case anyone should mistake it for grass).
Which reminds me, why do the Olympics fall during Ramzan, when Muslims don’t eat or drink during the day?
Historically, the International Olympic Committee – consisting as it does of a half a dozen princes, grand dukes, belted earls and rajas, lightly dusted with millionaires – does not acknowledge the appalling social and economic inequalities that ravage three-quarters of the world, and they ruthlessly suppress any effort to ‘politicize’ the Games. Two African-American athletes, both medal winners, went shoe-less to the podium (to symbolize black poverty) in 1968 and gave the black power salute. Nazi salutes were acceptable to the IOC but this was an outrage. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic village.
During the London ‘Austerity Games’ of 1946, the UK was yet to recover from the deprivations of WW-II, bread was rationed and citizens were allotted only subsistence-level rations (or ‘overindulgence’, as the Indian Planning Commission likes to call it). When Bob Mathias, a 17-year old American won the decathlon, Roger Bannister was moved to comment that “no English athlete could have possibly enjoyed sufficient nutrition to allow him to achieve such a feat at such a young age.” We have news for the late Sir Roger – 66 years on, most athletes around the world don’t have sufficient nutrition to allow them to achieve such a feat at any age.
The IOC continues to spare no effort to reduce the Olympics to a laundry list of arcane sports practised by an elite few to the utter boredom of the many. I wonder what they will pick up next. Golf (the IOC thought croquet wasn’t athletic enough) and Rugby Sevens will be played in 2016. Can yoga be far behind? Or sheep-shearing, though transporting 749 lambs – the world record – to an Olympic venue may present a logistical challenge.
I suppose it is too much to ask for 20-20 cricket (enjoyed by two billion people, almost), or buffalo racing or Jallikattu or Malkhamb or kite-fighting to be made an Olympic sport. My guess is that the IOC will vote for pole-dancing. It’s physically demanding, visually attractive, widely practised (at least in Las Vegas and Russian night-clubs) and has an international federation. They even held a world championship in London just before the 2012 Olympics.
Like sheep-shearers, international pole sports athletes comprise both men and women. They don’t like to be called strippers.
PS: The reason why the Maldivian ski team is good in short bursts is because the highest point on the islands is 2.4 metres from sea level.