Why the Maldivian ski team is good in short bursts (and other reflections on the Olympics): Sajan Venniyoor

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.

16 thoughts on “Why the Maldivian ski team is good in short bursts (and other reflections on the Olympics): Sajan Venniyoor”

  1. The Daily Beast (31 July) has a piece by ‘Buzz’ Bissinger titled “The Olympics Are Too Full of Dubious Sports, Silly Ceremonies, and Choke Artists” which tends to confirm one’s suspicions. Bissinger writes, “The medal count meant something [in the 60s and 70s], not what it does today since the Chinese, being the Chinese, purposely excel in obscure sports that no one else cares about.”

    Well, the Chinese didn’t invent these obscure sports, they just game the system, as the American and Europeans did for decades. The Chinese just got better at it.

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  2. I’m taking a spade to a souffle here, Sajan, but still…
    My argument was precisely NOT about records, which I termed a red herring, but about overall performance. Please see my responses to Navin and Mary who made similar arguments to yours in response to my “not all men…etc”
    Notwithstanding – a standing ovation to your souffle!

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  3. Thoroughly enjoyed your article. Loved your humor and the points you put across!
    In one place I would like to point out what Nivedita’s argument, “All men do not run faster than all women… relevant to the sport, rather than on the basis of sex?” was about.
    She is talking about gender being a basis / variable for categorising people into sports.
    She is right that all men, not all athletic men, do
    not run faster than all women.
    Trained people in sports might have more men performing better than women but there is a
    chance than one in fifty/hundred trained women might outperform a sportsman.
    There our societies and sports committees need to stop, re-evaluate laws and change things with an open mind for that one individual possibility.

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  4. as good as the beige corduroy coat you wear. enjoyed holding a dictionary and reading it. thank you sajan for making me laugh even at 1518 miles away

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  5. An interesting and entertaining read. thanks for this. i respond from the positionality of a swimmer interested in the politics of sport, and wanted to point to some factual errors with respect to the history of swimming which i think weaken the analysis. there is no doubt that, as with several other aspects of sport in the 20th century, the history of swimming is as well a narrative of race, class and geo-politics, but perhaps in a more complex way than you describe it.

    take what we call ‘freestyle’ today, for instance. it emerges from the observation of swimming styles of pacific islanders from the pacific islands by Australian swimmers in the late 19th century, gets copied by colonial settlers, named ‘the Australian Crawl’, and brought to the Olympics (and then developed etc.). it is a story of appropriation, and subsequent exclusion. the biographies of Alec Wickham and Duke Kahanamoku would be interesting in this regard.

    The Backstroke was not invented by FINA on studying otters! it has a very long history and as far as the Olympics are concerned, was introduced in the 1900, not in 1968. The Breast stroke was introduced in 1904, and the Butterfly, while used in 1938 breast stroke events, was recognised as a separate stroke in 1956. and while for a non-swimmer this might not be apparent, each of these requires very different skills and interestingly enough people with different body types (given opportunity, desire and conditions, of course) tend to perform differently in each. Within swimming circles i think this develops into personality types as well…you know a breast stroker when you meet one. and there are interesting patterns of performance by different communities (i use the word communities rahter than referring to individuals consciously). in any case the point is that while there is an argument to made about the politics through which certain forms of sport get to be recognised at the olympics it is inaccurate and disingenuous to suggest that the increase in number of swimming events was simply a way to undermine the performance of black athletes on the track and field. there is something far more complex happening here than that.

    Anthony Ervin was not the first black swimmer to win a swimming gold and nor was he the first black person on the US team. Duke Kahanamoku in 1912 – representing the USA, gets the credit for that. and the brilliance of Anthony Nesty from Suriname, who undid the golden run of Matt Biondi ought not be forgotten. (starting with Mark Spitz there has always been one white man who goes and wins 7 or 8 medals and is hailed as some sort of superhuman. Biondi was that phenomenon in the ’88 Olympics. and i might add that it is delicious to watch the undoing of Michael Phelps this time around). how Nesty’s unexpected victory unhinged the racialised discourse of supremacy is a story that perhaps did not spill far out of the circles of swimmers and swimming geeks such as myself, but i reckon it was one of the most memorable and emotional moments for those who swim against the tide.

    finally, it is the marking of the swimmer as white and privileged in the article, a definite ‘they’, that i found uncomfortable. swimming is neither an elite sport, nor necessarily competitive. some of the best swimmers i have known in India, grew up swimming in rivers, and in the sea. it was in and around the pool that, as a young person, that i first recognised, experienced and contested the politics of class, caste and race. and there are complicated stories to be told about affirmative action and sports in india. (all of which does not fade in significance simply because several of those those who win in competitive swimming tend to be upper caste and/or extremely privileged.)

    all in all, it is nice to read a discussion on politics and sport, but i feel there needs to be space for more nuance, a discussion of politics as experienced by those in sports, and understandings that go beyond the easy brushstrokes of privilege and exclusion.

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  6. Nivedita and Vandana are, of course, right, that “all men, not all athletic men, do not run faster than all women.” As Vandana says, “there is a chance than one in fifty/hundred trained women might outperform a sportsman,” but it’s still only a one-in-fifty chance. Mary, in her response to Nivedita’s earlier post, had also noted that “there are plenty of factors that go into the unequal playing field of sports, but gender continues to be one of them, and to a degree that surprised me.”

    It surprised me, too. I would have assumed someone like Florence Griffith-Joyner could wipe the floor with male Indian athletes, but apparently not.

    Why this should be so seems a mystery. It is fairly clear that most other factors — geography, ethnicity, culture, money — can be neutralized, but gender continues to be the great divide. There are already sports like horse-riding and sailing where women and men compete against each other (though the horse power, so to speak, is external to the sportsperson. Damn, I couldn’t resist that). Perhaps, at some future intersection of human evolution and technology, gender differences will become as irrelevant in sports as differences in skin colour or religious beliefs.

    Thanks, Akshay, for your very thoughtful and detailed response to my soufflé-like (thanks, Nivi) and profoundly ignorant analysis of swimming as an elite sport. I am really not equipped to discuss the politics of class and caste in swimming (though I did see a notice at the Delhi Gymkhana saying maids and ayahs are not allowed in the pool area), but would you agree that those who swim brilliantly in rivers and seas won’t necessarily make it to the Olympics?

    From his name, I assume Duke Kahanamoku was a Hawaian. Do Polynesians count as blacks? Maybe I was thinking of African-Americans. Anyway, I stand corrected.

    About the sudden proliferation of Olympic swimming events circa 1968, I think I am on slightly firmer ground there. If I am not mistaken, swimming events went from ten in 1964 to fifteen in 1968, though I suppose it’s cynical to suggest this was a response to the success of black athletes. (Just took another look at the composition of the IOC and I’m not sure it’s all that cynical). I take your point that the major swimming styles have a fairly long history, but surely the current crop of 17 pool-based swimming events for men are stretching things a bit? Compare this to just 12 track events for men.

    It is instructive that there are now 46 events in aquatics, while athletics, with its wide range of activities (we are land animals, after all), has 47. And that’s because athletic events have stayed much the same since the 1920s, while they keep inventing new and inexplicable things to do in the pool. (‘Synchronized diving’, seriously? Why not synchronized high jump?)

    Anitha, Amita, Arun (what puns?), Philip, X, Dhanya – thanks!

    Chon: Glad you enjoyed the rant, but surely there is nothing in my spare, refulgent prose to drive you to a dictionary.

    Nivedita: I hereby challenge you to a foot-race from Chonas to the other Chonas. May the better ma… person win.

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  7. I understand that the emotional appeals of victimhood, but that doesn’t entitle you to your own facts. You say:

    “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.”

    Let us take a look at the history of swimming events at the Olympics:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swimming_at_the_Summer_Olympics

    Surprise, surprise: the 200m butterfly has been around since 1956, the 200m breaststroke since 1908, and the backstroke since 1900. Also, the number of swimming events hasn’t changed significantly since 1968, so unless the White Devils could magically portend the stellar performance of black athletes that year, the increase in the number of swimming events can’t have much to do with it. But who knows, maybe the Man does have a soothsaying machine that he uses to keep the colored people down.

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