Sunday, August 10, 2008

Chlorine Blues

Michael Phelps is a very fast swimmer. Having learned that fact to my own satisfaction, there is no need for yours truly to watch the rest of Phelps' efforts to win eight Olympic gold medals. Nothing personal against a phenomenal athlete. I just hate swimming.

That's not exactly true. I love to swim. I hate watching swimming. I hated covering it in three separate Olympic Games. As a spectator sport, swimming stinks. If it wasn't dominated by the USA, swimming would be shown on NBC as often as archery.

Swimmers, not just Phelps, are terrific, dedicated athletes and only a swine would begrudge them their once-every-four years week in the sunlight of fame. I'll just be the one lurking in the shadows until the track and field begins next Saturday.

My feelings on swimming were summarized by the National Lampoon some 30 years ago. Writing from the Montreal Games in 1976, the magazine's fictional sportswriter Red Ruffansore, summarized the sport with the following sentence. "Water, which never struck old Red as
much of a drink, also fails to impress as a playing surface."

Here's a tipoff when a sport has problems as mass entertainment. Swimming is much easier and more fun to watch on television than it is in person. Without those computer graphics, underwater cameras, and top-of-the-water angle shots, the live audience has no way of telling what the hell is going on. It takes about a week of practice to be absolutely certain you know which swimmer is in which lane, and which lane is which.

A close race in swimming, of which there are many, is decided in hundreds of a second. Oh, that's easy to decipher from the 50th row of the natatorium (I do like that word). As a member of the press, I had a good seat. I can't imagine what those loyal Party functionaries who are sitting in the top row of Beijing's 18,000 seat swimming venue are seeing. I assume they were picked for their loud voices and told to shout "Go China" at ten-second intervals. Kind of like the fans in the Monster seats at Fenway.

Strategy? Sure, as much as their is in Funny Car drag racing. Dive in and swim as fast as possible. This lack of stuff to argue about is a refreshing trait in modern sports, but let me assure you, it makes writing about swimming very difficult. Is it wrong for writers to evaluate sports that way? Yes. It is just as wrong, as just as unavoidable, as the way fans of all nations rate Olympic sports by how well their countrymen and women perform in them. South Korea is the big noise in a sport I mentioned earlier, archery. In Seoul right now, archery is all that's on TV.

It is not Michael Phelps' fault he's been prepackaged as the "Olympic story" of 2008 by NBC Universal's marketing department. He's your basic gifted driven athlete, and more power to him. Should he win eight golds, I shall applaud his feat.

Once it's over, and there's no danger I have to watch him do it.


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