Thursday, February 18, 2010

Olympics: Day 7- Worst. Olympics. Ever?

Oh, Vancouver, how do we loathe you? Let us try and count up the ways:

*The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia, causing the starting points to be moved from the men's start to the women's, and the women's start to the juniors'.
*Two cauldrons instead of one, necessitating a Wayne Gretzky motorcade in pouring rain.
*The first cauldron failing to work, leaving Catriona Le May Doan out in the proverbial cold. (It's the first cauldron lighting that was unquestionably, indisputably mechanical. Sydney had a malfunction, but by then the cauldron was already lit. Atlanta had a malfunction, but by then the flame was in transit from torch to cauldron. If you're in the crowd, Sydney and Atlanta MIGHT have been mechanical problems or maybe an attempt at dramatic pause, but Vancouver was DEFINITELY mechanical problems.)
*The fact that Joe Biden was in attendance and someone unauthorized got uncomfortably close to him.
*The endless delays trying to get the alpine events at Whistler going.
*A refund of 28,000 tickets at Whistler due to unstable snow for viewing on.
*A seemingly endless amount of crashes in alpine skiing when it does get underway, most notably Anja Paerson of Sweden.
*And moguls.
*And figure skating. Only one of the top four had a clean run in the pairs free skate, with the fourth-place Russians falling twice.
*The fact that you apparently can't find a decent Zamboni in Vancouver, which to the outside observer would seem like the simplest thing in that city. And the ones that they did have screwed up the ice so long that Shani Davis dropped out of the event he was in, the 500 meters.
*The fact that they aren't even Zambonis. (Don't worry, though, one came to the rescue. From Calgary.)
*The closest working ice machine they can find is in CALGARY.
*The cauldron being locked away behind a chain-link fence. (You know, usually they just put the thing on top of the stadium. What? You held the Opening Ceremony indoors? Shame, that.) Don't worry, they cut this eye-level length out of the fence so you can look at it and take pictures of it.
*The weather chewing up the biathlon course to the point where the later starters were facing such a profoundly different course from the early starters that victory was hopeless.
*Also in the biathlon, in what one man from the International Biathlon Union called the "blackest day ever", two people were sent on course too early, and three were sent on course too late. (Their times were adjusted.)
*Top-ranked cross-country skier Petra Majdic of Slovenia going off course during warmups and falling into a ravine. When I saw this, the commentators said they had never seen anything like it. (She recovered and won bronze.)

Please note that this is after 6 days of competition. Out of 17. One has little choice after a six-day stretch like that but to include Vancouver in the running for Worst Olympics Ever. Of course, to be the champ, you have to beat the champ, and the undisputed champ in this category is St. Louis 1904.

So let's examine how bad St. Louis was, David Wallechinsky's Complete Book of the Olympics in hand, and then you can make your own judgment (and hopefully Vancouver will pull itself up from these depths):

*They were originally awarded to Chicago, but St. Louis intended to overshadow the Games with their own events at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition unless they were given the Games instead. They held their own events even after they successfully stole the Olympics, and the resulting mess in which St. Louis called anything and everything Olympic is still being untangled by sports historians. The IOC eventually settled on 94 of the events.
*The Games lasted for five months, from July 1 to November 23. Yes, the Summer Olympics went well into November. The organizers tried to hold an event every day, but most of the recognized events were crammed into a stretch from August 29-September 3.
*12 countries were represented, but only 42 of the IOC's count of 94 events included athletes who weren't from the United States. It was St. Louis, smack in the middle of the country, in 1904. A lot of top athletes couldn't manage the trip like they might have been able to do if the Games were in New York or something.
*651 athletes. Number of women? Six.
*August 12 and 13 were "Anthropology Days". If you know anything about race relations in 1904, you already know this isn't going anywhere good. It was a World's Fair, so they went around, gathered up an assortment of indigenous people- not just black Africans, but Inuit (then Eskimos), Patagonians, Native Americans, Ainus, Filipinos, etc., (at least the ones who agreed to it; a lot of people were justifiably offended and refused to go along with it)- and put them in events to see how they would compare to 'the white man'. Events included such high-minded things as mud fighting, spear throwing (the javelin throw was not an event yet), rock throwing, and like-minded pinnacles of multicultualism. Winners did not receive medals; they were given American flags. (For more on this, go grab 'The 1904 Anthropology Days and the Olympic Games: Sport, Race and American Imperialism'.)
*According to that book, they did it again in September. Baron de Coubertin, the mind behind the modern Olympics, was appalled, saying "As for that outrageous charade, it will lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw and leave the white men behind them."
*The marathon. Oh my God, the marathon, quite possibly the single most disastrous athletic event in Olympic history. This was before paved roads, before horseless cars became popular even, and so when the ones they did have ran ahead to clear the road for the runners, they kicked up a ton of dust.
*The closest water available to runners was in a well 12 miles from the stadium.
*Fred Lorz, first to arrive, had found one of these wondrous machines and decided to partake. He was disqualified.
*The actual winner, Thomas Hicks, was given strychnine and brandy. During the race.
*Felix Carvajal of Cuba- running in street clothes- could have medaled, but stopped along the way to pick an apple off of an orchard. This apple turned out to be rotten, and he needed to sit down for a while. He finished fourth.
*Len Taunyane of South Africa- one of the 'savages' the organizers rounded up to compete against the white man (competing under the name 'Len Tau')- came in ninth. He might have done better except for the part where dogs chased him a mile off course. Another South African, Jan Mashiani or, as he was called, 'Yamasani', came in 12th. These were the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics, under whatever pretense, so at least St. Louis has that going for it.
*Carvajal almost didn't make it to the Games; he lost his savings in a New Orleans craps game and had to hitchhike to St. Louis.
*An organizer car had to swerve to avoid a runner and wound up in a ditch.
*William Garcia was found lying unconscious on the side of the road.
*Johannes Runge of Germany finished 5th in the 800 meters, tiring in the second half due to accidentally running in (and winning) the 880-meter handicap three days earlier thinking it was this.
*Lajos Gonczy of Hungary won a high jump handicap drunk on Hungarian wine.
*Carroll Burton won his opening round boxing match in the lightweight division-- wait... why, you're not Burton! You're not Burton at all! You're some guy named James Bollinger! No, no, no, this won't do. Disqualified!
*The 50-meter freestyle devolved into a brawl over who won, J. Scott Leary or Zoltan Halmaj of Hungary. They eventually reran it. Halmaj won.

St. Louis went so utterly wrong and caused such profound damage to the Olympic movement that an emergency intermediary or 'Intercalated' Games were held in Athens in 1906 just to help restore some credibility.

Of course, St. Louis has the excuse of the Olympics only having been eight years old in their modern form. Much of the time nobody knew what they were doing. Vancouver, meanwhile, has 114 years to look back on, and 86 years of Winter Olympics. And there's no threat, no matter how bad the Games, that the Olympics will die here and now. London, Sochi and Rio de Janeiro will host their Games as scheduled.

And of course, in St. Louis, nobody died.

This is never going to be a great Games, like Lillehammer or Sydney, although Jacques Rogge is duty-bound to call them such at the Closing Ceremony. At this point, avoidance of disaster is all Vancouver can hope for.

Can they?

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