Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Don't Know Olympics, But I Know What I Like

Probably the biggest story out of yesterday's Olympic action, and the place from which we may have the most enduring image of these Games so far, was the ultimately unsuccessful hour-long protest of South Korean fencer A Shin Lam over a disputed point by Britta Heidemann of Germany, a point Shin argued happened after time had expired. That point ended up costing her a chance at gold and sent her into the bronze-medal match, a match she would lose to Yujie Sun of China. The replay, available in video and animated GIF form at the attached link, shows that at the very least, Shin had a point, and from my personal perspective, she was right.

This is not the first poor judging decision in Olympics history. Everybody knows about the 1972 basketball final in Munich, the silver medals from which still to this day sit in a vault in Switzerland. The United States and South Korea can both add some bad boxing decisions. For the United States, there's Roy Jones Jr.'s controversial loss to Park Si-Hun in 1988. For South Korea, there's Choh Dong-Kih's 51-minute sitdown protest over his disqualification against Stanislav Sorokin of the Soviet Union in 1964. There's also Byun Jong-Il's 67-minute sitdown over his loss to Alexander Hristov of Bulgaria.

And let's not forget the double gold medals of Salt Lake City.

But let's go further back and talk about another questionable judging decision. Or more to the point, a whole set of questionable judging decisions.

In 1912, as per Baron de Coubertin's vision for the revival of the modern Olympics, an Olympic art competition was added to the program, with categories in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. They would hand out real medals for this the same way they would hand out medals for running and jumping and swimming. The trick is that everything had to be inspired by sports.  Mental Floss has a more detailed history of the competition.

Now, on the face of it, this sounds really noble, something that gives you a whole bunch of warm fuzzies for humanity. But hang on with that. You know how in every event where judges exist, every place where there's room for subjectivity, there always seems to be some controversy sooner or later? Boxing, gymnastics, diving, figure skating, etc.?

Now apply that principle to the most subjective thing in the world, where there is no measurable, objective scoring system whatsoever.

Baron de Coubertin won gold in literature the very first competition, 1912 in Stockholm, while writing under a pseudonym. In addition, there wasn't any rhyme or reason as to how many medals the judges could hand out or what colors they had to be. In everything except sculpture, gold was the only medal awarded. In Antwerp 1920, painting and architecture went without a gold medalist. Belgians won six of the 11 medals handed out, including a medal sweep in sculpture.

Some revision of the rules was made in Paris 1924, but largely it was for for IOC insurance purposes, protecting them against fire and such. There were two silvers and two bronzes in literature, two bronzes in sculpture, and no gold in architecture. In Los Angeles 1932, Americans submitted over half the entries, and took 7 of the 23 medals, not including the 'Merit for Alpinism' given to Toni and Franz Schmid for the first ascent of the north side of the Matterhorn. Music only handed out a silver. And not everyone was impressed with the art at all, never mind being medal-worthy. Arthur Miller of the New York Times wrote, "Either the good painters do not paint sports or the Olympic committees do not know art.”

And then Hitler got a hold of the art competition. 34 medals were awarded in Berlin 1936. Germany won 11 of them, including a medal sweep in Compositions of Songs for Soloist or Choir, With or Without Instrumental Accompaniment. 11 more were split between Austria, Italy and Japan. The silver in architecture went to a design for something called 'Reich Stadium'. The Germans also tried to get filmmaking recognized as a category. If you can guess where that was heading, well, so did Coubertin.

There was a competition in London 1948. The Americans stayed away, soured on it after Berlin (interestingly enough, the United States did take one silver medal in the Berlin competition). Prior to Helsinki 1952, though, the Finns announced they weren't going to be able to put an art competition together, and that was essentially that for art as a medal event. The IOC was still enamored to the idea of including art as part of the program, just not for medals anymore; they no longer officially recognize the art medals. What eventually came about was the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year blitz of high-culture events to take place after the Closing Ceremony of the previous Olympics. Barcelona was the first to do it in the period between Seoul's Closing Ceremony and their own Opening Ceremony, and it's been part of the general Olympic package ever since.

After all, nobody has to win anymore.

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