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February 10, 2006

Judges? We Don't Need No Stinking Judges

Author's note: In honor of tonight's Opening Ceremonies, I'm posting a rough draft of what will be a Monterey Herald article next week about the Winter Games.

I generally love the Olympics. There’s really no more inspirational and uplifting sporting event in the world.

So I’m looking forward the current Winter Games in, um,…what’s the name of that city again? I always thought it was Turin, as in “Shroud of Turin.” But NBC seems determined to call it Torino, like the Ford car from "Starsky and Hutch."

Did I miss a protocol change somewhere? Do we Americans now refer to the Italian capital as Roma, or the city with canals as Venezia? Or is NBC just trying to sound more sophisticated? If somebody could clarify this, I’d appreciate it. Maybe I just need to watch more Geography Bees.

Anyway, I’ll sit in front of the television most Olympic evenings, enthralled by the speed skaters and downhill skiers, and indulging my longtime passion of watching hockey.

I became a fan of cross-country skiing during the 2002 Games, after watching the 4x10K relay competition between Italy and Norway decided by less than a second, and learning that these same two countries have finished within a second of each other in each of the previous two Olympic Games. They’re like the Red Sox and Yankees of XC Skiing.

Invariably however, there are several winter sports which don’t hold my interest for very long- snowboarding, aerial jumping, and moguls to name a few.

The marquis sport of the Games, figure skating, doesn’t captivate me much beyond watching Michelle Kwan try to finally win the title that has slipped through her grasp multiple times before. Depending on what happens, she’ll either be the John Elway or the Jim Kelly of her sport – not exactly a small distinction.

Here’s my litmus test for following a sport in these Winter Games: any event where the result depends on style points, or scores given by judges, is far less attractive to me than those that involved traditional competition.

It’s clear that my obsession for running has heavily biased my perception and appreciation of other sports. Events where athletes or teams are competing head-to-head, or racing against the clock, just seem inherently purer, and more exciting.

One of the greatest aspects of running is its fundamental nature: go from here to there as fast as you can, using only your body. In fact, this quality is primarily what led me to embrace running over other endurance sports in my mid-twenties.

I had dabbled in bicycle racing for a while, but grew frustrated that I was losing to many people not because they were better riders, but because they had better equipment. Having the lightest, fastest parts and components makes an enormous difference, and it was a common expression to say that someone would get “out-biked” when losing to a competitor who had the advantage of using superior equipment.

I’ve never had that problem with running. Every single person who finishes ahead of me in a race is either in better shape than me, or executed a better race strategy than I did. Nobody I know has ever been “out-shoed” in a race.

The clock tells me precisely how well I performed, and exactly how I fared in comparison to everyone else. There is nothing abstract or biased about my finishing place. Watch any local 5K or 10K race, and you will witness the purest form of competition there is to be found.

Even some Winter sports that appear very objective have a subjective component that seems unnatural. For example, doesn’t it seem obvious that for ski jumping, the winner would be the one who flies the farthest? But the jumpers are also given style points based on their landings- which, unless someone completely crashes, all look remarkably similar to me. So instead of comparing the distances, the jumpers are given a composite “score” and ranked accordingly. Huh?

Thank goodness this standard doesn’t apply to running. Some of the greatest runners in history looked like miserable wretches at the time of their highest achievement.

The great Czech runner Emil Zatopek (pictured), who won three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, often ran with his head cocked to one side, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and his eyes bulging from their sockets. A famous description of him was that he looked like a man with a noose around his neck.

Steve Prefontaine ran with his head wrenched backward, flung his arms in every direction, and had a face of sheer agony during every one of his races. He tried to decide races based on who had the most guts, and he frequently defeated opponents who ran much more gracefully.

There is a long list of elite runners who during the course of a race have thrown up, relieved themselves, or become bruised and bloody in pursuit of their goal. How revolting it would be (even more so than the actual throwing up, relieving themselves, etc) if their accomplishments were considered secondary to those runners who looked more sophisticated while running more slowly.

This aspect of running applies to us amateurs also. As a physical therapist, I spend a lot of time watching people walk, analyzing the biomechanics of their stride. During training runs or long races, when my mind drifts, I instinctively assess the form of runners around me.

I can attest that there are a lot of ugly runners out there. Feet slapping the ground, elbows flailing, heads lolling all about- it’s easy to find these and many more gait abnormalities if you look at the runners around you. However, many of them run extraordinarily fast race times.

There are also a lot of ugly sounding runners, whose groaning and gasping keep the medical personnel at aid stations on high alert during races. But those of us running near them typically don’t even give a second thought to their clamorous efforts. The great thing is, it doesn’t really matter what we look like or sound like as we race.

Our pleasure and satisfaction come not from our presentation, but in attaining the tangible results for which we strive. It doesn’t take a panel of judges to tell us if we have succeeded.


backofpack 2/10/06, 12:19 PM  

You make a very good point. I don't really watch football, and during the Superbowl I was reading while my husband and son were watching. But I noticed them intently discussing replays of some of the calls that were up for review. I found myself wondering if having cameras and instant replays and call reviews really enhanced the game or set it back. I tend to think the game played at the local high school, with out all the cameras, with calls standing as the ref's make them, is the purest form of the game. Seems like it's a game that should be decided on the field rather than at a video screen.

As for noises others make while running - I just try to make sure I'm out of their range in case any of those noises produce something of substance!

olga 2/10/06, 4:52 PM  

LOL! Jeez, I loved this! How often I talk about the difference between running and many other sports (even though I love watching gymnastics, ski jumps and figure skating). You nailed it, thank you!! I will come back and re-read a few more times:)

angie's pink fuzzy 2/10/06, 5:52 PM  

never thought of it that way...how awesome! got my brain going now.

Tammy 2/11/06, 10:19 AM  

Hmm, I see your point on the judges. I prefer the 'no ambiguity' competition also. I do enjoy watching the figure skating and snowboarding, though, just so my jaw can drop at how amazingly beautiful the stuff they can do is. I don't care who wins... they're all awesome. :)

Downhillnut 2/12/06, 7:52 AM  

I'm with t-metz, I love to watch figure skating, but more because of the beauty and elegance of their movements.

Turin. In english we say Turin. Thank goodness the Canadian newspeople seem to have that straight.

And yes, I'm with you on the bald honesty of running as a pure sport. I'll toodle around on my bike to enhance my running training, but I'm intimidated by other competitors with "real" bikes when it comes to racing.

Running doesn't have a lot of complicated rules. Use your feet on the ground. Get there first. Works for me!

jeff 2/15/06, 2:56 PM  

donald, i knew i liked you for a reason. this is one of my rant points. every time the olympics come around, i go OFF on the subjective events as not being part of the original spirit of the games.

if it's not head to head, or measured by distance or speed, then it just doesn't belong in the games.

sure, figure skating is beautiful and gymnastics requires some serious training and dedication, but in the spirt of the original games, i say dump 'em.

now, if you could write up something about the decision to allow professional atheletes into the games..

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