Real Mistakes, Real Laughs:

Air bases were built on captured islands of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam but they were barley within the range of the long-range bombers.

(hope the bombadiers weren't on gluten-free diets)

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Olga Korbut?

Forgive me if I digress from writing topics, but I have to vent: these sure weren't your mother's Olympics. Watching the opening and closing ceremonies in Beijing confirmed it, but what struck me was how far the athletic calibre has come from my first Olympic Games of memory: Mexico City. Pre-steroids, pre-minimum age for gymnasts, pre-technology age (but at least we still had Jim McKay). Back when more artistic sports like gymnastics and synchronized swimming (which was actually called "water ballet" once upon a time) were graceful and soothing, popularized by the plotless Esther Williams movies that were merely a vehicle for the Olympic champion with Hollywood looks and figure.
The "synchro" teams in Beijing were like Stepford Swimmers: frighteningly garish makeup, plastered smiles contorted by nose clips into a freakish appearance, elaborately theatrical tableaux, before diving into the pool, showcasing the teams' Cirque de Soleil training. Their "march on" seemed more military than artistic: 6 or 7 robotic mermaids, as alike as Robert Palmer's girl band in the "Addicted to Love" music video, arms and legs assembling into a pop-art pose that reminded me of the odd pas de trois in the film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. And for all their amazing athleticism, the routines morphed into Busby Berkeley formations; hello, Esther Williams.

But the gymnastics is what really bothered me. True, progress means we must continually raise the bar, but where does it end? Back in Mexico City, a back walkover drew oohhs and aaahhhs from the crowd. Nowadays a girl has to quadruple-twist her way to the moon and back to qualify for a medal. In 1972, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut won gold for a flawfless floor exercise that Jim McKay described as "a kid playing in the sun." The gold medal skill level of 1972 is probably laughable to today's young gymnasts, but it was, in a way, more enjoyable to watch. When I see these intense young women performing on the beam or floor, there's inevitably a couple of comic moments where they strike balletic poses in between tumbling runs. It's as if, while choreographing routines, someone said to the athletes, "Gymnastics is supposed to be artistic, so we'd better stick in a random pose or two...and don't forget to smile artificially while you pose!" Who are they kidding?

Perhaps althletic elitism is why Rhythmic Gymnastics came into being. No less physically demanding than conventional gymnastics, but much more artfully performed, using props. The grace and flexibility of these gymnasts is just as beyond-talented as Michael Phelps' swimming ability, but there's so little TV coverage of it. I miss the days of Olga Korbut and cartwheels to catchy instrumentals, of Peggy Fleming and measly double toe-loops, of swan dives off the 10-meter platform with nary a pike or a twist. How much higher can the bar be set?
On second thought, don't answer that. A lot can be accomplished in four years.


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