Monday, September 25, 2000

A Resounding Thud

"All history is ultimately local and personal. To tell what we remember and keep on telling it is to keep the past alive in the present. Should we not do so, we could not know, in the deepest sense, how to inhibit a place... We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives. What is strange to us- unfamiliar- can never be home."
-Paul Gruchow

Growing up, my sister, the law school attending gymnast, admirably endured many hours of having to listen to my brother, my mother, and I discuss Twins baseball. She knew statistics about the game through simple osmosis. If you lived in our house you knew a lot about baseball even if you didn't exactly like the game. So to repay all those years of spontaneous devotion, I decided that though I had little interest in the Olympics (the patriotism thing bothers me) I should watch the gymnastics competition- since that is my sister's favorite sport. It was the very least I could do (and never let it be said I didn't to the very least I could do...)

I gotta say the first few nights weren't exactly favorable. After watching anorexic girl after girl tumble, stumble and fall, some even injuring themselves, I was all but ready to call for the complete ban of gymnastics. When the game's top performers are starved little girls putting themselves through dangerous routines- it was all so hard to watch. Then a feisty Russian gymnast, Svetlana Khorkina, changed my mind.

Though typically weedy thin, Khorkina is gangly tall for a gymnast (5'5"). But it is her spunky attitude that caught my attention. Now 21-years-old (which is ungodly old for this sport) Khorkina realizes this may be her final Olympics. Thus after a lackluster opening by the Russian team she was visibly upset, barking at her teammates who weren't performing up to expectations. They'd better not blow it for her and by the scared looks on their faces they knew it.

Favored to win the gold for all around performance- Khorkina got set for the first of her individual competitions- the vault. She impatiently yelled at her coach to place the mounting board and mats in the proper location. At full sprint she launched her body onto the vaulting board thingy and landed flat on her butt. Getting up she immediately had tears in her eyes as the commentators said that such a tumble insured that no gold was forthcoming. Her next event was the uneven parallel bars. Once again her performance failed as her deteriorating spirit became more and more evident. She missed the top bar on a move and fell. At this point she was clearly just going through the motions- so distraught at the end of a dream. Then a shocking discovery transpired. The pommel horse had been set about two inches too low of international gymnastic standards. Khorkina's original fall (and those of several other gymnasts) had been tainted.

It's an outrage. The three Romanians who eventually won the medals had won a suspect victory. Who knows what would have happened if the equipment had been properly set? My skepticism got the best of me. As admirable as the athleticism and skills of the performers are- the sport itself seems flawed to me. When's the last time you saw a baseball field set up wrong? Or a basket or goal post set too low? And when you have to rely on human judgment to pick the winner- well I for one don't trust human judgment any more than I trust my ability to do a flip on a balance beam. While there are set guidelines from which the judges are supposed to determine their scores, when the winner wins by a tenth of a point- the chance of one judge being biased or just plain wrong seems too great. Give me a round of Jai Alai any day.

The sport is seemingly based on mathematics and precision. The judges are able to spot a flaw in a twist or a turn or a bent elbow. To the untrained eye- such a judgment seems rather arbitrary. But I guess there exist those who can tell a flower from a weed. (Last week I was watching Mr. Max. He sat looking out his favorite window and a dog sauntered within view. He had no reaction, the same applies for rabbits, squirrels and birds. Yet when another cat comes within yards of our yard he gets all worked up. Is it the smell? Is it he actually recognizes different types of animals?)

I must admit I feel bad for Khorkina although I hate the Commies as much as the next guy. She's a star in her fractured country and the Olympics meant the culmination of an inspiring career to her and her homeland. They deserved better. Thus my attempt to further expand my world and my knowledge hit the ground harder than the gymnasts themselves. I gave the sport a chance and ended up even more disillusioned than before. Perhaps I should just stick with the things I know- stay inside my little isolated world. After all I should feel lucky to live in the land of the free where every one in a million placenta previa child can grow up to be a gymnast (specializing in back flips I'm sure) and further defy the odds by in-line skating her heart out in a Duluth marathon with a superlative time of one hour forty four minutes- the third straight year she has improved her time. Wow.

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