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31 Aug

Citius altius fortius – In my last entry, I mentioned that there was only so much I could say about the Olympics. Now that the Games are over, though, I find that I miss being able to turn on the TV at just about any hour of the day and witness the stirring and heroic sight of athletes striving against judges who can’t tell their rectum from a hole in the ground.

“An appearance at the Olympics in and of itself is a victory.”

To be perfectly honest, I prefer watching sports where the judges do not determine the outcome. Of course, all sports are watched over by referees and judges, but some sports (like gymnastics, for example) rely solely on the judges’ discretion to determine the medals. While these events can still be exciting, there’s always that lingering doubt about the judges’ intentions or capability. This year, there was no lingering doubt—it was replaced by a downright certainty that the judges are (at least in gymnastics) either unethical or incompetent.

Take a sport like pole vaulting, which is a new entry on my “favorite sports to watch” list. It’s just the athletes, the pole, and the bar, and you know right away whether he or she succeeded. The event lasts hours, but there is never a dull moment as competitors are whittled away, leaving the final few to compete for the medals. How can you not be moved by the drama when an athlete who has missed her last two attempts decides to raise the bar another ten centimeters because that’s what she needs to stay ahead? Then she runs down the track, plants the pole, and soars into the air—and she’s over! I’m talking specifically about the women’s finals, which I watched three times. Now that is some exciting stuff. The men’s finals was exciting to watch as well, and it was nice to see the U.S. take gold and silver.

Archery is pretty exciting, too, and is another sport where you know the results right away. On occasion the judges have to check some shots that are close to the lines, but generally the initial judgment is correct. I remember watching the women’s team archery finals. Korea needed a ten to win—a nine would tie, and an eight would mean silver. It was all up to Park Sung Hyun, and my wife hid her face under the covers, saying she couldn’t watch. I just knew Park would come through, though. I had watched her all through the individual competition, and she had never wavered when it counted. I said calmly, “She’ll do it. She’ll get a ten.” Aim, release... ten! It was an adrenaline rush just watching it—I can only imagine how she must have felt.

Diving has always been another cool sport to watch. What I can’t figure out is how the Chinese can be so much better than everyone else. They just disappear into the water like ghosts! You would think that with all the video footage of them hitting the water someone would have figured out how they do it. Actually, someone may have. Unlike many of the other diving events, the men’s 10m platform finals saw a challenge to Chinese diving supremacy. I was lucky enough to turn the TV on just as Australia’s Matthew Helm was preparing to dive. He executed perfectly, and when he disappeared into the water I shouted, “Oh my God, he’s Chinese!” He got a silver medal for that performance, and offered a glimmer of hope that the Chinese stranglehold on the sport may someday be broken.

There were plenty of other sports I enjoyed watching, like table tennis, judo, badminton, handball, and wrestling. And, invariably, there was a new entry on my “least favorite sports to watch” list. There were, of course, the usual suspects—rhythmic gymnastics (a ball and a hula hoop? You’re kidding me, right?) and synchronized swimming (I would honestly rather stab myself repeatedly in the chest with a fork than watch this)—but the newcomer was, surprisingly enough, a combat sport. Yes, the object of my ire this time around was none other than Taekwondo, the beloved Korean pastime.

Where else can you watch two competitors do absolutely nothing for thirty seconds at a time but bounce up and down and throw the occasional, half-hearted feint? Where else is an athlete rewarded for actually running away from his or her opponent? In Taekwondo, apparently, the best defense against a vicious attack is to simply fall down—the referee will stop the fight and allow you to get back on your feet, also giving you a chance to catch your breath and get out of any corners you might have been backed into. In all of the combat sports, to some degree, athletes adopt defensive postures when ahead on points, but Taekwondo has taken this to the level of the absurd.

I dutifully watched many of the Korean athletes’ matches (only because they showed them at least a dozen times a day, especially the winners), and it was plain to see that attacking in Taekwondo puts you at a disadvantage—most of the points were won on counterattacks. Other combat sports penalize athletes for being excessively passive. In wrestling, a passive competitor is put into a disadvantageous position that makes it easier for the opponent to score points;, while in judo, a warning against passiveness automatically leads to a koka for the opponent. In Taekwondo, though, you have to get four penalties before you are disqualified on penalties. At least, that’s what the Olympic site says. I think if you get two penalties, you are penalized one point—that’s what happened in Moon’s match against Gentil. I’m a bit confused on the actual system, to be honest, but the fact remains that attacking leaves you at a disadvantage.

This being the case, what athlete in his or her right mind would go on the offensive, especially if they’re ahead (even if the margin is only one point)? I’m not blaming the athletes—they have trained hard to get to where they are, and they deserve recognition. But the way the sport is set up makes for a painfully tedious spectator experience. Something really needs to be done about this if Taekwondo is to be a permanent fixture at the Olympics. I may be crucified for saying this, but I think something could be learned from the Japanese attitude toward judo—their athletes always try for an ippon victory. That was what made Lee Won Hee’s gold medal quest in the sport so exciting—four of his five matches were won by ippon. He was ahead by two yuko (a significant margin) in the gold medal match, and yet he still went for (and got) an ippon with something like twelve seconds remaining. It was exhilarating.

The same can not be said for Taekwondo. Even Moon Dae Sung’s gold medal match, which was decided by knockout and was by far the most exciting Taekwondo match of the Games, was pretty lukewarm up until the kick that led to the knockout. His opponent’s words on winning the silver medal are very telling: “I was very excited and I wanted the gold so bad that I lost control and I was defeated” (from the official Olympic site). It’s never a good thing to lose control, but I watched that match, and I interpret his words to mean that he was too aggressive. Moon was only able to land that knockout kick because Nikolaidis himself attempted a kick to the head a split-second beforehand.

Anyway, I think I’ve beaten that dead horse enough. There’s one more thing I want to mention about the Olympics before I wrap this up. I’m not sure how many Korean victories were shown in other countries (probably not too many), but many of the Korean winners immediately dropped to their knees to pray after their victory. I was talking with my sister-in-law, and when I mentioned this to her she said, “Yes, that’s nice to see, but how come they never pray when they lose?” I couldn’t help but laugh at that, but it was an excellent point. As Christians, we are supposed to give God the glory for our victories, but what about our losses? An appearance at the Olympics in and of itself is a victory, and a silver medal is precious as well. Why not give God the glory for that?

I don’t think it’s that the terrible disappointment of losing makes the athletes forget. I think that it’s because every athlete thinks they are going to win—they wouldn’t be at the Olympics if they didn’t. I’m sure they imagine what it will be like to win, and how they will react, and in those imaginings they must say to themselves, “When I win, I will thank God for my victory.” But no athlete imagines what it will be like to lose, so when the time comes, they are not prepared. While it is certainly inspiring to see the victor pray, I think it would be far more moving to see the vanquished pray. That, to me, would indicate a stronger faith, because it would show that their relationship with God is not just important when the spotlight is on them, but all the time—that their relationship with God is so important to them that even in the midst of defeat they still give the glory to Him.

Now, though, the Games are over, the athletes have gone home, and the spotlight now shifts to Beijing. Until then, it’s back to life as normal.

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