Zooming In

August 18, 2008

Sweating Out The Olympic Spirit

Gelf highlights overlooked coverage from local media around the world. In this special Olympics edition: Jews lead Phelps to the Promised Land, Castro kicks ass in volleyball, and the only openly gay male athlete in Beijing.

Michael Gluckstadt

Some of the most insightful writing from outside the US comes from local media. In this occasional feature, Gelf identifies noteworthy stories that haven't gotten much attention outside local borders. With all of the excitement this week at the Summer Games in Beijing, this week Gelf presents a special Olympics (not Special Olympics) edition of Zooming In.




If there were an Olympics of quirky sports, Finland would have a leg up on the competition. It is home to both the Wife Carrying Championships and the Air Guitar World Championships, and while the world was turning its attention to 1500 meter runs in Beijing, remarkable feats of endurance were taking place at the Sauna Olympics in Heinola.

Professional sweaters from Columbia to Gambia braved the 110°C heat—that’s 230°F, or a low oven setting. Still, the winners of both the men's and women's competition were homegrown talent. Finland's own Bjarne Hermansson outlasted all competitors with a time of 18 minutes and 15 seconds, while his countrywoman Leila Kulin defended her championship with a time of five minutes and 22 seconds.


Poor Thai journalists are getting no respect at the Games. While other journalists from high-powered countries enjoy press access to the marquee events, the Thai program guide resembles an issue of Obscure Sports Quarterly. "I would have loved to witness Michael Phelps making history at the Watercube," writes Thai sportswriter Wanchai Rujawongsanti, "but it is almost impossible for a Thai journalist to get a ticket to watch swimming or other popular events such as basketball." So far, Thailand's only medal has come in women's 53 kg class weightlifting, from a woman who took the advice of a fortune teller (and most certainly not a copy editor) and changed her name to Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon. With most of the 51 Thai athletes already eliminated, and few of the remaining ones with any chance of standing on the podium, Rujawongsanti did what any fan shut out of the main Olympic events would do—he went sightseeing. Sadly, he wasn't taken with what he saw there either. "For people who like things like ancient palaces and pavilions, you probably need a whole day to see everything. For people who are not so keen about this sort of thing—like me—one hour is more than enough," he writes. "For me, all pavilions look very similar."


His doting mother and internet rumors notwithstanding, it seems that Michael Phelps, to the dismay of shadchonim everywhere, is not Jewish. That doesn't mean that Jews can't shep some nachas from his achievements. Israeli newspaper Haaretz covers Phelps's win in the 4X100 freestyle relay with the headline, "Two Jews and a black man help Phelps fulfill Olympic dream." The article goes on to note that "[Jason] Lezak—a good Jewish boy from California—put on a great show" and "When Garrett Weber-Gale—who is Jewish, by the way—jumped in, he trailed his Australian opponent by a hair's width." While the list of Jewish athletes in this year's Olympics is already impressive (Dara Torres!), I'm surprised Haaretz didn't try to claim Cullen Jones as well.



If Morgan Freeman has taught us anything over these past few weeks, it's that the Olympics bring together people of different ethnicity, class, and country and that Visa is everywhere we want to be. While I can't tell you if the Starbucks in the Forbidden City takes American Express, I can tell you that there is one minority noticeably absent from the Olympic Games. According to gay sports website Outsports.com, of the 10,500 athletes competing, ten have publicly identified themselves as gay—and only one of those is male. While China has certainly earned its reputation as a repressive country, there is a long history of tolerance towards what was once called "the passion of the cut sleeve" in the country. In this one regard, the athletic community as a whole is far more repressive. While the rate of homosexuality among Olympic athletes is certainly much higher than the reported .00095 percent, many gay athletes are reluctant to come out, either out of fear of losing sponsorships or of creating a distraction from the task at hand. The lone openly gay male Olympian, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, doesn’t believe it should be such an issue. "It's everybody else who thinks it's special when homosexuality and elite sport go together," he said.


The Cuban women's volleyball team came from behind to defeat the defending champion Chinese national team in five sets in a gritty display of Olympic intensity and focus. And they couldn't have done it without Fidel Castro. The state-controlled newspaper Granma reports that the Cuban team gave it their all, just like a certain bearded dictator with a taste for cigars and army garb. "There is no better gift for Fidel on his birthday than this victory, not only in the team remaining undefeated by winning this game, but in the way they did it, turning a setback into a victory," writes Oscar Sanchez in the game's recap. "In other words, showing the same determination with which he has always guided the destiny of our country." Oddly, none of the athletes were reported to dedicate the victory to Castro—though that was likely censored by the repressive Westerners and their capitalist stooge NBC.


In the US, Michael Phelps created a ratings "bonanza" for NBC, garnering 32 percent of television viewers on a Saturday night—but Phelps is no Lee Chong Wei. All of Malaysia was effectively shut down as people throughout the country flocked to television sets to watch Lee compete against China's Lin Dan in the badminton men's singles final. Malaysia has never won a gold medal, probably because the creation of pointless youtube videos isn't an Olympic event. With the elusive gold on the line, politicians took a break from campaigning, couples ignored terrible movies, and hundreds of people filled restaurants with large screen TVs, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star. Sadly, Lee's quick reflexes were no match for Lin Dan, who won in straight sets.

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