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What We Will Be Playing in the London Games

Now that we’ve looked at the sports we won’t be able to watch this summer (pigeon racing, you will be missed), let’s take a look at the sports we will get to see. I’ve attempted to find as many reasons as I can for why each one should be capable of capturing our hearts, and only one of them is penis-related.

Archery

Olympic archery forms the basis of what might be my favorite piece of celebrity trivia, namely that Geena Davis was a semifinalist for the women’s archery team at the 2000 Olympics. While one of the more obscure Olympics sports, archery nonetheless has a certain air of elegance and mystique about it, maybe in part because of its other famous practitioners, most notably Cupid, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood (especially in his animated fox incarnation). 2012 also seems to be the year of the archery movie, with Hawkeye, Merida, and Katniss Everdeen all making use of a bow and arrow. If NBC wants to get its money’s worth out of the $1.18 billion it paid for Olympic broadcast rights, it might want to get started with some “May the odds be ever in your favor” promos ASAP.

The kind of archery we’ll be watching this summer has only been a part of the Olympics since 1972, when the events were dominated by South Korean athletes, with the Americans doing their best to nip at their heels. This trend has held steady until the present day, which may tell us a lot about the subjectivity of the Olympic moment: while we remember the basketball “Dream Team” of 1992 and Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals, Koreans may think of Park Sung-Hyun’s three gold medals in 2004. Archery can also lay claim to the first paraplegic athlete in the Olympics, New Zealander Neroli Fairhall, who competed in 1984.

Archery was also included in the 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1920 Olympics, albeit in a different form than the one we’ll see this year: each Games had archers compete in a unique series of events, with perhaps the most intriguing being the (hopefully descriptively titled) “individual fixed small bird,” “individual moving bird,” and “team moving bird” in 1920.

Canoeing and kayaking

Did you know that Olympic kayaking is oddly thrilling, and not even in the same way as curling? In addition to canoe and kayak sprinting (which is a race across flat water, and is called “sprinting” and not the far less silly “canoe racing” for reasons I’m sure are completely legitimate) Olympic canoers and kayakers also compete in a slalom event, which consists of paddling through whitewater and navigating a series of 18-25 gates, and looks like this. So, as with many of the sports on this list, it’s kind of like another far more popular Olympic sport (skiing), but also very not.

If you look at a list of the records for the highest number of Olympic gold medals won by an individual athlete, you’ll see that Michael Phelps is at the top of the heap, followed by other swimmers, runners, and gymnasts. After the top five, however, the highest number of gold medals awarded to a Summer Olympic athlete went to Birgit Fisher, a German kayaker who became both the youngest ever kayaking champion at 18 and the oldest ever kayaking champion at 42. You can find her website, including her amateur leaf photography, here.

Equestrian

Equestrian events have been at every Games since 1912, though until 1952 they could only be contested by military officers. (Presumably they were allowed to ride civilian horses.) Drug tests began being administered to horses during the 1972 Games, while their riders were allowed to abstain. At this summer’s games, individual and team show jumping, dressage, and eventing will be contested. Sadly absent will be polo and equestrian vaulting (also known as the thing you pretend to do when you put on your tutu and stand on the top of the couch and say you’re a BEAUTIFUL lady on a BEAUTIFUL horse and then try do to a cartwheel and fall off), both of which were present at previous games.

Handball

In lieu of a description of the playing and scoring of handball (which is similar to soccer, but is restricted to two thirty-minute periods and — predictably — uses the hands instead of the feet, and which at past Olympics has been dominated by Russian, German, Swedish, and Eastern European teams), I offer instead this picture of fifteen silver casts of the penises of the Icelandic handball team that competed at the 2008 Olympics, and took home (as one might have guessed), silver. If you watch Olympic handball this year and find the action somewhat lacking, you may have a more satisfying viewing experience if you focus your attention on which teams’ penises you would most like to see rendered in precious metals. (This makes me wonder if gold, silver, and bronze genitalia serve as the prizes for some competition, somewhere, but that’s another story.

Modern pentathlon

The modern pentathlon consists of five events: fencing, pistol shooting, 200 meter freestyle swimming, show jumping on horseback, and cross country running. Having just typed that list I have no idea why it isn’t more popular than it is. It also has the distinction of having been invented by the Games’ modern founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in an effort to simulate the experiences of a 19th century soldier. As we saw in the previous list, the more violent additions to the Olympics (live pigeon shooting, pistol dueling) have been gradually phased out, but the pentathlon remains. It’s also one of the rare sports that’s been consistently present at the Olympics since it was first added to the program in 1912, though women have only been able to compete since 2000.

So I ask: what is our pentathlon problem? Partly, I think, Americans might have a hard time caring much about the pentathlon because no American athlete has ever won a gold in it, and because it’s historically been dominated by Hungary and Sweden. There’s also the problem that relatively long events with several different components are extremely difficult to televise — think of the drama of the gymnastics vault or the 100 meter dash, and then of how diluted any drama inevitably comes when spread across a five-sport gauntlet.

Still, I think we need to give the modern pentathlon a chance. (Of course I’m speaking mainly for myself, as I’m sure many of you are way ahead of the game and have been following the modern pentathlon for years. I salute you.) This year America will send four pentathlates to the games, among them Suzanne Stettinius, a Baltimorean who, due to the relatively few endorsements offered to pentathlates, is currently attempting a fundraising venture that includes auctioning off a date with herself. If there exists a better demonstration of Olympic spirit then I don’t know what it is. I propose that all ‘Pinners attempt to support Stettinius by thinking up some catchy slogans and cheers for her — my best idea so far is “Suzanne Stettinius! It rhymes with _______!,” but I know we can think of something better.

Rhythmic gymnastics

Oh, rhythmic gymnastics. You are to artistic gymnastics what ice dancing is to ice skating, namely: worth way less in endorsement money, generating fewer stars, and far less dramatic. Rhythmic gymnastics, like ice dancing, is just really, really pretty to look at, and a relatively stress-free sport (“sport”) to watch. There are no great narratives, no Kerri Strug moments, no dangerous injuries, no international feuds. Bear in mind that I’m not contradicting the message of this painstakingly curated YouTube video — rhythmic gymnastics looks incredibly difficult, just like ice dancing does, but it’s something you watch while sort of slumped on the couch, rather than perched on the edge of it. But you know what? We need that at the Olympics. Rhythmic gymnastics is like Millie in Freaks and Geeks: the supportive, low-maintenance friend who’ll play Uno with you when things get too heavy with Nick Andopolis. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

Rowing

Remember when I said my favorite piece of celebrity trivia was about Geena Davis nearly qualifying for the 2000 Olympics? Well, it turns out I lied, because the following clearly trumps it: Hugh Laurie’s father, the wonderfully named William George Ranald Mundell Laurie (known as Ran), won a gold medal in coxless pair rowing at the 1948 Olympics. Hugh rowed at Cambridge and had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, training for up to eight hours a day, until he came down with mono, and, unable to continue rowing, focused his attentions on comedy and acting.

Since we can’t blame rowing for a world without Fry & Laurie (and Jeeves and Wooster, and Blackadder the Third), it seems we have no reason not to give it a chance this summer. There will be fourteen separate rowing events in London, partly because rowing is the only non-combat Olympic sport to include weight categories, so that you can watch (if you stay up late enough) double sculls events contested by men, lightweight men, women, and lightweight women. The weight and gender of the participants aside, the events classifications are as follows:

Quad scull: a boat containing four rowers, each using two oars

Double scull: a boat containing two rowers, each using two oars

Single scull: a boat containing one rower, who uses two oars

Eight: a boat containing a cox and eight rowers, each using one oar. The cox, or coxswain (pronounced “coxsun” and meaning, literally, boat servant) is the member of the team who sits in the stern, facing the rowers, steering the boat and coaching the crew.

Coxless four: a boat containing four rowers, each using one oar

Coxless pair: a boat containing two rowers, each using one oar

The United States and Great Britain are the leaders in rowing medals, but Romania has the distinction of being home to Elisabeta Lipă, who took home gold medals from the 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics, showing that what rowing lacks in glamour it more than makes up for in its potential for athlete longevity.

Sailing

Sailing, like many of the other sports on this list, is hard to view with a great deal of interest if you haven’t actually done it. As someone whose sailing skills can be optimistically described as “borderline competent,” I can say that the joy of sailing comes in beating the odds by neither dying nor throwing up, but people who take part in it at Olympic levels of competition may see sailing somewhat differently. The thrill of survival aside, I do think that the appeal of sailing — you’re on a very complicated vessel moving very fast at very strange angles, sometimes through rough water — is at least in part due to the fact that it at least feels dangerous, even if it isn’t. That said, it requires comparatively little exertion, and its athletes aren’t nearly as interesting as the apparatus they use. For all these reasons, I recommend that, before watching sailing at this year’s Games, you tape yourself to your bathroom wall and turn the shower on full blast, then turn on the most powerful fan you can find for full effect. Obviously you will enjoy the events even more if you put on a Sou’Wester, but if you have a limited budget this can be dispensed with.

Synchronized swimming

Synchronized swimming has only been an Olympic event since 1984, for which I am very sorry, because looking back at over a hundred years of Olympic synchronized swimming history would no doubt be a feast for the senses in a way that we will never have the good fortune to know. (It would also potentially make us privy to some great stories of international friction — picture Jesse Owens’ victory at the 1936 Berlin games, but with a team of plucky synchronized swimmers instead.) Even sadder is the fact the synchronized swimming is played only by female athletes — but maybe we’re forgetting to count our blessings, or our one big blessing, namely that synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport. And, lucky for us, it’s one America is also good at, though lately we’ve been playing second banana to Russia. But maybe this year all that will change? It would make for an amazing movie — Miracle Underwater, with Jazz Hands, maybe.

Synchronized swimming (which was known until the 1930’s as water ballet) first became popular in the 1890’s, and during its early days was perhaps most famously practiced by Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer who performed in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome. Esther Williams brought water ballet to the screen in the 1940’s, but the most memorable instance of water ballet in film can be found in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate, a pre-code film in which Johnny Weissmuller and Josephine McKim, both of whom had competed in the 1928 Olympics, cavort in the nude. Looking at the footage now, you can see some of what makes the Olympics so enchanting: the beauty of the human form at its peak, though in this case we see a man and a woman enjoying each other’s company, rather than representatives of the same sex competing with each other for gold.

From 1984 through 1992, synchronized swimming’s only events in the Games were women’s duet and (somewhat paradoxically) women’s solo. For the later event, water ballet might have been a more appropriate title, as the athlete didn’t have anything to synchronize herself with, but rather was displaying a combination of artistic and athletic prowess, in the same way that a gymnast or a figure skater might. In 1996, however, both solo and duet were eliminated and the team event became synchronized swimming’s only entry into the Games — a little more Busby Berkeley, a little less Anna Pavlova.

In looking at the difference between an interesting Olympic sport and a deeply compelling one, one criterion seems to come up over and over again: the great sports, the ones we can’t take our eyes off of, tend to involve the whole body. Archery and rowing are about the arms, shooting is about the aim, equestrian is about control over another body, but swimming, running, skating, gymnastics — the big ticket events that have everyone on the couch all night — are about watching the human body in motion, every muscle yearning for height, distance, control. Synchronized swimming, too, is about the entire body — so why don’t we follow it as raptly as we do the above? Maybe we should be. But if I had to guess why we don’t love it yet, I’d say it has to do with the jazz hands:

Table tennis

Since table tennis was included in the 1988 Olympics, China has won 41 medals, South Korea has won 17, and the rest of the world has won a combined total of 18. Invented in the 1880’s and originally known as wiff-waff (a name either marginally less or marginally more silly than ping-pong), table tennis began as a parlor game in which bored Englishmen batted golf balls at each other, using books as paddles. (This may or may not be far superior to the game’s current incarnation.) The first world tournament was held in 1902, though no athletes from Russia attended, as table tennis was banned there due to the belief that it was detrimental to players’ eyesight.

Table tennis’ most significant cultural moment may have come not from its inclusion as an Olympic sport but during the so-called ping-pong diplomacy of the early 1970’s (which trumps even the Twinkie defense on the list of the most significant twentieth-century events with the most ridiculous names). During the World Table Tennis Championship in 1971, American player Glenn Cowan missed his team bus and rode with the Chinese players, with whom he grew friendly. Following this, the People’s Republic of China extended an invitation to the American team to visit China, which they accepted, and which many believed paved the way for Nixon’s visit in 1972. After he returned to America, one player told the press that:

The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feeling. I made friends, I made genuine friends, you see. The country is similar to America, but still very different. It’s beautiful. They got the Great Wall, they got plains over there. They got an ancient palace, the parks, there’s streams, and they got ghosts that haunt; there’s all kinds of, you know, animals. The country changes from the south to the north.

If this description seems oddly poetic, then the same can be said of table tennis itself. In anticipation of the 2000 Olympics, the International Table Tennis Federation attempted to make the game more telegenic by increasing the size of the balls and thinning the layer of sponge on the rackets, both of which slowed gameplay and made it easier to watch. Still, table tennis is a blindingly fast game, one that you have to watch with complete concentration or not at all — which, of course, is also true of the Olympics.

Water Polo

Actually, Esther Werdiger pretty much covered this one. 

Bonus: if you have any friends who are legitimately into water polo (I do), you can simply and easily infuriate them by saying, “You know, there’s one thing I’ve always wondered about water polo…” and they’ll say, “What??” and you’ll say, “…HOW do they get the horses in the water?” And then they won’t invite you over to your house to watch the Olympics with them, which is too bad, because people who are into water polo typically have a bigger TV than you.

Women’s Boxing

This year, for the first time in history, there will be a women’s boxing event at the Summer Games. While men will compete in ten weight classes (light flyweight, flyweight, bantamweight, lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight, and super heavyweight), women will compete in only three (flyweight, lightweight, and middleweight), and there will be only 36 female boxers, compared to 250 men.

Let’s back away from facts and figures for a second, and go into a personal anecdote (which, for me, is code for “I saw a movie once and I’m going to tell you about it”). A few years ago I saw Raging Bull for the first time, and I immediately fell in love. Not with Robert DeNiro, but with Robert DeNiro’s body, and not with the idea of getting close to it but of owning it.  Raging Bull, if you haven’t seen it, is maybe the most beautiful boxing movie ever made: it captures not just the raw power and violence of the sport but the graceful, almost balletic aspects of it as well. It’s shot like Olivier’s Henry V, and it’s as dedicated to showing the animal beauty of a man in his prime as it is to showing his eventual ugly descent.

I decided that, somehow, I wanted to understand that physical power — to have muscles with force coiled within them like tensed spring. I knew I wasn’t going to be a boxer but I wanted to pretend I was going to be a boxer, so I decided to go jogging. I hadn’t run more than a block or two since high school, and we were in the middle of a July heat wave, but this was immaterial. I put on my high tops, because I didn’t have real running shoes, and jogged out onto the blacktop. The heat bounced up at me like a breath straight out of an oven and my puny lungs began to quiver — What are you doing to me, you bitch? I thought we had a deal! — but I continued stoically forward for, oh, a good thirty yards at least. Then I stopped, started, stopped, started, and then I went home and died. My boxing career had lasted about twenty minutes, but it had been a memorable one.

All of which is to say: I get it. The idea that women would want to box seems, of course, to be extremely gettable — boxing, like all other sports, is essentially about the human mind and body spurred on to greater achievement through competition, both with the self and others, and we seemed to have cottoned to the idea that women are just as drawn toward this kind of pursuit, and just as good at it, as men — but historically, many people haven’t.

When I told my mother (whom you might remember from a previous installment of this series) that this would be the first Olympics to feature a women’s boxing event, she was perplexed more than anything else. My mother went to college in the late 60’s, took part in sit-ins and teach-ins, voted for McGovern, and went to medical school when the two genders of medical professionals were “Doctors” and “Nurses.” But when I asked her what she thought of women’s boxing, she said it sounded to her like a sideshow event. In fact, it started out as one. The first recorded American women’s boxing match took place in New York City in 1876; the fighters, Rose Harland and Nell Saunders (who were usually employed as dancers), competed for a silver butter dish. A New York Times headline described it as “A Novel and Nonsensical Exhibition at Harry Hill’s.” Describing the match itself, the reporter wrote that

Mr. Hill introduced the lady contestants to the audience. Miss Saunders wore a white bodice, purple knee-breeches, which she had borrowed from one of the negro performers, red stockings and shoes. Miss Harland wore blue trunks and white tights. Both appeared exceedingly nervous, were very pale, tried to blush, and partially succeeded. Time was then called, and the female boxers shook hands. Miss Harland did not know what to do with her hands, but kept her head well back out of the way. Miss Saunders had a fair idea of attack and defense, but could not carry it into practice. After some preliminary sparring, Saunders managed to hit Harland fair in the face. Miss Harland endeavored to get square and was again worsted, but finally succeeded in disarranging Saunders’ hair by a vicious blow from the shoulder. Both women then smiled, and the result of the first round was announced by Prof. Clark–Saunders, 7 hits; Harland 4.

Well over a century later, not much had changed. In an article titled “Good with Her Hands: Women, Boxing, and Work,” Carlo Rotella describes a Golden Gloves competition in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania of the mid-1990s, and his observation that the crowd:

Responded to the bout with the curious mix of prurient hysteria and sporting fervor that female boxers excite in fight crowds, which are overwhelmingly male… Like most people at the fights, who want to see rolling heads rather than accomplished footwork, they were happy to see a bout with lots of punching and drama. But they were especially moved by the fact of a fight between women. They may have enjoyed the fight for the same reasons they enjoy offense-heavy rights between stalwart men, but they also responded to the action as if it were a kind of advanced Jello-wrestling or striptease, with damage replacing flesh as the dirty female thing to be revealed.

Both of the above descriptions are fodder for volumes’ worth of deconstruction that I won’t be unspooling here, mainly because I think we need to at least wait for the Games. This summer’s Olympics will bring women’s boxing — also known as a “novel and nonsensical exhibition” — to a greater audience than it has perhaps ever known. People will have the opportunity to watch female athletes show their prowess not just at fighting but at footwork, agility, stamina, and speed. This time they’re not fighting for a silver butter dish, but for the gold.

Previously: What We Won’t Be Playing in the London Games.

Sarah Marshall has wrestled with an alligator, tussled with a whale, murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick. (She’s so mean she makes medicine sick.)

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