So far, this year’s Olympic Games have been comparatively devoid of anything resembling our traditional notion of drama. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ll allow that some crazy stuff has gone down — the American men’s gymnastic team completely eating it during group competition, dressage still somehow being a sport, etc. — but it’s all been mainly in the service of making this noble tradition seem more akin to a cross between an episode of “The Thick of It” and an old vaudeville routine.
I know that Danny Boyle wanted Paul McCartney’s latest warbling of “Hey Jude” to properly encompass the gravity of the event, but every time I see a swimmer false start, or a Brazilian volleyball player take an inordinate amount of spikes to the throat, all I hear is the sort of mangled version of “Yackety Sax” that Merzbow and Tom Waits might cover together.
I admit, though, that Michelle and I are currently devoting all of our television time and most of our DVR space to the Olympics. Most of the sports I’m truly interested in aren’t routinely televised; boxing is on almost every morning, granted, but judo, tae kwon do and Greco-Roman wrestling might as well be a black kidnapping victim as far as NBC is concerned.
Still, like my self-destructive obsession with curling during the last winter games demonstrates, I’ll watch anything involving the Olympiad. Just the other morning, I was slow setting up the bar at work because women’s skeet shooting was on two separate televisions. I was riveted. You can’t actually see the clay pigeons as they’re released, so the good folks at the network follow it with a little pink glo-disc that evaporates as the pigeon itself shatters. So now we know what the doofiest alien invasion ever might look like.
The inherent dichotomies and ensuing drama of women’s gymnastics, though, cannot be marginalized. Barring Russian Roulette, it seems the cruelest of all sports. These girls and women train their bodies and minds for years on end with the kind of discipline that would send marines and monks alike running madly into the hills. Relative to the rest of us, they achieve peak physical condition, the nearest to athletic perfection we can envision.
And the potential payoff is immeasurable; when a competitor sticks a vault landing with nary a hop, or flings herself through the air at an impossible height and trajectory on the uneven bars, we forget to breathe. The air inside our living room seems to hum.
For that reason, however, the falls (both literal and figurative) are magnified a thousand-fold. We watched the Olympic trials religiously, mainly for two reasons: 1) to see if Gabby Douglas is all she’s cracked up to be — turns out she is — and 2) to see if Nastia Liukin could successfully come out of retirement and repeat her multiple medal-winning performance from the Beijing Games. She’d qualified for the trials, but was ranked at only 20th out of all American competitors.
Viewers assumed, or were hoping, it was just a case of finding her footing again, and that the rust would be knocked off by the time the trials rolled around. It wasn’t: she repeatedly tottered, faltered and lost her balance during routines, and by the time she missed a release on the uneven bars and fell flat from eight feet in the air, the outcome was already inevitable. She showed resolve in finishing the routine, but a formerly untouchable athlete’s Olympic, and competitive, career was finished, while we watched the whole thing play out.
More recently, as in Sunday, it happened again. Jordyn Wieber, reigning world gymnastics champion (which I only figured out a couple of years ago is an entirely different thing from being an Olympics champion), failed to qualify for the all-around competition, though through no real fault of her own. You see, Olympic gymnastics scoring and ranking is maddeningly dysfunctional, sort of like — preemptive segue alert — our national voting system.
Based purely on routine scores, Wieber finished an outstanding fourth place overall, just behind teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. According to the official rules, however, only two representatives from each nation can move on, and so Wieber will be forced to sit by while a dozen other gymnasts she earlier surpassed will get the opportunity that, mathematically and cosmically, should be hers.
The day after, former head coach and perpetual “Fiddler on the Roof” extra Bela Karolyi took to NBC to voice his outrage over the current scoring system. Every time the interviewer tried to redirect the conversation, Karolyi would ignore him and keep on talking about the one thing that mattered. It was like the bizarro-world version of a Mitt Romney interview.
Whether originally conceived in the interest of simplicity or fairness, our voting system exhibits similar shortcomings, shortcomings that are rendered more and more prevalent with each passing election cycle. I don’t have enough room or patience to get into the nitty-gritty math of it all, but the election is essentially decided by electorates in a handful of swing states.
Why is this? Because the popular vote really doesn’t matter, and most states are either deeply blue (Vermont, Massachusetts) or deeply red (Alabama, Georgia and Alabama again, just for good measure). Thusly, the impact of their electoral votes is essentially the same from cycle to cycle. Swing states, then, carry the day.
Obviously, it doesn’t stop there. Our system favors, and has for a long time now, a rigidly two-party system and, by proxy, a two-candidate race. Yes, you can write in any candidate you want, but you might as well be throwing away your vote. Primaries are partially to blame, where typically most candidates willing to go to bat for their principles is weeded out in short order.
Say what you want about Rick Santorum — I certainly have; check the archives — but the man at least stood by his convictions, skewed and psychotic though they may be. Would he have been crushed by President Obama in the election? Yeah, and probably even worse than Romney will. But it would be a hell of a lot more entertaining than just watching Romney’s campaign self-implode in a frenzy of ineptitude.
Are there solutions? There always are. In particular, the single-transferrable vote system (in use at the national level in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Iceland, India and Pakistan, and at the local level in Massachusetts and Minnesota), seems a viable alternative, allowing each citizen to initially vote for their preferred candidate, then attributing their votes to other candidates according to the voter’s stated policy preferences as more and more candidates are eliminated.
Americans, though, are notoriously averse to change. We elected Obama, sure, and we will again, but the nation has reacted with a wave of firearms purchases, anti-woman legislation and more thinly veiled racism than a minstrel show. Changing the voting system, even to something that makes infinitely more sense in terms of fairness, would probably be leveled with sensationalist accusations of Marxism.
And you can forget about trying to explain the new system. Our national attention span is so short in terms of politics that Rick Perry can still be mentioned as a viable 2016 candidate after herp-derping his way to national embarrassment.
Above all, we care about pageantry and our own petty opinions more than anything else. Will the Olympic rules be changed? Possibly, but in service of what? Sports? As important as that is to our geopolitical and cultural identity, it pales in comparison to the impact of national leaders. Some will crow about it, but ultimately do nothing. Others will try, and be crushed.
Most of us, though, will sit still, not even giving our convictions the chance to go up in flames.You Might Also Like: