What should I watch at the Olympics on Fri, Aug 12?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

Summer Olympics: All About Swimming

All About Swimming

Every four years, the world focuses its attention on the Summer Olympics and is momentarily fascinated by people swimming. These simple races, with even the fastest Olympians traveling slower than the average person walks, are the site of some incredibly feats of sudden strength, sustained endurance, and hair-splittingly close margins of victory.

How Does Swimming Work?

One of the features of swimming from a viewer’s perspective is how simple it is to understand. A bunch of people start in one place, swim back and forth in a pool (or in one case, the open and questionably safe water off Copacabana beach,) and whoever completes the required distance first, wins. That simplicity belies an enormous amount of detail that goes into these races. Many of them require different ways of swimming, called strokes. The four main strokes are front-crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Breaststroke is the most familiar of the strokes. In it, swimmers stay on their front, push their hands together out in front of them, and then divide them, and push back to their hips before bringing them forward together again. Legs kick in a frog-like manner. In front crawl swimmers are also front down in the water, but the arms move separately in long windmill like motions all the way forward, almost parallel to the body, back downward to the hips and then forward again. While one arm is moving to the hip, the other swivels forward. Meanwhile, the feet are kicking like crazy in a flutter-like motion. Front-crawl is the fastest of the strokes. Backstroke is basically front crawl but done flipped over, with the swimmer on her or his back. The last stroke, butterfly, is what happens if you try to do front-crawl with both arms moving together instead of alternating. If you’ve ever tried this, you probably know that this movement naturally propels the swimmer down into the water. Butterfly swimmers compensate for this by bucking their entire bodies up in the water at each stroke. It is exhausting and slow, which makes Olympic butterfly incredibly impressive. One fun fact about Olympic swimming that pertains to strokes is that there are no front crawl races. The times when you see swimmers doing that stroke are when there are freestyle races that allow any stroke. Since front crawl is the fastest, everyone always chooses to do that, but a swimmer could theoretically do a different stroke.

The races are mostly individual ones organized into preliminary heats that qualify swimmers for a single finals race. Most of these races involve one stroke but a couple require swimmers to do all four strokes consecutively. These are called medleys. Some races are team races called relays. During a relay, one swimmer races until they’ve swum a particular distance (1/4 of the entire distance of the race, because there are four team members) and, once they touch the wall, the next swimmer on the team dives in. The team that finishes first wins.

Why do People Like Watching Swimming?

Even describing how swimming works, it feels a little silly to remember how much fun it is to watch. It doesn’t seem like something one would be happy spending hours watching, but it is. Why? I think a big part of it is the joy one gets from watching almost perfectly efficient bodies in motion. When you or I swim, we probably thrash around a little in the water on our way from point A to point B. Not so for Olympic swimmers. Any motion that doesn’t propel them forward is a wasted motion and is carefully removed from their stroke during hours of practice. What’s left is a smooth, beautiful stroke. Even swimmer’s bodies at this level seem to have been chosen for efficiency in the water. Another thing I love is that for some reason, swimming under water is faster than any stroke done at the surface. Swimmers in any stroke are allowed to swim under water only at particular times — when they first dive into the pool and when they turn at the wall of the pool. So, they all try to stay under for as long as they possibly can. Some swimmers can just do this longer than others; maintaining lung capacity and control even when exerting themselves massively. A swimmer with great control in this way can make time up against an otherwise faster swimmer at every turn. It makes races less predictable and more exciting.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

“There are a lot of swimming events in the Summer Olympics. A plethora. There are individual events at different distances in breast stroke, back stroke, butterfly, and freestyle, which we now know means that everyone chooses to do front crawl in. There are freestyle relay events for men and women at 100 meters (there and back once) each for a total of 400 meters, and 200 meters each (800 total). There is also a 100 meter medley relay in which each of the four team members swims 100 meters using one of the four strokes. There are also 200 meter and 400 meter individual medleys.

Lastly, and I forgot to mention this in any earlier swimming sections, there is a swimming marathon event. It’s not 26.2 miles, but swimming 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is roughly an equivalent feat. This race is held in open water, which makes it even more difficult. Open water swimmers have to deal with currents, waves, and assorted competitors’ elbows, knees, and feet coming at them.”

How Dangerous is Swimming?

Thankfully, none of the swimmers at the Olympics will have just had lunch, so it’s not that dangerous. Ha. Jokes aside, swimming is not a dangerous sport. In fact, because the water allows for movement with less resistance, swimming is often something doctors or physical therapists prescribe for rehabilitating injuries. Now, I’m pretty sure they don’t want you out there going for it like Katie Ledecky, but the principle still holds.

The only swimmers to worry about at the Olympics are the marathon open water swimmers. This is particularly true in 2016 because the water they will be swimming in is rumored to be full of gross and toxic sludge. Eeek.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Swimming?

Almost perfect. There are 34 events, 17 for women, 17 for men. 16 of those events have a women’s version and a men’s version that are identical. The one exception is the longest distance freestyle event. For some reason, even though women swim the 10 kilometer marathon event in open water, the powers that be in swimming have decided that women should have an 800 meter freestyle event while the men should have a 1,500 meter one. I don’t get it, and I feel sure this will change in some future Olympics. Once it does, swimming will be a perfectly balanced Olympic sport.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Swimming is from Saturday, August 6 to Tuesday, August 16.

Read more about swimming on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Triathlon

The triathlon is a modern Olympic event which combines three sports – running, swimming, and bicycling — into a single exhausting package.

All About Triathlon

The triathlon is an exhausting combination of open-water swimming, road bicycling, and running. Triathlon athletes perform these feats back to back with no rest between. In fact, the transition periods between the swimming and the biking and the biking and the running are timed. You won’t see any casual drying off or stretching out between disciplines!

How Does Triathlon Work?

The triathlon begins with a mass of competitors on a beach. When the race starts, they all run into the surf and begin to swim out to open water. This type of swimming is very different from swimming competitions in a pool. For one thing, there’s a lot more jockeying for position, and it’s not uncommon for triathletes to get elbowed or kneed or kicked. Second, in anticipation of the biking and running events, many triathletes use special swimming strokes that leverage their upper body strength and save their leg power for later. After the 1,500 meter swim (almost a mile) triathletes sprint up the beach to a station where their bikes are waiting. They’ll quickly don helmets and get moving. The bike race is 40 km (25 miles) on roads. Although it is not allowed in some triathlons, in the Olympics the creation of pelotons or large groups of riders where drafting is possible, is allowed. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for a large group of the competitors to finish the bike ride at roughly the same time. This puts an emphasis on the last leg of the race, the run. The final discipline is a 10 km (6.2 mile) run. Whoever finishes first, wins!

Why do People Like Watching Triathlon?

The triathlon is a surprisingly (at least to me) modern event. In this format (swimming, biking, running) it was invented in the 1970s in California. That actually makes some amount of sense. I’ve always associated the triathlon with fitness, a much more modern focus than the versatility focus of the “modern pentathlon”. The idea of a grueling combination of events that rewards the strongest person with the most endurance who is most able to endure the pain of exhaustion is a distinctly modern phenomenon, as is the enjoyment of watching it. One small side benefit of watching the triathlon is the dress. Since it is easier to run and bike in swimwear than it would be to swim in bike gear or running clothes, everyone pretty much just wears their swim suits throughout the whole event, creating subtly discordant images of elite athletes wearing seemingly the wrong type of athletic clothing.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The triathlon just has a women’s and a men’s event.

How Dangerous is Triathlon?

The most dangerous part of this event is the open-water swimming. There are a lot of unintentional or partiallytentional elbows, knees, punches, and kicks that get thrown as the triathletes try to make room for themselves to swim comfortably. Organizing the race so that the most physically punishing section, (the run,) is last guarantees that triathletes will pound their joints into submission, but that type of damage is long-term and unlikely to show up in Rio.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Triathlon?

Perfect – same race, same number of athletes for men and women.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Triathlon is from Thursday, August 18 and Saturday, August 20.

Read more about triathlon on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Synchronized Swimming

All About Synchronized Swimming

Synchronized swimming, along with rhythmic gymnastics, are the misunderstood teenager of the Summer Olympics. Hidden in plain sight beneath an aesthetic obsessed exterior is a strikingly difficult and physically demanding sport, worthy of olympic-sized respect.

How Does Synchronized Swimming Work?

Teams or pairs of swimmers dive into a pool and, without touching the bottom, perform two to four minute routines. During that time, none of the swimmers are allowed to touch the bottom. The competition is split into two routines – a technical routine and a free routine. In the technical routine, certain required elements must be performed in a particular order. For example, one required element is a Fishtail, which is: “From a Front Layout Position, a Front Pike Position is assumed; one leg is lifted to a Fishtail Position, the second leg is lifted to a Vertical Position (ending is optional)” The free routine is, you guessed it, free of required elements. Routines are done to music, which is also pumped into the pool under water to help swimmers stay on tempo. The routines are scored by a panel of judges who give the performance a technical and artistic score.

Why do People Like Watching Synchronized Swimming?

I think there’s something innately fascinating and impressive about synchronization. Marching bands, geese flying in formation, the pattern of an industrial machine — all of these are mesmerizing in their own way. Synchronized swimming combines this allure with truly impressive athleticism. Try counting the seconds these athletes spend under water, without breathing, while contorting their body into all sorts of positions!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are only two synchronized swimming events – the women’s duet and the women’s team competition.

How Dangerous is Synchronized Swimming?

Synchronized swimming is shockingly, surprisingly dangerous! Due to the arms race for tight formations, synchronized swimmers now regularly smash into each other as they transition from one element to another under water. All of these collisions add up and concussions are very common. A recent New York Times article on the topic suggested that somewhere between half and all of synchronized swimmers will suffer a concussion. Furthermore, “swimmers are sometimes slow to recognize they have a concussion because many of the symptoms, like dizziness and blurred vision, can be caused by swimming upside down and holding their breath for long periods.” WHOA!! This sport is dangerous!

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Synchronized Swimming?

There are no men in synchronized swimming! Make what you want of that fact, I guess. You could see it as a rare sport that favors women or as a cynical instantiation of misogynist culture that restricts women to superficially beautiful activities and therefore minimizes the achievement of world class synchronized swimming or even as unacceptable discrimination against men.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Synchronized Swimming is from Sunday, August 14 to Friday, August 19.

Read more about Synchronized Swimming on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Modern Pentathlon

All About Modern Pentathlon

The Olympics are a human tradition that goes back to ancient Greece but they’re also very much a product of late 19th century Europe. No event expresses this modern origin better than the Modern Pentathlon, a combination of thoroughly upper class Victorian European activities.

How Does Modern Pentathlon Work?

The modern pentathlon combines five skills into a single event: swimming, show jumping on horses, fencing, running, and pistol shooting. Scores are accumulate throughout the first thee skills: a 200 meter freestyle swim, a show jumping exhibition, and a epee fencing tournament. The cumulative score from those activities gets turned into a ranked list which defines when each athlete starts the final combined run and pistol shooting competition. This combined competition requires athletes to run 800 meters, shoot five targets, and then repeat four times. The genius aspect of using the earlier standings to stagger the start of the combined competition is that the person who finishes the run/shoot first is the overall winner. Another clever aspect of the modern pentathlon is that athletes are paired with a horse randomly 20 minutes before taking part in the show jumping competition. This is a far cry from normal equestrian events when athlete and horse practice together, sometimes for years before the Olympics.

Why do People Like Watching Modern Pentathlon?

One of my favorite stories about sports that I’ve learned over the past few years comes from David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene. In it, he describes “the big bang of sports bodies” that happened during the 1930s. Before that time, the people who ran sports on a national and international level believed that there was basically an ideal body for sports (unsurprisingly a medium sized European man) and that a person possessing that body should be the best at virtually everything. The modern pentathlon clearly stems from that time. Because we now know that there’s an ideal body type for swimming (long torso, big hands and feet) and that it’s different from the ideal body type for running (long legs, very small torso), it’s in some ways extra entertaining to watch a sport that forces people to compete in different sports and rewards versatility.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The modern pentathlon is confusing enough with its five components, that it’s a relief to know it only has two events: men’s and women’s.

How Dangerous is Modern Pentathlon?

Well, let’s see. Swimming is pretty safe, as is running. The shooting is done with lasers, not bullets, so we’re good there. Fencing with epees is going to leave some marks, but no real damage should be done most of the time. Nope, the most dangerous sport in the modern pentathlon by far is the show jumping. Anything on a horse, particularly jumping over barriers, is dangerous! You can get pretty hurt falling off a horse and the pentathlon turns up the difficulty level by asking athletes to compete on well-trained but unfamiliar horses.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Modern Pentathlon?

Perfect — 36 men and 36 women.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Modern pentathlon is from Friday, August 19 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

News Clippings: NFL in Trouble & Swimming Superheroes

ReadsOne of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from some of the articles this week that inspired me. We start with two articles about the ongoing scandal in the NFL, and then move over to two profiles from Grantland.com, one about a champion Armenian fin-swimmer who became a hero when a trolley crashed into a lake and one about a teenager who may be one of the greatest athletes we’ve ever witnessed.

How Adrian Peterson Is Helping the NFL Avoid a Real Reckoning

By Bethlehem Shoals in GQ

In a lot of ways, Adrian Peterson has made Ray Rice less of a problem for the NFL. The narrative becomes one about violent athletes, not Roger Goodell’s backward attitudes and cold-blooded agenda.

The connection worth exploring isn’t the one between the behavior of Rice and Peterson, but the ways in which Goodell’s handling of the Rice situation—concealment, minimizing, double-speak, and dissimulation—mirrors the way the league continues to deal with the long-term effects of the sport on its athletes.

— — —

Giving Up on Goodell: How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

By Stefan Fatsis in Slate

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman describes two conflicting strains of American journalism: access reporting and accountability reporting. The former involves getting inside information from powerful institutions, the latter telling inside stories about them. “Access tends to transmit orthodox views; accountability tends to transmit heterodox views,” Starkman writes. Like Wall Street and other big institutions, the NFL prefers and—in the case of reporters like Schefter, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King—facilitates access reporting. It’s good business.

With the NFL’s possible perfidy the biggest story in all of American media right now, accountability journalists will rush in from outside the sports beat to dig for dirt. And inside the league’s formerly cozy media bubble, the men and women with access are going to start demanding answers, too. If he wants to keep his job, Goodell better hope that the answers he provides are the right ones, no matter which reporters he’s talking to.

— — —

The Plunge

By Carl Schreck in Grantland

Just as Karapetyan reached the bridge, the sound of metal smashing against concrete tore through the cool evening air. He looked toward the commotion, through the blizzard of dust that had kicked up from the hillside below, and saw a trolleybus disappear below the surface of Lake Yerevan. Its two electric trolley poles poked up from the water like antennae. If Karapetyan gave any thought to his next move, he doesn’t remember it. He sprinted down the hill, ditched the weighted backpack, stripped to his skivvies, and dove into the lake.

— — —

This Is Katie F-​-​-ing Ledecky: A Thesis About Kicking Ass

By Brian Phillips in Grantland

There’s a special kind of lightness you feel when you realize you’re seeing a truly great athlete for the first time. When you understand that what you’re watching is not someone who is merely very good, or very tough, or very skilled relative to her peers, but someone to whom the normal rules do not apply. When your imagination runs the math on an athlete and returns an error sign.

Diana Nyad Swims from Cuba to Florida — But at What Cost?

Nyad's shows off her guns and the marks that jellyfish left on her body.  Photo by Catherine Opie
Nyad’s shows off her guns and the marks that jellyfish left on her body.
Photo by Catherine Opie

Yesterday when I read that Diana Nyad had finally succeeded in her quest to swim from Cuba to Florida, my first reaction was “but at what cost?”

Nyad completed the 100 to 110 mile swim from Cuba to Florida in almost fifty three hours of continuous swimming. She is the first woman[1] to complete this feat without a shark cage. This may seem like only a safety concern, but when swimming in a shark cage, the swimmer benefits enormously from the drag or current in the water created by the boat towing the cage. Nyad had a large support team including a team of shark divers who swam ahead of her with shark repellants and a support boat which she did not hold on to at any time. It was her fifth attempt at the swim. The first attempt was in 1978. Diana Nyad is 64 years old.

It’s an inspirational story of age and determination overcoming youth and vigor. Nyad herself said when she reached the shore:

“I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”

President Obama congratulate her on twitter, “Congratulations to @DianaNyad. Never give up on your dreams.” Terry Savage of the Huffington Post proclaimed Nyad a hero who reminds us to “never give up” and that “persistence pays.” So why was my reaction “but at what cost?”

My reaction was informed by memories of a New York Times magazine article I read about Nyad in 2011, shortly before her fourth attempt. The author, Elizabeth Weil, did a wonderful job of characterizing Nyad and her quest. What stuck with me was the relationship between Nyad and one of her friends and lead handler, Bonnie Stoll:

Whatever the case, in early November Stoll decided she could no longer abide Nyad’s “Groundhog Day”-like optimism. If she was going to discuss another swim with Nyad — let alone, train her for one — Stoll needed Nyad to watch a video of her jellyfish stings. So one Wednesday morning, Stoll drove over to Nyad’s house, where Nyad’s nephew, who’s making a documentary about his aunt’s swimming, cued up a six-minute clip. The two women sat close on the couch, hunched toward the laptop on the coffee table. The footage was gruesome. Gone was the swimmer’s strong, confident, singing, counting athletic self. Nyad’s eyes looked desperate, terrified. “Wow wow wow,” she said on the video, treading water, trying to manage her pain. “Are we all the way across?” she asked, attempting to orient herself. “This can’t be all the way across.” Back on the couch, Stoll flinched. Nyad’s eyes teared up. The body in the water — Nyad’s body — was going into shock. “It’s under my arm, the armpit. . . . It’s paralyzing my back.” Stoll’s voice on the laptop strained for control. “Diana in, out. Diana in, out! Breathe!”

For a few moments after the video ended, Nyad seemed cowed. “That’s the first time I’ve seen what you were living through,” she said to Stoll, wiping away a tear. “I look like a child who is scared.”

But five minutes later that fear was gone. Nyad has a rare gift: muscles and a psyche that can swim for days straight.

We sports fans celebrate the outliers. Diana Nyad has rare gifts that allow her to swim and swim and swim, forgetting past failure and current pain. We marvel at how Michael Jordan could overcome the flu (or food poisoning… or a horrible hangover depending on who you ask) to score 38 points in 44 minutes during the 1997 NBA finals. We lionize “genius” coaches like Mike Leach whose eccentricities are matched only by their winning.

Nyad’s, Jordan’s, and Leach’s performances are all admirable and inspiring, but is there a necessary downside to athletic achievement? Jordan competitive drive led him to gamble compulsively and psychologically terrorize his lesser teammates.[2] Leach’s try anything attitude ended his employment at Texas Tech when he ordered a concussed player to stand in a dark closet. When Nyad walked up the beach in Key West, Bonnie Stoll was there to hug her but I have to ask: Was it worth it? What was the cost of success for her life? For her friend’s life?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s a little hard to tell if a man has done this. A long-distance swimmer named Walter Poenisch claimed to have, also in his sixties, but there are doubts about the veracity of his claim.
  2. And they were all lesser.