Another Olympics has come to a close, and we've had the usual barrage of doping controversies to mull over, varying from scurrilous insinuations about 16-year-old girls to justified concern over rehabilitated (and unrepentant) ex-dopers winning medals. So, what else is new? Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this Olympics is how comfortable we’ve become with drug use in sport. It’s reached the stage where news of an athletics gold medalist testing positive for steroids barely merits the jaded raise of an eyebrow. Yet Nadzeya Ostapchuk is the only Olympian (so far) to have been stripped of a medal in 2012, which compares favorably with five medalists in Beijing, nine in Athens, and eight in Sydney. This has either been the cleanest Olympics this century, or, if you’re of a more suspicious frame of mind, the one with the least effective drug testing. Some people certainly suspect the latter; witness this extraordinary article on Ye Shiwen from the host nation’s most popular non-tabloid newspaper. But let’s put talk of genetically modified swimbots aside, and look at what’s actually happened in the world of swimming, because it’s certainly been noteworthy.
Here in the U.K., everybody’s going crazy over Britain’s Olympic Heroes, and with good reason. But Team GB’s performance wasn’t that surprising; they won slightly more golds than predicted, but a few fewer medals overall. A tremendous performance, but not an unexpected one.
So, which nations did pull off a shock? Who exceeded their supposed limitations, and more important, who completely screwed up? We jammed three sets of predictions (from Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and Sports Myriad) into a spreadsheet, worked out the averages, then compared them to COLD, HARD REALITY. Each nation was then assigned a Grantland Scientific Prediction Versus Reality Score (or GSPVRS). You can see the results here. As is right and proper, gold medals carry twice the weight of lesser baubles.
Sunday 25 October 1914: Woken up during the night with orders — probable advance ... They treat us as if we were Infantry always forgetting that we have not got the gun powder which Infantry have.
— Diary of a World War I Cavalry Officer, by Brigadier General Sir Archibald Home
As the Olympics drew to a close, there was a lot of talk about greatness. There was a lot of talk about Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Ashton Eaton, the USA women's soccer team, and medal standings. There was no talk about David Svoboda on NBC. But according to Olympic legend, or at least according to NBC's website, the modern pentathlon winner was supposed to be the greatest of all, the representative of moral as well as physical courage: the cavalry officer.
The Beijing Olympics are avenged! Breathe easy and enjoy the conclusion. This weekend is a walk up the 18th fairway at Augusta with a five-shot lead, a triumphant kneel-down on the last play of the Super Bowl, and the leisurely last stage of the Tour de France all rolled into one. Enjoy it, and thanks for following along. Today's guide will be reduced in scope since I'm about to undertake a one-man drive from North Carolina to Maine (estimated 97 hours), so think of this as a collective group jog around the stadium with the flag draped around our shoulders. I couldn't be more thrilled about the Great London Triumph. Good Olympics, good patriotism, good job.
Explain this one to me: The Olympics organizers probably gave away $300,000 of revenue per basketball session by not having courtside seats, and yet they scheduled Friday’s men’s basketball semifinals so that
A. Spain and Russia played at 5 p.m. London time as the "early" game.
B. Everyone in the stadium then had to leave.
C. They cleaned the stadium.
D. America and Argentina played the "night" game at 9 p.m. for a new crowd.
Sounds super greedy, right? And yet they surrounded all four sides of the court with empty space? Don’t worry, it was even dumber in person. Speaking of dumb, I should probably mention that Spain nearly blew the semifinal because Russia said, "Hey, we're going to swarm the Gasol brothers every time they get the ball, do you have a Plan B?" In the first half, the answer was "No!" And then everything changed, shots started falling, an inside-outside game materialized and Spain banged out an eight-point victory (and the silver medal at worst).
After a brilliant performance from the American women on the most important day of team competition, the medal count is starting to lean very heavily toward the U.S., and we're enjoying our first lead in the gold-medal count in days.
Our resident Saber-Medal-Trician, Daniel G., has checked in, and according to his system — which uses Sports Illustrated's pre-Olympic medal predictions in conjunction with actual results to project a final tally — the U.S. is awfully close to clinching. The Americans are now on pace to win two more golds than predicted, and six more medals overall, while the Chinese are on pace to win three fewer golds than expected, and 10 (!) fewer overall. With just three days left, here are the projected final totals:
I have to share one sentence in Daniel's e-mail, since it gave me some patriotic goose bumps: "China could still catch us, but it would probably involve them winning both racewalking gold medals tomorrow and us failing to win both basketball golds."
If this were a presidential election, and Daniel were Brian Williams, here's how that sentence would have sounded: "Ladies and gentlemen ... [long pause while Daniel studies a paper and listens to an earpiece to build suspense] ... Ladies and gentlemen, based on the latest exit polls ... we can now project that the Americans are going to win the overall medal count, as well as the gold-medal count!"
[Joyous screeching noise]
[Ten minutes pass]
OK, I'm back. I just had to run around my apartment screaming in ecstasy until I passed out and woke up again. Now that I'm calm, let's talk about the U.S. women's teams. We went a perfect 4-for-4 on Thursday — the volleyball squad drubbed Korea in the semis, the basketball team topped Australia in the semis, and the water polo and soccer squads both won gold — and my friend Ben pointed out to me that the only team sports in which the Americans won't win at least a silver are handball and field hockey. If the Games finish as expected, it will be gold in all events but those two (plus beach volleyball and gymnastics, if you want to extend the definition of "team"). That is seriously impressive.
There’s a craze sweeping men’s football at the moment. Its name is tiki-taka, a tactical system devised to help skillful teams cope with physically dominant opponents. There are those who will tell you that it is nothing less than an evolutionary step for football. These people have seen the tremendous success of the principal exponents of the style (the all-conquering Spanish national side, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona), and they’ve reached the conclusion that tiki-taka isn’t just another tactical approach to the game; it’s progress.
It’s not progress. It’s actually an old idea, for tiki-taka was invented in 1997 by Matt Groening (or one of his many scriptwriters) in the "Cartridge Family" episode of The Simpsons. In the episode, Mexico and Portugal play an exhibition match in Springfield that is so stultifyingly boring, a riot breaks out between supporters desperate to be the first to leave the stadium. Meanwhile, Kent Brockman calls the on-field action, in what always used to strike me as a wildly inaccurate parody of football, but now seems like an act of eerily prophetic soothsaying.
My man Daniel G., inventor of Saber-Medal-Trics — a system that uses SI's comprehensive medal predictions to evaluate current results and project the final tally — e-mailed me with the good news that Tuesday was a watershed day for the Americans. We're now on pace to win one more gold medal than Sports Illustrated projected and seven more overall, while China is on pace to win one gold fewer than projected, and seven fewer overall. Here's the updated projection for the final tally:
U.S.: 43 Golds, 106 Total China: 41 Golds, 90 Total
It's now looking like a certainty that the Americans will win the overall count, and the only drama left is the race for golds.
I don’t remember how it came up — probably because I thought it’d come up before — but at some point yesterday in the office, I started in about my love of indoor volleyball. My co-workers were surprised, and in turn, so was I. There are people who don’t love indoor volleyball?
I started watching in high school. My friend made the varsity team as a freshman, and because we all thought that was pretty cool, a few of us started hitting every home game. By our junior year, we had one of the best men’s (and women’s, actually) high school teams in the state, and groups of us started traveling for games. Our volleyball crowds were bigger than the ones most schools fielded for basketball.
The interest hung around through college. My friend went on to one of the nation’s best volleyball programs, and I caught enough games — including their national championship win — to remember why I loved watching in the first place. So when I was asked yesterday to catch some Olympic indoor volleyball and make my case for why it’s so great, I happily accepted. Conveniently, the U.S. was set to play Italy this morning in the start of the men’s quarterfinals.
It was a joke: Martin Short and Harry Shearer were two male synchronized swimmers who had given up everything in their quest for Olympic gold.
It was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that (a) Martin Short couldn't swim and (b) there was no men's event even in the Olympics. And the premise for this Saturday Night Live sketch was so well executed that, almost 30 years later, few people have even bothered to revisit the subject.
But 30 years later men's synchronized swimming is also no longer a joke, which is to say there are men who do it, and they take it seriously. Honest. And, in a bizarre instance of art imitating future life, they want to go to the Olympics.
Reader Daniel G. has invented Saber-Medal-Trics, which takes Sports Illustrated's overall medal predictions and reviews results to date in order to project a final count. After Tuesday's events, Daniel reports that the U.S. is on pace to equal their projected SI gold-medal count, and beat the projected overall medal number by five., while China is on pace to win one more gold and six fewer medals total. With that knowledge, here are the projected final tallies:
So, so close. Speaking of China, it's worth congratulating Chen Yibing, a.k.a. "the king of rings," on his composure after getting absolutely jobbed in the event final. Chen won gold in Beijing, and it appeared he had done the same in London when the last competitor, Brazil's Arthur Zanetti, finished his routine. But the judges gave Zanetti a 15.9, and Chen (15.8) was relegated to silver. I challenge anyone with even rudimentary gymnastics knowledge to watch both routines (Chen at 6:15 mark, Zanetti at 25:30) and argue that Zanetti deserved gold. My friend Spike put it best: "One was art, and the other one was very good. And the very good one had a step on the landing." But Chen, though he professed to feeling bitter, stayed completely calm, congratulated his opponent, and didn't let his disbelief show. Total class act from a guy who had every right to be furious.
Reader Daniel G. e-mailed me today detailing a new system he invented, which I'm calling Saber-Medal-trics, at least until he comes up with a better name. Saber-Medal-trics uses Sports Illustrated's overall medal predictions, calculates how each country is performing in events held to date, and projects an adjusted overall result. It's practically science! Here's Daniel's Saber-Medal-trics report after Monday's action:
The U.S. was expected to win 42 gold medals and 99 overall. So far, they have one fewer gold medal than expected, and three more overall medals than expected. China was expected to win 42 gold medals and 97 overall, and they have three more gold medals than expected, and eight fewer medals overall. Today's projections:
U.S. - 102 overall, 41 golds
China - 91 overall, 45 golds
The other day I had an appointment with a new doctor. I fasted the night before, thinking he would draw some blood because my cholesterol levels were going to be checked. Note to other fat people planning on fasting before seeing a doctor: Do NOT schedule the appointment for 4 p.m. Way too late in the day. But I did, and since it was a new doctor and I figured I'd have to fill out a ton of paperwork, I got to the office at 3:45.
Four p.m. passed ... 4:30 ... 5 p.m. My starved blood was starting to boil over, as was my iPhone, which couldn't take another round on the free Texas hold'em app.
After McKayla Maroney’s feet skidded out from under her on the landing of her second vault during the event final, and after she landed unceremoniously on her butt, she looked like she wanted to kill someone. Her coach tried to hug her, but she kept her arms crossed tightly across her chest. Her mouth was set in a grim line. Her eyes were bright and narrow. The cameras were on her, up in her face. The NBC announcers were in fits of disbelief and dismay, having already promised, in no uncertain terms, that she would win the gold. In the stands, her teammates chatted with Duchess Kate. Maroney fiddled with her bag and kept her back to the scoreboard.
I would like to get on my high horse here and talk about the absurdity of prematurely awarding an Olympic gold medal to anyone, let alone a 16-year-old who has to perform a round-off with a half turn onto a vaulting table and then a laid-out flip with a full twist off of it, judging distance to the ground by her sense of the air alone. But the truth is that despite my dislike of making predictions (since I am almost always wrong), I was sure that she was going to win the vault gold. Sometimes, something happens with such consistency that you begin to believe it will keep happening, that it can’t not happen. I have begun to believe, for instance, that the sun will rise in the east, and that tomorrow will be Tuesday. And after watching and rewatching Maroney vault more times than I can count, I had begun to believe that she could not fall.