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Ch. 4

Tracking Fringe Elements

Athletics: Some off-beat suggestions to improve those different (now don't be a bad sport) games people play.


SYDNEY, Australia — So here we are, deep into another Olympics and the question is, is this really a big deal or is this just something we make a big deal of?

Thousands of people are here for Sydney 2000. About half of them, it seems, are reporting for newspapers or TV. All over the world, people are getting up early, skipping lunch or hurrying home from work to see the latest from Sydney on TV. No question, a lot of people take the Olympics very seriously.

Stop and think, though, of the Olympic sports. Sure, there are some of our staples--baseball, basketball, boxing, soccer. But consider that among the showpiece sports--swimming, gymnastics and track--none is an everyday must for most sports fans. Track, in fact, although still big in Europe, is dying on the vine in America.

Basketball is a day-to-day biggie, of course, but doesn't really belong in the Summer Games. Being a sport played over the winter, it rightly should be in the Winter Games, along with its winter companion, hockey.

Oops, make that ice hockey. Wouldn't want to confuse anybody, since what they call hockey in the Olympics is what everybody else calls field hockey. Field hockey differs from ice hockey in several ways. First, of course, there is no ice, hence no skates. Instead of a puck, there's a ball. And instead of hockey sticks, these hockey players use sawed-off shepherds' crooks.

Hockey, field hockey, that is, is just one of the many games that make the Olympics what they are today--the greatest collection of recreation and niche sports known to man. Judging from its schedule, though, one would think field hockey provides the underlying structure for the Games. They started playing it here practically the minute the opening ceremony was done, they will continue playing it today, and they will continue just about up to the closing ceremony.

But field hockey, and the rest of these fringe events, play to considerably less than full houses. And the people in those "crowds" tend to fall into two categories: those who are knowledgeable, even passionate about them, and those who are there because they wanted to be part of the Olympic experience and the tickets were available.

Some of the, um, different sports will be examined below, and there will be suggestions on how some of them might be improved. Kindly remember, though, what Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, always said: "There are no bad games, only poor sports."


OK, already we have a problem.

Surely you remember the Barcelona Games of 1992, and the opening ceremony. An archer lighted the Olympic caldron at the top of the stadium with a flaming arrow from about two blocks away. It was one of those real WOW! moments. But you watch these guys here and you have to wonder, was it real or was it Memorex? Did that bowman really light the fire? Or did he just have to get close, while some mechanism we didn't know about did the actual igniting?

Olympic archers apparently shop at Gadgets R Us. Their space-age bows are cluttered with dials and knobs and sighting devices and three or four weird-looking stick-out attachments, all designed, apparently, to make an arrow go straight where it's shot. But very often, it doesn't. Or it goes straight to the wrong place. Seldom does an archer put one dead center in the bull's-eye.

Robin Hood stepped out of Sherwood Forest, disguised as a monk in a clunky robe, using a beechwood bow strung with twisted deer gut, and won the Nottingham tournament by splitting another shooter's arrow. The guys here have more equipment than the rich kid down the block, but you won't see any arrow-splitting. And you really have to wonder about that fellow in Barcelona.

Badminton and Table Tennis

These are not coupled sports, as are canoeing and kayaking, but they're put together here because they have something in common. They are extremely fast sports.

Most of us have played backyard badminton or rec room pingpong, but the people playing here have raised those sports to levels far beyond the backyard or rec room. The table tennis is so fast, you sometimes hear the "pong" before the "ping." And the forehand smashes in badminton make volleyball spikes look like lollipops.

These are great games that need no improvement. But five or 10 minutes of each is quite enough to hold you for another four years.

Canoeing and Kayaking

These are coupled sports because they are so similar. In fact, they really are the same thing in slightly different craft. Kayaks are a little pointier than canoes, which in no way resemble what everybody thinks of as a canoe. They look like kayaks, complete with the rubber girdle that keeps the water out of the boat and the paddler in. A kayaker uses a paddle with a blade at either end, a canoeist a traditional canoe paddle.

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