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Sports out of left field

Many are discovering and becoming addicted to team handball, trampoline and other unfamiliar events.

August 18, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

As night bar manager at Barney's Beanery in Pasadena, Eric Gonzalez has an awesome responsibility: He's master controller of nearly 100 televisions.

So when the Summer Games began Aug. 8, he was nervous. Should he bump Major League Baseball and other mainstream events off the big screens? Would his hard-core sports patrons complain that synchronized diving, team handball, BMX cycling, trampoline and other Olympic fare were for bars that serve arugula salads?

"If customers don't like what you put up there, they will let you know," Gonzalez said in the control booth, where patrons aren't allowed. "You hear the boos."

Turns out he needn't have worried. His customers are lapping up as much Olympic action as he can put on. Sometimes the more obscure, the better.

"They even wanted to see the skeet shooting or clay shooting, whatever they call it," he said.

With the Beijing Games in full swing and NBC showing a record 3,600 hours of it on broadcast and cable, many sports unfamiliar to Americans -- such as single-handed dinghy racing, air-rifle shooting and women's weightlifting -- are getting their moments in the sun. Few if any athletes in these events will see their faces on a Wheaties box, but these oddly compelling sports are winning over fans typically devoted to the holy trinity of baseball, basketball and football.

"Everyone wants to see a woman lift 250 pounds over her head," explained Ken Moody, 47, a self-described football guru sitting at the bar. He stayed home one night last week to watch the live online stream of women's weightlifting.

Veteran shock jock and sports fan Don Imus summed up the phenomenon on his radio show when he mentioned coming across coverage of team handball. "I don't know what it was," Imus said, "but I saw it, and I watched it. And I rooted for one of the teams."

But if you think some of this year's sports are strange, consider what Olympic fans were watching in 1900. That year in Paris, Charles de Vendeville of France took gold in underwater swimming, in which competitors got a point for every second they stayed underwater and 2 points for every meter swum.

Also on the schedule in Paris: obstacle swimming, in which competitors had to climb over boats. Frederick Lane of Australia was the champ.

In 1904 in St. Louis, there was the "plunge for distance." Competitors dived into a lake and had to stay motionless for 60 seconds or until their heads broke the surface -- whichever came first. Americans swept the medals, led by William Dickey, who got down more than 62 feet.

All of those were one-year wonders. Tug of war, however, was on Olympic bills from 1900 to 1920.

If any of those sports had been included in this year's Olympics, Philip Crabb, who lives just outside New York City in New Jersey, probably would have watched them. Although a fan of the New York Yankees and Giants, he likes his Olympic sports obscure.

"I watched the equestrian dressage, which was really kind of weird," said Crabb, who oversees the international supply chain at luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton. "I didn't know it existed, but there were people who spent almost their whole lives preparing for this moment."

He was also engrossed in team handball and the preliminaries for archery. Crabb didn't care that the online feeds lacked play-by-play commentary.

"You get a sense of solitude, like you are there on your own," he said. "I can't tell you the names of all the players, but you start following them."

New sports are added to the Games roster by the International Olympic Committee, which in typical bureaucratic fashion bases its decision on 33 criteria, including "strategic planning process" and "scope of development programs."

Joining the roster at this Games is BMX racing, in which bicycles ride around a track with hills and jumps. It wasn't even invented until the 1960s.

So much for patterning events on the ancient Greeks.

What the IOC giveth, it can also taketh away. This is the last Games, unless the committee changes its mind again, for softball and baseball.

One evening last week at Barney's Beanery, a Rangers-Red Sox baseball matchup was on in the place of honor -- the giant TV behind the bar that's almost as wide as the 40 beer taps lined up under it. But when prime-time Olympic coverage began at 8 p.m., the Games took its place.

There were no complaints, even though the first featured event was synchronized diving.

From the end of the bar, Chuck Taylor, 40, watched in awe. Although a NASCAR fan, Taylor, who works in a bank combating money laundering, had no trouble calling the dual dives a sport.

"If golf is a sport," Taylor said, "this is a sport."

Emily Aull, 22, was watching in a booth with friends. With the sound off, they caught on just from the visuals.

"At first it was all amazing," she said of the divers, who strove to make their side-by-side flight as uniform as possible. "Then we got really picky, really quickly. We'd say, 'Oh, look at that hand out of place.' "

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