Saturday 9 August 2008

Day 1: Men's Gymnastics

It's probably the circular nature of it, but gymnastics is a sport which it's quite easy to lose vast chunks of time to. If not, it's difficult to explain why it had me so entranced. As a sport the results are ultimately decided by subjective scores as much as objective happenings, which I don't particularly hold in any esteem. The practitioners, however, are demonstrably outrageously toned physical specimens. So maybe it was a voyeuristic aspect. Perv ahoy.

The thing which pleases me the most about the activity when taken in isolation is that it is one of the few sports where, at the very top level, competition is not unlike gym in school P.E. lessons. The competitors are divided up into groups - by nation in this case, although discrimination laws probably forbid that in the school - and then they rotate around the apparatus. Some of the stuff they use looks familiar to the schoolboy, too, albeit slightly less moth eaten and spunk-hewn. Of course, what the Olympic competitors achieve when they are on it is fairly distinct from the efforts of pasty, pudgy pre-teens trying desperately to hold their farts in in front of girls.

The disciplines - pommel horse, parallel bars, rings, high bar and vault - all have their moments, but some are more spoiled as a spectacle by the minutiae of the rules. I can understand docking points for falling off the rings, or getting your foot wedged in the pommel horse handle, or having all your change fall out of your pocket on the high bar. But hearing about fractions being docked for not having hands in straight lines whilst on the leather tends to make me feel a touch out of my depth. At this point, I naturally retreated into liking the more spectacular things more. Someone can have a wonky spine on the high bar or lose a trailing toenail on the vault for the deduction of 0.3, but at the most basic level you will still see a hugely impressive spectacle. Not unlike watching monkeys in the zoo, come to think of it, which is probably a strong part of the appeal. I reckon a gibbon would clean up in high bar.

The BBC's Olympic coverage is bound to be a regular source of comment for me throughout the games, most of it gripey and nit-picking, so I want to say at this point that - come what may - I think their broadcasts are brilliant. With the advent of digital, it is easy to forget that for sheer depth and breadth, the BBC used to deliver even in the two-channel analogue past. It's a testimony to their ubiquity as THE sports broadcaster that I feel able to muster up the complacency to mock their commentary team. It was comprised of Matt Baker, the former Blue Peter presenter who, as a spotty teen, was a competition gymnast, plus some old bloke and some woman (I probably need a researcher). Baker took the general lead role, introducing people and sounding very delighted to be there, much like John Noakes at Crufts. His grounding in kids' TV, however, couldn't help but detract from it slightly for me. That said, he was a refreshing voice compared to Old Bloke, whose role seemed to be to point out the most piffling faults and explain why the fat judges were all so bitter. Some Woman, meanwhile, kept her powder dry by making predictions about what will happen shortly after it happened. "I thought that would happen", she said. Criticisms aside, they did what they were meant to do, which is to help someone who has no clue (HELLO!) understand a little bit of what was going on. And I learned an important new piece of sports jargon: "he knows how to spin horse".

Query: at the first Olympiads, was the pommel horse an actual horse?

I don't know who was winning or who won. Is that really what it's about unless you're wearing a chalky leotard?

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