February 10, 2006

Welcome to the Winter Olympics

The more things change, the more they stay the same, so here's some of my blogging on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Yes, I know lots of you couldn't care less about figure skating, but from a human biodiversity perspective figure skating is hugely instructive because it is that rare sport (assuming it is a sport) that appeals more to women than to men and to gay men than to straight men. It is the exception that proves a lot of rules.

The Figure Skating Powers That Be have announced that they are going to try to make their sport's judging more objective by giving credit for each move on a degree of difficulty scale. There's only one problem with this. Figure skating, as we know it, is essentially about being a princess, not a jock. The more they make it more of a sport like gymnastics and less of an art form, the less feminine it will become and thus the less feminine its champions will be. The danger is not so much that skating will crown as winners more burly women like Tonya Harding, who are strong jumpers, but then so was Charles Barkley. No, the risk is that skating will be overrun by more pre-pubescent girls like Tara "The Human Drill Bit" Lipinksi, the 15 year old who took the gold in 1998 with her high-RPM jumps.

The physical difference between a little girl and a woman is basically body fat. Women have higher body fat percentages than girls (more body fat is bad in just about any sport not involving massive heat loss like English Channel swimming or Iditarod dogsled mushing). And their weight is distributed farther from their vertical axis (i.e., they have T&A). Recall how skaters spin faster at the ends of their routines when they pull their arms in. It's basic physics. The same applies with T&A. A womanly beauty like Katarina Witt could never attain the RPM necessary to jump like the stick insect-like Lipinski.

Gymnastics has been overrun by pre-pubescents for years (e.g., 14 year old Nadia Comaneci in 1976). That's why they had to set a minimum age of 16 for Olympics "women's" gymnastics. Unfortunately, that just means girls try to delay puberty with dieting, exercise, and drugs, with God-knows-what long term health effects.

Ultimately, womanly grace is awfully hard to quantify, but we sure know it when we see it. It would be sad to penalize that in the name of making skating judging more objective.

Race and the Winter Olympics: Since I've written so much over the years about racial patterns in winners of Summer Olympics medals, a reader asked me several weeks ago if I had anything to say about race in the Winter Olympics. I replied that the role where African Americans have the greatest natural advantage is "brakeman," the primary pusher of the bobsled. It's a job that requires that rare combination of sprinting speed and strength that blacks of West African descent tend to have more of than anybody else. Congratulations to Vonetta Flowers, who just became the first black Winter Olympics gold medallist ... as a bobsled brakewoman.

Despite all the gee-whiz commentary, there's nothing surprising about a sprinter/long jumper switching to bobsled - the Soviets did that all the time with their 100m men who were just below Olympic caliber. NFL players Herschel Walker and Willie Gault have competed in the bobsled, but the in-bred, soap-operaish family of American bobsledders didn't much appreciate rich black superstars parachuting into their penurious sport and hogging their quadrennial moment in the spotlight.

I hope I'm not surprising anybody by stating that obviously a lot of male figure skaters, especially in men's singles, are gay. Here's a lesbian activist's list of publicly out skaters. (Obviously, it's missing a lot of theoretically still-closeted stars). The interesting thing is the dog that doesn't bark - the complete lack of out lesbian skaters. The same is true for gymnastics. In ballet, J. Michael Bailey of Northwestern, the leading demographer of homosexuality, found that more than 50% of male dancers (what my later mother-in-law called "ballerinos") are gay, but he was hard-pressed to find a single lesbian.

The simplest explanation is the best: figure skating and ballet (and, to a lesser extent, gymnastics) are highly feminine pastimes, and thus appeal most to feminine (i.e., heterosexual) women and effeminate (i.e., homosexual) men. In general, despite the politicized assumption that gays and lesbians are alike, they are actually radically dissimilar on a host of dimensions. Here's my classic 1994 article "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay," with its notorious table of three dozen traits upon which they tend to differ markedly.

Judging Skating: An irony of the figure skating pairs controversy is that one of the flagrantly biased NBC announcers, Scott Hamilton, was the beneficiary of one of the most rigged decisions in skating history. Coming into the 1984 Games, Scott had been World Champion three years in a row. Everyone knew that if he won the gold, the personable (and heterosexual!) American would be a great ambassador for the sport. So, even though at Sarajevo Hamilton was sick and skated a weak final program, blowing off two triple jumps, he still was handed the gold.

Similarly, Sale and Pelletier, the supposedly martyred Canadian pairs skaters, were only in gold medal contention because the judges decided to not penalize justly their catastrophic double fall at the climax of their short program.

I sort of sympathize with this "cumulative" approach to judging, which tries to lessen the general problem with the Winter Games, which is that it's damn slippery out there. Thus, too many events turn on almost-random mistakes rather than on talent. The skating judges try to smooth out the results by voting for the competitors who have shown themselves the best over the years. Of course, on the other hand, that lends skating its aura of bogusness.

Salt Lake City Olympics "Bribery" Scandal - Well before the scandal broke, I was doing research for a possible TV sitcom script about the International Olympics Committee. It was common knowledge even then - at least among anybody who cared to look - that IOC members were shaking down potential host cities for bribes.

The economic reason is simple: the Olympics don't pay the athletes anything and they have no real competition. Thus, they can make huge profits (the LA Olympics reaped over $300 million way back in 1984). Not surprisingly, IOC members, who get to decide which city will get the Games, use their power to horn in and claim a share of the loot for their own accounts. So, if you want to eliminate corruption in the site selection process, the solution is simple: pay the athletes. That will lower the profits to be made from hosting an Olympics, which will make potential host cities less willing to share the (reduced) wealth with IOC extortionists.

Women's Olympic figure skating is kind of strange: it's as if all the girls in the kingdom who want to be the Princess and live happily ever after with the Prince not only have to try on Cinderella's glass slippers, but then they have to dance in them down a freshly waxed marble staircase without falling on their keisters.

Did you notice how Women's Ice Hockey, which set off such a frenzy of feminist patriotic chauvinism in 1998, was an utter dud in 2002? NBC broadcast just the last 6 minutes of the gold medal hockey game Thursday night (Canada beat the U.S. 3-2), while giving saturation coverage to the ladies' figure skating final, which is so popular because it serves, in effect, to crown the World's Top Princess (just as women's gymnastics in the Summer Olympics crowns the World's Top Pixie) . The collapse of interest in the U.S. Women's Hockey team continues a trend of faddish interest in women's teams fizzling in their return performances. In the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. Women's Softball and Basketball teams were the subject of vast hoopla, but in 2000 few fans were interested in them anymore. If this trend continues, the next Women's World Cup in soccer will be a massive let-down. Essentially, I see little evidence of long term interest in women's team sports except among lesbian fans and the kind of guy sports nuts who will watch anything on ESPN2.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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