Having seen about as much Michael Phelps in this Olympics as any good American needs, I felt like it was time to investigate a few of the lesser-known sports toiling in near-obscurity in the American coverage of the Beijing games.
These five sports — badminton, archery, track cycling, water polo, and trampoline — have certainly aired now and then. But you can't really appreciate their fine points until you sit down and watch them carefully, with as open a mind as you can have after hearing the greatness of your country and the importance of its particular victories driven into your skull for more than a week.
Badminton: Feathers and 'Ffffoo'I have to admit, I didn't really realize there was Olympic badminton. I associate badminton with the breathless competitive spirit of the sunlight-dappled front yard of the house where I grew up. Tuning in, I assumed that Olympic badminton would bear the same resemblance to ordinary badminton that Olympic table tennis bears to drunken college ping-pong — that is to say, not much.
I certainly could play badminton against the lowest-ranked elite badminton player in the entire world and not score a point in six months. Still, my ability to sink into the speed and excitement of it all was reduced by my discovery that the shuttlecock is made of goose feathers. For drop shots, it works just fine, but an overhead slam just isn't the same when you're slamming a wad of feathers.
In contrast to the crack of the bat in baseball or the sharp pop of the ball off a tennis racquet, when you exert all the force you can muster against a shuttlecock, it makes a soft, sighing, distinctly un-sport-like noise. A noise like...”Fffffoo.”
Archery: It always looks the sameOther than the letdown over the lack of a “archer's relative with an apple on his head” event, there are two major problems with watching archery on television.
First, elite players seemingly get one of two scores almost every time they shoot. In the entire gold-medal final in men's singles, in which South Korea's Park Kyung-Mo and Ukraine's Victor Ruban shot 12 arrows each, only one shot of the 24 wasn't worth either nine or 10 points — Park scored an eight on his penultimate arrow, which is how he lost. Not to tell the archery authorities how to live, but if the whole class is getting either an A or a B, it's time to redraw the curve.
The bigger problem, though, is that a guy shooting an arrow looks the same every time, whether he's going to hit the precise geometric center of the target or accidentally shoot somebody's souvenir bag in the seventh row of the grandstand. The only thing that looks different to the untrained eye is the shot of the arrow hitting the target.
I can see whether one guy swims faster than another guy; I can (and do) use my total lack of gymnastics knowledge to second-guess professional judges about whose floor routine was more graceful, and I can tell when a softball player gets a good hit. Idly waiting to see where the arrow happens to land is more like watching suitcases be opened on “Deal Or No Deal.”
Trampoline: 'That person is bouncing very high'
It surprises me that Olympic trampoline hasn't taken off. It's so much like the wildly popular gymnastics that NBC actually called in the gymnastics commentators, who did their best to act like they understand the fine points of competitive trampoline.
Poor veteran commentator Tim Daggett found himself saying “huge air” and “giant air” far too often, which means somebody needs to sit him down with a thesaurus for a brainstorming session about other ways to say “that person is bouncing very high.”
Trampoline looks like a cross between gymnastics and diving, and it turns out that moving around on the trampoline as you bounce is bad. Because it's a deduction, not because you increase your risk of flying off the trampoline and winding up as a pile of shattered bones.
My favorite personality of the trampoline competition was eighteen-year-old American Erin Blanchard, who, the announcers said, had been “burned out” on competitive trampoline, but then returned to appear in the Olympics. Eighteen years old, and she's already had time for a burnout and a comeback in the sport of competitive trampoline. I don't think she will have any trouble figuring out what to write her college essay about.
Water Polo: Proudly television-unfriendlyCompared to other obscure sports, water polo is on television quite a bit — not in prime time, maybe, but it's doing a lot better than badminton in the PR department.
It's hard not to admire water polo for being so television-unfriendly and yet so enduring. It's a fairly simple game in the soccer-hockey mold, but even with different caps on the players to show what team they're on, it's almost impossible to follow on television. With all the splashing, the caps don't stand out much, making it a little like watching soccer, if it were slower and played in dense fog by two teams wearing dark blue.
Still, it's impressive for its relaxed pace, mostly because it's taking place largely underwater. If you learn nothing else from water polo, you will learn what a fast break in basketball would look like if, instead of the guys running at top speed down the floor, they all had to walk through an ankle-deep mud pit.
Track Cycling: If Phelps, competitors swam in separate poolsWhat I loved about track cycling is that the races make little to no sense.
Swimming is a logical sport: your task is to get from here to there faster than anyone. Diving: gracefully dive into the pool while doing tricks. Even something like a hammer throw has the internal logic of “throw this heavy thing as hard as you can.” Good deal; I get it.
Track cycling, however, has events that defy all laws of making sports interesting. You wouldn't hold a 100-meter dash where everybody ran in different directions, but in the “pursuit” track cycling events, you start the competitors on opposite sides of the track, and then they go in the same direction, so they're nowhere near each other. In theory, they're “pursuing” each other and one could theoretically catch up, but at least while I was watching, this didn't happen. Instead, it turned into a plain old race where two guys were cycling on opposite sides of the track, and they did some laps, and then it was over, and the faster guy won.
Just a hint — if you want me to be overtaken by the thrill of a sprint, I should be able to see more than one competitor at a time. If Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic had been swimming in different pools, that race would have lost something.
There's also the “points race,” where points are awarded for a sprint that happens once every ten laps. The other nine laps are irrelevant. I mean, they're not irrelevant — there's strategy, and you're positioning yourself and so forth, but the race is 160 laps long, and only once out of every ten laps is anyone earning points. You can also get points for lapping the field, which is a bit like shooting the moon while playing hearts, as near as I can tell.
Apparently, track cycling was born out of a concern that simply riding bikes really fast wasn't exciting enough. Haven't these guys ever seen “Breaking Away”?
Linda Holmes lives in Washington, D.C. and is a frequent contributor to Msnbc.com