Monday, August 25, 2008

Biased Opinion - What Is a Sport?

The other day, I had the Olympics on, and NBC was showing the team synchronized swimming event (I know, but no other channels were carrying any Olympic coverage, so I was stuck with that). I was not paying a whole lot of attention, when my 10 year old son came upstairs from the basement and asked what I was watching. "The Olympics" I said. He studied the screen for about ten seconds of the Spanish women whipping their legs about in the air, and pronounced "That isn't a sport."

There has been a lot of controversy this Olympics about subjective sports. Of course, there is always a lot of controversy about them - that seems to be inherent to such endeavors. And the Olympics seem to breed these silly things: synchronized diving appears to be the most recent. The silly nature of a lot of these sports has spawned reactions, such as the "Real Medal Count" tallies in the media, and within the sports themselves, ever desperate attempts to somehow make the scoring systems less subjective and open to abuse.

The list of purely subjective sports in the Olympics is long, and getting longer. The original, 1896 Olympics only had one: gymnastics. All the others appear to have descended, in some way from gymnastics (like diving, developed when gymnasts practicing their routines would dive into water). A possibly incomplete count of those currently in the Olympics is: Gymnastics, diving, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, ice dancing, dressage, synchronized swimming, >synchronized diving, half pipe snowboarding and other freestyle skiing or snowboarding events. Further, there are several subjective sports knocking on the door, trying to get in are such things as ballroom dancing, skateboarding, and other "X games" type events. So, what is a sport?

One may ask, as an initial question, why does it matter? Shouldn't we just decide if something is a good competition and add it to the roster? Well, the IOC doesn't see things that way. The IOC has imposed limits on how many sports can be in the Olympics - no more than 28 sports for a total of no more than 301 events, and a limit of 10,500 athletes. These definitions are not always adhered to - the 10,500 athlete limit has been ignored for the most part, and the definition of what a single "sport" is is so loose as to be meaningless (for example, synchronized swimming is part of aquatics, which means that to get rid of it, using the IOC rules, you would have to eliminate the swimming races as well, which is silly; rhythmic gymnastics is also protected, by being part of the "gymnastics" sport). But the 301 even limit is pretty much strictly adhered to. The upshot of this is that to add a sport, one has to get rid of an existing sport. So, if you want rugby, or golf, or now, baseball, you have to axe something that is currently on the roster.

This is stupid. The mammoth stupidity of this sort of "limit" is simply almost indescribable. It does a good job of demonstrating the paucity of the IOCs vision of the Olympics. Rather than providing a world stage for sports, they simply want to have a select few so the games will be "manageable". The given reason for the limits is this: the games are expensive to run, and adding more events means that poor cities in poor countries won't have a shot at hosting the games. Okay, that could be a problem. On the other hand, there are numerous ways of overcoming this without putting an artificial limit on inclusion. (How did they come up with the limit you ask? It appears that they simply decided to freeze the Olympics in place as they were when they made the decision. Good thing they didn't freeze it in 1896, then we'd have nothing but track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling). For example, allow cities or smaller countries to submit joint bids, the Beijing Olympics weren't really held entirely within Beijing anyway. But no. We have to limit the games, so we can have sports beg to stay. And really, if rhythmic gymnastics is in the Olympics, why isn't ballroom dancing in? What makes it distinctively different so that one is a sport and one is not?

Further, it is my opinion that many of the sports, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming cheapen the games and devalue the medals earned in events like the marathon and the triathlon. A friend of mine has what could be called the "make-up" standard, which is this: if it would be unthinkable to compete in an event without your make-up, then the event isn't a sport. And while I disagree with the standard, that, to me, sums up why these events devalue the objective athletic competitions. When you are concerned with how pretty you are when competing, then you aren't an athlete (and, in my opinion, most of the so-called athletes who are in such sports are far less attractive than those in the objective sports: Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor, Muna Lee and so on are all much more attractive to my eyes).

So, finally, what is a sport? In my opinion, the definition of what is not a sport boils down to this: if any part of the sport is dependent upon whether you have pointed your toes, straightened your arms completely, or kept your legs together properly, then you aren't competing in a sport. Yes, I know, this eliminates pretty much all of the subjective sports, and that's the point. Pointy toes are not sports. What is that I hear from the peanut gallery? These are difficult and require lots of skill? Sure they do. I won't argue with you there. But it takes more than effort and skill to make something a sport. Here are some other activities that require either effort or skill, or both: ballet dancing, construction work, guitar playing, ditch digging, chess, and auto repair. None of them are sports. Neither is diving. Things can be hard and not be a sport. Deal with it.

Some people have come up with the "real medal count", eliminating what they believe are the subjective sports - and have tossed out boxing, tae kwon do, judo and wrestling too. I disagree with that assessment because I believe those sports can be salvaged. Yes, boxing and tae kwon do have had significant scoring controversies (and those questioning the scoring in those events are, in my opinion, justified), but if fencing can come up with a neutral electronic scoring system, then those sports can too. Wrestling and judo are a harder call, because there is no way to come up with an electronic scoring system for them, but they have objective rules concerning what should and should not score, so I think they could be handled fairly, and thus get to stay on a probationary basis.

If I were somehow made king of the world, I would dump all the "pointy-toe" sports from the Olympics. Synchronized swimming? Gone. Diving? No more. Half-pipe? See ya. And so on. I would be magnanimous - artistic gymnasts and divers in individual events in previous Olympic contests can keep their medals. Medals earned by synchronized swimmers, synchronized divers, rhythmic gymnasts and so on? I'd revoke all of those retroactively. But that's just me. And it's unlikely that I will ever be king of the world.

But the serious note is this: The IOC has created an artificial situation with an arbitrary limit. Then it has added obnoxiously corrupt subjective sports in the Olympics and kept out things like rugby (and kicked out baseball) because of that artificial standard. Are these really the guys who should be running the centerpiece world sporting event? I don't think so.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biased Opinion - Olympic Fraud and Disillusionment

I love the Olympics. At least I used to. I'm not so sure any more.

I like baseball, but pretty much only to the extent that I will play it if the opportunity arises (and in that case, I'm usually playing softball, not baseball), or to the extent that I am participating in a fantasy baseball league. I will watch football or basketball, but usually only if the Hoos are playing. But ever since I was a kid watching guys run around a track in Montreal, or slide down a bobsled run in Innsbruck, I've always felt the allure of Olympic sports. They always seemed to have a different aura about them - perhaps it was just that they happened only once every four years, as opposed to the hum-drum regularity of professional sports games. perhaps it was that the sports were so varied and different. I don't know.

I remember watching the Lake Placid Olympics and noticing the first wedge of hypocrisy in the rules - athletes from western nations were held to a strict amateur code, usually struggling to make ends meet, while athletes from behind the Iron Curtain were, essentially, professionals paid for their athletic skills. I remember asking my father about this, and it was one of the first questions I posed that he had no answer for. It wasn't his fault. He didn't make the rules. He couldn't be expected to justify their stupidity.

But, looking back, that was the first real indication I can remember that the IOC was a corrupt and ineffectual organization. Things like the allegations of corruption surrounding the original Salt Lake City bids and the skating judging fiasco, the allegations of gambling influence at the Seoul games, the doping scandals that have grown every games, and the mess that gymnastics always is simply make this clearer with every scandal.

And now it is pretty clear that the Chinese gymnastics federation cheated by using ineligible gymnasts, specifically He Kexin, Deng Lilin, and Yang Yilen. Whether you agree with the age limit rules or not, violating them and using ineligible athletes is cheating. The evidence of this cheating keeps piling up. And the response from the IOC on this simply confirms, once and for all, that the IOC, and possibly the modern Olympics, are past their sell by date.

The first thing about this scandal is that it is clear that the Chinese government is really not good at covering their tracks. I'm guessing that they are so used to controlling the media, and having their pronouncements accepted at face value that they have simply been unable to comprehend that some people would go back and double check what they said. They certainly didn't expect people to go onto their websites and dig up older versions of their published materials to contradict the official line.

However, the Chinese have had a willing accomplice to their fraud in the IOC. First, the IOC tried to sweep it under the rug and hoped it would go away. That might have worked thirty years ago when media outlets were few, and a week old sports story would fade off the wire. But now? Not a chance. Then the IOC tried to dodge responsibility saying that it was up to the gymnastics federation to decide (which makes one wonder what the IOC actually exists for, if it isn't to run and police the Olympic games). Then it decided to use the silliest investigative technique one could imagine:

Policeman: Hello, did you rob that bank over there? I have two witnesses that say it was you and videotape of you pointing a gun at the bank teller.

Masked man: No, it wasn't me. I had an appointment elsewhere. I'll go get my date book and let you look at it, umm, tomorrow.

Policeman: That's good enough for me. As long as your documents say otherwise, that videotape must be some sort of mistake.

Silly, isn't it? But that's basically the nature of the IOC investigation. Now, the IOC has made noises about "not wanting to offend the Chinese", but that just seems to illustrate the inherent corruption here. If the Chinese didn't manipulate their gymnasts' ages, then they wouldn't be offended - most athletes from other countries have been extraordinarily open about things like testing, many even volunteering for additional tests just to demonstrate their innocence and willingness to cooperate. But China? To even suggest that the Chinese might have cheated, even with piles of evidence that they did, is somehow too insulting to consider. And that's because the IOC is desperate to pretend that there are no problems with the Beijing games because, I think, they have been stung by the very legitimate criticism that Beijing should have never been awarded the games to begin with.

And, in many ways, that's the fundamental issue here. The IOC should have known better. Getting a big prize doesn't make a police state become more open, more liberal, and more tolerant. Getting a big prize just legitimizes a police state and gives it a platform to engage in propaganda. It did in 1938, it did in 1980, and it did in 2008. The Chinese government, rather than opening up and becoming more tolerant, has used the "security" concerns of the games to crack down in Tibet, arrest thousands of people, and basically tighten up security and suppress dissent. The Chinese prettied up Beijing for the games, and tried to combat their horrific pollution, but essentially this amounted to building a giant Potemkin village for the television cameras. And the IOC looks like the corrupt, clueless gang that they actually are. To me, it highlights the true ineffectiveness of the IOC - they don't dare offend anyone, because they, like an abused child who craves the abusers love, they are desperate for countries like China to "be part of the Olympic movement". And China knows this, so they make veiled threats, effectively acting like a spoiled child on the playground who threatens to take his ball and go home unless he can break the rules. But scandals like this only serve to show that the "Olympic movement" is hollow and meaningless

As an aside, can we finally put the whole "Eastern harmony with nature" thing to rest? It should be clear to anyone who paid any attention to the run up to the games that China is a cesspit with levels of pollution almost incomprehensible to Americans. I remember watching one of the bike races, and having the commentators note that although it had rained and cut down on the humidity, the rain was so polluted that it made the roads oily and slick. Think about that for a moment. Then think about how the Chinese banned half the cars in Beijing from driving, closed down dozens of factories, and had to desperately scrub rivers to get them clean enough for boating events. If that's the result of Eastern wisdom, spare me any of that kind of advice.

If the IOC were a real organization, with a real concern for the Olympics, they would aggressively pursue the allegations that the Chinese cheated and used ineligible athletes. If the Chinese didn't, then they will have done their job, and China will be vindicated and the world will be assured that the Olympics are well-run. If China did field ineligible athletes, then a drastic solution will have to be found - because falsifying several passports and birth certificates is not an athlete cheating, but rather an organized conspiracy to cheat by an entire sporting federation. (By the way, doesn't it seem pathetic that China would feel the need to cheat to win. It makes the Chinese sporting federation look childish and insecure that they would do something like this). The only solution is to punish the entire federation. It would not be enough to strip the ineligible athletes of their medals, for the same reason that it isn't enough to simply have monopolists or those who defraud the government pay simple damages (and instead they pay treble damages). The only real sanction that would achieve the effect of showing the IOC isn't a weak and toothless caretaker of the Olympics would be to strip all Chinese gymnasts at the 2008 games of their medals, and ban China from international gymnastics competition until after the 2012 games. Effectively, this would be the equivalent of the NCAA giving a corrupt football program the "death penalty".

It won't happen, of course. Rogge will make noises about fairness. He will dissemble in public. The IOC will accept forged documents from the Chinese. And the IOC will declare that no cheating occurred. And then they will wonder why people aren't enthused about the games any more.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

2008 Mythopoeic Award Nominees

Location: Mythcon XXXVIX in New Britain, Connecticut.

Comments: Under the rules of the Mythopoeic Awards works of scholarship in both the Inklings Studies category and Myth and Fantasy Studies category are eligible for a period of three years after they have been published. This means that works can, and often are, nominated to the final list several years in a row. Given this regular recurrence of titles on the finalist lists, I am convinced that this rule exists to make sure that there is a reasonably fleshed out set of finalist lists every year, as otherwise it would seem that there would be a paucity of nominees, especially in the Inklings Studies category.

Best Adult Fantasy Literature

Orphan's Tales series (In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice) by Catherynne M. Valente

Other Nominees:
Chronicles of Chaos series (Orphans of Chaos, Fugitives of Chaos, and Titans of Chaos) by John C. Wright
In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss
The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Best Children's Fantasy Literature

Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) by J.K. Rowling

Other Nominees:
Dussie by Nancy Springer
The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
Modern Tale of Faerie series (Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie, and Ironside: A Modern Faery's Tale) by Holly Black

Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies

The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer, appendix by David Bratman

Other Nominees:
The History of the Hobbit (Part One, Mr Baggins and Part Two, Return to Bag-End by John D. Rateliff
Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology by Verlyn Flieger
Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien's Middle-Earth by Marjorie Burns
The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner

Myth and Fantasy Studies

The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm's Mythology of the Monstrous edited by T.A. Shippey

Other Nominees:
Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper by Charles Butler
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Heather O'Donoghue
The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy by Milly Williamson
Oz in Perspective: Magic and Myth in the Frank L. Baum Books by Richard Carl Tuerk

Go to previous year's nominees: 2007
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2009

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

2008 Hugo Award Finalists

Location: Denvention 3 in Denver, Colorado.

Comments: In 2008, the alternate history novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. The novel, which posits that the United States established a refuge for Jews fleeing Europe in Alaska in 1941, has no science fiction element other than the changed course of history. I like alternate history, and writers like Harry Turtledove are among my favorite authors, but alternate history, without more, is simply not science fiction. And it seems like a shame to waste an award aimed at honoring science fiction and fantasy upon a book that is simply not within those genres. I don't dislike The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I just don't think it should have won the Hugo Award over the various actual science fiction novels that were nominated against it.

In other categories, a Neil Gaiman property returned to the Hugo winner's circle as the movie adaptation of Stardust won the Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation category, and Doctor Who continued its domination of the Short Form category with a win for its episode Blink. Doctor Who dominated the category, garnering a second nomination for its two part story Human Nature and The Family of Blood, while the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood took up one of the remaining three nomination slots with its episode Captain Jack Harkness. I've said this before, but having a single property dominate an award category the way Doctor Who has dominated the Short Form Dramatic Presentation Hugo is not healthy, either for the award, or for televised science fiction.

Best Novel

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Other Finalists:
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Halting State by Charles Stross
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

Best Novella

All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis

Other Finalists:
The Fountain of Age by Nancy Kress
Memorare by Gene Wolfe
Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Stars Seen Through Stone by Lucius Shepard

Best Novelette

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

Other Finalists:
The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham
Dark Integers by Greg Egan
Finisterra by David Moles
Glory by Greg Egan

Best Short Story

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

Other Finalists:
Distant Replay by Mike Resnick
Last Contact by Stephen Baxter
A Small Room in Koboldtown by Michael Swanwick
Who's Afraid of Wolf 359? by Ken MacLeod

Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher

Other Finalists:
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium by Barry N. Malzberg
The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer
Emshwiller: Infinity x Two by Luis Ortiz

Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form


Other Finalists:
The Golden Compass
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Heroes, Season 1

Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form

Doctor Who: Blink

Other Finalists:
Battlestar Galactica: Razor
Doctor Who: Human Nature and The Family of Blood
Star Trek New Voyages: World Enough and Time
Torchwood: Captain Jack Harkness

Best Professional Editor: Short Form

Gordon van Gelder

Other Finalists:
Ellen Datlow
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Sheila Williams

Best Professional Editor: Long Form

David G. Hartwell

Other Finalists:
Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Beth Meacham

Best Professional Artist

Stephan Martiniere

Other Finalists:
Bob Eggleton
Phil Foglio
John Harris
John Picacio
Shaun Tan

Best Semi-Prozine

Locus edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, and Liza Groen Trombi

Other Finalists:
Ansible edited by Dave Langford
Helix SF edited by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
The New York Review of Science Fiction edited by Kathryn Cramer, Kristine Dikeman, David G. Hartwell, and Kevin J. Maroney

Best Fanzine

File 770 edited by Mike Glyer

Other Finalists:
Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
Challenger edited by Guy H. Lillian, III
Drink Tank edited by Chris Garcia
Plokta edited by Steve Davies, Alison Scott, and Mike Scott

Best Fan Writer


Other Finalists:
Chris Garcia
Dave Langford
Cheryl Morgan
Steven H Silver

Best Fan Artist

Brad Foster

Other Finalists:
Teddy Harvia
Sue Mason
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Mary Robinette Kowal

Other Finalists:
Joe Abercrombie
Jon Armstrong
David Anthony Durham
David Louis Edelman
Scott Lynch

What Are the Hugo Awards?

Go to previous year's finalists: 2007
Go to subsequent year's finalists: 2009

2008 Hugo Longlist     Book Award Reviews     Home