Olympics have given in to hype

Posted: Sep 29, 2000 12:00 AM
INDIANAPOLIS -- Are you still following NBC's coverage of the Olympics? Many sports fans are not. I sympathize. The hype is repellent ... and confusing. The other night, midst geysers of superlatives from the NBC commentators, a Russian spring-board diver suddenly dropped from the first place he had held throughout the competition to third on his last dive. A theretofore inferior Chinese diver, without explanation from the commentators, passed two competitors to win the gold. Viewers might well have been befuddled. I have been watching diving since school days. Back in 1968, a friend whom I had gone to school with since childhood won this event. Less intimate acquaintances have, too. Despite all that experience with the event, even I was confused by the Russian's sudden swoon and the Chinese diver's triumph. Less hype and more informed commentary would have been enlightening in this as well as in other events. As cloying as the hype is, it is no more offensive than the slathering on of political correctness. Every athlete is a goody two-shoes. Most have overcome so many calamities and freak accidents that after the games I expect to see some of them introducing Al Gore on the campaign trail, possibly as a fellow teammate. Every historic first is ballyhooed for a woman, a black, a gay (A gay? Perhaps that will come next Olympiad). Then the other night we had to be taken by an NBC reporter to an Australian whorehouse that does not merely practice safe sex. Its madam -- the suave recipient of a sex change -- apparently sees to it that the whorehouse also practices luxury sex and funny, giggly sex. Egads, where to go to escape the politics of the politically correct and intellectually inane? Last weekend I found respite in Indianapolis, Ind., an international sports venue almost as cosmopolitan as the Olympics but utterly free of the politically correct. At Indianapolis's famed Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500, a new Formula 1 track has been built. There, one of American sports' most energetic promoters, Tony George, put on the first world-championship Formula 1 race to be held in the United States in nine years. I attended the race with a former member of the 1960 Olympic swimming team and with an engineer who has followed both Indy racing and Formula 1. Both were astounded by the competitiveness of the drivers, the technical advances of the cars, and the seriousness of the fans. There was no political correctness. There were national rivalries from an international field whose cars came from 22 countries and whose drivers represented 11 countries. The sold-out crowd of 250,000 contained large contingents of fans from each participating country, a tribute to their enthusiasm and to the marvels of jet travel. Though the nationalist fervor was restrained, the race was as competitive an event as any in this year's Olympics. Stirling Moss, one of Grand Prix driving's all-time greats, has called Ferarri's Michael Schumacher the greatest driver of the present generation. In winning last weekend, Schumacher vindicated Moss' judgment. I saw him do things with his Ferrari that were the epitome of sport, executing flawlessly under pressure with intelligence and strength. Capturing the lead early by passing his main opponent in an S turn, he perfectly positioned his red racer on the lead car's left side as they entered the S turn's bend to the right. Thus, an instant later as the turn took them back to the left, Schumacher emerged in the lead. At the ingeniously constructed Indianapolis track spectators not seated on the S turn could see it all on huge television screens. That move was as exciting as anything I have seen in the Olympics, and then the race settled down to the grim spectacle of watching Schumacher's opponents burn out their cars in pursuit. The cars are almost as fascinating as the drivers. From a standing start they reach 100 mph in less than 3 seconds, and with their carbon-fiber brakes stop almost as spectacularly. On the straight they roar up to almost 200 mph, braking to take the first turn at 70 mph and subsequent turns even more slowly. The engines rev up to 19,000 rpms. In fact, they rev up so fast to that dizzying limit that the drivers have to shift gears much earlier lest the oncoming revs blow their engines. A technical innovation allowing these drivers to shift so rapidly is on the steering wheels of the cars. Conventional gear shifts take too much time and so the drivers shift by punching "flappers" at their fingertips on the steering wheel. Will we some day have such flappers on our cars? One of the merits of racing machines is that their advanced technologies often do improve our street cars. Readers might be surprised by my comment that there is a physical dimension to race driving. Unlike the great drivers of the past, today's have to be fit. Most train with weights. The pull on their bodies during turns and braking is an enormous physical strain. A hard turn can pull 4 lateral Gs, which means a driver's head, the heaviest part of his body, weighs four times its normal weight. These drivers are athletes in every sense. Yes, I have enjoyed these Olympics, but the first United States Grand Prix in years was a refreshing break. And it did not suffer from another of the Olympics' distractions, the inclusions of so many recently concocted sports with no history and little intrinsic interest, for instance trampolining. What will they think of next? How about Frisbee hurling?