Impromptus

Olympic dreams, &c.

Anastasija Zolotic of the United States celebrates winning the gold-medal match in women’s featherweight taekwondo at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Makuhari Messe Hall A in Chiba, Japan, July 25, 2021. (Murad Sezer / Reuters)
On skateboarding, ‘Imagine,’ Simone Biles, ‘Chinese Taipei,’ field hockey, ‘unitards,’ a twelve-year-old Syrian girl, and more

A lot of people are crabby about the Olympics — even hostile to the Olympics. Also, they tend to be proud of this hostility. I understand them, I think. But I have always loved the Olympics, however problematic they may be. When I was watching some highlights the other day, I strolled down Memory Lane.

The Olympics taught me a fair amount about foreign countries: their flags, their languages, their anthems. They taught me about unusual sports — I mean, sports unusual to me. (Fencing?) I loved the “human interest” stories. You may remember the phrase “up close and personal.” A television host would say, “Let’s get up close and personal,” by meeting a particular athlete, and finding out about his or her private life.

Naturally, I fell in love with a succession of Olympians, mainly gymnasts and figure skaters, I guess: Cathy Rigby, Olga Korbut, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Nadia Comaneci, Katarina Witt . . . Most of these women must be grandmothers by now.

As I think about it, the Olympics taught me something about politics, too. Certainly international relations. And dark stuff, chiefly terrorism. (Think of Munich in 1972.) (I was eight.)

I had a little dream of working for the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne. The IOC combines many of my interests — sports and diplomacy, outstandingly. The corruption is hard to take. Then again, corruption is everywhere. I wonder whether any sector is free of corruption: government, business, religion, education, politics, journalism — on and on.

If you are anti-Olympics, I understand. No one has to watch, or read. I have a hundred complaints about the Olympics. I’m so old-fashioned, I think the Olympics ought to be for amateurs, rather than for NBA stars, NHL stars, and others. But I love the idea of the Olympics, and the ideals — beginning with the torch relay. Ancient Greece and all that.

I hope that young people, ’round the world, are liking the Olympics as much as I did, long ago.

• For decades, I have inveighed against “Chinese Taipei,” as an Olympic euphemism for “Taiwan.” But now my feeling is different. You may understand me. I still despise the name, of course — but, in coming Olympics, will Taiwan have a separate team at all?

Better a team with the euphemism than Taiwan grabbed and forced into the PRC.

• When I was growing up, in midwestern America, field hockey was for girls and women, only. Even now, I find it strange to see men play the sport. But I realize that our situation was anomalous, in a global context . . .

• I remember when skateboarding really got going, way back. It was a bunch of kids, of a daredevil nature, screwing around. To think that it has become an Olympic event!

When I made this point on Twitter, a woman responded, “I remember when my brother and his friends made skateboards in shop class. Small, thick wooden boards on roller-skate wheels. Stickers and painted-on slogans such as ‘Hang ten.’ Very hard to stay on and maneuver. Early Sixties.”

Great.

• John Lennon’s song “Imagine” — 50 years old this year — was performed at the opening ceremony in Tokyo. You are perhaps familiar with William F. Buckley Jr.’s blast against this song — its lyrics — in 1990. He begins that column,

The widow of John Lennon asked rather more in the memory of her late husband than some of us are willing, let alone eager, to give, however much we regret the tragic circumstances of his passing. John Lennon was a source of inspiration to many people (including my son), and as has wisely been counseled, it is unwise to insert oneself in other people’s religious quarrels. But Yoko Ono asked not merely that Lennonites celebrate Lennonism, but that all of us do.

You see, Yoko wanted the whole world — every radio station in every country — to sing out, at a given hour, the song “Imagine,” nominating it in effect as a kind of international anthem. Now I do not know the melody of “Imagine,” but I have the lyrics in front of me, and what it amounts to is a kind of Bible, as written by the sorcerer’s apprentice.

To read on, go here.

• A U.S. taekwondo-er — I’m not sure of the word — won a gold medal. She is Anastasija Zolotic. I’m glad that Team USA fields athletes with names such as “Anastasija Zolotic,” in addition to “Joe Smith.” Reagan used to say that the blood of every people flows through the American vein. May it always be so, and may we Americans recognize this as a strength.

• Get up close and personal with Hend Zaza. She is a twelve-year-old ping-pong player from Syria. I will quote from an article by Dan Wetzel, of Yahoo Sports.

Her home city of Hama has been subjected to repeated bombing campaigns and suffered various levels of destruction. As war and terror gripped her family and her community, table tennis — which uses an economy of space yet requires intense focus — wasn’t just the rare activity that could be played, it became a refuge.

“We [lived in] challenging conditions,” Zaza said. “We are able to control this. Once we go and play, we forget about everything and think only about playing.”

Extraordinary, in multiple ways.

• The Tokyo Olympics have not gone well for Simone Biles, the U.S. gymnast, so far. Still, she has had a head-spinning career. Something I read reminded me of singing. I’ll tell you in a minute.

In 2016, just before the individual floor competition at the Rio Olympics, American gymnast Laurie Hernandez turned to her teammate, Aly Raisman, and laid out the stakes.

“If you get silver, you’re the best,” Hernandez said. “Because Simone doesn’t count.”

Raisman laughed and agreed. Olympic gold medals go to the best in the world, but Simone Biles’ performances are often not of this world. Sometimes, for sanity’s sake, you just have to rationalize that second-best is best.

“We just don’t consider ourselves competing against her,” Raisman said. “It’s like she’s just on another level.”

Okay. Some years ago, Liza Minnelli was asked, “Who is the best singer?” She replied, “You mean, besides Ella?”

• In a column last week, I hailed the Norwegian women’s beach-handball team. Huh? Yes. You see, their sport requires that they — that women — wear bikini bottoms. The Norwegians didn’t want to do this, finding the required “uniform” degrading and otherwise inappropriate. So, they came out for a match in shorts. Whereupon they were fined by the sport’s federation.

I am rehashing this because it relates to this story:

For decades, female gymnasts have worn bikini-cut leotards. In qualifying on Sunday, however, the German team instead wore unitards that stretched to their ankles, intending to push back against sexualization of women in gymnastics.

A little more, for further context:

The Tokyo Olympics are the first Summer Games since Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, was sent to prison for 176 years for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts, including some of the sport’s greatest stars. At his sentencing, athletes — some of them Olympians — described how the sport’s culture allowed for abuse and objectification of young women and girls.

Yes.

• About Harry deLeyer, there was a fascinating obit by Clay Risen of the New York Times. The headline: “Harry deLeyer, 93, Dies; He Saved a Horse and Made Him a Legend.” Every bit of this obit is interesting, exceptionally so. But I’d like to highlight how Harry deLeyer and his wife Johanna — who started out in Holland — got to the United States:

His budding equestrian career was disrupted when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. His father turned their farm into a way station for the resistance, hiding Jews and downed Allied pilots in a secret cellar that he dug out next to a barn and disguised under a manure pile. At night, Harry would ride out on horseback, looking for wounded pilots.

One such pilot, an American, died soon after Harry brought him back to the farm. The family buried him, and sent his dog tags back to his parents in North Carolina, who struck up a correspondence with Mr. deLeyer and Johanna. In 1950 they sponsored the couple’s arrival in the United States.

The lives people lead — amazing.

• On Monday, I was at the golf range, where a golf camp was going on. A boy of about seven said this, verbatim: “It doesn’t mean I’m the worst golf player. It just means I’m having a bad day.” My man.

See you soon, my friends.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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