At the halfway mark, Olympics observations on medal winners and losers, the China scene and Phelps Phrenzy

BEIJING — Random thoughts, opinions and musings after a busy Olympics weekend and as the second and final week unfolds…

Matt Schnobrich

Courtesy of USRowing
Matt Schnobrich

Minnesota medals

Minnesota rowers Matt Schnobrich and Micah Boyd helped the U.S. men’s eight team win a bronze medal Sunday.

Meanwhile, New Ulm’s Ali Bernard had a shot at a bronze medal, but missed it.

Michael Phelps
A few thoughts:

Winning everything at world-record levels on the biggest stage is remarkable, of course.

But I don’t think his coach, Bob Bowman, has received enough credit. To prepare an athlete that finely for an Olympics is an art and a science and a psychological challenge.

Many skilled athletes come here. Some choke because of the crowds and the attention. Some over-train and break down physically. Others lose their concentration because of all the distractions.

Phelps fell victim to none of them. And, somehow, Bowman, his longtime coach, was able to continually motivate.

Best example … On the day before Phelps won his seventh medal, Bowman read a comment by a Serbian swimmer named Milorad Cavic. Cavic was quoted as saying “it would be good for swimming” if Phelps lost.

Eight special moments: Swimmer Michael Phelps displays his gold medals.

Eight special moments: Swimmer Michael Phelps displays his gold medals.

Bowman, en route to breakfast on the day of the race, mentioned the comment to Phelps. This race, the 100-meter butterfly, was long expected to be the toughest for Phelps.

Phelps would later say, “I welcome all comments,” but he also acknowledged Cavic’s words fired him up.

Of course, it was Cavic that Phelps defeated by 0.01 seconds. And it was Bowman who knew exactly how to fire up his incredible athlete.

That’s mighty fine coaching.

Phelps Phrenzy
For better or for worse, I don’t get to see NBC’s coverage. I know the ratings for Phelps were high, and super-high in the Twin Cities. The question is whether NBC overplayed its hand, celebrated Phelps’ ascendancy and now has nothing left in the tank.

I’m going to guess that’s the case. Track and field is fun, but it generally pulls down TV ratings in the United States. The Olympics skew toward females in their 40s. Swimming and gymnastics seem to target that demographic a bit better.

Meanwhile, new Visa ads, Speedo filling sporting goods’ stores with Phelps paraphernalia and other endorsers jumping on the Phelps bandwagon could transform a legitimately historic sports achievement into a tawdry commercial event.

That is the nature of the Olympics as a “platform” for sponsors. But Phelps Phatigue is a real and quick possibility. He deserves to be honored for a while, not merely sold.

Corporate stuff
Speaking of the corporatization of the Olympics, you may or may not notice, but there is limited corporate signage at the Games. In fact, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t allow advertising signs in the venues. Unlike the signs you see behind home plate at a Twins game or on the outfield walls, or the ads on arena and stadium facades, none is allowed in Olympics stadiums.

That’s cool … but …

Equipment manufacturers get great exposure. The Nike swoosh is allowed on uniforms, for instance. This week, notice that Nike, in its wisdom, has sponsored the U.S., Chinese, Russian, Kenyan and German track teams.

Another key product placement is Omega, the timing company. Omega gets the only on-field signage because its clocks are right there on TV all the time.

In the signage world, less is more. No clutter means more impressions. This is why worldwide Olympic sponsors pay the IOC about $75 million every four years to buy into an exclusive club.

Chinese nationalism and the Games
Six weeks ago, I wrote about how these Games could trigger demonstrations of nationalism. It happens in every Olympic host nation.

So far, that hasn’t happened in an extensive way. Apparently, there was one episode of some anti-Japanese chanting at one event. But most of the cheering has been spirited and appropriate. (See Elizabeth Tuttle’s blog item on MinnPost today.)

As for TV coverage … well, as much as you think NBC is a bastion of U.S. nationalism, believe me, CCTV, China’s national network, is surely its equal. The other day, a Chinese women’s crew won a gold medal in rowing. I thought the announcer had just witnessed the second coming of Elvis.

Liu Xiang
China’s most popular athlete, track star Liu Xiang, pulled out of the Olympics today because of a leg injury.

The video of his withdrawal after a false start in a qualifying race today is being shown over and over again on CCTV. Monday night, on the Olympics wrap-up show, in hushed tones, commentators are discussing this national event.

The New York Times Olympics blog does a good job of aggregating everything on this topic, so I direct you there.

China is in shock.

What’s it feel like?
The Olympic Green, a 4-square-mile campus of sports facilities, corporate pavilions and the Athletes’ Village, has come alive since the track meet started last Friday. A few things happened.

One: Chinese organizers decided to allow non-ticket holders into the security zone. Before then, only people with event tickets could get into the Olympic area. It was absurdly ghost-towny.

Two: Track, with its crowds of 90,000 people, brings bodies into the Green.

Now, at night, thousands of Chinese families are gathering and taking pictures in front of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, shopping at the Super Store for souvenirs and playing in a fountain between the stadium and the Water Cube, where Phelps won all his medals.

Visitors stand in line to buy souvenirs at the Olympic Green Super Store.

MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Visitors stand in line to buy souvenirs at the Olympic Green Super Store.

It feels like the Olympics should feel: a global event accessible, if only in a little way, to all.

Finally, working conditions
You may not have heard of the “Mixed Zone,” but this is where Olympic reporters spend much of their time.

In the United States, post-game visits to a locker room are the avenues to talk with athletes.

At the Olympics, at each venue, a “Mixed Zone” is set up. It’s a series of fenced-in pathways through which athletes snake from their field of play to their dressing areas. We journalists are positioned outside the short, white fences. It is over these that we conduct our interviews as best we can.

At a sport like, say, wrestling or table tennis, getting to an athlete is quite easy. You wait for them after their match or race or event ends. They have to walk by you. You call their name. Generally, they stop. Work gets done.

But at sports such as swimming or track or men’s basketball, we veteran Olympic writers call it the “Mix It Up Zone.” Elbows fly as if it’s an NHL game. Tape recorders of the Bulgarian journalist behind you wind up in your right nostril as a gang pushes to hear a gold medalist speak, usually, insignificant observations.

The Mixed Zone is an international journalism scrum. Or the Mixed Zone is a private affair between a local reporter and his hometown athlete.

From this sweaty, cacophonous, ink-stained crucible, dear reader, you get your information.

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