You never think of swimming and gymnastics as Summer Olympics rivals in the Magic-Bird sense, much less the Tupac-Biggie sense, but that’s exactly what they are. They peak in the splashiest way possible for just two weeks every four years. During that precious window, they battle for worldwide attention, television ratings, prime-time real estate, SNL cameos, SportsCenter commercials, patriotic pride, the affection of horny teenage boys, pop-culture relevancy and tens of millions of dollars in endorsements. If swimming and gymnastics were people, they would absolutely despise each other while pretending publicly that everything was totally fine — you know, kind of like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Just know that I have no dog in this race. I don’t care who captures the imaginary Summer Olympics title. But after seeing swimming and gymnastics in London, I feel qualified to answer a question that you always secretly wanted to know: “What’s more fun to watch in person … Olympic swimming or Olympic gymnastics?”
Wait, this sounds like the perfect topic for one of my favorite old-school gimmicks … that’s right, it’s the Dr. Jack Breakdown!!!1 Let’s do this.
They’re holding swimming in a 17,500-seat venue with seating on just two sides, so for many fans, they could have called this Noseblood Arena.2 When IOC members, sponsors and heavy hitters with quality seats started no-showing events, they earned the collective ire of everyone in London. (We never totally knew who to blame, but one thing’s for sure — the Olympics should definitely consider using seat fillers à la the Oscars.) Even if you dropped some coin for a night of swimming, there’s a good chance you ended up watching tiny dots thrash in the pool from the 137th row. There’s definitely a “haves vs. have-nots” vibe for swimming.
Meanwhile, gymnastics is in a 20,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena in North Greenwich that doubles as the site for basketball’s medal round games, and eventually, the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Bobcats or NBA Expansion Team X. (And you think I’m kidding.3) Tickets were similarly tough for gymnastics despite an equivalent number of annoying no-shows, but at least there were more seats and you could enjoy the action from any section (especially with the big video screen). So what should you like more — an inclusive sport that accommodates as many fans as possible, or an exclusive sport that operates like a snotty nightclub with a bouncer who reeks of chlorine? EDGE: GYMNASTICS
PREGAME ARENA SHOW
Nothing for swimming — a letdown for anyone expecting bawdy cheerleaders to cram into swimsuits and attempt an undoubtedly disastrous synchronized swimming routine. (By the way? That would have brought the house down. English people are perverts. This can’t be forgotten even for two seconds.) Meanwhile, gymnastics did have a pregame show — at the women’s team final, there was a singing performance, then one of those artsy-fartsy, Duo Design–esque strength/stamina performances with a dude balancing on a long pole, then former Olympic medalists performing signature routines as part of a collective demonstration. Look, I’m not going to be telling my grandkids about it, but at least something happened. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
You know what you’re getting here in gymnastics: Reckless flips and double flips; competitors swinging from things at warp speed; and during the female team competition, girls stretching and waiting for one of their teammates to walk away so they can say catty things about her.
Swimming warm-ups couldn’t be more boring. Every competitor crams into the pool — seriously, everyone — and swims slowly back and forth, with as many as 12 people crammed into a lane. It’s interesting for about nine seconds, then it gets weird. Here, look.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Was that a picture from the Summer Olympics or Bushwood Country Club?” The answer, sadly, is the Summer Olympics. Although I did snap that picture, then spend the next 15 minutes hoping someone would throw a Baby Ruth bar into the pool. Doody!!!!!!!!!!! MASSIVE EDGE: GYMNASTICS
Would you rather see (a) leotards and tank tops, or (b) one-piece bathing suits and swimming briefs? I’m solving this debate the same way I solve just about everything these days — by wondering what’s the worst-case scenario for my daughter if she becomes an Olympian some day. What would be worse: Male TV viewers ogling her in a traditional bathing suit, or a skimpy leotard with her butt cheeks possibly leaking out? Give me the bathing suit, please. Actually, don’t give me anything. I’m pushing my daughter toward the Winter Olympics just to be safe. EDGE: SWIMMING
Let’s bang this one out as diplomatically as possible (and in a way that won’t get me fired). Male swimmers can have sex, whenever they want, with whomever they want, as many times as they want. They’re ridiculously chiseled and have insane stamina; don’t think your girlfriend or wife doesn’t totally know this. If you’re at a party and notice Ryan Lochte talking to your girlfriend in the corner, you have two choices at that point — find a new girlfriend, or sucker punch Lochte and hope everyone else jumps in before he kicks your ass. And even then, you’re screwed because your girlfriend will resent you for screwing up her chance with Ryan Lochte. Meanwhile, male gymnasts are like male cheerleaders — there’s just something happy, bulky, nonthreatening and overtly theatrical about them. If your girlfriend were huddled in the corner talking to a male gymnast, you’d just assume they were discussing Bachelor Pad or something.4 Just to be sure, I asked my wife whom she found more attractive, gymnasts or swimmers, and she laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?”
The battle between female gymnasts and female swimmers is much more compelling. When you meet someone who says she swam in college, that’s code for “I’m still in phenomenal shape and have great stamina, and also, there’s a chance I now resent my parents a little for making me spend so much time in the pool with no real payoff … would you like to help me get back at them?” If you meet a former college gymnast, that’s code for, “I’m remarkably flexible, and also, there’s a chance I resent my parents a little for making me spend so much time in the gym with no real payoff … would you like to help me get back at them?”
But at the Olympic level? It gets a little more complicated — many gymnasts are under 18 and/or weigh less than Michael Phelps’s old bong, while many of the female swimmers are so ripped that it’s almost intimidating — unless you’re A-Rod and that’s your thing. I had no idea how to solve this stalemate. Let’s just have the male swimmers swing this one. Don’t judge me. EDGE: SWIMMING
POTENTIAL FOR AN OVER-THE-TOP PERFORMANCE BY A PARENT SITTING IN YOUR SECTION
Come on, swimming could never top a moment like this. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
DUMBEST, GOOFIEST AND MOST MINDLESS EVENT
For swimming, with apologies to the butterfly, I have to go with the backstroke. What’s the point of the backstroke again? Allow me to become the 17,045,912th person to make the “They don’t have the 100-Meter Backward Dash, do they?” joke since 1912. As for gymnastics, the pommel horse makes about as much sense as the pommel alligator or the pommel camel. And it’s deathly boring to watch. Nobody has ever said the words “Oh good, the pommel horse is coming up!” If Kurt Thomas hadn’t used the pommel horse so successfully as a weapon in the timeless action classic Gymkata, I’m convinced we would have gotten rid of it by now.
Wasn’t that incredible? If those scary Parmistanians had killed Kurt Thomas and we ended up losing the war to Parmistan, I bet the pommel horse would have gone the way of New Coke, the USFL and O.J.’s announcing career by now. Doesn’t make it any less dumb. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
For swimming, it’s the freestyle: Who can get from Point A to Point B the fastest? The 200-meter and 400-meter freestyles parallel sprints in track, with one catch — we don’t really know which one matters more. In track and field, the 100-meter race is one of the signature events of the Olympics, and really, any sport. I can name every 100-meter champ off the top of my head since 1936.5 I can’t do this for swimming. Still, the freestyle carries more weight than the high bars, vault, floor exercises or any other individual event in gymnastics. EDGE: SWIMMING
But wait, there’s a catch! The team finals for women’s gymnastics includes four different events (all happening at the same time) and features the most heart-stopping drama you could possibly witness at the Olympics. You’re getting two-plus hours of tension, without any breaks, and something happening every minute. Things peak whenever three Olympians are competing at the exact same time — especially when someone is doing the floor exercises (with loud music) as a second competitor is teetering on the balance beam and a third competitor is either whipping around on the uneven bars or sprinting toward the vault. Here, look at this photo I took from Tuesday of three gymnasts performing at once.
Triple Olympian! In my opinion, there isn’t a swimming night that can compare — from start to finish — with any all-around gymnastics final (individual or team). They’d have to stack a single night with eight straight gold-medal events or something. And by the way, it’s more impressive to see a gymnast executing multiple events in one night than it is to see a swimmer executing four different strokes during a single intermediate race. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
GENERAL FAN CONFUSION
In swimming, it’s difficult to (a) tell the lanes apart, (b) follow the race without repeatedly looking back at the scoreboard because you couldn’t remember if the Americans were in Lane 3 or Lane 4 and (c) figure out who won as two swimmers are touching the wall. On Tuesday, I caught Phelps’s silver-medal 200-meter butterfly race — we had a decent view and knew his lead had eroded, but still thought he snuck out a victory in the end. Nope. Television spoiled swimming as a spectator sport for me — you don’t realize how important CGI-numbered lanes, underwater cameras, announcers and those instant “here’s who won” graphics are.
Team gymnastics are complicated for a different reason: Eight countries compete in the team competition, but only four at any given time because no more than four events are going at once. Four countries go, then the other four go, then they rotate to another event. Here’s the problem: After the first four countries finish, they update the standings and the other four countries fall way behind (because they haven’t gone yet), leaving you with no idea what the actual scores are until the rotation ends.
Since they don’t have a “projected score” formula (where are the gymnastics stat nerds???), and since they changed the scoring from “perfect 10s” to “perfect 16s” (or whatever it is now) and only die-hard junkies know which countries are better or worse on certain events, you’re left guessing the whole time. For instance, I knew Great Britain was exceeding expectations near the end of Monday’s men’s team final, but had no idea what their silver-medal chances actually were. Even on their last event (floor exercise), they needed something like 46 points to medal and needed to leapfrog Japan, only decimals were involved, and I was sitting there adding numbers, carrying over decimal points and thinking to myself, “Wait a second, nobody told me there was going to be MATH at the Summer Olympics.” In swimming, the winner touches the wall first. Thank you and please drive through. EDGE: SWIMMING
The entrances and intros are what you’d expect for gymnastics. There’s a lot of authoritative prancing … which would have been a great name for an English ’80s rock band, but that’s about it. You know what I didn’t expect? Swimmers being introduced one at a time before Olympic races, then happily striding out like groomsmen at a wedding. Consistently enjoyable.
Here’s where gymnastics makes up for the gap: After finishing each rotation in the all-around, everyone packs their bags and moves to their next exercise. It’s done in sequence, with music, and with the crowd happily clapping the entire time. When it’s a team event, it’s even better because it almost seems like they’re marching. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this. Never got old. SLIGHT EDGE: GYMNASTICS
IMPRESSIVENESS OF COMPETITORS DEALING WITH NOISE
It’s the same noise every time during a swimming race — just fans yelling and screaming for whomever. (Can you even hear that much in the pool? You’re just thrashing around, right? Wouldn’t you just hear splashing?) In team gymnastics, you can’t let a random cheer or someone else’s music faze you — it’s a significant part of that event’s degree of difficulty. By the way, isn’t it bizarre that tennis players and golfers require total silence at all times, but we’re totally fine with loud music playing and fans clapping as gymnasts are desperately trying not to impale themselves on a balance beam or break their neck on a dismount? EDGE: GYMNASTICS
ABILITY TO PROVIDE A DEFINITIVE RESULT
In swimming, you touch the wall first and you win. In gymnastics? Judges decide if you win. And if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this — judges quintuple the chances of any sports result getting screwed up. At Monday’s all-around men’s final, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura botched his pommel horse routine and got penalized accordingly, opening the door for Great Britain to sneak into the silver. As soon as his low score was revealed, the crowd went bonkers and Britain’s team reacted like it was the end of a Disney sports movie. And then … boom! Japan protested the result, the score was changed and Japan won the silver. Don’t worry — in person, it was 25 times fishier. I kept looking around for Japanese Vince McMahon. EDGE: SWIMMING
CONSTANT CRINGE FACTOR
Defined as “the percentage of time during an event when you’re on pins and needles hoping someone doesn’t screw up.” Gymnastics and figure skating are the constant cringe-factor leaders — you spend pretty much the entire time hoping something bad won’t happen. In swimming, what could possibly happen other than (a) someone leaving a split-second too early in a relay race, or (b) someone crashing into the back of the pool during the backstroke?
While we’re here: You know that terrible “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh” sound a crowd makes whenever someone gets beaned in baseball, crunched by a hard hit in football or hockey, or crashes to the floor on a dunk-gone-wrong in basketball? Gymnastics is the all-time “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh” sport. They even have different versions of the “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh” sound. Here are the levels of “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh”:6
Level Five: Someone accidentally steps outside the lines on floor exercises or stumbles on a dismount. Happens fairly frequently, always gets an “Ohhhhhh.”
Level Four: Someone falls off the balance beam. That’s more of an “Oh no!” — like hearing an inappropriate joke at a cocktail party or something.
Level Three: Someone screws up a flip or dismount and lands in a way that makes you think they broke their neck or blew out both ACLs at once. This happened to the best female Russian gymnast, Ksenia Afanasyeva, during the last floor exercise event at the all-around team competition — even though everyone was rooting against her, she still earned a significant “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” That was scary.
Level Two: A male gymnast tries something a little too ambitious on the high bar, ends up grabbing air and falls to the mat like a brick. This happened to Great Britain’s Sam Oldham in Monday’s team all-around as they were making a run at silver. Huge “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh,” with some genuine anguish mixed in. Of course, that can’t top …
Level One: Someone tries a balance beam move that goes horribly wrong and results in them annihilating their crotch at 50 miles an hour. This happened to Great Britain’s Jennifer Pinches on Tuesday — I have never yelped “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” louder in my entire life. Somehow, she got right up and finished her routine even as her ovaries were still rolling around on the mat. I’m going to need therapy to recover from that moment. You’re not getting that in swimming. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
CHANCE THAT YOUR PED S— DETECTOR WILL BE SET OFF
Nonexistent for gymnastics. For swimming? I was there when China’s 16-year-old Ye Shiwen caught America’s Elizabeth Beisel from behind in the 400-meter individual medley, flipping her nitrous oxide switch on the final leg, ripping past Beisel like Dom Toretto, besting Ryan Lochte’s final 50-meter leg for the same race and doing everything short of high-fiving Barry Bonds and Debbie Clemens when she got out of the pool. She was so freaking fast that media members were turning to each other in disbelief trying to figure out of it was Michael Phelps in drag. Later in the week, she broke another world record, hit a 575-foot softball home run and pinned CM Punk for the WWE title. Just kidding. She’s clean as far as we know. We’ll only know if something was really up when Kobe randomly starts training with her. (Again, just kidding! Jokes! Come on, Lakers fans, lighten up …) EDGE: SWIMMING
LEVEL OF SCHADENFREUDE
In swimming, you root for your country or your favorite swimmer and that’s that. In gymnastics? As Rockets GM Daryl Morey (die-hard gymnastics fan — who knew????) puts it: “Gymnastics should be a German sport — lots of schadenfreude. You find yourself rooting for people to fail more than anything else.” Totally true. Seventeen percent of me was delighted when the aforementioned Russian star crashed in the floor exercises and nearly blew out both ACLs. I need a full-body schadenfreude cleansing. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
VARIETY OF MUSIC
Very little for swimming other than the wedding-like introductions. Meanwhile, gymnastics has music for introductions, music for rotations and, most famously, music for floor exercises! I wish they took more chances with the music — like two of the British girls did on Tuesday when they used “Paint It Black” and “Live and Let Die” (which the crowd ate up, obviously). Then again, they finished sixth. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
LEVEL OF TENSION
My biggest disappointment about swimming: In my head, I thought Saturday’s Lochte-Phelps showdown in the 400-meter IM would feature an unforgettable moment right before the race, almost like those last few seconds before the first round starts in a huge boxing match — you know, when fans are standing and yelling, you can sense the historical ramifications even before they happen, and you can cut the tension with a butcher’s knife. Didn’t happen. I think it was because of the venue — the lighting is funky, the ceiling hovers over the pool and you can’t see fans on the other side. Collectively, it’s hard to connect as a group. Gymnastics produces a higher level of tension, and as we discussed earlier, those moments happen much more often — not just before a routine or vault, but right near the end of anything involving a dismount, when you know it’s coming and you’re hoping they won’t botch it (or in certain cases, you ARE hoping they botch it).
I have to be honest: I didn’t like Olympic swimming as much as I expected to like it. It’s not like track and field (where you’re marveling at the speed/strength and have an internal context) or even gymnastics (where the degree of difficulty is apparent). For swimming, you’re just kind of glancing back and forth between the pool and the scoreboard trying to figure out who’s winning and whether any records might be in reach. You can’t see their faces. You don’t know if they can hear you. Even when they win, you just see a head smiling and a fist fly out of the pool. As a spectator, I felt more connected to the fate of the gymnasts. Admittedly, that’s a personal thing … but it’s my column, so … EDGE: GYMNASTICS
THE “I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED” FACTOR
When Lochte crushed Phelps on Saturday night, what stood out wasn’t the race itself, but the general mood over the last 100 meters and especially right afterward. People just couldn’t believe Phelps got trounced like that, and even worse, that he seemed so ordinary. This was like Pacquiao-Mayweather finally happening, then Floyd coming out and coldcocking Manny in Round 1.
Wait … what????
When Phelps got caught from behind three days later in the 200-meter butterfly (I was there for that one, too), that was more surprising than shocking — at that point, everyone knew 2008 Phelps was long gone. This has more to do with the dominance you can attain in swimming than anything: It would be impossible for someone to dominate every facet of gymnastics as effortlessly as Phelps dominated swimming from 2004 through 2008, which means nobody’s demise could ever stagger a crowd quite that way. Even in defeat, Phelps somehow gained greatness. At least for me. Only a handful of athletes could have created a lifelong memory simply by losing badly when we least expected it. Again, I just can’t see this happening in gymnastics. EDGE: SWIMMING
Swimming really suffers here — other than relay teammates awkwardly high-fiving after a big win, there’s just not a lot to work with. Gymnastics has two great things: Crazy parent reactions, and a never-ending onslaught of phony hugs between female gymnasts. The phony hugs slay me. Every one of them gives you flashbacks to Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis pretending to like each other in The Black Swan. In fact, they could make The Black Swan II about female gymnasts and it would totally work. Throw in everything that happened in Gymkata and it’s no contest. You could never have a Swimkata. (Thinking.) Wait, I better trademark that as fast as possible. EDGE: GYMNASTICS
SUCCESS OF THE “TEAM” CONCEPT
In person, I enjoyed the swimming relays more than the individual events, mainly because I was always hoping for an iconic moment along the lines of 2008: When America rallied back behind Jason Lezak’s final leg in the 4×100 freestyle leading to Phelps’s euphoric war-cry celebration. There’s more quirky stuff happening in the relays: The timing of the switch-offs (the next swimmer knows instinctively to jump right as the previous swimmer is touching the wall); the camaraderie (23 swimmers standing at the edge of the pool cheering on the other eight); the celebrations afterward; those unexpected moments when someone dives in and quickly sways the race; even the politics behind the batting order (and which swimmer gets bestowed with the anchor spot).
Here’s where team gymnastics gets a slight edge: When it’s working right and a team collectively gets into a groove, you really can see it happening as it’s happening. You can’t feed off the other three swimmers in a relay race — ultimately, you’re just jumping into a pool and swimming as fast as you can. Gymnastics? Hold this thought. SLIGHT EDGE: GYMNASTICS
Here’s how I would define that fake 24-letter word that I recently made up: Whether you’re seeing someone in a 500-seat venue or a 20,000-seat venue, whether you’re watching an athlete or a musician, whether you’re a fan or an innocent bystander, there will always be a moment when you find yourself saying, “Wow, that person is OWNING the room right now.” I watched it happen in Game 6 of the Boston-Miami series last May — LeBron got that crazy look on his face, went into the zone and annihilated 20,000 Celtics fans. He grabbed every eyeball in the room. You didn’t look anywhere else.
In my basketball book, the great Bill Walton remembered the days when Larry Bird had those moments by saying, “Larry played with passion, persistence and purpose. There was meaning to his performances. Same for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Jordan, Magic … it was important to them, which made it important to us … With Larry, people would buy tickets where they couldn’t even see the game. Obstructed seats … just to be there! People just wanted to be in the arena and feel that golden glow. He was incomparable. He could do things that nobody else could even think of doing and he would do them in the biggest moments on the grandest stages. That’s control of the flow. Flow plus meaning equals performance.”
That “flow plus meaning” equation doesn’t work in swimming. In the end, it’s just someone swimming in a pool — you can appreciate their speed, and marvel at it, but you’re not connecting with it. Gymnastics is different. There are these little moments here and there — they don’t happen often, but they happen — when a gymnast gets locked in and everything in the arena just sort of stops. It’s awesome. And it’s a moment exclusively reserved for female gymnasts — even if the males can get there to some degree on the high bar, there’s a certain grace to the females that pushes that flow/meaning combination to another level.
Here’s an example: On Tuesday, America effectively threw a no-hitter in the team all-around finals. They started out by crushing all three vaults — psyching out the Russians pretty much immediately — and it just kept going and going from there. Nobody screwed up. Everyone was locked in. You could see them gaining confidence as the night went along — no different from a basketball team catching fire and draining shots from every spot on the floor. By the time they reached their final event (floor exercises), they weren’t even competing for the gold medal any more. That was done. They were competing for something greater. Something like a perfect game.
And look, I know NOTHING about gymnastics. But I know enough about sports to know when something great was happening. And this was great. Gabby Douglas kicked things off for the Americans, one of those athletes who just plays better in the room than on television. She’s African American, skinny, angular, someone who carries herself with a certain grace that you notice right away … there’s just nobody quite like her. She’s probably 5-foot-nothing and 60 pounds, but in person, it doesn’t seem that way. The music started and Douglas started zipping around, bouncing off the mat, doing flips, never wobbling, totally confident … it was like watching a Super Ball with arms and legs. With everyone else, you could feel their weight (at least a little) whenever their feet crashed against the mat. Douglas seemed weightless. She floated above the mat, basically. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Within about 30 seconds, you knew the American girls would eventually finish off their no-hitter. Douglas kept flying around, her teammates clapping and cheering her on, her enchanting smile growing wider and wider. She owned the room: All 20,000 seats, all the fans rooting for other countries, maybe even a few of her rivals who were sneaking a peek. Her fans kept getting louder and louder, smelling the gold, waving American flags and screaming “U-S-A!” when she nailed her finish. In the words of Howard Cosell, the fight … was … ov-ah. What a moment. I had tears in my eyes. That never happens to me anymore. You remember “flow plus meaning,” but “flow plus meaning plus patriotism” is something else. Anyway, that’s why I flew 10 hours to London, hoping for even one moment like that one. Anything else is gravy. FINAL EDGE: GYMNASTICS