Olympic artistic competitions are bullshit

Someone is going to win an Olympic gold medal this year for figure skating. The winner will score a fractionally higher “score,” as granted by a panel of judges, than the runner-ups. Sure, a few people will fall down or something, making it fairly easy to stack-rank them toward the bottom, but there will be negligible technical differences among the top seven or eight competitors.

The difference in scores will come from the “artistic” elements of their program. Imagine for a moment that the Cowboys got extra points in each game for the elegance of their passing routes, high quality touchdown celebrations, or the jaunty manner in which they wore their pink breast cancer towels.

Or, perhaps you might picture Picasso, Rembrandt and Jasper Johns sitting nervously with their coaches, waiting to see what score they received from the notoriously corrupt French judge. The announcer explains that, “’Guernica’ was a flawless technical performance, but it just didn’t strike the right chord with this audience.”

That’s why Olympic artistic competitions, from ice-skating to gymnastics, are complete bullshit.

Don’t talk to me about the “technical” elements of the scoring. Look closely enough and you’ll find that Da Vinci smudged a brushstroke here and there. Van Gogh used the wrong ochre for some of his sunflowers. The absurd pretense that there is a “winner” in this these competitions makes them intolerably phony and anything but “artistic.”

As the world grows more tightly integrated and cultures more deeply influenced by commoditization, the performances themselves are harder and harder to distinguish from one another. Thirty years ago you could tell at a glance which country the performers were representing. Top performers now train internationally with coaches from all over the globe in front of crowds used to seeing a similar product. Artistic distinctions are breaking down, pushing performers into more and more outlandish stunts to establish any uniqueness.

Those same factors are driving the games more generally away from any emphasis on athletics. Savvy athletes use the games as a platform for more lucrative pursuits. Olympic competition is a marketing ploy, like competing for the Republican Presidential nomination.

When Olympic snowboarder (think about that phrase for a minute) Shaun White failed to medal in Sochi, the first thing anyone thought about was the impact to his growing business empire. Slovenian downhill skier, Tina Maze, has parlayed success on the slopes into a career as a pop star, model and blogger. Back home her win in Sochi should place her within striking distance of becoming dictator for life.

Enjoy the Olympics for the spectacle and the performances, but some parts of it are just too ridiculous to accept at face value. For those who love a classic, timeless performance, I present the greatest skating routing in history.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the incomparable Chaz Michael Michaels:

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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68 comments on “Olympic artistic competitions are bullshit
  1. John Galt says:

    Maybe they should change the Olympic motto to Citius, Altius, Fortius, Bellius.

  2. flypusher says:

    Having snarked on some of the skating costumes (deservedly so) it’s only fair to point out that Kaitlyn Weaver ( ice dancer representing Canada) looked absolutely stunning in a very tasteful blue skating dress.

    And Davis and White : Yowzah! Those kids tore it up! USA! USA!!

  3. John Galt says:

    I will basically root for anyone wearing USA on their chests, no matter what the sport. But I’m not as big of a fan of the winter Olympics as the summer games. In many (most) sports in the summer games, eight people line up in the blocks and 10 seconds, 2 minutes, 2 hours later, the first one across the line wins. In other sports, two people face off and one wins. In the winter games, even the timed ones are one person/team at a time. I watched some bobsled today (online, of course, since NBC is apparently allergic to showing events live), and it took two-plus hours to figure out that USA-1 is in third place halfway through.

    And that’s the objective sports…when the Russian judge starts getting involved, then forget about it. Wake me up when the swimmers hit the pool in Rio.

  4. CaptSternn says:

    I entered the gymnastics program back in high school. Scoring was based on the difficulty of the move and how well it was executed. Sometimes over execution, almost throwing in a different move, would increase the score. Example: A shoulder stand on the parallel bars had to be held for two seconds to count, but stopping and holding a hand stand for about half a second before lowering to a shoulder stand would be favorable for the judges though it was not in the set routine. It showed the judges that the competitor was capable of more. Free style, making up ones own routine, came later.

    No, I was never really good at it. I was better at coaching my teammates. Point is that scoring was very straight forward. If it has become something where judges score based on songs, costumes or what moves they like or don’t like, then I agree with Lifer. That would be … garbage.

    One thing people may not understand about these routines, they look like they all flow together. One move leads into another and the momentum carries naturally. It doesn’t. Sometimes one move proceeds another to gain the momentum, but every bit of it is forced and rough and takes a lot of strength. Every move is like lifting and throwing a sack of bricks and making it all look graceful, from inside the sack of bricks.

  5. bubbabobcat says:

    Anytime I can see actress Amy Adams diversify in whatever endeavor she attempts is cool with me.

    Paired with her “Enchanted” co-star Patrick Dempsey no less! 🙂

    Of course I’m kidding. Love the real skater’s name too: Tessa Virtue.

  6. Tuttabella says:

    Welcome back, Intrigue, wherever you happen to be at the moment. You’re as classy as ever.

    • Intrigue says:

      Hello Tutt!!! It’s good to see you too! I’m still trying to figure out this format. It’s a little too ADD for me but I will try to add my thoughts without annoying the masses. Lol I hope you have been well!

      • Tuttabella says:

        Intrigue, about not wanting to annoy the masses . . . There are no guarantees. There will always be someone looking for a “wrong note” to jump on. I’m glad you’re not one of those people !

  7. Owl of Bellaire says:

    It isn’t just the Olympics; it’s happening to plenty of art in general, where we as a culture have developed this perverse need to turn art into competition instead of just exhibition.

    High schools used to mount plays for their student bodies and communities; now they practice and present relentlessly stripped-down pieces for UIL, and it’s all about how much they can pack in within the rigorously mandated time limit. I saw a friend’s daughter in a piece which had the lights come down before the end, just so they wouldn’t run over time. Thanks, I care more about enjoying the plot and acting in your piece for themselves rather than appreciating your adherence to arbitrary rules in a meaningless competition.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      A favorite book is No Contest: the Case Against Competition by Alfie Kahn. He says that gaining success by making others fail is an unproductive way to learn. He believes that ‘healthy competition’ is a contradiction in terms.

      In the situation you describe, I seems the rules of the competition are substitutes for actual involvement with and understanding of the art form.

      I hope the kids involved are told the competition is just one bastardized form of their art, not the real thing.

      • flypusher says:

        “He says that gaining success by making others fail is an unproductive way to learn. ”

        I think that goes a bit too far. You’re going to encounter that situation again and again out in the real world, especially in the arts. If you audition better, you get the part at someone else’s expense. Best to learn how to deal with winning and losing in an adult manner.

      • Tuttabella says:

        There has to be a delicate balance there. Competition promotes excellence to a certain extent — othewise we might settle for just “good enough” when we are capable of much better — but sometime we take competition too far, and we become so obsessed with winning that we lose sight of why we are there to begin with — for the love of the art.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        OMG. You guys are forcing me to reread this book.


      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        One of Kahn’s points is that there is little research and literature on the value of competition.

        But in Chapter 3 he asks: “Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them or alone? The evidence is so overwhelmingly clear and consistent that the answer can be reported: almost never. Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.”

        Then he cites over 100 sources that support his conclusion, most of them studies in schools involving students of a range of ages. Yes, it’s a heavily footnoted book.

        Personally, in the arts, I feel many decisions about the suitability of a performance are fairly arbitrary and often prejudicial, perhaps like Chris’ comments on points for ‘artistry’.

        Symphony orchestras hearing auditions now frequently have the performer play behind a screen so that those judging don’t know gender or skin color or presumed ethnicity. Until that practice arose, all the ‘best’ players were assumed to be white men, because they had the seats in the orchestra.

        I sometimes submit my artwork to be included in group exhibits with a specific theme, a kind of audition, I guess. I had to laugh when a curator once told me she like my work and it definitely fit her theme, but my ‘artist’s intent’ did not, so my work would not be included in the exhibit. I give her rationale 9.8 points for convolution and arbitrariness.

      • flypusher says:

        “But in Chapter 3 he asks: “Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them or alone? The evidence is so overwhelmingly clear and consistent that the answer can be reported: almost never. Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.” ”

        Well yes and no. I’m speaking as someone with experience in the area of music auditions. Once you have filled all the slots of your ensemble, then yes, absolutely, the musicians need the reign in the competitiveness and work together to get a superior result. But you can’t escape the competition of the audition process. If you have 6 spots in a section and 20 people audition, 14 people are going to lose to the best 6 if you out the field the best group possible ( and seriously, who wouldn’t be).

        The blind auditions are absolutely the best and fairest way to judge, but sometimes the judges can recognize a certain musician by sound, style, etc., if that person has been doing a lot a repeat auditions ( happened to me a few times in my school days (although not to any detriment) and I’ve heard similar stories from other musicians about auditions and competitions).

      • flypusher says:

        “I sometimes submit my artwork to be included in group exhibits with a specific theme, a kind of audition, I guess. I had to laugh when a curator once told me she like my work and it definitely fit her theme, but my ‘artist’s intent’ did not, so my work would not be included in the exhibit. I give her rationale 9.8 points for convolution and arbitrariness.”

        My impression is that judging the visual arts would be much more subjective than judging music. With music at least you have instructions on the page for pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. Obviously there’s interpretation of the music, but you do have a very objective foundation (a wrong note is a wrong note).

      • Tuttabella says:

        As for whether competition is beneficial or not, I would think a lot depends on the individual, since the effect of competition is psychological. Overall, I work better when I don’t have to worry about competition, because competition makes me self-conscious. I was at the very top of my class in high school when I studied just for the love of it. Once I began to focus too much on class rank, ironically, my rank went down a couple of notches.

        As for expectations, I do great when expectations are low, when I’m the underdog, because I thrive on an “I’ll show them” attitude, plus there is less pressure in those circumstances. If I fail, so what, that was expected, but if I succeed, even better.

      • Tuttabella says:

        Competition is good when it’s INTER organization, but not necessarily when it’s INTRA organization. Between or among various organizations it’s a good thing because each one strives to recruit or hire the best and the brightest through auditions and tests, and by offering great salaries and benefits, etc, to lure people away from rival organizations. However, among the people within each organization, competition might lead to an “every man for himself” approach, which in the end might prove detrimental to the organization a whole. Within an organization, it usually works best for people to work together for the good of the organization, not for the good of the individual, or else the organization fails, and the individual along with it. The fate of the individual is tied into the fate of the organization as a whole.

      • Tuttabella says:

        And of course, let’s not forget the importance of REWARD and RECOGNITION in promoting excellence. A simple THANKS, GREAT JOB goes a long way.

      • Tuttabella says:

        Super Fly, it seems you’re a Renaissance person (man/woman?), excelling in both the sciences and the arts.

        I was reading your comment at the very top of the “charred rubble” left over from the previous blog entry. Coincidentally, I have a cousin (Hispanic) involved in biological research like you who attended your graduate alma mater, but as an undergraduate, and then went on to med school. She lives out of state now and I’m guessing she’s much older than you, so you probably would not have the opportunity to socialize with her, I don’t know, but maybe you’ve read her published works.

        As for whom we associate with, think of all the “associations” we’ve created on the Chronicle and here on this blog. We come from all walks of life, different levels of education, various political persuasions, etc. Where else could we associate with such a “rich” mix of people? I for one appreciate your courteous and respectful attitude toward everyone here, no matter how much you may disagree politically with them, and you’re not at all condescending.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        Tutt calls inter organization vs intra organization competition into play.

        The charming Mr. Kohn says something interesting about that, too:

        He cites studies that concludes “performance benefits from cooperative conditions whether they involve additional intergroup competition or not.”

        The interesting part: members of intragroup cooperation/intergroup competition behave as if the intergroup competition doesn’t exist.

        That reminded me of Jason Brown, the figure skater. Nothing about his performance suggested he was eat up by competitive pressures. He was having fun.


        Maybe the value of competition is learning how to ignore it.

      • objv says:

        Tuttabella wrote: As for whether competition is beneficial or not, I would think a lot depends on the individual, since the effect of competition is psychological.

        How true, Tuttabella! I’ve always loved physical exercise but have never been good at competitive sports. Ironically, I lucked out genetically in some ways. People expect me to be coordinated because I inherited a trim and athletic looking body type from my parents – however, I am the world’s greatest klutz.

        Lack of athletic ability has caused me to lower expectations in a number of ways. For years I took martial arts classes. I had to come to the realization that I would never learn as quickly as some of the others. I went to the classes for the enjoyment, exercise and camaraderie. Hopefully, I learned the rudiments of self-defense.

        In Houston, I took yoga and Pilates classes as well as long, daily walks. Here in New Mexico, I spent last summer and fall putting in a garden and doing landscaping work. My Aussies also require a lot of exercise and I take them out on a long walk/hike every day or else they (and I) go stir crazy.

        I’ve watched some of the Olympic coverage and admire the beautiful and precise movements of the athletes without any envy. Competition has honed their skills into a form of art. I don’t really care who wins. Some of my friends can’t seem to bring themselves to exercise unless they are training for some kind of race. My brothers loved competitive sports. I love my long walks. As you say, Tutt, it all depends on the individual.

      • objv says:

        Bobo: Thanks for giving us the book recommendation. I’ll be sure to check it out on Amazon.

      • Tuttabella says:

        OV, speaking of grace and speed, I miss your cat avatar . . .

      • flypusher says:

        Hey Tutt, thank you very much for those kind words, and I have always found what you have to say interesting.

        I like the free the exchange of ideas. I’m not a fan of PC. That doesn’t mean that I think that anyone can say anything in any situation with no consequence. But rather I think there should be places where a truce is called, everybody agrees that here we have a free speech zone, nothing is off the table, and anything that is really too outrageous for the outside that is said here will stay here. Like the old barbershops.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      but you do have a very objective foundation (a wrong note is a wrong note).

      Do you think a wrong note,yet beautifully played on an instrument of excellent timbre would always be regarded as a fatal error? I don’t. I especially don’t if the judges know you, like you and think you’d fit well with their players.

      And in jazz it could be sublime.

      Still reading….

      • Tuttabella says:

        Bobo, with respect to wrong notes — intentional ones — it would depend on whether improvisation is acceptable to the judges. The rules may call for strict adherence to the sheet music. If the wrong note is accidental, then it’s a mistake, plain and simple, unless you can find a way to work around it or use it to your advantage in that split second.

        I do agree “wrong notes” can be sublime in jazz, as in the case of Cole Porter’s LOVE FOR SALE, when your ear is expecting major key and it suddenly goes minor on you.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        Sorry. I appear to be posting in the wrong places.

      • Tuttabella says:

        Bobo, there are no bad notes, only bad musicians. 🙂

        I guess posting in the wrong place is the equivalent of hitting the wrong note. Your post may be out of place where it is, but had you not brought your mistake to our attention, we would have found a way to make sense of it on our own, or it would have appealed to our sense of the absurd.

      • flypusher says:

        “Do you think a wrong note,yet beautifully played on an instrument of excellent timbre would always be regarded as a fatal error? ”

        I’ve done that. It’s called playing the note on beat 1 when you were supposed to play it on beat 2. Perhaps not fatal, but you have nowhere to hide! Pitch isn’t the only thing that can be wrong!

        Tutt makes a good point about jazz, but ever improv has some rules. You are within a key signature, and the circle of fifths has something to do with what modulations between keys are going to be pleasing to the ear. I don’t have much jazz experience, but in the more classical style there are cadenzas. I’ve done a few in performance- it’s just you, no accompaniment. The player usually has carte blanch with tempo and dynamics, and often the exact rhythm and the articulation can be player’s choice too. But the sequence of pitches is not.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      As a former Montessori teacher, I’m quite fond of Kohn.

      Check out *Flow* (and related titles) by “positive psychologist” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or his former graduate student Kevin Rathunde) for more great stuff on the power of intrinsic motivation.

  8. flypusher says:

    Chris, I see your Chaz Michaels and raise you one Surya Bonaly:


    Back flip, one leg, up yours judges!

    • goplifer says:

      Wow. Didn’t know about that.

      • flypusher says:

        I saw it live. I always looked forward to her skates, because she could do amazing things.

        I think the right thing for the judges to have done would have been to count that backflip (because she was within the letter of the law, landing on one leg), then the figure skating poobahs should have amended the rules afterwards to disallow any backflips if they were truly concerned about safety.

  9. Bobo Amerigo says:

    I don’t get the costumes, either. I think they’re supposed to add to the narrative, along with the choice of music.

    But most are just dumb looking.

    Given the athleticism of the skaters, I think they could soar in the plainest of clothing. You know, in the pairs skating, the guy frequently just flings the girl into air, where she spins like a top before landing on the ice. What bravery. In any color outfit.

    • flypusher says:

      The lifts are also breathtaking. The guy in the top American pair is something like 6 foot 4, which means his partner is close to 8 feet in the air while twirling above the ice.

    • Tuttabella says:

      I don’t really get into the Olympics, but I will occasionally catch a glimpse and i’ll be captivated by the ice skating, especially the pairs. I liken it to ballet. I prefer classical music to accompany the skating, or maybe something like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This afternoon I was envisioning in my mind’s eye a skating routine to that very tune — graceful and flowing one moment, strutting during the faster-moving parts of the tune.

      • flypusher says:

        Many of them do practice ballet, especially the Russians (with their strong traditions in that art). I have a preference for classical music here too (or in most music requiring situations!), but if someone can make the skate fit well with a different style of music, I enjoy that too.

        Lots of skaters using Tchaikovsky’s music (when in Russia) and I approve big time (I totally adore Tchaikovsky).

  10. kabuzz61 says:

    Man Chris, you guys usually tell me I’m the miserable grouchy one but you win today. Perfect 10’s. You didn’t need to add the republican line or you could have stated both parties but you had to be smug I guess.

    I agree with most of your comment on the Olympics or any other competition but it is all subjective I have no idea what you expected.

    Shawn White did have major endorsement deals but he also did a lot for charity especially the Make A Wish Foundation.

    Hockey and Curling are my favorite winter sports a close second is downhill skiing.

    Lighten up and if you can’t turn it off.

  11. rightonrush says:

    Not meaning to highjack the thread but I’m to dumb-arse to have my own blog. Who would travel to Cuba if we could fly Houston to Cuba? I would love to board a flight here in Houston and fly straight to Cuba. So much to do, so little time at my age to do it. I’ve been to most countries but not Cuba altho I have lots of Cuban friends here in Houston.

    • flypusher says:

      I’d go. I’d love to check out the Havana nightlife, laze on the beaches, and explore the mountains and rain forests. The US Cuba policy is horribly outdated, which makes it exceptionally stupid. If we had charged it when the Berlin Wall fell, we very likely could have helped the brothers Castro into the dustbin of history too.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      I’d go.

      I had an aunt and uncle who visited Cuba when Batista was still in power. It was a very exotic vacation for a couple of midwestern farmers. My aunt told a story of being hemi semi demi hijacked by a seller of corsages, who practically held her hostage until my uncle bought the flowers.

      Yes, I’d go.

    • objv says:

      ROR: I’m up for a trip to Cuba. I have a friend who immigrated to the US from Cuba as a child. She has always wanted to go back for a visit.

  12. texan5142 says:

    Ha!Ha! Chris , I love you man!

  13. Craig says:

    Outside of hockey, the Winter Olympics are bullshit. JMHO.

  14. flypusher says:

    So I’ll be the contrarian here. I totally enjoy the figure skating and I don’t sweat the scoring system . In fact the current system makes far more sense to me than the old one did. I like the lack of the old ceiling on the high score. I hate corrupt judges too, but corruption can also plague the less “subjective” sports.

    I agree on the fashion faux pass. The kid who won the men’s singles needs a wardrobe intervention badly! The guy from Spain also had a hideous outfit.

  15. lomamonster says:

    “It could be just a question of blood flow…”

  16. rightonrush says:

    I have to give the post 10.0 on both because I feel the same way the blogger feels. I avoid the figure skating part of the Olympics because I simply don’t get what the judges are really looking for. IF the skater makes it through without busting his/her arse, I think they did great. Sometime I think the outfits are beyond silly, but that’s just me.. …now speed skating, that is right up my alley.

  17. Crogged says:

    I give this post a 9.8 on substance but only an 8.6 on style.

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