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Olympic Results Discussed

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The Beijing Olympics are one week old, and it's been a week of theatrics, not just in the Water Cube where Michael Phelps seems unstoppable, despite leaky goggles, or in the gymnasium, where the American teens Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson somersaulted to gold and silver today; also in the opening ceremonies and generally in Beijing's careful choreographing of the ceremonies surrounding these games.

Well, Stefan Fatsis is here now, as he often is on Fridays, to talk about some highlights of the week. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: China has worked very hard to craft an image and stage-manage these games.

FATSIS: Which is not surprising at all. Every Olympics host wants to look good. Athens was unrecognizable as a city when I covered the 2004 games, but clearly this is taking it to another level.

China obviously is using the Olympics to create this new image as a profoundly modern country and a power for the new century, but there are clumsy consequences of too much stage-crafting.

This tragic injury to the dancer who fell from a platform during a rehearsal for the opening ceremonies, which was only just revealed. There was that embarrassing lip-synching involving the two little girls at the opening ceremonies and the allegations that some of China's female gymnasts were underage.

SIEGEL: And the dozens of little kids representing all the national minorities of China, turns out that actually they were all members of the Han majority dressed up in minority costumes.

It doesn't hurt the Chinese to have a political foil, some echoes of the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union used to vie for medals. The U.S. is kind of China's adversary here.

FATSIS: It is, and there's the huge obsession in the media anyway with whether China will surpass the medal count of the United States at these games, and four years ago in Athens, U.S. officials had stressed winning medals above all else. This time they've been playing it down, and partly I think that's a realization that the U.S. long term doesn't stand a chance.

My question here is whether this should matter at all, because what do we want? Do we want a system in which athletes and their parents make a few sacrifices or large sacrifices in order to succeed in these sports that they love, sports that only get attention every four years? Or do we want one in which kids are drafted by the government at age three to become gymnasts and weightlifters and divers?

SIEGEL: Yeah, but the media seems to buy into the idea that medal counts matter. Thomas Boswell, sports columnist for the Washington Post, today complains that apart from swimmers, U.S. athletes, he writes, have been inept in Beijing so far.

FATSIS: Which seems a tad strong to me, and I wonder sometimes whether these reporters ever talk to Olympic athletes or understand how the U.S. system works.

Our government doesn't, and it shouldn't, devote unlimited resources to ensure an Olympic greatness, so I don't think we should get too worked up if the U.S. medal count dips below that of China's, which is determined to show the world how great it is as an athletic power now.

I think the Olympics are more interesting when you get to hear different anthems played and when the U.S. has this athletic foil like the Soviet Union used to be, and now China is.

SIEGEL: Talk about political rivalries. There was a Cuba-U.S. baseball game today, baseball and softball. This is the sunset of their Olympic age. They'll be out of the games next time around. What happened in the big game?

FATSIS: Cuba won 5-4 in eleven innings, and the Cubans are undefeated and on their way to the medal round, and the U.S. is one in two, this team mostly minor-leaguers. And that's one of the reasons that baseball's getting booted. Not enough countries play the sport, according to the IOC; the refusal on the part of Major League Baseball to suspend the season and send the best players; and issues about drug testing too, the Olympics drug-testing code.

The U.S. and Cuba, though, finally allied on one thing: restoring baseball to the Olympics in 2016.

SIEGEL: Well, now to a sport that we don't play in the U.S., and there is no American team, but it's your favorite sport, without which you would not let me let me - let you out of the studio without talking about team handball.

FATSIS: Team handball. Yes, the Americans are not there. It's this cross between basketball, lacrosse, dodge ball, seven-on-seven, wing a little ball past an insane goalie into a net, high scoring, fast, physical. I've loved this sport for years, and I've been watching this week online on NBC's Web site.

A couple of announcers are calling games from New York, but they're not getting on the air. The U.S., though, trying to mount a comeback, a new federation for handball, a German head of this, the co-owner of the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. He's got plans for a pro league, and I'm ready to chip in.

SIEGEL: You want to be the commissioner?

FATSIS: I want to get - my buddies from the NFL are interested in playing. So if you're listening out there, team handball, I've got some recruits.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports. His new book, that's where those buddies come from, is called "A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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