The view from the stands

The vault-setting flap reveals the different realities that prevail in the paying seats, the press box and the TV couch.



Gary Kamiya
September 23, 2000 6:35AM (UTC)

What a difference sitting in the stands, as opposed to watching on TV or in the press area, makes!

In the women's individual all-around gymnastics final which I reported on several days ago, I didn't mention the faulty setting on the vault height -- a setting which affected the competitors in the first two rotations. The competitors were allowed to retake their vaults at the end of the competition, and a number of them did, but none of them were in medal contention and the top standings weren't affected.

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The officials discovered the error after the second rotation, and here's where it seems they compounded their embarrassing screwup: They didn't inform the gymnasts who had performed under the erroneous conditions of what had happened and let them know that they would have a chance to retake their vaults.

This could have made a significant difference, particularly to Svetlana Khorkina, who fell to her knees on her first vault: The mistake, which dropped her well down in the standings, could have shattered her confidence and caused her to make her horrendous fall on the uneven bars, which put her out of medal contention. It's all counterfactual, of course, but it'll leave an uneasy question mark over the proceedings, at least in some minds.

I've just learned -- thanks to what my editors tell me is an outraged torrent of letters from my suddenly not-so-gentle-readers -- that the vault-setting debacle was the hot angle NBC played up in its coverage of the competition, and that it will be the thing people remember when the fact that the Romanians won is long forgotten. Understandably, readers are wondering why I didn't even mention it.

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The reason is simple: I was sitting in the stands, not watching on TV or in the press area. And the view from the stands -- and the information available to you -- is completely different from that on TV or in the press area. I would wager that hardly any of the paying customers walking out of the arena that night were aware that the vault setting boo-boo was much more than a humiliating but more or less irrelevant gaffe -- which is what I took it to be, and which is why I didn't mention it. The whole thing offers a fascinating, "Rashomon"-like take on the different realities imposed by where one sits.

Here's what happened from my amateur-fan-sitting-500-feet-away point of view. At the end of the competition, after the Romanians had won, it was suddenly announced that the vault setting had been incorrect for some vaulters, and that they would be allowed to retake it. That was the first time any of us in the stands had heard anything about it. A dozen or so -- I didn't pay much attention because none of them were contenders -- gymnasts retook their vaults. Khorkina didn't retake hers and I wasn't even sure if she had been one of the ones affected. I should have checked, I guess, but it didn't seem important. After all, nobody was filing a protest, no coaches were running screaming up and down. The fans around me just scratched their heads and said, "Gee, this is kind of embarrassing. Hurry up and get this over with so we can see the medal ceremony." End of incident. The medal ceremony proceeded. I got home at midnight and filed a story. I thought of mentioning the bar setting error, but I didn't bother.

So, to my readers: What you're getting from me, for better and worse, is the perspective of an amateur fan, sitting in the stands, without benefit of anything except a pair of binoculars and what I can learn from talking to the people around me and reading the papers. I'm probably going to miss some inside-baseball stuff, but I hope I'm giving you a sense of what it feels like to be sitting in one of these remarkably overpriced blue seats. That's why I'm here.

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Now, off to catch the train to Olympic Park. The most eagerly hyped swimming event of the whole games is going to start in two hours -- the 1500-meter men's freestyle. Not a TV set in Australia will be on anything else, as Kierin Perkins tries to win the agonizing event for a third consecutive time. If he pulls it off -- and his qualifying time was the fastest -- the joint is going to be jumping.

Then it's the Marion and Maurice show at the gorgeous, 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium tonight (Saturday), as the two fastest human beings on Earth are going to put pedal to the medal in the finals. The heart and soul of the games have begun. If you're a sports fan, there's no better place to be on the planet than right here.

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Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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