Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Dear readers,
I write this post as I watch the biathlon on TV.  I have probably watched more sports on TV since arriving here than in the US.  One reason is we don’t have too many English channels, another there are some truly bizarre sports broadcast here.  And I use bizarre in the most non-judgmental way possible!
Case in point, the Biathlon. 
Here is a sport where men rollerblade around with rifles strapped to their backs.  You might have seen this in the Winter Olympics with cross-country skis instead of rollerblades. 
The goal seems to be to ski/ride the course in as fast a time as possible, stopping along the way at shooting ranges at which you must shoot out five targets at long range quickly and accurately.  Listen, I’m not making fun because this seems easy… far from it!  Some of these guys are clearly winded from riding the course.  It’s not downhill after all; it’s more like cross-country skiing with poles.  When they stop at a shooting range, their lungs heaving within their chests, they must calm their bodies to shoot effectively- kind of Zen, Jedi master-like when you think of it.
At the same time, I am allowed to have a laugh as I speculate on the early origins of this sport.  First, let me say, I have not seen one American contender.  Almost all the participants are from Russia or former member nations of the Soviet Union.  I could easily picture this sport emerging in tough, rugged terrain where men are men, meaning they must cross country ski from their log cabin tucked in the middle of a snow-covered forest.  After skiing about 5 km (3 miles) from their home, they come upon a deer (would deer be out in the snow?) and with crack-precision shoot it dead.  At that point, the truly manly would haul the deer home on their backs for the return 5 km.  The wimpy man would stop to skin the deer there, and pack some of the meat in the surrounding snow to preserve it while taking enough home for a good venison stew. 
In today’s world of “Survivor” reality TV shows, I should be able to market this as “Biathlon Bloodletting.”  I’d definitely TiVo that!

Another potential scenario is that this sport gained popularity under the Soviet Union for sniper missions.  What better training than to ski through the woods to shoot top Soviet (or American?) officials? 
In either case, I’m not sure I can recommend this sport for its “edge of the seat” suspense. 
Here are some other sports I’ve seen here that would fall flat with an American viewership:
Biking--- oddly enough, I believed biking events only happened once per year when Europe goes wildly insane (primarily France) for the Tour de France.  In reality, there are biking competitions broadcast weekly here. 
Football--- sorry, I meant “soccer.”  You know, the sport your child played before moving into those which provided potential college scholarship funds. 
Table Tennis (aka Ping Pong)--- I was surprised to see an American competitor.  It’s actually quite fun to watch as the players move further and further from the actual table while punishing the poor ball.  Also, they have the quietest audiences I have ever seen.  If anyone ever invites you to a Ping-Pong tournament, leave your noisemakers at home!
Snooker--- the second quietest audiences.  This is like American pool (British billiards) on steroids.  The table is longer and wider, the pockets are smaller.  Instead of numbered balls, they’re colored.  I really enjoy this sport because there’s so much more strategy than American pool.  After watching several matches, I figured out the method or strategy of play but I’ve still to understand the scoring system.
In Snooker, after the break, the players alternate by knocking in red balls (worth 1 point) with other colored balls (black, pink, yellow, blue, and ?I forget?) 
You don’t have to wait until the end to knock in the black, which gives you 7 points. 
When you put away a red ball, they stay pocketed.  However, the other colors are taken back out and placed precisely into their “spot” on the table.  In fact, one of my favorite parts of Snooker is watching the white gloved, tuxedoed helper person whose job is to put back balls after they’ve been sunk.  They stand, always at the periphery, often just out of camera view.  When the black, pink, blue, etc. is sunk, they soundlessly move behind, around, and by the player (who is already sizing up their next shot) and replace the ball perfectly in the same spot as before.  An amazing feat considering there are no “dimples” in the table for determining placement.  Sometimes, these helper people (somebody write me a comment with their proper name, please) stand behind the player and also squint at the ball.  When I first watched a snooker match, I thought these white-gloved officianados were like caddies in golf, giving the players tips.  In reality, they eye up where the cue ball is in relation to the other balls and the side rails in case of a fault- when a player doesn’t hit any balls with the cue ball.  When this happens, it is only thanks to these white-gloved magicians that the cue ball returns to exactly where it was before the shot.

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