True to form, I woke up at two in the morning (so 42 hours ago as I type) with a heavy cat stretched right out like a star between my legs and couldn't get back to sleep. Accordingly, with the main sporting programme barely three hours old - he said, sidestepping football's early start - I set up the air mattress in front of the TV for a mixture of sport viewing and sleep as my body dictated. The BBC are serving up typically half a dozen sports at any one time if you're watching by satellite; their number 1 choice was dressage, or at least the dressage section of the (don't call it "three-day") eventing competition. My tolerance for equestrian ballet can be measured in seconds rather than minutes so I started sport-surfing quickly.
I caught the end of a first-round (thirty-second-final, if you will) match in the ladies' singles badminton and was reminded of a reverie regarding the fairness or otherwise of sports whose matches are organised into games and thus a competitor might lose a match by, say, 21-0 19-21 19-21 and thus lose by one game to two despite having won 59 points to the opponent's 42. Sports which collect games into sets like tennis and darts are even worse still in this regard, though I do notice that at least one darts tournament that has moved away from the sets paradigm and merely has its matches being "best of large odd number", which makes more sense to me. Charles Dodgson ranted about lawn tennis in a similar fashion, if I recall correctly.
Badminton held my attention for only a few minutes, as did ladies' beach volleyball. (It's impressive how much of a court can be covered by just two players.) Between beach volleyball matches, I flicked over to some weightlifting. Ooh, I had forgotten just how much I like weightlifting. It's a great sport, sorely underappreciated outside Olympics fortnights, and I'd love to get the chance to watch it more frequently. It hits the fortius of citius, altius, fortius pretty squarely and its Olympic pedigree is second to few; while it's not been an ever-present, it appeared at the first International Olympic Committee games and has only missed a couple of appearances since then.
I admire weightlifting for its purity and for the certainty of telling who has won. Sure, judges are required to tell whether the form of a lift is valid or not, but which Olympic sport doesn't have some sort of human refereeing? (Some might consider the 100m track sprint to be the Olympics' blue riband event, but a degree of judgment is required over the start; remember the Linford Christie disqualification in the 1996 final.)
In each of the two disciplines, the competitor gets three attempts to raise a bar at the weight of their choice, with the stipulation that the weight on the bar can never fall. (Effectively, you've got to call or raise.) Compare this with the high jump, where you get three attempts, the count reset after each successful clearance. (Sure, there aren't two disciplines in the high jump, and lifting a weight is probably more exhausting than making a high jump, but those high jumpers have it easy.) There's also a brilliant tie-breaker; should two competitors lift the same weight, the tie is broken in favour of the lighter competitor. (The competitors are all weighed to the nearest ten grams, too.)
I saw the women's "up to 48 kg" category in the weightlifting. It was great fun. A Japanese competitor wrapped herself in, I think, a towel with a great big embroidered Stitch, from Lilo and Stitch. A coach of a competitor from Chinese Taipei had an awesome comb-over. Even Sir Bobby Charlton would have been impressed; he did a lot with just three strands. There was even controversy when the judges ruled 2-1 in favour of a lift from a French competitor being of good form, the jury overruled the judges and declared it no lift. I didn't know weightlifting had a jury that could overrule judges; it may be an Olympic competition stipulation only.
All of this excludes the fascinating decisions about what weights to attempt to lift; it's very easy to wait too late before you come in, record three failures and end up with nothing whatsoever to show for your efforts. (Remember, even Sergey Bubka, quite literally the ne plus ultra of pole vaulters, recorded no height in the 1992 games at Barcelona.) With only three attempts possible, it's not nearly as safe as it ought to be to deliberately come in at a light weight for your first lift and get a safe score on the board.
To me, it seems the obvious thing to do, assuming you're in the shape of your life, to attempt three weights as follows: Personal Best minus 10% to ensure you avoid a zero, then a lift to equal your Personal Best, then a lift to increase your Personal Best. Surprisingly many lifters came in too high and failed on their first attempt; I suppose the argument for their actions would be that the safe weight that they might get on the board is so far away from putting them in medal contention that it's not worth having, but surely "a success at a lousy weight and then two fails at a good weight" has got to be worth so much more than "three fails at a good weight", especially if sufficiently many people do try for too much and end up recording no score.
I also have the faintest of suspicions that this may not be the very strongest of Olympic competitions, relative to other Olympic competitions. People can participate perfectly well at levels of performance 20% under the World Record, and there can't be many other competitions where that's the case. (For instance, you don't see many men's 100m runners clock 12 seconds.) Athletics and swimming have a qualification system based around every competitor having to have achieved a certain standard; weightlifting starts with a certain number of competitors in the competition, then tries to allot the available number of spaces to apparently suitable contestants. I have a suspicion the standards-based model works better, but may be more expensive to implement, which may be why it's only used for the apparent prestige sports.
After the weightlifting was a tiny bit of judo, which - as ever - was impressive but impenetrable. Judo is one of those sports whose tournament format includes a repechage that is almost never properly explained; with a bit of investigation, the format is pretty simple. It's single elimination until the last 16 (and there were 33 competitors in the lightest weight men's competition, requiring one match in the thirty-second-final round and 31 byes) and double elimination thereafter, with the wrinkle that the final two in the no-loss bracket compete for gold and silver and the final four in the one-loss bracket compete for two bronzes. Why there isn't one bronze awarded in the one-loss bracket is unclear, but I might point at the prcedent set by the two bronzes awarded in boxing. (By comparison, the repechage in Taekwondo in 2004 is totally screwed up - if you're not beaten directly by either finalist, you don't get a chance to have a second elimination. Why is that a good way of organising things?)
The only sad thing about weightlifting is that they have got rid of the wonderfully evocative names for weight classes that they used to have up until the adjustments in 1996. Weight class names, especially deprecated ones, are sporting trivia taken to their most trivial, but I love to see the various sports' struggles to come up with something appropriate-sounding for categories of not-quite-unrestricted-weight contests. Pro boxing has the delightfully daffy "cruiserweight", a name for which I have never seen an adequate explanation, and amateur boxing used to cop out by declaring "heavyweight" to be a restricted division itself with "super-heavyweight" being unrestricted. Judo fares no better, with its contribution being "half-heavyweight". Weightlifting might be (or have been) the most bizarre of them all, with classes called "light-heavyweight" (fine), "middle-heavyweight" (yerrrsss...) and "first-heavyweight" (!!) as well as "heavyweight" and "super-heavyweight". It makes "bantamweight" and "welterweight" sound comparatively sensible.
So hurrah for weightlifting and hurrah for being able to watch it. The BBC are broadcasting, usually, five additional streams of Olympic broadcasting by satellite and three additional streams terrestrially. Effectively, as well as the well-known BBC One, BBC Two and the digital-only BBC Three and BBC Four, there exist BBC Five to BBC Nine in a way that would make Austin Powers' head spin. These additional BBCs can be addressed by pressing the red button on satellite while watching Olympic broadcasting; terrestrially, three of these streams are broadcast with default channel numbers 301, 302 and, er, 81, the third replacing BBC Parliament for the duration of the games. Oh, and Eurosport have a channel or two of action as well, should you like ads and different commentators with your sport.
I'd be delighted to know what other broadcasting systems worldwide do to bring a selection of sports to their viewers. I haven't actually seen all that much of the BBC presentation yet, not having been in the right place at the right time to see a broadcast begin, and this is a surprisingly important part of the Olympic experience. (Isn't it?) I have happy memories of the 1992 games, being in Tenby on our last family holiday, at least as much as anything else due to the magnificence of Freddie Mercury's Barcelona, with an assist from Montserrat Caballé. It was delightful to see this recognised by the Guardian in their recent sports presentation Joy Of Six, which gives Barcelona its pride of place.
However, however, that page manages to bring forth something somehow more delightful still. With a ba-ba-baaa sequence that knocks that of even the mighty Jim'll Fix It into a particularly cocked hat, let's go to Brazil for the awesome 1970s opening sequence and closing sequence of the magnificently-titled, magnificently-sung Esporte Espetacularrrrrrrrrr. It's pure sporting... Scorchio!