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Video games in the Olympics? Here’s how it might work

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ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) The future of the Olympics may just be in a basement in Turkmenistan.

With leading Olympic figures considering a possible role for competitive computer games – known as esports – at the 2024 Games in Paris, a pan-Asian competition in the ex-Soviet state offers a possible vision of the future.

Including esports could give the Olympics a younger audience and a huge revenue boost from a rapidly growing market, but would be deeply controversial.

The Olympic Council of Asia included esports as an official demonstration event at its Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games this week, with teams from China and nine other nations battling in four games ranging from space combat in “StarCraft II” to card-game strategy in “Hearthstone.”

Supporters of esports in the Olympics say their event is a real sporting contest, one which prizes strategy and lightning reactions over physical agility.

“It needs different skillsets from different people,” competitor Jess Joaustine Tamboboy from the Philippines told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t really have a physical requirement because you can see around us the players are short and tall, maybe a little bit thin, maybe a little bit fat. But all they have in order to qualify to play for these types of titles are just their cognitive or mind skills.”

Esports aren’t a natural fit for Turkmenistan, one of the poorer ex-Soviet nations, though one where internet access is growing rapidly.

The rules weren’t explained in the local language, but that didn’t turn off the crowd of up to 200 in the windowless basement of a sports arena from cheering and whooping at a particularly spectacular kill or skillful strategy.

Still, the attendance was tiny compared to big pro esports events, which can pack thousands into traditional sports arenas, and it didn’t make much of a splash online. Fewer than 50 viewers at a time watched some opening-round matches Monday on Twitch, a leading game streaming service that regularly attracts tens of thousands of concurrent viewers to its more popular streams.

If esports make it to the Paris Olympics, it would redefine what Olympic sport is meant to be.

The International Olympic Committee has previously resisted calls to add “mind sports” like chess that don’t involve physical exertion, or events where machines are key, like auto racing.

Deciding which games to pick is fraught, too. The IOC has a sponsorship deal with Chinese company Alibaba, which has major esports interests, but rival firms have their own popular brands.

The IOC also fears violent games would hurt the Olympics’ image.

IOC president Thomas Bach told the South China Morning Post, an Alibaba-owned newspaper, earlier this month that he’d prefer sports simulations.

“We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people. This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line,” he said.

All four of the games on the program this week in Turkmenistan featured some form of combat, though in fantasy settings with cartoon-style animation techniques. There weren’t any realistic military-themed shooting games on the program.

Bach also said esports needs a firmer structure. The IOC is used to dealing with a single governing body for each sport, like FIFA for soccer or the International Gymnastics Federation. Esports has its own international federation, but with limited influence over a web of private interests including games publishers, competition organizers and players’ teams.

The event in Turkmenistan showed how that system doesn’t yet fit smoothly with the Olympic movement.

IOC sponsor Alibaba’s Alisports division was in charge of the event, and used an open online qualifying system. That prompted federations from Australia and South Korea to boycott, saying athletes should have been picked by their national Olympic committees in the manner of a traditional sport.

If esports make it to the Olympics, other potential problems for the IOC include criticism it’s moving away from promoting a healthy lifestyle, and that it’s ignoring poorer countries where fast computers and brand-new games are unaffordable.

Esports would also mean the IOC allowing private companies to set the rules of its competitions.

Most traditional sports treat the rules with reverence, only occasionally tinkering around the edges. Not so for games publishers, who routinely mix things up to attract new players and keep things fresh.

Adding just one new character can reshape the whole “meta” – the game’s constantly evolving web of tactics and counter-tactics.

Senior figures in the IOC and the esports world have publicly doubted esports will be ready for an Olympic debut in seven years’ time.

“We are still some way away from our vision and we need to start on the right foot,” Asian Esports Federation president Kenneth Fok said last week. “For esports to develop in a positive banner, we need the full support of each and every NOC, their government, and more importantly the general public to have a positive perception of electronic sports.”

Ellingworth reported from Moscow.

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Danell Leyva makes incredible save on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Danell Leyva
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Danell Leyva, a three-time Olympic gymnastics medalist, put those skills to the test in the “American Ninja Warrior” finals, saving himself from splashing out of the course.

In one obstacle, Leyva slipped and fell off one of four flexible boards positioned above water.

He faceplanted onto the last board, his lower body falling off. But Leyva held on with his arms and pulled himself back onto the apparatus and to the next obstacle.

The first Las Vegas Finals episode airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Leyva previously splashed out of the “Leaps of Faith” obstacle in the Los Angeles City Finals episode that aired last month.

Leyva, a 27-year-old who took all-around bronze at the 2012 London Games, retired with parallel bars and high bar silvers in Rio.

Other Olympic gymnasts have tackled ANW, including gold medalists Nastia Liukin and Paul Hamm.

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VIDEO: U.S. gymnast catches high bar with one hand at nationals

Kim Rhode triumphs over theft on road to record-breaking Olympic bid

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Kim Rhode arrived at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, missing a few things.

The six-time Olympic shooting medalist had nearly all her equipment stolen prior to her trip earlier this month after her bag was nabbed from her father’s car.

“I lost everything but my vest and my gun,” Rhode said in Lima (noting with a smile she has seen worse: her gun was stolen a few years ago, though it was later returned). This time, “we’re all frantically trying to piece it back together, somewhat. … At the end of the day, you just have to kinda roll with it.”

It would take more than theft to rattle Rhode, who remains one of her sport’s top athletes 23 years after her first Olympic gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

The continental skeet title she won at Pan Ams (new equipment in tow) built upon a string of strong results since the last Olympics, including a world silver medal in 2018. Earlier this year, she became the first woman to win four straight World Cups in shooting.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Rhode could do something unprecedented: win seven medals in as many consecutive Olympics.

Rhode remembered a lot from her first trip to the Games as a 17-year-old carrying a pager. She described the volume of the crowd chanting “U-S-A” at the Opening Ceremony and the hum of the audience watching her compete, “almost like they were helping us to pull the trigger each and every time.” She recalled the athlete bowling alley, where both the balls and shoes were adorned with an Olympic flame symbol.

After winning gold in double trap, Rhode went back to high school life in El Monte, Calif. She couldn’t have known then that five more Olympics would follow. That one day, she’d have an Olympic medal from every continent in which the Games have been contested. That at 40, she’d still be at the top of her sport.

“I don’t think you ever get over the Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get used to it. It really takes on a life of its own.”

Rhode has been a constant in a sport that continues to evolve and change, and noted the technological advances that pushed it forward in the last several years: “you are seeing a lot more on the technical side of the stocks, more of these specialized grips,” she said, and “more people going with multiple lenses.”

Her competitors changed, too. Rhode described younger teammates showing her how to take a live photo and set up an Instagram account. “I’m kind of archaic in that sense,” she said with a laugh.

Her competitive spirit remains unchanged. While Tokyo would mark a milestone, Rhode has no plans of slowing down.

“I think I still have a few more in me,” she said, noting she’d like to compete in front of a home crowd again when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. “I definitely don’t see a need to stop. … Some of the shooters tend to be a lot older than most of the other Olympians because we have no shelf life. That’s the great thing about us.”

Rhode competed at the London Olympics not knowing she was pregnant with son Carter.

What followed was what she described as a difficult pregnancy and recovery. Her bones separated during the pregnancy, and she had her gall bladder removed after the birth.

The complications affected her ability to walk and complete endurance-related activities, which she continues to face. These days, Rhode said she still can’t run a mile, but in preparation for Tokyo, she is working with a physical therapist and nutritionist.

After Pan Ams, Rhode planned to add more strength training. “At the end of the day, I’m slowly but surely making small strides to get back to where I’m at,” she said.

Carter, now 6, speaks three languages and sometimes helps Rhode during practice, pulling for her before she shoots and collecting shells. He was on hand when Rhode earned a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, but he isn’t overly impressed (yet) by his mom’s long list of accomplishments.

“I don’t think he grasps the whole picture of what it is that I’m doing,” she said. “I think that’ll come a little bit later.”

She stores Olympic mementos at her parents’ home, a collection of bags from each Games stuffed with clothing, pins and other paraphernalia, and vacuum-sealed.

“My family is running out of room with all the bags,” she said, noting she isn’t sure when she’ll open them up and go through what’s inside.

Maybe after she collects a few more.

“To have had that opportunity so many times is amazing,” she said of her Olympic career so far. “I feel very, very fortunate.”

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