The Olympics are consistently stressful if, like me, you have a deep-seated fear of airhorns. But this year, between the poop, the mosquitos and the airhorns, the Games have increased my craving for Ativan by 300 percent (is there a medal for resisting?).
Trying to find a respite is challenging. Table tennis? Surprisingly nerve-racking. Badminton? Ditto. Curling? Wrong season, unfortunately. If you can’t tune out entirely and you need a change of pace, I cannot recommend sailing highly enough. It’s such a strange and confusing sport that you’d probably be able to discern more meaning from the movements of goldfish. But its inscrutability has a pleasing side effect: It allows you to turn off your brain almost instantaneously.
To the layman, competitive sailing seems to involve reclining while playing a game of tug-of-war with the wind. Sometimes, the wind plays hard to get, which is why so many sailing competitions have been canceled in Rio since the games began (a New York Times article describes Guanabara Bay as a “natural amphitheater,” surrounded by Sugarloaf Mountain and other granite formations, which certainly doesn’t help). Other times, the wind is too strong. All of that means that successful sailing is elusive, like achieving zen.
“We’re not inside an arena, and we’re always waiting for the weather, which dictates a lot of our racing. All we can do is go back to bed, wake up tomorrow, and try again,” Paige Railey of Clearwater, Florida told the website US Sailing, sounding like a person very much in touch with both Buddha and Mother Nature.
Filming the competition in a way that makes sense to the viewer is also an elusive proposition. Sometimes a boat will pull ahead of another boat, and yet the lagging boat is weirdly labeled as being in first place because the angle we’re watching from isn’t the angle the judges are judging from. Other times the boats will pull their way around buoys and get disqualified for reasons that don’t seem to make any sense. No wonder the Olympic sailing competition in 2012 inspired this nonsensical parody.
To try to make sense of the madness, NBC has resorted to inserting arrows over the boats to indicate which direction they’re going, but this just makes the game look even more cartoonish. And when the sea is angry, tossing boats to and fro, the games feel existentially preordained, as if no arrow could ever be up to the task of explanation.
The result of this chaos is a pleasant sensation I’m rarely able to savor: that just like me, a gay man who reflexively and stereotypically hates sports, no one else watching the game has any clue what the fuck is going on. We’re all grappling with the images we’re seeing on screen, trying to filter them through what we know about competitions, generally — okay, that one guy should be ahead but he’s not, and that other dude who seems behind is apparently the world’s greatest sailing champ; maybe if I eat some more chips I’ll “get it” — and, probably, failing.
In truth, the rules are not stunningly difficult to comprehend. According to the Olympics’ sailing spectator guide, there are 10 races for each class of boat. Naturally, boats are ranked by the time they take to get around each course. (Oh my god I’m falling asleep.) Interestingly, heavier sailors do better than lighter sailors because pulling the ropes on the sails requires so much strength. Because the games require knowledge of the local wind conditions, meteorological know-how can apparently be as valuable as an athlete’s technical skills.
All of which is to say: Winning at sailing requires a veritable clusterfuck of different elements to line up in your favor, and a shamanistic relationship with barometric pressure. This minute sensing and divining can’t be captured on camera; it’s happening in the athletes’ brains. It would require an MRI scan.
Or at least that’s the reason I’ve decided that I love it. I don’t know anything about sports.