Rock Paper Scissors Gold
"Whew," Matti Leshem said. "I'm nervous."
It was a few minutes before 8 p.m., Beijing time. We were in Club Bud, a massive convention hall that, for this month, was serving as a shrine to beer and scantily clad dancers and athletic excellence. Soon, the Olympic stars would breeze in. But now, two American reporters, a handful of photographers and cameramen and a scattering of Budweiser employees had gathered in front of a stage to watch competitors from four countries form their hands into the international symbols for rock, paper and scissors. (Well, "stone, paper and scissors," if you're of the British persuasion.)
"You're going to see a level of rock, paper scissors play that is unprecedented," promised Leshem, the commissioner of the USA Rock Paper Scissors League, who had spent three years planning for this moment. "When we play in the U.S., we play for money--oh, how fitting! But at the international level, we play for glory."
Truth be told, I spent most of the night trying to figure out whether this whole thing was an elaborate put-on. If it was, none of the principals broke character. Not when the U.S. entry, Sean "Wicked Fingers" Sears, turned redder than Mao toward the end of his bronze-medal victory over Guam. "I was so focused and so zoned in on the match itself that I think I forgot to breathe," he later said. "Like, literally, I think I forgot to breathe."
Not when the Canadian entry, 29-year old Sebastian Gatica, stared in the face of his Irish opponent throughout their gold-medal showdown; "I believe the eyes can't tell lies," Gatica told me after it was over.
Not when Ireland's Mark Cleland--who jumped out to an 8-2 lead over Gatica and held on for a dramatic 10-9 gold-clinching win--described the proper mindset of a RPS champion.
"People have their different ideas," he said. "Personally, I just focused on I was going to win, I was going to win, and hopefully my mind would make the right decisions."
They all stayed in character when Leshem hustled me out of 20 Yuan in an impromptu RPS meeting, when he told me to write that "Joe Biden's a good rock paper scissors player, that's a quote," and certainly when he and his contestants argued that their sport deserves a place at the Olympic trough.
"Listen," he argued, "if that thing with the ribbons is a sport, why can't rock, paper scissors be a sport?"
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, this is my last entry from Beijing. It's just as well, really. Not to make chop suey out of chopsticks, but the Olympics really is a whole bunch of people agreeing to ignore the obvious absurdities--the grown men jumping on trampolines, the little girls swinging on bars, the inflatable panda mascots dancing with thunderstick-wielding cheerleaders to the soundtrack of "High School Musical"--and to agree that, for some reason, the Olympics matter.
It's like what Iceland handball captain Olafur Stefansson told me when I asked whether people in his country actually believe in magic elves. "It's not so much a matter of believing in the regular sense of the word, it's more of enjoying the possibility of it actually existing," he said. "And it doesn't matter whether somebody judges you or not for having that possibility in your mind. Because it's a funny possibility, and it enlightens your life and makes it more colorful."
Substitute "the Olympic ideals" for "magic elves," and you could probably use that quote as a PowerPoint slide at the IOC's next seven-star retreat. So why not add one more absurdity--scissors cutting paper, for the gold--to the mix?
But enough of all that. Back to the competition. Sears, the American, apologized to the commissioner for failing to take gold; "I wanted to prove to him that the U.S. competition was a good competition, that he was hosting the best in the world," the 23-year old from Massachusetts said. "And to not make it past that round, I felt like I was disappointing everything he had put together."
Gatica, the Canadian runner-up, pronounced himself satisfied with silver, but he wasn't backing down from the winner. "He's the best player TONIGHT," Gatica said, when I asked about the results. "But that's good enough."
And Cleland, the champion? Leshem had predicted this result before the event; he called Cleland smart, fast and intuitive, "a gut player." A reporter wondered about Cleland's relaxed grin during the action; "no, no, that's a rictus," Leshem said. And like so many Olympic stories, it emerged that this was a story of triumph over adversity. The gold medalist had spent much of the day with a terrible stomach ache, and was still feeling "a wee bit dodgy" just after his win.
"I was out last night," he said. "Partying, Beijing style."
Which made this event about as Olympic as they come.
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