Friday, June 21, 2024

Recognizing Athletic Innovation at the Olympics

In just about a month’s time, the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, also known as the 2024 Summer Olympics, will begin in Paris, France. From July 26th through August 11th, about 10,500 athletes from 206 different countries will compete for medals in 329 events over 32 sports. The Olympics have been of great interest to me since my early childhood, grabbing my attention every four years growing up and now every two years (ever since the Winter Olympics shifted in 1994 to offset the Summer and Winter Games every two years).

Full disclosure, I own a complete set of videotapes of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that I forced my dad to record for me while I was away working at summer camp, so my love for the Olympics, like a lot of other interests of mine, could easily be labeled an obsession. For me, every event is appointment viewing, from the crowning of the Fastest Man Alive in the 100 Meter Sprint, to the repechage races in the Lightweight Women’s Doubles Sculls, to the Preliminary Round Handball match between Hungary and Denmark (set your calendar for August 2nd).

The Olympics brings an opportunity to learn about different athletes, sports, and countries, all while still rooting for Team USA to top the medal table. The parade of nations to open every Olympic Games is a vast spectacle of different cultures coming together in one massive celebration of sport. We’re exposed to terminology unique to Olympic sports, like the aforementioned “repechage,” from the French word for “rescue,” providing athletes with a second chance to win a medal after a loss in rowing, cycling and wrestling. Or the pommel horse, derived from a 13th Century word for a knob or the hilt of a sword, to describe a gymnastics apparatus with handles (“pommels”) for gripping while spinning around atop a faux horse. Or the pike position, a move in diving where the diver’s body is folded over at the waist with straight knees and pointed toes, resembling a “pike” or a digging tool with a pointed end.

While sports etymology is fascinating, I mostly appreciate the unique stories of the athletes competing at the Olympics, many of whom are not household names and who have trained their whole life often for just a fleeting moment in the spotlight. As an intellectual property attorney, I truly appreciate those athletes who leave a mark on their sport through innovation. [Side Note: For some “light” reading, feel free to check out “Beyond the Perfect Score: Protecting Routine-Oriented Athletic Performance with Copyright Law,” 30 Conn. L. Rev. 675, Winter 1998, written by yours truly]

The pinnacle of one’s athletic career is often just competing at the Olympics. Few of the 10,500 athletes will be fortunate to walk away with a medal. However, a select group of athletes have left their sport with an even greater legacy by doing something so great or groundbreaking that specific moves or techniques are named after them. Those moves become ubiquitous, living on in the sport long after the athlete’s retirement.

One of the stars of the Paris Olympics is bound to be Simone Biles, a U.S. gymnast believed to be the greatest of all time. Biles has won 37 Olympic and World Championship medals and has had five different gymnastics moves named after her for the floor exercise, vault and balance beam events. In gymnastics, a unique move is named after an athlete if the move is of a certain level of difficulty, is only being done by one gymnast, and is successfully performed by that gymnast, without falling, at an International meet, such as the Olympics or a World Championships. So, for example, in the floor exercise, the “Biles” is a double layout with a half turn, while the “Biles 2” is a triple-twisting double back tucked somersault. While Biles is likely to retire after these Olympics, presumably adding a few more gold medals to her count using her unparalleled moves, her impact on the sport will live on with up-and-coming gymnasts trying to perform the Biles or Biles 2 in their routines at future Olympics.

Another well-known sports innovation is the Fosbury Flop, named after Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized the high jump in track and field. Fosbury, a 1968 gold medalist, transformed the high jump by developing a “back-first” technique where he would approach the high jump pit on a curve and leap backward, or “flop”, over the bar in a coordinated arching motion. At the time, other jumpers used either the Eastern scissors method, where the jumper used a scissors kick to clear the bar while essentially in a sitting-up position, or the straddle method, also known as the Western roll, where the jumper rolled over the bar faced downward and parallel to the bar. Fosbury’s innovation truly changed the sport, setting an Olympic record at 7 feet, 4.25 inches while winning the gold. High jumpers competing in the Olympics have exclusively used his technique for the last 40 years.

Additional eponymous sports techniques cover a wide variety of sports. The Karelin lift is a wrestling move named after famed Soviet/Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, perhaps known as much for his shock defeat to Rulon Gardner in the 1996 Atlanta Games than for his incredible strength and power, or for his unprecedented lifetime 887-2 record. From figure skating in the Winter Games, the Axel, Lutz and Salchow jumps are named after the innovators of those moves. A great number of eponyms in sports come from gymnastics due to the very specific naming standard discussed above. One move that all male gymnasts use today is the Thomas Flair, an acrobatic move named after American gymnast Kurt Thomas, where the legs are swung around the body in a circle while the athlete is supported only by the arms. This move can be used on the pommel horse, parallel bars, and the floor exercise. It is even used in a different sport – break dancing – which is making its Olympic debut at the Paris Games. Sadly, Thomas never got to perform at the Olympics due to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, but he did provide us with the cult classic movie Gymkata in which he defeated a throng of attackers in the aptly named “Village of the Crazies” using Thomas Flairs on a makeshift barrier. If you have a chance to watch the Olympics this summer, keep an eye out for the athletes who put everything on the line for victory. Perhaps one of them will revolutionize the next Biles Flip, Fosbury Flop or Thomas Flair.

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