Why do fencers shriek, and other questions about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 12 2008 6:34 PM

Why Do Fencers Shriek?

And other questions about the 2008 Olympics.

Mihai Covaliu of Romania. Click image to expand.
Mihai Covaliu of Romania celebrates 

Ever since 1,000 performers arranged themselves into the shape of a bird's nest during the Olympics' opening ceremony Friday, Americans have been befuddled by the goings-on in Beijing. With that in mind, the Explainer presents a roundup of questions related to the Games.

What's up with Olympic fencers yelling at every hit?
Tradition. Before electronic scoring (introduced at the Olympic level to épée in 1936, to foil in 1956, and to saber in 1988), two judges were positioned behind each fencer and would watch the opposite contender to see whether he'd been hit. A fencer would often shout something after executing a hit or "touch" to convince the judges that he'd been successful and also to energize himself. Now the shout is purely triumphant. 

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Many fencers just shriek or roar after a touch, but some prefer "et là," which means "and there" in French—the official language for international fencing competitions.

Why do the Olympic divers shower after every plunge?
To keep warm. Diving venues are air conditioned and can feel especially cold after a dip in the pool. Competitors shower in warm water to keep their muscles loose and then often retire to a hot tub. They towel off shortly before the next dive so that their hands don't slip during tucks or other maneuvers.

Why do younger gymnasts have an advantage?
They're lighter. The best gymnasts must be short and muscular with low body fat, which gives them a high strength-to-weight ratio and a greater ability to lift themselves into the air. Girls reach their ideal ratio before puberty; after that point, between ages 14 and 18, they gain weight and have difficulty keeping up their strength. Some coaches also believe that younger gymnasts worry less—making them psychologically less encumbered as well.

On Monday, former Olympic coach Bela Karolyi accused the Chinese of fielding 12- and 14-year-old gymnasts. If true, this wouldn't be a new practice: China's Yang Yun, for example, confessed during an interview on government-sponsored television that she was only 14 when she won two bronze medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Where does the U.S. Olympic Committee get its prize money?
NBC, mostly. The USOC awards $25,000 to gold medal winners, $15,000 to silver medalists, and $10,000 to athletes who snag a bronze. According to the organization's contract with the International Olympic Committee, it's entitled to 12.75 percent of the revenue from U.S. broadcast rights as well as 20 percent of the revenue from global corporate sponsorship. The USOC also gets cash from brand licensing, fundraising, and grants.

How does a hotel get more than five stars?
Ask the Swiss. According to NBC broadcasters, the Pangu Plaza building complex, which overlooks Beijing's Olympic Green, contains one of the world's only "seven star" hotels. But there's no standard international evaluation system, and hotels in most countries max out at four or five stars. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Royal Auto Club, the English Tourism Council, and the Automobile Association score properties based on housekeeping, hospitality, food, safety, and exterior appearance, among other factors, before assigning up to five stars. The French tourist board uses roughly the same criteria, but four stars is the limit. In the United States, many hotel chains use Mobil Travel Guide's five-star award certification, based on service evaluations and unannounced facility inspections.

The Swiss inspection-and-testing company SGS recently started offering a seven-star certificate for "extra-luxury" hotels. Inspectors look for central location, good design, and comfortable furniture in the communal areas, a high property value, continuous training for personnel, luxury chauffeurs, and butler services.

The Town House Galleria in Milan, Italy, requested, and received, one of these certificates. Other hotels, like the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, are said to have seven stars. In fact, that hotel received the maximum five-star rating from the local tourism board and in official materials characterizes itself as "5 Star Deluxe." It's frequently referred to as having seven stars because of a media frenzy over its services—the Burj Al Arab boasts a fleet of white, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces, private reception desks on every floor, and butlers.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Raymond Laederach of SGS, David Micahnik of the United States Fencing Coaches Association, and Virginia Polizzi of the Town House Galleria.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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