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Among Exciting Events, Shooting Emerges As A Boring Olympic Sport

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Everywhere in Rio right now, there is athleticism and adrenaline on full display, from the lightning quickness of swimming to gravity-defying gymnastics to the precision of diving. And that got NPR's Tom Goldman wondering. Is there such thing as a boring Olympic sport?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: As I scoured the Olympic program looking for boring, I had a pretty basic definition in mind. There couldn't be a lot of moving in a sport. Motion, I figured, creates some level of interest, some sort of intrigue, as in, where will that motion lead, meaning, yes, rhythmic gymnastics, filled with motion, wouldn't meet my definition even though mean-spirited people think it's goofy with its hoops and ribbons and balls. But finally I hit the jackpot. I found a sport where the athletes - and they do call them athletes - stand the entire time. And get this. Some of them stand with one hand in their pockets.

This was the scene at the Olympic shooting center a few days ago at the men's 10-meter air pistol competition. Yes, this was my winner - 49 men standing in a long line one next to the other firing long-barreled air pistols at a target.

OK. To be fair, there was some motion involved. Competitors would raise their shooting arm over their heads and slowly lower it to shoulder height, but then it was all index finger on trigger. And bonus boring points - this qualifying round whittling down 46 to eight finalists went on for an hour and 15 minutes. I spent part of that time looking for people who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I needed someone who could grab me and my negativity and lead me to the light.

Testing one, two, three. OK can I get your name please?

LI YEN: My name is Li - Li Yen (ph).

GOLDMAN: Li Yen from China was pretty jazzed because a Chinese shooter was the top qualifier. We spoke before the final, and Li admitted how nervous she gets. That's right - nervous - watching a bunch of guys exercise their index fingers.

LI: Even - sometimes I even can't open my eyes. I'm shaking sometimes, yeah.

GOLDMAN: The art of pistol watching and the essence of the sports, says Li, are the build-up. The guys shooting are masters of calm - a twitchy arm and forget it. Try another sport. Controlling your mind and body is hard. It makes sense these athletes - there I said it - workout, get fit, practice relaxation. They may be standing, but there's a ton going on you don't see. And if you embrace this, it makes perfect sense what Li says when I ask her where's the excitement in the sport?

LI: You know, the last two shots.

GOLDMAN: In the final, boy, was she right. Six shooters fell away after missing key shots, leaving two at the end. The build-up was almost complete, the anticipation helped along by a chirpy announcer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's an unbelievable situation. The Brazilian has the advantage by 0.2. One shot means everything. It's the final shot in the competition.

GOLDMAN: The Brazilian lost. Vietnamese shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh won the gold medal with a steely final shot. It was Vietnam's first gold medal ever. I asked the winner to describe his winning moment. In halting English, he said shot just shot, then he thanked me, I guess for the question. But it is I who should thank him for showing me the error of my ways. Air pistol, you made the cut. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.