Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fantasy Baseball and Pornography

I invited a friend to join a fantasy baseball league a couple years back. His wife happened to look at his computer and was shocked to see the words "Invitation" and "Fantasy" in his email in-box. "I was worried about what he might be involved in," she told me later.

And in a way, the confusion is not entirely misplaced. I slink into my office to see if Edgar Renteria drew a walk or if J.J. Putz managed to get another strike out. I don't like my wife to catch me checking baseball stats when I should be fixing the sprinkler system or grading papers. I'm forced to hide my addiction.

On a more serious note, since the fantasy baseball users (emphasis on "user") are almost exclusively men who have time to surf the web, the advertisements displayed with the Yahoo leagues are very much geared to that demographic. In other words, the word "fantasy" is not just an innocent reference to sports.

I do miss the old rotisserie leagues when I sat down with other managers and a copy of USA Today's baseball stat sheets in someone's basement to conduct the draft. In those days we had to call the commissioner to make roster changes. (My brother once ran my team for me while I was out of town and he realized that if he read the morning paper he would see the stats before the commissioner--who subscribed to the afternoon paper--and could add players who had already hit home runs, or stolen bases, etc. The mother lode.) There was also constant calculating... I lost count of how many calculators I burned through figuring out WHIP in the old days (walks + hits divided by innings pitched).

I confess to some nostalgic longing here, but those old leagues did have the advantage of forming a human social network that is largely lost in the internet age.

"Fantasy" baseball reflects a broader social trend where face to face interaction is being replaced by screen to screen interaction. I have introduced people from my fantasy league who have never met in person and have to do so by their screen name... The ensuing conversation is usually about as long as, "Oh... hi." It seems they prefer knowing the other player's avatar to knowing the real, sentient being who clicks the mouse.

But I suppose ignoring my family to check on Nick Swisher's batting average is still better than ignoring them to check on... well... statistics on another type of Fantasy site.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What Do Those Rings Mean, Anyway?


Gilles Goetghebuer, in his preface to a book on the Olympics (Dopage aux Jeux Olympiques by Jean-Pierre Mondenard), claims that when he showed the symbol of the Olympics (above) to his daughter she blurted out, "Hey, it's like what's on the Coke cans."

Originally a symbol of international unity, I now associate the rings more with NBC's programming than with lofty Olympic ideals--they are displayed in the corner of every one of that network's shows.

Would you help me conduct an informal survey? Print out a copy of the Olympic rings and show them to your kids (or to the neighbor's kids, or to the kids you teach, Nathan). Ask them where the rings come from or what they stand for. Report your findings here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why the Tour Will Survive

Every year after cheaters are expelled from the Tour for doping, there is a quick backlash (especially online and especially outside of France) from a group of people who call for shutting down the Tour (click here for a recent example).

This type of response, however, presupposes that the race is of interest only as a race and that the most important aspect is winning (or losing).

Certainly, the competition is essential. It is also important that anti-doping agencies continue tracking down cheaters.

But more than perhaps any other sporting event, the Tour de France remains popular because it serves as an annual reminder of both France’s unity and its diversity. It brings in fans from all over Europe and the U.S. who view the event as a cultural spectacle first and as a sporting event second. One of the reasons I watch is to see places I’ve visited, places I’ve worked before, places I’d like to go some day.

The Tour has always stood as a means to celebrate regionalism while at the same time unifying France. In 1903, France's government was still struggling to unite all of France and bring the peasants out of their parochialism and integrate them as citizens of the Third Republic. Railways began bringing some isolated communities out of the middle ages, and roads did even more (Eugen Weber's book Peasants Into Frenchmen studies this transformation). The Tour was a perfect mechanism to validate the new network of roads and to allow the entire country to discover, via the newspaper, the cultural diversity of France. In addition, the Tour reinforced (and continues to reinforce) the fact that Paris remains supreme. This first Tour started and ended in Paris and the Tour has always ended in Paris, suggesting that Paris is the ultimate prize, the true center of the Republic.

In other words, the Tour will survive because--in addition to serving the interests of sponsors (who may fade away as a result of the doping scandals)--it also serves the interests of the French people, French regions (notice all the regional flags still constantly on display on the roadside of the Tour), the French government, and nostalgic francophiles throughout the world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Too Much Tour?

You know you've been watching too much of the Tour de France when...

...you raise your hand and look behind you when you want food passed to you at the dinner table.

...you draft behind other shopping carts at the grocery store.

...you shave your legs and walk around the neighborhood in spandex.

...you begin referring to your family doctor as a "soigneur."

...you pass cars going up a hill and look back at the other drivers to see if they're "in the red."

...after being the first one in the family to reach your house from the garage you instinctively provide a urine sample.

...you begin wearing a polk-a-dot T-shirt.

...you start wearing polk-a-dot pants to go with your polk-a-dot T-shirt.

...your kids unexpectedly walk in your room and you desperately try to flush your Tylenol down the toilet while screaming, "It's not mine! Some Italian brought it in here!"

...you pull to the side of the road and urinate without leaving the car. Then, when your kids ask what you're doing, you tell them you're just taking care of a little "besoin naturel." You ignore your kids when they ask why the grass on the side where you stopped has died and is giving off smoke.

...during dinner, when you finish a drink, you nonchalantly throw your glass onto the floor in the next room.

...you scream "Six points! Ka-ching!" every time you drive under a green light.

...you fail the SAT and then say it wasn’t your fault but that the test was flawed.

...you forget to flush, but when confronted by your wife, you maintain that it’s “someone else’s urine sample” in there…

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tour de France and Class Antagonism

One of the most fascinating chapters in Dauncey and Hare's volume (The Tour de France 1903-2003) is Christopher Thompson's chapter on the Tour's political ideology during the inter-war years.

He explains that cyclists were often referred to "ouvriers de la pédale" (pedal laborers) or as "forçats de la route" (prison laborers of the road). Conditions for riders were so bad that French politicians, sympathetic to the plight of the working class, legislated against long distance road races and in favor of speed limits on racing cyclists.

What emerged from all this was a high level of animosity between exploited riders/workers and their bosses, the administrators of the race.

This lack of trust is mirrored in French society where, to this day, unions and the business owners' organization (Medef) constantly do battle. (During my last trip to France I met with a lawyer who represents employees in labor disputes. Suffice it to say that the animosity still runs deep.)

And the demarcation between employees and employers still has relevance in today's Tour. Cyclists have been reluctant to accept doping rules imposed on them by Tour organizers. And cyclists who make deals with cycling's administrators are punished by their fellow "workers." A case in point is Filippo Simeoni who confessed to doping with Dr. Ferrari (who also had links to Lance Armstrong). During a stage of the 2004 Tour, Simeoni joined a breakaway and, although he posed no threat to Armstrong in the overall standings, Armstrong joined the breakaway in order to punish Simeoni (the peloton would never let a breakaway that included the race leader succeed).

Major League Baseball has had a similar antagonistic relationship with team owners, explaining why in both sports (cycling and baseball), drug testing has been so slow to take root.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Should Doping be Legalized?

Thanks to Scott who points out a discussion in Le Monde about whether or not doping should be legalized (http://vidberg.blog.lemonde.fr/2008/07/20/faut-il-legaliser-le-dopage/). On this site many say doping should be legalized since the Tour is only about money anyway and the noble ideals of sport amount to a hypocritical charade.

But those who say yes to doping are forgetting the number of "old school" cyclists who died in their forties and, more dramatically, the case of Tom Simpson, who died during a climb in 1967 after taking too many amphetamines. In effect, drugs were technically legal on the Tour before 1965. Almost all the cyclists had "help" and many died young.

Unless the cyclist are nothing more than expendable gladiators, doping must remain banned.

And the exclusions for doping contribute to the soap-operaesque saga of the Tour...

update: See conversation re this topic on Podium Café.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Against John Henry: Machine over Man on the Tour

In his contribution to The Tour de France 1903-2003 (Dauncey and Hare, eds.), Philippe Gaboriau places the Tour in the context of technological progress and Positivism, noting that the most significant sporting event in 1903 was not the first Tour de France but instead the Paris-Madrid auto and motorcycle race. In fact, eventual Tour winner, Maurice Garin, rode a motorcycle in that race (a race that was cut short when a crash caused 8 deaths and over 20 injuries).

Gaboriau hints that originally the machines were more important than the men riding them. The sponsoring newspaper, "L'Auto," was named for a machine, after all. And the men in cars were the ones supporting the riders and reporting on the race. In short, no machines, no Tour.

The early professional riders were all grouped according to their bicycle manufacturer. And men were linked to their bikes then in ways that would be unthinkable today: if they broke the frame, they had to find a blacksmith shop and repair the bike themselves; if they blew out a tire, they used new tubes--perpetually carried on their shoulders--to replace the damaged one; they could not even trade bikes with team members. In short, the man was an extension of his machine and could not be separated from it.

This philosophy favoring the supremacy of the machine contributed to the environment that led to cycling's vast doping culture. If the machine is the thing, a race organizer or sponsor is decidedly unconcerned about the harm riders may do to themselves, as long as they make the machine and the spectacle look good.

Certainly, other sports had doping, but in none were the athletes as subordinate to industrial forces as in cycling. Early on, cyclists were expendable, and "dynamite" was encouraged in order to make the machine appear heroic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"We're #3!": The Tour de France & Doping History

Yes, the Tour de France is the third most broadcast sporting event in the world (see previous post), behind the World Cup (#1) and the Olympics (#2)--all three founded by Frenchmen, as it turns out...

Since the Tour is on right now, and since I'm fighting jet-lag (and consequently getting up insanely early), I've been watching more than my share of it (broadcast at 5 AM in the U.S. on the Versus network).

Given the doping acumen of the Spanish (see doctor Fuentes and the Puerto affair), I was slightly relieved that Alejandro Valverde could not hang with the leaders in Monday's stage in the Pyrenees.

Then again, doping has been in the Tour as long as there has been a Tour.

This is in part a result of the Tour's original objectives.

The Tour began in 1903 primarily as a means to legitimate a sporting newspaper entitled "L'Auto" (a direct ancestor of the "L'Equipe"--printed on yellow paper, it was only fitting that the race leader should wear a yellow jersey). To sell more copies of their paper, race organizers needed to create heroes, men capable of performing extraordinary feats, of racing over unthinkable distances, of climbing impossibly high mountains. So they made the Tour de France one of the most difficult challenges in sport.

Cyclists ride over four hours a day during the Tour, a three-week long race that goes through three mountain ranges and grants riders only two rests days. In the early days, cyclists were not allowed to get help repairing their bikes, meaning they had to carry tools and parts with them as they rode, in many instances, through the night.

In 1924, defending champion Henri Pélissier dropped out of the race to protest the draconian rules imposed on the riders (in those days, if someone pumped water for them to drink, it was a penalty; if they threw anything on the side of the road, they were penalized; if they did not meet minimum speed requirements, they would not be paid; etc.). He told a journalist that each rider had to take cocaine (for the pain), chloroform and a mysterious pill called "dynamite," just to survive (1). Five time champion Jacques Anquetil once famously said, "You can't complete the Tour on mineral water alone."

Taking drugs provided by soigneurs (the team assistant who saw to it riders were reading to go each day) was viewed as a professional responsibility. It wasn't until the late sixties that doping was officially banned from the Tour, and this only because drugs had become illegal in France in 1966 (2). Even after this, given the difficulties of the race, officials tacitly allowed doping to continue until the late nineties.

(As a point of contrast, Olympic marathoners were punished with disqualification very early in the 20th century for doping--mostly for taking strychnine and cognac).

One hundred years of professional racing culture cannot change over night. And the race has not gotten easier over the years. Consequently, "doctors" will certainly continue to play a role in the Tour de France's outcome for some time.

But what a media spectacle! #3 in the world...

(1) Dauncey, Hugh and Geoff Hare. The Tour de France 1903-2003. Frank Cass: London, 2003. Page 87.
(2) Same book. Page 191.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sport Broadcasts: Can You Name the Top 3?

All right. Here's the contest:

Be the first to list--in the correct order--the three most heavily broadcast regularly occurring sporting events (worldwide) and and you will become the first-ever member of the "Sports Academic Hall of Fame."

High stakes indeed.

My source (by the way) is a publication that dates from 2003, but I suspect it is still accurate.

So, post your list (1, 2, 3) as a comment below.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"The Best Team Won": Chance v. Talent

Last week, at the end of the European Championship match that saw Spain defeat Germany 1-0, the commentators here in Paris remarked: "Spain played the best through the entire tournament and they had the best team tonight."

So the best team won. But their comment also implies, in fact, that frequently the best team does NOT win.

As I mentioned in the previous post, chance plays a significant role in most sporting contests. But if chance is the sole decider of outcomes, there is little interest for spectators. Watching the results of a lottery is not inherently interesting. It only interests those who have a stake in the outcome and the outcome, not the process, is the only thing that matters.

On the other hand, if chance plays no role, if the team that is best on paper always wins, why watch? The New England Patriots should have won last year's Super Bowl. The Seattle Mariners should have won the World Series in 2001 (no, I'm not bitter... okay, maybe a little). But a fumble here, a bad hop there and the better team loses.

In baseball, the best hit ball (demonstrating the talent of the batter and his superiority to the pitcher in that at bat) results in an out, while a ball that the batter barely touches, a pitch that should result in an out is nubbed just inside the bag, hops over the first baseman's glove, rolls into the bullpen and results in a triple and two runs scored. Given the amount of chance involved and small margin of talent difference between teams, the 162-game schedule is supposed to result in the best teams going to the playoffs. And sometimes it actually works. Sometimes it doesn't (Rockies NL champs in 2007...).

Chance may play less of a role in individual sports like tennis or golf, but even here the difference between a ball that bounces dead at the net or that catches the tape and drops over for a point is minute. And external forces such as wind or "good" and "bad" bounces may play a role in both these sports.

We can imagine charts where chance and athletic effort each contribute to determining outcomes:



The numbers in these "chance" charts (guesses on my part) are mirrored more scientifically by those who set the betting odds. In sports where athletic effort is a higher predictor of victory, the gamblers (and by extension the odds makers) show more definitive odds: anyone other than Federer or Nadal to win is an extreme long shot in tennis these days, where in baseball it is much more difficult to predict. As a point of contrast look at two defending champs and their odds at winning: half way into Wimbeldon, with 16 players remaining (so if chance alone decided the odds would be 16-1), the favorite Roger Federer's odds to win the championship were 4-7 (bet seven, if he wins you earn an extra 4); half way into the baseball season with 14 teams competing (and some already preparing for next year) the favorite Red Sox's odds to win the AL championship = 8-5. Certainly, the longer season and possibilities of injury play a role, but imagine the Red Sox in a tennis-like, single elimination bracket right now with 16 other teams. The odds of them winning, even though they may be the best team, would still be something like 8-1.

Perhaps the element of chance (as an avatar of supernatural intervention--see previous post) holds our interest because we are longing for a glimpse of the divine in a secular world. Perhaps we watch because, like a good novel, chance makes the narrative of a single play or of a match or even of a season entirely compelling: the unexpected plot twists and the surprise (or anticipated) endings are written before our eyes. Perhaps the presence of chance affords us the opportunity to reaffirm our beliefs: either that the gods are on our side or that they are punishing us; either that good guys win or that losing builds character ("that's the way the ball bounces"); that our lives are controlled by a higher power (God or our boss); and that we aren't solely responsible for what happens to us--the wind, the sun, teammates, colleagues or neighbors intervene and help us succeed or cause us to go awry.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Wimbledon and "Les Rosbifs"

In Paris, France on a work related trip, I wanted to catch what promised to be an epic final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Problem is, a pay channel (Canal +) had rights to broadcast the tournament. But I managed to work around that and finally began watching the match. Then, with things tied 2-2 in the fifth and deciding set, another rain delay stopped play. It only halted the match for about fifteen minutes but that was enough time for Canal + to go to their previously scheduled movie.

When play resumed, Canal +'s coverage did not.

In their defense, maybe they moved coverage to another specialized channel that I couldn't access. But more likely the Canal + team in France decided some British tournament was not worth broadcasting. Clément Arnaud had been eliminated in the quarter finals, and the Brits (aka "Les Rosbifs" in France) are cute, but not cute enough to supersede previously scheduled programming... As a result an entire country, a country with a long sports history and arguably the inventors of tennis, didn't see the last set of perhaps the greatest tennis match ever.

I ended up listening to the end on Wimbledon radio (online) where the British announcers nearly choked on their ascots because it was such a good finish. Unfortunately, in the land of Roland Garros, apparently nobody cared.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cheating Part 2: More on Stella Walsh

In my previous post asking for examples of cheaters, several of you mentioned Stella Walsh (a.k.a. Stella Walasiewicz, the womens' 100-meter gold medalist in 1932) who--it was revealed when she died--was actually xxy (she had ambiguous genitalia).

Here's what you didn't know about that story:

In the 1936 Olympics Walasiewicz finished second behind Helen Stephens of the U.S.A. in the 100-meters in Berlin. Walasiewicz was so stunned she lost that she accused Stephens of being... a man! Officials carefully inspected Stephens and declared her to be, in fact, female and Olympic champion.

Like my colleague Marc Olivier said when I told him the story: "She who smelt it, dealt it."

Here is a little more information you may (or may not) want to know. During the Summer Games in Tokyo (1964) 26.7% of the female track and field gold medalists were not double-x chromosome females: Tamara Press (shot put and discus), Irina Press (pentathlon), and Ewa Klobukowska (4x100 relay) had... well... more naturally occurring testosterone than their female counterparts. In fact, a large percentage of the very early Olympic disqualifications resulted from athletes breaking gender rules.

The IOC now tests for this ahead of time, I'm told. Too bad. I think I may have had a chance in rhythmic gymnastics.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Bring Out Your Dead": Sport as Ritual

People used to be buried in churches. Turns out now they are being buried in stadiums. A professional football club in Hamburg, Germany is selling plots in a stadium-shaped cemetery just outside the real stadium (read about it in Spiegel Online). And a company named Eternal Image allows you to peacefully rest in your favorite Major League Baseball team urn or casket (urns run $799; caskets for as little as $4,499... what a deal!).

With teams and leagues now selling eternal bliss, the "strait and narrow path" just got a whole lot easier. Instead of prayers and good works, in order to get into Detroit Tiger paradise you just need to be able to afford season tickets, be able to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (in or out of tune), and knock back six packs of Schlitz at each home game.

In this case the cliché (sports = church) is true: sports have become the secular means to transcendent experience, a modern replacement for the divine thrill of religious exuberance of centuries past.

This is in part because sporting events are acted out very much like a ritual experience. The athletes take on the role of our surrogates, confronting evil in its Yankee pinstripes or University of Utah red.

In his book Quest for Excitement, Norbert Elias writes, “Imaginary danger, mimetic fear and pleasure, sadness and joy are produced and perhaps resolved by the setting of pastimes . . . . Thus the feelings aroused in the imaginary situation of a human leisure activity are the siblings of those aroused in real-life situations" (42).

In other words, the anxieties of life are transferred onto the athletes who overcome obstacles (or fail to) on our behalf. The stakes are low, athletes are rarely killed and only occasionally lose their jobs, but sport operates as a cathartic tonic for the spectator who identifies closely with his favorite athlete or team.

As a result, I don't actually have to beat up my neighbor, I let my favorite team beat his favorite team. Or if I lose my job, instead of taking my anger out on my boss, I find solace in the fact that my team won the championship or, if in fact they lost, I am comforted to know that I am not the only one suffering, and--like my athletic surrogates--I go on with life, confident I can do better next time. In addition, in the modern world, my wife may leave me, my job may be taken from me, but my team will always be there. Markovits and Hellerman in their book Offside metion that the team may indeed be, for many men, the only constant in their lives. The hymn "I've Got a Friend in Jesus" has been replaced by, "You'll Never Walk Alone" (Liverpool's football anthem).

Anciently, the disconnect between sports and religion was nonexistent. Winners of games were seen to have divine right on their side. Instead of chance, it was believed that the hand of god(s) intervened to determine the outcome. René Girard (in his book The Scapegoat) writes about an ancient tribe (the Canuelos) who rolled dice over a corpse as part of the burial ritual. This was done, Girard explains, to invoke the presence of deity, since they, not chance, determined what face of the die would face heavenward.

When I die, in addition to being placed in a Seattle Mariners' urn, perhaps I should ask my children to play backgammon over my remains. Who knows, maybe they'll roll a lot of double sixes and cause divine chariots to carry my soul to the great Safeco field in the sky.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Olympics and Preening Politicains

French newspaper Libération reports today that China is reengaging in dialogue with exiled Tibetan leaders. It may be a sign that international pressure (the threat of boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) is yielding some fruit.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to stay home but may go if the rumored talks take place. However, like most politicians, he enjoys taking credit for positive events that have nothing to do with him. If, in fact, talks are confirmed, he will certainly say his boycott threat led China to the negotiating table.

It is also possible that China will engage in the talks just long enough to allow boycott-minded diplomats to save face and attend the Olympics. This would also allow China to welcome the world with a partially cleared conscience.

Chinese officials maintain that the Olympics and politics should not mix, but this latest news may be a sign that the Games can be used for positive political progress. Or it may simply be another mirage.