Saturday, February 27, 2010

Vancouver Olympics Best and Worst

Can't wait for the Olympics to end? Pretend they're already concluded and read this....

BEST:

End of the Nordic Combined (short hill), as Jason Lamy Chappuis, the Montana born Frenchman, comes from behind in the final meters to take gold ahead of American Johnny Spillane. The ending that would have made Mike Hammer proud was the most exciting moment of the entire Olympics. Don't believe me? Watch the last few minutes of the video here.

Apolo Ohno telling everyone that short track is like figure skating, only with a greater chance of severing your femoral artery. After being disqualified from the 500 meter final, Ohno told reporters that he lost out because the head official is Canadian and wanted to see Canada win two medals. "Short track is so subjective," he told NBC's Cris Collinsworth. Look for costumes and music selection to be added as components of short track in 2014.

The U.S.A. v. Canada Hockey final. It hasn't happened yet, but it will be good... as long as NBC decides to actually broadcast it.

WORST:

NBC's programming decisions rankled me for the entire two weeks. Too many personal interest stories about figure skaters, not enough skiing, and the blunder with the Canada U.S.A. hockey match in the early rounds is inexcusable. I did enjoy seeing Bob Costas play the keyboard, though....

Sven Kramer's disqualification in the 10,000 meter speed skating event was tragically impressive. I list it here under "worst," but it generated the kind of drama that could easily qualify it as one of the "best" moments of the games. Overcoaching kills.

McDonalds and Coca-Cola get my most emphatic "worst" vote. The two companies who have likely contributed the most to obesity and diabetes in this country have made great efforts to associate their product with heart health and with the the worlds fittest athletes. Their ads do not state, "driking Coke will make your heart healthy" or "eating Big Macs will make you fit," but they deceptively and insidiously send this message. Do you want fries with that gold medal?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just Manny Being… Reasonable


As Spring Training begins, Joe Torre says he’s not buying into the media hullabaloo surrounding Manny Ramírez’s stating that 2010 is his last year with the Dodgers. Two days after Eric Gagné reported to Camelback Ranch and a day after Torre extended his contract through 2011, Manny stole the headlines by simply expressing his doubts that he’ll be back in L.A. after this season. While Dodgertown erupted into a frenzy, the seasoned Torre remained unmoved. Why?

To begin, Torre and Manny both know Manny isn’t getting any younger. He’ll be 38 this May. Manny couldn’t field when he was 28; and, renegotiating a contract for an aging slugger who can no longer field makes no sense in the National League. However, Manny can still hit. And, if he wants to up his market value as a potential DH in the AL, he needs to have a solid year at the plate. What does this mean for the Dodgers? They have a career .313 hitter with 546 homeruns ready to give his all for the Blue Nation in 2010. Including Manny in a lineup chock full of young superstars who have recently blossomed (Ethier, Kemp, Loney, etc.) may mean the Dodgers will get a chance to ride MLB’s career postseason homerun champ deep into the fall.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When a Sport is Not Really a Sport: Olympics Edition


In a recent ESPN.com Sports Nation poll, 73% of those who responded said that, given adequate time to train, they could be an Olympic-caliber curler. Are the Olympics not set up to showcase the finest athletic talent in the world? If almost 3/4 of the general public thinks itself capable of competing with you, are you really all that elite? (How many people think they could swim with Michael Phelps, run with Usain Bolt, or compete on the half-pipe with Shaun White?)

In December 2008, I created a list of 10 sports that are not really sports, based upon what I feel are minimal standards for sport. As a refresher, he goes: a “sport” should involve 1) athletic skill or prowess on the part of a human being, 2) be at least minimally aerobic, 3) promote physical fitness and 4) be somewhat competitive in nature. (I realize that Corry studies sports newspapers from the 19th century that “covered everything from chess tournaments and regattas to hunting expeditions and masked balls”; fortunately, since then, we have developed the phrases “Sports & Leisure” and “Entertainment,” as in ESPN: the Entertainment and Sports Network, which justifies its showing poker, bowling, NASCAR, etc.) Based upon these criteria, let us analyze and weigh in on a few sports in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics that many feel fall well short of the mark:

1) Figure Skating (er… Ice Dancing): Twice this month, Corry (and many others elsewhere) has approached the question of whether Ice Dancing is a sport, basing comments on various factors (i.e. the power of judges, choreography, sequins, etc.). While I was no more impressed by the Gingerbread Man couple posing as Native Canadians than anyone else, the sport of figure skating requires unquestionable skill, is highly aerobic, obliges the utmost fitness, and, as a “competition” that necessitates judges, is certainly competitive. Verdict: SPORT!

2) Curling: How was this game invented? Were janitors at a granite warehouse in Manitoba sweeping up after hours and nipping the flask? (Oddly, still, I must say I enjoy watching it—the competition is, at least, entertaining.) BUT, while requiring a skill set (i.e. the ability to simultaneously walk on ice in sneakers and sweep without a serious pratfall) and being competitive, the skill is neither athletic, aerobic, nor does it promote fitness. A game of strategy and execution, not unlike bowling: you cannot call it a sport if you are just effective with a beer bottle in your non-dominant hand. Verdict: NO sport!

3) Biathlon: Before unnecessarily drawing the ire of Scott and the many avid skiers that read this blog, let me say that the cross-country skiing aspect of biathlon perhaps qualifies the most as a sport. Still, where did rifle shooting come into the mix? Is this how they hunt in Switzerland? Now, I get that if you are not in peak physical condition, fatigue (accompanied by shaky hands) figures into the mix. All the same, it is an odd combo. Unlike the summer triathlon, which combines three speed/endurance events, x-c skiing and rifle shooting are as odd as 1500 meter swimming followed by archery. Verdict: Sport.

This raises an important question for quite a few summer “sports”: archery, rifle shooting, shot put, discus, javelin, hammer throw, etc. Most minimally fit the sports criteria; but, the summer Olympics are shrewd in calling these Field Events.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Figure Skating is NOT a Sport



I really want to retract what I wrote three posts ago. And after seeing this couple dancing in their "uniforms" I could not stomach it any longer... (they did take the bronze, after all). It may be a sport in the broadest, most open-minded sense possible, but I need some more time to come around to that way of thinking. A lot more time.

And, to continue my whine, I am sick of NBC prepackaging the evening broadcast to show almost continuous figure skating, only occasionally interrupted by something interesting. And have you noticed that NBC frequently will not show the scores for figure skaters? It's as if it weren't a real sport...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Worst Olympics Commercial?

Nominate your worst commercial of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics by leaving a comment to this post.

The Coca-Cola commercials are leading my list. Wow! to think every time I've purchased a Coke I've contributed to the Olympics and significant social change! I'm amazing!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Props for Title IX

Tara Parker-Pope's article in the NY Times offers a glimpse into recent studies conducted by economists Betsey Stevenson and Robert Kaestner that demonstrate the positive effect of sports in the lives of young women (thanks to Tom for pointing this article out to me). A rise in educational and employment levels for women coupled with lower rates of obesity can be directly tied to the implementation of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that requires schools to provide the same opportunities for both young men and young women. Since 1972 the % of girls playing high-school sports has jumped from 4% to 25%.

This is compelling evidence to keep the law fully in effect.

On the other side of the coin, Murray Sperber (in his book Beer and Circus) points out that the gains for men who participate in sports may be on the wane; not in all sports but in the sports that have become largely professional at the college level (football and basketball). Where at one time football players had an improved chance of increased earnings and better employment, prioritizing football over academics may be causing a reversal in the trend.

I have a colleague and friend (H. David Hunt) who tells me that any extracurricular activity has similar benefits for high-school students. So if your daughter is not inclined to play softball or run track, encourage her to join the French club.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Figure Skating IS a "Real" Sport... or... How Phil Jackson is "Merely" a Choreographer

Over on Nate Silver's blog "Five Thirty Eight," attached to a post about the number of medals each country is projected to win, is a discussion about whether or not figure skating is a sport. Some readers complain that figure skating is not a sport since the outcome is entirely in the hands of the judges. Here was my comment:

Nearly every sport has judges, they just intervene more and play a larger role in determining outcomes in some sports than others. In baseball the umpire makes a call with every single pitch. In golf, the refs only intervene on rare occasions.
The reason figure skating bugs so many people stems less from the fact that results are determined by judges and more from the fact that "choreography" and "interpretation" are written into the judging rules.

But these categories are implicit in diving, ski jumping, half-pipe, too.

The bottom line is that it's hard for most self-identified sports fans to get excited about a sport where the athletes hire choreographers, choose music, wear sequins and put on makeup as part of the sport.

In the past we have discussed the level of intervention on the part of judges/referees and attempted to demonstrate that sport is defined in relationship to the hegemonic power structure in a given culture.

In an article published in the Michigan Journal of Political Science, Andy Markovits argues that sports cultures are male dominated and that they create barriers to prevent unauthentic sports fans (usually women) from entering them. These barriers tend to be technical (terminology, knowledge of a particular sport's rules) or historical (a knowledge of trivia or the ability to discuss teams and games from the past). Markovits suggests that many women wear sport clothing in an attempt to circumvent these barriers and gain access to a given sports culture.

"Men’s fluency in the language of sports culture needs no outward affirmation. It is assumed by all. For women, however, this is not the case. Women still have to prove to men—and to themselves—that they, too, have acquired fluency in the language of sports culture. One signifier of that language is wearing sports paraphernalia."

Markovits goes on to point out that men try and maintain distinctions by dismissing the newcomers as "studied" or superficial.

Figure skating, a contest in which costuming and presentation--the superficial--are in fact at the very core of the sport, will quite naturally push "real" sports fans into making numerous arguments to exclude it from the world of "real sport."

One argument is that in figure skating the judges have too much influence. But their influence is about the same as that of an umpire in baseball or a referee in basketball; in other words, they can all definitively influence the outcome of the contest.

Another argument is that if there are choreographers, costumes, and music, the competition has passed from the realm of sport to the realm of art. But this is once again an attempt on the part of "real" fans to linguistically exclude the sport. In baseball, for example, a choreographer is called a coach, costumes are called uniforms, and music IS played between innings and each time a player from the home team walks up to the plate. Baseball players even wear make-up under their eyes!

As we have argued before, saying a competition is not a sport is simply a way to marginalize it and its fans. And while I personally find figure skating tedious and would rather watch, well, just about anything, I'm sure this is in part because I am a product of a certain culture and hold to some of its biases.

That said, let me add that I think Joe Girardi is a heck of a choreographer, and that I really like the New Orleans Saints' costumes. Very classy...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Luge Death at Olympics

By now you have probably all read or heard about the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21 year-old luger who died during a practice run yesterday when he came out of a turn late, went off the track, and slammed into a support beam at nearly 90 miles-per-hour.

I know that every sport has inherent risk. Endurance sports push the limits of mortality; teams sports involve sometimes dangerous contact;

But there is no reason to construct a luge track where competitors reach such high speeds. Certainly a slower track would test the competitors' skills more and create more difference between them than a track where the winner is the one who manages to stay on his sled as it hurtles to the bottom. A slower track would force the athletes to more carefully choose their line, to concentrate more on getting speed in the start, to nudge every 100th of a second out of their run.

And 40 mph on ice still looks plenty fast on TV.

There is simply no justification for asking athletes to slide 90 mph on a sheet of ice right next to large non-padded beams in order to do their job. None.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine Edition: How Dark Chocolate is like Soccer


Mort Rosenblum's book Chocolate studies the history, politics, production, and digestion of one of the world's most popular indulgences. At one point he discusses the popularity of bad chocolate in the U.S. (a.k.a. Hershey's) and suggests that it remains popular largely because people tend to be very nostalgic when it comes to candy. In other words, what consumers ate as children they seek out as adults. And since Hershey's began making cheap "chocolate" in the early 20th-century that was gobbled up by so many Americans, a penchant for its flavor has been passed down from parents to children ever since.

In a similar manner, affinities for specific sports are typically determined as a child. I watched baseball with my father who played it with his father, who learned it from his father (who learned to play it instead of soccer so he wouldn't get beat up or be called a "stinkin' Dane" on the playground).

It is difficult for a new candy or new sport to catch on because it must displace one for which a nostalgic craving already exists.

Hershey's is clearly awful chocolate. Rosenblum quotes one expert who claims it tastes something like vomit. But most Americans prefer it to high quality dark chocolate. Football and baseball are far superior to Hershey's "chocolate." But the reasons cycling and soccer struggle to catch on in the U.S. are similar to the reasons dark chocolate remains a niche/snob product.

That said, if you plan to send me a Valentine's day gift this year, make it Michel Cluizel dark (Mangaro)... or, if you prefer, send me a new Pinarello Prince carbon bicycle (59.5 cms) with SRAM Red drivetrain. I'm not picky, I'll take either. Nostalgia be damned.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U.S.A.D.D.


I recently watched John Dower's Once in a Lifetime, a film about the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League.

At one point in the film, an interviewee comments that unlike traditional American sports, soccer demands 90 minutes of attention. Baseball, football, basketball all have many time outs that allow fans to buy hot dogs, run to the restroom, and watch commercials. The implication was that Americans just don't have the attention span to appreciate soccer.

But the film implied that this comment is not entirely accurate since tens of thousands turned out to watch Cosmos matches during their peak years. Unfortunately for soccer, the failure to get a strong TV following coupled with a too ambitious expansion program in the league led the NASL into a quick decline.

So soccer can certainly entertain Americans and attract a huge following. Keeping America's attention, though, will take a great deal of patience, smart marketing, and a conservative expansion schedule. That plus a recognition that it is harder to sell booze and commercials with no programmed time outs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

...

Thoughts with my friend an co-author Bob Hudson whose father passed away yesterday. Bob, our sympathies are with you and your family.