Friday, August 29, 2008
The Palin pick sure will win headlines. It wasn't competely out of the blue, but it's a little mystifying for one obvious reason. If McCain's entire argument so far has been that Obama is too untested to be president, then how can he pick a 44-year-old first-term governor of a state with 600,000 people with no foreign policy experience whatsoever?
What this means, it seems to me, is that McCain has decided he cannot win without Clinton Democrats, and this is his attempt to win them over. He has decided that he cannot win on the experience card, so he is trying to pick the change card. Palin's record on climate change is certainly impressive - and she seems a charming, capable person. She is certainly a different kind of pick for a Southern-based GOP. But McCain will be the oldest first term president in history with a history of health concerns. If America is concerned that Obama isn't ready, how could anyone say Palin is?
I am giddy.
Happy 72nd birthday, John McCain.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
That was my candidate. He gave almost inarguably the most substantial acceptance speech in American history.
That was my candidate. He gave almost inarguably the most concrete justification of why he is the apodictic representation of the American dream.
That was my candidate. He showed why our opponent is wrong without accepting that our opponent is bad.
That was my candidate. He showed why his calls for change are more than emtpy rhetoric.
That was my candidate. He showed why knowing things about the world should be a mark of honor, not a mark of shame.
That was my candidate. He showed why he will bring honor to the country I love, not shame.
That was my candidate. He showed why we can be better despite us having been worse.
That is my candidate. Because for too long liberalism has been cast as being wrong when for so long we have known it was right.
This is my candidate. Because he gave the greatest political speech of our generation.
This is my candidate. Because he is right and our opponents are wrong.
This is my candidate.
I spent the summer rehabbing, mostly in Michigan, where I spent an unlikely summer working as a bartender at a dude ranch. In July of that summer Michigan held a giant sports festival, the Great Lake State Games (for those of you from the east it was very much akin to the Bay State Games -- I competed in those twice -- or the Empire State Games). My goal was to be well enough to long jump in the track meet in East Lansing. I did so, placed second, and ther than having my car engine blow up on me, recovered pretty well.
Paranoid my senior year about that hamstring I was extra careful. My only real injury problem my senior year came with a minor but excruciating partial tear of my left patella tendon, which eventually sidelined me during one event at NESCACs outdoors, but otherwise I was able to work through. We returned to Tufts for the All New England Championships where we got to face off against the big boys in New England track and dield (and where we always did very well). I had qualified in the long jump as well as the triple, and on the Friday evening long jump finals I knew something was awry. I had a knot in the area where the hamstring and glute meets on my left leg. My steps were awry and my speed was off, and so I did not qualify for finals, which was a bummer, but the real prize for me was the triple jump. I was in good health, I felt good, and I believed that if I pulled it all together I would qualify for nationals. Qualify for nationals, have a good day, maybe a litle luck, and All American is not an impossibility.
It did not take long the next day for those plans to go to hell. During warmups I felt the tightness again, and should have gone to the trainer for a massage, but I was in the first flight and was among the early jumpers in the random draw. I took off down the runway, exploded a huge hop phase, and drove my left leg up for the crucial step phase. That's when I felt the familiar tug and heard the familiar sound, this time in my left leg. Somehow I finished off the jump, though pretty much by collapsing into the pit. In a way I wish I had not -- the jump was decent as it was, and would have been exceptional had I not torn the hamstring before finishing the final two phases of the jump. That was the one. Athletes at a peak of performance are the ones most vulnerable to tearing the hamstrings. I was so close.
And torn it was, pretty much a full rupture. My college track career ended with me face down on the infield at Tufts University for the second year in a row. It was, suffice it to say, devastating.
Gretchen Reynolds' piece Hamstrung Results from a recent issue of the New York Times' sports magazine Play thus spoke to me. I I excerpt the article in its entirety since I received it via their email newsletter and cannot seem to track down an independent link to it:
It’s been quite an Olympics for the hamstrings. They’ve determined the outcome of more events than Michael Phelps’s freakishly long arms. Sanya Richards blamed a “grabbing” hamstring for her loss in the 400 meters; sprinter Tyson Gay’s hamstring pull at the U.S. Olympic Trials reduced him to a non-factor in Beijing; and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang’s heartbreaking exit from the Games, while directly caused by a sore Achilles tendon, “almost certainly was related” to a severe hamstring injury he suffered a few months back, says Dr. Bryan Heiderscheit, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and an expert on hamstring injuries.
Injured hamstrings, Heiderscheit says, are especially common in sports that involve fast, hard spurts of running, such as the track and field sprints, but also football and soccer. “The million dollar question is why,” he says. Despite reams of research, there’s no answer.
What is known, though, is that a hamstring injury is self-perpetuating. An athlete who’s suffered one is at an enormously increased risk of another. Again, researchers don’t know why that is, although a new study by Heiderscheit and his colleagues is suggestive. In the work, 11 athletes hobbled by hamstrings underwent a M.R.I. examination. In all but two of them, the hamstrings showed “substantial changes in the tissue,” even a year and a half after the injury, Heiderscheit says. Some sections of tissue were enlarged and scarred; others atrophied. The whole was, in effect, remodeled. How that metamorphosis contributes to later injury and, more important, how to use the M.R.I. findings to avoid re-injury “will require a lot more study,” Heiderscheit says.
In the meantime, the hamstrings will have plenty more chances to affect the medal counts in Beijing. “I hope no one else goes down,” Heiderscheit says. “But I won’t be surprised if they do.”
That's not quite where my tale ends. I rehabbed again, though with nowhere near the same enthusiasm. I tried to compete a bit later that summer, with very mixed results, and I jumped the next year for the Greater Boston Track Club while I coached in Concord, Massachusetts, again with fairly mixed outcomes. I was never the same, but then again divorced from the context of track at Williams, it never would have felt the same anyhow.
Three years later I had my last bit of sporting glory, playing rugby for Rhodes University in South Africa. I had lost a lot of speed but could still get around well enough to start at wing. Every so often that haphazardly rehabiltated left hamstring would catch on me, but it was not until the last game of the season, a humiliating defeat to a club based at a police base (university boys in the Eastern Cape taking on Afrikaner policemen is a recipe for an asskicking, and we got flambeed). Towrd the end of the game I had the ball around midfield and felt the familiar sensation once again. this time the hamstring was as much scar tissue as muscle, and predictably I went down, though for reasons that still baffle me (we were shorthanded, I do know that) I stayed in the game and hobbled around utterly uselessly for the remainder of the game. I got caught at the bottom of a maul and some big bastard "mountain climbed" me, stomping directly on the hamstring.
For a month my leg was night-black from ass to calf, my last real sporting scar. Today I can run around, if I warm up right I'm still faster than most guys even though I was never really fast per se, but before long I'll feel a little hitch and will know that either my day or at least my ability to go all out are done.
I regret nothing, despite the creaky knees and worthless hamstrings and cranky back that sports left me with. I'll be one of those guys who gets his knee replaced at 50, both by 55, working on hip replacement before retirement. It was all worth it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, working harder, smarter, better. But I'm always sympathetic to the guy with the hamstring injury. Their pain takes me back to moments of pain, but also to days of joy.
So the first two nights played a like a warmup act that went on a bit too long. But last night more than made up for it. Though it was a bit overwrought and byzantine, the Hillary appearance to call for the nomination by acclimation actually was a great touch. It further solidified Hillary's bona fides both as a major player and as an Obama supporter. The big three speakers did what they needed to do and more. In baseball terms Cinton and Kerry hit home runs into the upper deck while Biden hit a solid double. In grading terms we had two A's and a B+. Two nines and a seven. Three thumbs up. Etc. And the Obama appearance at the end, the second night in which he has slid into the proceedings, seemed to go over well. there are those who will gripe about tradition or overexposure, but that's a silly argument. The idea that the candidate should appear as if conjured for the cameras on Thursday night is a silly remnant of the days when parties did not necessarily know going into the convention who would win. As for overexposure, well, that trolley left the stop for both parties sometime back in the middle of 2007 and the start of the interminable election cycle.
I've no idea what sort of bounce to expect. The weirdly truncated VP naming/convention season makes little sense to me, so my guess is that neither party may get the boost that traditionally has come from such an affair. McCain is expected to announce his VP pick tomorrow, a savvy move that will draw him much more attention than a candidate would normally get the day after the other party's convention folds its tent. Then the GOP kicks in to its love fest next week. I would not eb at all surprised to see status quo ante reign in the polls, with each party's bounce canceling out the other's and a virtual dead heat ruling the day in the national polls with a reversion to last week's polling data or thereabouts come the second week of September.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
It is inexcusable for a major publisher to make this sort of assertion. I always tell my students, and especially my graduate students not to make assertions about historiography if they are not well versed in that historiography. Do not say in a book review that book X is the greatest topic on topic Y unless you have read enough of the books on topic Y to be able to make that case.
Obviously it is not Dallek's fault that Henry Holt is an idiot. But as much as I like Dallek's work, I probably will wait until I get a free copy before reading it. Fight the power.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
The majority of these conventions, GOP and Democrat alike, are best viewed through a drunken haze, though the highlights can be great. For the democrats the speeches by Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama were world beaters last night. The rest: Eh. Expect the convention to crescendo as the days pass. They always do.
I do not always even support the American athletes. In sports in which Americans do not traditionally compete, I could not care less. In events when there is a serious underdog and where a victory by an athlete from a smaller country might bring some glory to that country, I'll find myself rooting for the underdog. I also root for African athletes, which should come as no surprise. I want the Americans to dominate certain sports, of course, and all things being equal I am likely to support the American team absent the treacly overcoming odds story from an international athlete or the presence of an African athlete I prefer. But at the end of the day, the Olympics are about the gathering, the experience, the competition.
The reality is that we all know who won these Olympics, for good or for ill. The United States won the overall medal count by virtue of racking up bronzes and silvers. But the Chinese won the most golds, and if we are tallying up winners, it seems bizarre to presuppose that a gold is not worth any more than the others. But in the end none of this matters. The Chinese put on a great Olympics, albeit by destroying any of the promises they made about openness in the process.
Only four years to London (and less than two to Vancouver)!
Sunday, August 24, 2008
It took a bit of tracking down, as the New Republic seems to have disappeared the link, but here is a version of Jonathan Chait's glorious evisceration of the state of Delaware. I love the Joe Biden pick, but he comes from a little pustule of a state.
At Foreign Affairs Robert Kagan looks at the post-Bush world in "The September 12 Paradigm." This article represents the early stages, not the final word, in assessment, of course. My guess is that this will be one of those dialogues that we never quite resolve, as is the case with most ideologically and politically fraught issues with long-range ramifications.
Several New York Times articles have grabbed my attention in recent days, including Allan Barra's revisiting of John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's 1968 Olympic protest, the travel section's return to one of my favorite countries, Namibia, Robert McFarland's fairly brutal takedown of Paul Theroux's latest travel book, and Bill Keller's considerably kinder review of John Carlin's book on Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I just ordered the Carlin book, as I am in the final stages of an article on rugby, race, and nationalism in South Africa since 1994 and the 1995 Springbok triumph plays a large role, as you might well guess. As for Theroux, I tend to enjoy his travel writing, especially his early stuff, but the man can be insufferable. Plus, one more serious problem I have with his work is that I wonder how reliable he is. No one expects a great deal of depth with someone who covers so much ground, but in Dark Star Safari, his tale of trekking from Cairo to Cape Town, he gets so much rudimentary stuff wrong or mangled about southern Africa that I cannot help but wonder what else he gets wrong about all of those other places about which he has written that I do not know so well.
At his Atlantic blog Mark Ambinder imagines a conversation between an Obama supporter worried about the state of the Democratic campaign and one who by and large is not. It's gimmicky, of course, but worth a perusal. My own view is that we live in times when both parties are pretty much guaranteed about 40% of the vote in a presidential election, but neither party is guaranteed 50%. This has been the case since at least 1992. Why is anyone surprised that it looks as if the 2008 election will be close?
Finally, I can take or leave MoveOn. But free Obama buttons are, after all, free Obama buttons. And if you want, you can buy even more. Then again, of course you can.
But hey, who said New Hampshire only matters once every four years during the presidential season. David Broder has cast his eye upon the flinty denizens of the state. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Biden is serious, smart, and will take the debate to the Republicans. No one has more gravitas on foreign policy than Biden. He could step in as President if need be (God forbid) and do a fine job. Yes, he's loquacious, and yes, he'll put his foot in his mouth every so often. But if those are his worst flaws, well, I think we can live with that. This is a great ticket for the Democrats.
I only wish Obama had not buried the choice in the recesses of the news cycle -- late Friday night/Saturday morning? And on the eve of the Democratic convention? Why not do it earlier and hope to get two bumps rather than fold the two major events into one bump in the polls?
But in the end, the choice for VP is a test of judgment. Obama has passed that test. Obama/Biden. This is my favorite ticket in my lifetime, without a doubt, and is historically pretty damned sound, at least from the perspective of less than twelve hours.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Jacques Rogge is so bought, so compromised, the president of the IOC doesn’t have the courage to criticize China for telling a decade of lies to land itself these Olympic Games.
All the promises made to get these Games — on Tibet, Darfur, pollution, worker safety, freedom of expression, dissident rights — turned out to be phony, perhaps as phony as the Chinese gymnasts’ birthdates Rogge was way too slow to investigate.
One of the most powerful men in sports turned the world away from his complicity. Instead, he has flexed his muscles by unloading on a powerless sprinter from a small island nation.
Rogge’s ripping of Usain Bolt’s supposed showboating in two of the most electrifying gold-medal performances of these Games has to be one of the most ill-timed and gutless acts in the modern history of the Olympics.
[There's more (I hope this large excerpt does not violate fair usage, but the column is pretty spot on):]
Oh, this is richer than those bribes and kickbacks the IOC got caught taking.
All the powerful nations — including the United States — have carte blanche at the Games. They can pout and preen, cheat, throw bean balls, file wild complaints, break promises that got them a host bid, whatever they want. They can take turns slapping Rogge and his cronies around like rag dolls as long as the dinner with a good wine list gets paid.
A single individual sprinter? Even if you don’t like his manner, that’s whom Rogge deems it necessary to attack, to issue a worldwide condemnation?
“I understand the joy,” Rogge said. “He might have interpreted that in another way, but the way it was perceived was ‘catch me if you can.’ You don’t do that. But he’ll learn. He’s still a young man.”
Perceived by whom? Old fat cats making billions of Olympic dollars on the backs of athletes like Bolt for a century now? They get to define this? They get to lecture about learning?
Bolt is everything the Olympics are supposed to be about. He isn’t the product of some rich country, some elaborate training program that churns out gold medals by any means necessary.
He’s a breath of fresh air, a guy who came out of nowhere to enrapture the world with his athletic performance and colorful personality. This is no dead-eye product of some massive machine.
He was himself, and the world loved him for it.
On his own force of will, Bolt has become the break-out star of these Games. He saved the post-Michael Phelps Olympics. It wasn’t so much his world-record times, but the flair, the fun.
No one at the track had a problem with this guy; they understood he is everything the sport needs to recover from an era of extreme doping. The Lightning Bolt made people care about track again, something that seemed impossible two weeks ago.
“I don’t feel like he’s being disrespectful,” American Shawn Crawford told the Associated Press. “He deserves to dance.”
Apparently, Rogge would prefer 12-year-old gymnasts too frightened to crack a smile.
It got better when, in the same press conference, he pretended to forget all the lies China told him to get this bid, all the troubles, all the challenges, and praised the host nation. Yes, these have been an exceptionally well-run Games from a tactical standpoint, and the Chinese people have displayed otherworldly kindness.
None of which denies the promises broken, the innocent jailed, the freedoms denied — the kind of issues someone with Jacques Rogge’s standing should be talking about.
He has no spine for that. Not for China. Not for any big country. He had to criticize someone, he had to make headlines, he had to show he was a tough guy. So who better than someone from somewhere that can’t ever touch him back?
Yes, Usain Bolt is the problem of the Olympics. He’s the embarrassment. He’s the one who needs to learn.
Sure, Jacques, sure.
As Donnie Baseball sums it up: "It reminds me of what I really don’t like about the Olympics. All the fun seems to have been sucked right out of the quadrennial spectacle."
I do, however, take issue with The New York Times' latest headline on the ongoing story: 2 Withdraw From Petition to Rethink Drinking Age. two college presidents in Georgia have indeed withdrawn their name from the petition. But fifteen more have signed on. Thus while the story's headline, which should give some sense of the true measure of the story, indicates waning support for the petition, the reality is that its number of proponents is growing, and is doing so substantially.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
As of right now, 3:54 Central Time on August 20, 2008 we have no apparent movement on the Vice Presidential choice front. Or at least no choice seems forthcoming.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
First off, the University of Nebraska Press will be publishing Frederick Funston's memoirs, Memories of Two Wars: Cuban and Philippine Experiences. How does this tie in to dcat's inner circle? Well, Tom Bruscino has not only written the introduction, he also steered the project to the folks at Nebraska. Expect more good news from Tom in weeks to come. Congrats, man!
Second, when you sneer at me with your derisive comments, I now expect to be called Associate Professor Catsam. I rolled the dice and went up for tenure and promotion a couple of years early and the process went well. I got the official letter in my campus mailbox a few minutes ago. Giddyup!
As a Democrat I am most excited about the possibility that Joe Biden will be the one. He occasionally puts his foot in his mouth, but he is almost inarguably one of the most serious foreign policy minds on the Hill. In many ways I'd almost prefer that Biden be tagged for a post that will enable his foreign policy gravitas to shine -- State, SecDef (though I am among those who believes that keeping Robert Gates in that post would be a fine decision), NSC -- but from a purely political standpoint I am thrilled at the idea of a serious, experienced, smart Vice Presidential nominee who will both serve in that vital capacity of all seconds, attack dog, and who will also be able to advise Obama about the most important issues he will face abroad.
Biden is not perfect, but no VP nominee is for either party, and his strengths far outweigh his negatives. And I think the last generation has shown the Vice Presidency to be much more than John Nance Garner's famous formulation of being not worth "a bucket of warm piss" given the vital and active roles played by Al Gore (for good) and Dick Cheney (I'd argue for not so good), which means you want a serious person in the position and not merely a placeholder or someone who will provide little more than the coveted news cycle poll bump.
Not everybody swims.
It's that simple.
You marvel at Michael Phelps, Mr. Olympics 2008, Mr. Olympics for all time.
You identify with Usain Bolt, the Fastest Man Ever.
Phelps, an American, obliterated records in five solo swims here. His eight gold medals, a probability achieved, made him a safe and simple face with which to brand these Games, the new Mark Spitz. His 14 career golds vaporized the old mark by five.
But not everybody swims. Certainly, not everybody swims well, and virtually nobody swims more than one stroke, maybe two.
But everybody runs.
Bolt, a Jamaican, on Saturday morning ran the most significant race in Olympic history.
He lowered the 100-meter world record he unexpectedly set in May by 0.03 seconds.
Everybody has run. You start when you're about a year old. Eventually, everybody runs 100 yards or meters: in gym class, training for some sport, from parents or the boogeyman.
Because everybody runs, the case can quite easily be made that Usain Bolt categorically won the singular sporting event, running faster than anyone else ever has (without the aid of wind), that every other person on earth with the physical capability has tried. He won the most competitive sporting endeavor there is. He ran the single event that is elemental to nearly all (land-based) sports.
I'm reminded again of a Farleyism I am sure I have shared with you in the past. Dick Farley was the college football hall of fame football coach at Williams. Before he took the head gridiron job, he was the Williams head track coach, and after that he became an assistant with the team, a position he still holds. Farley was legendary for his witticisms, most notably for his bon mots, his "Farleyisms" (so dubbed by us, not by him). My favorite probably was his constant rejoinder to us, and especially to his football players, "you're only here because there is no division 4." One time at a meet at UMass he was coaching me up between triple jumps. The 5000 meter runners were huffing their way through that race and he simply asked me, rhetorically of course, "would any of these guys be doing this if they could run the hundred?" That sums it up in a nutshell.
Monday, August 18, 2008
[Crossposted at the FPA Africa Blog.]
Sunday, August 17, 2008
It has been buried by the Micheal Phelps juggernaut, but the unfortunate time lag between Beijing and the US, and by dumb programming decisions by NBC, but for all of Phelps' dominance, the single most awesome moment athletically in this Olympics has been Jamaican Usain Bolt's stunning, otherworldly victory in the 100 meter dash. Bolt crushed his own world record, lowering it from 9.72 seconds to 9.69. But more impressive than that is how Bolt did it -- and how he emerged this year.
Bolt, a precocious talent in the 200 pretty much had to beg his coach to be allowed to run the 100. This year is his first year as a competitive 100 meter runner at the world class level, which is to say that Bolt has probably not run the 100 in ten meets. He is 6' 5", which is massive for the dash, and event traditionally dominated by muscular, stocky guys built like NFL running backs. In the race Bolt got out to what was for him a decent start. At his height, and with his inexperience, the blocks are the most precarious moment of the race for Bolt. But by 30 meters he race was over. By 60 the race was a laugher. And by 80 meters Bolt, in the Olympic Finals, was celebrating, posing, igh stepping, and decelerating. And yet he still ran the premier distance in track and field, indeed the gold standard for speed in any sporting context, faster than anyone else had ever run it. Not so long ago I remember the world record in the 100 being Jim Hines' 9.95, a mark that stood from 1968 to 1963 and I remember when that mark stood at 9.93 for some time, from 1983, when Calvin Smith set the mark until Carl Lewis (my vote getter for greatest Olympian ever, by the way) set the clean record (following the ignominy of Ben Johnson) of 9.92. (Here is the progression of the record.) Today we take a sub-10 second hundred for granted, forgetting how ridiculously fast such a race is.
We have entered a new realm in the 100, and perhaps in the 200 if that really is Bolt's better event. Bolt ran a 9.5-something race the other day but the joyousness of winning Olympic gold took over. Michael Phelps' eight golds is awesome, and his world records are undeniable. But the worth of swimming world records seems to have undergone a devaluation in recent months. But Usain Bolt's world record is the single greatest one-event performance in this Olympics, and while not Bob Beamonesque, represents one of the greatest single accomplishments in the history of the Olympics.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
I have always been interested in these smaller sports, though in some ways I am ambivalent about them. Let me express this ambivalence by way of anecdote. When I was in high school there was a guy a couple of years ahead of me who had grown up in the next town over but came to NHS for High School, and he was one of the best ski jumpers in America. As a result, he never set foot on the Newport ski team, and spent huge portions of his year in Lake Placid. Because of the change that caused the winter Olympics to stagger (so that there would be either a summer or a Winter Olympics every two years) there were two Winter Olympics in a two year span in 1992 and 1994, and as a result this guy was able to participate in three Olympics, 1992, 1994, and 1998. In a small town -- in any town, really -- this is an awesome accomplishment.
One day one of my teachers, a former college basketball player and an assistant football coach, as well as hands-down the most respected teacher in the school (debunking the bad-teacher-as-coach meme) said in a conversation about sports: well, x is obviously the greatest athlete ever to come from Newport. And in terms of accomplishment the argument was a tough one to dispute. And I did not begrudge this guy his stardom -- while he never even came close to medalling (American ski jumping is, let's just say, not so good) he was also no Eddie the Eagle. He was a fantastic American ski jumper and a legitimate member of the tail end of the world class, which is to say, he was world class.
At the same time, a little perspective is in order. I was a member of the ski team in high school for my 8th grade, freshman, sophomore, and junior years, until I became good enough at track to be a legitimate contender in my events at the state and New England level and decided to pursue indoor track as a solo competitor, since NHS did not have an indoor track team. My high school had very little in terms of material comforts, but as a freak of circumstances, we did have the best 30-meter ski jump in the state, a practice jump from the 1932 Lake Placid winter games, and thus in years when there was enough natural snowfall (and when insurance liability was covered -- which means not all that often) we had a ski jumping team and hosted the state meet. I competed on that team in one of the very few states to have high school ski jumping. And in the one year I could do so, I was middling in the most literal sense -- I finished in the middle of the pack in the state meet out of about 50 competitors. There are approximately 500-600 ski jumpers in the United States in any given year. I was one of those (and my high school team had more than 1% of the nation's whole), and I was not one of the very, very worst. So being a United States representative for the Olympic ski jumping team is impressive, but you are competing against a pretty small pool. I would be willing to bet that there are more long jumpers in New Hampshire and Vermont, where a huge swath of the US ski jumping team is drawn from, than there are ski jumpers in the United States. And there are no ski jumpers in the states that otherwise tend to produce more world class athletes than New Hampshire. Take that for what it's worth. I take it as an indication that while any Olympian is impressive, we are entering Animal Farm territory in the sense that some Olympians are more impressive than others.
On to observations about some of the specific events:
Swimming: The swimming competition has been riveting. I'm not too worried about the effects of the new swimsuit that has changed the face of the sport. This is not akin to performance enhancing drugs, the use of which is not only banned in the Olympics, but in most cases is illegal in most countries in the world. And the swimming suits pose no health hazard to their users, which means that no one has to engage in a moral or ethical or health debate as to whether to use them. That said, the world records are falling at such a rate that it does cheapen the value of world records in the sport even though it does not invalidate those records. I have no doubt that today's swimmers are better than those in the past, with superior physical skills, better and smarter training, and better facilities and, yes, suits. The competition is the thing, and the competition, even the non-Phelps competition, has been fun to watch. And swimming has enough parallels with track that I think I get not only the basics (which are hardly tough to grasp) but the scope and scale of the accomplishments and also the nature of the competition -- the splits, the training, the idea of peaking, the between-events preparation and so forth. Track and swimming may not be the same language, but they are mutually intelligible to enough of a degree to make conversation viable. Swimming is Portuguese to track's Spanish, if you will.
As for Phelps, I want to first say that I am fully on board this bandwagon. What he is doing is awesome. He is making a case, I think he has made the case, for being the greatest swimmer of all time, even if he does not win another gold. But let's slow the talk about Phelps necessarily being the greatest Olympian of all time. He is lucky and talented enough to compete in a sport where eight medals is part of the realm of possibility. This is not the case for a sport such as track, where competing in four events is itself an impressive accomplishment. Look how many ways there are to go 100 meters in swimming. Recall, meanwhile, 1996, when Michael Johnson pulled off the until-then unheard of 200-400 double. Track has more prelims, it takes longer to recover, and I would be willing to press the case that track is substantially more competitive than swimming in terms of the number of people you have to beat. This is not to say that swimming is akin to ski jumping. But I would also argue that a sport that pretty much is not competitive in sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of white enclaves in South Africa (and that in general is a sport of white privilege and affluence wherever contested) does not compare with track. Everyone has run the 100 meters. Even among people who swim a lot, very few have actually swum a 100-meter breaststroke or butterfly or even backstroke never mind done so for time.
And so when this conversation about the greatest Olympian happens, consider a Carl Lewis, who won gold medals in four Olympics in events that are far more globally competitive than the swimming events. I would be willing to bet that there are more 100-meter runners and long jumpers in the state of Texas than there are swimmers in any two of Phelps' events in the United States. And there are almost inarguably more people doing those events in the United States from the high school level on up than there are people doing all of Phelps' events combined across the globe. For these reasons, Lewis gets my vote for greatest Olympian, though others deserve a place in the conversation as well. (Thunderstick made a couple of great points to me the other day: First, Lewis winning the 100, 200, 4x100 and long jump golds in 1984 would be like Phelps winning the 100, 200 and 4x100 freestyle and then winning one of the diving competitions as well. He also argued that the various strokes for swimmers is like having running forward, backward, sideways, and skipping being seperate events at every distance in track.) And let's keep in mind that there are lots of athletes for whom more than one or perhaps two events would simply be impossible. Al Oerter won four gold medals in four consecutive Olympics in the discus. At that level there is not a lot of crossover even with the shot or the hammer throw. And what of boxers? Members of team sports?
So Phelps has been awesome in a sport most of us appreciate. And he deserves a place in the conversation of all-time greats, in and of itself an almost unfathomably awesome accomplishment. But let's not simply equate winning the most medals with being the best Olympian of all time, even if it certainly helps to bolster his case.
Gymnastics: Now let me bitch about everyone's favorite pixies, the gymnasts. I love sports, so I find myself willing to watch as the competitions get close simply because the language of sport is pretty universal. I watched some of both the women's and men's team competitions the last two nights. I was marginally interested. But here are two gripes:
Judged sports lose serious legitimacy points in my mind. When someone decides who wins rather than the competitors making those decisions, it tends to invalidate the exercise. (I exempt sports where without the default mechanism of judging people would be beaten to death. And Olympic boxing judging is such that I hardly see it as more legit than gymnastics in most cases anyhow.)
The second issue, which effects the women's competition, is that I have a hard time taking any sport seriously in which chldren are considered to have the advantage over adults and in which people lie about their age not to get an advantage of precociousness and thus opportunity down the road, as we see with lots of athletes in lots of sports globally, but rather because being young gives them a serious advantage while they are kids. Any sport where being 20 is a disadvantage because 20 is considered old is a dubious sport in my mind. Sports are about young people excelling, but in most realms that means young adults at their physical peak. Even granting the differing rates of physical maturity that makes many women tend to peak athletically at younger ages, women's gymnastics is a freak show outlier. W
in the end, women's gymnastics is the favorite sport of people who don't like sports (its winter corrollary is, of course, figure skating).
Basketball: I cannot get all that enthused about the Redeem Team. I tend to prefer Olympic sports in which the Olympics represents the pinnacle of that sport -- your track and field, your swimming, your ping pong (I assume). And I have a hard time getting too excited about a sport that we have historically dominated to the point where a bronze medal is not only a disappointent, but also a sign of utter failure. I hope the Americans win, I guess. But I am having a difficult time mustering up too much enthusiasm for the games the way that I know the Thunderstick is (though he is as concerned with how Coach K's role as coach will effect Duke basketball. The Olympic spirit: catch it!)
But enough griping. I think there is a badmnton final on tonight, and probably some kayaking. USA! USA! USA!
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Friday, August 08, 2008
One curiousity that even casual viewers will have is how NBC and its several component stations will address the China question. Will NBC remain largely mum, making the fatuous (and demonstrably false) claim that politics have no place in the Olympics? Will any athletes use the medal stand, starting blocks, or any other platform to speak out against China's human rights abuses? Will China shoot itself in the foot by proving its critics' point?
And then there is the much-discussed issue of air quality. Everything you have heard is true. The air is nasty in China. When I was in Beijing a couple of years ago the smog was ubiquitous. On my last day, however, a mucous-thick yellow haze draped the city so that on the way to the airport early in the morning visibility was near impossible. Barring great luck, expect this environmental worry to be a legitimate question, especially when outdoor endurance events are in play.
My guess is that the main theme we'll see the most over the next couple of weeks will involve that precarious line between cultural exploration and cultural streotype. There will be myriad stories and images exploiting the differences between China and the West that will inevitably hint at the idea of ther inscrutable Chinese. And this is understandable -- China is very different from what most of us know. But how this is handled will be telling. There will be very real transportation and language issues for athlete and spectator alike. And China is fascinating. But this sort of endeavor is fraught with landmines. The line between caricature and picture is finer than most think.
Here are a few links that caught my eye this morning: Bob Ryan's column in The Boston Globe is, as should be expected, fine. The New York Times has a blog, Rings, covering all things Olympics (and here is an interesting interview on odd Olympic events with NYT sports magazine Play's John Tayman). The Washington Post scours its archives and samples excerpts from more than a century of opinions on the Olympics. The Council on Foreign Relations spotlights how the Games are part of a larger plan to augment China's peculiar brand of authoritarian capitalism. Here is an article from South Africa's Mail & Guardian discussing the "spectacle and controversy" that will be these games.
Enjoy the Games, USA! USA! Etc.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
The lesson: Avoid the hubris of proclaiming indestructibility. Do not claim that your ship is unsinkable. Do not claim that your plane (or helium-filled deathtrap) cannot crash. And do not claim that your new electronic passport with a microchip embedded in it is "foolproof against identity theft." Inevitably, some wise guy will clone it within minutes.
Postscript: Despite my revelation of the fallibility of the cups, my grandmother bought about a dozen, some of which were still extant upon her passing in 2003 and may be somewhere now for all I know. I made the All-Star team at first base that year playing for the Dodgers.
Moments later the bombshell came across the wires: Nomar had been traded to the Cubs in a four-team deal. The Sox received what at the time was the seemingly underwhelming pair of Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. To add to the perplexing nature of the deal, the Sox also gave up a prized prospect, Matt Murton. It seemed at the time that wunderkind General manager Theo Epstein had been fleeced. Epstein talked about needing to upgrade Nomar's defense (which had declined precipitously) but that seemed like rationalization.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to last Thursday. The situation with Manny Ramirez had clearly gone beyond the point of repair. Manny had begun a vanishing act all too familiar to Red Sox fans. In 2006 he effectively boycotted the last six weeks of the season, a season that began promisingly but then fell apart due to injuries but also to Manny's petulence. When he started sitting out games this season, claiming amorphous injuries that the medical staff could not identify, and when the whispering from the clubhouse indicated that Manny Being Manny had crossed the tipping point from cute to harmful, Epstein knew it was time to go.
Like in 2004 the 4:00 (est) trade deadline passed with seemingly no movement. Manny appeared set to remain with the Red Sox. Then the news came down: Manny had been traded in a three-team deal to the Dodgers. The Sox would also give up Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss. For two young players and the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation the Red Sox would get Jason Bay, a fine player who had wallowed in obscurity for the execrable Pirates.
It did not take long for the chattering classes to have at it. Theo had been fleeced! You find a way to live with a guy like Manny with his production! And perhaps most galingly, the Red Sox were now done for the year! No way could they compete with the Tampa Bay Rays (!?) and Yankees for the American League East.
This palaver is silly. For one thing, while Jason Bay may not be Manny, he is almost inarguably more reliable than Manny if Manny chooses not to play or not to put forth the necessary effort. We become blinded by the names of superstars, and yet the raw numbers indicate that Bay's production is comparable to Manny's this year. The Red Sox offense is solid, despite some frustrations of late (with Manny), and the reality is that the team's biggest weakness, the bullpen bridge to Papelbon, is far more significant than any offensive worries. Bay is not only going to be fine in Boston, the Red Sox are going to be fine, and may flourish, with him plugging that spot. (And although defense and baserunning are overrated, Bay is a substantial upgrade over Manny in those areas.) Furthermore, even if the Sox survived this season with Manny there was zero chance that they were going to exercise the club's $20 million option. Given that reality, and with Bay signed through 2009, the question became, or should have become, not just whether two months of Manny (who may simply choose not to play or not to run out a ground ball single) was better than two months of Bay, but whether two months of Manny was better than two months plus one full season, cost-controlled, of Bay.
Emotionally, however, the feeling is quite different. In what amounts to a bizarre coinsidence, weeks ago I had planned to be at Friday night's Dodgers game against the Diamondbacks. I was already thrilled to be going to a game with huge playoff implications. Suddenly I would be at Manny's first game. I loved Manny. I was one of those who believed that Theo Epstein and Tito Francona had brilliantly dealt with Manny being Manny. But I also knew that things had gotten out of hand, that management's tricks no longer could counteract Manny's increasing tendency to play the saboteur, and that it was time to get value for him. So I wondered what my recation would be when Manny debuted in a Dodgers uniform on Friday night.
The answer is that I could not help myself. I wanted to see Manny do well. I was bummed to see him in a Dodgers uniform. I cheered him.
I loved the Manny era in Boston. A lot of people have placed a bit too much emphasis on his 2004 World Series MVP -- realistically that probably should have gone to Keith Foulke, and in any case, Manny hardly placed the team on his shoulders in that relatively easy four-game sweep. But the reality is that Manny was an essential member of the team that nbot only brought the Red Sox two titles, but who also carried them through a long period of sustained excellence, even in those years when they did not win it all. Manny was a blast to watch, the sort of guy who causes even casual fans to stop what they are doing to watch his at-bats. Yes, I resented the coasting and the me-first attitude of the last few weeks. But that did not overwhelm the nearly eight years of excellence he brought us.
In the end I felt sad. Breaking up is hard to do.
So go well, Manny. Earn that $100 million contract you want so dearly. Make LA fans fall in love with you. Carry them to the National League West title (not exactly the American League East, mind you). Make more Manny Moments in Chavez Ravine. Thanks for (almost) everything.
And Jason Bay, welcome to Boston. It is a small sample size so far, but in five games you've acquitted yourself well and vindicated Theo yet again. The fans have embraced you. And you are in the midst of a pennant race in the city where pennant races mean the most, which must be something to behold after those years in the wilderness in Pittsburgh. If the best analogy for the last few days is this same timeframe in 2004, I think we can live with that. 2004 turned out pretty well for us, after all.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Oh well. Go Bobcats! Beat VMI! And enjoy the attention you'll get when you travel up to Columbus to take on Ohio State at the Horseshoe on September 6. I'll be hoping for the best for you.
Given my intermittent blogging ever since my summer started, I'm sure no one is waiting with bated breath for my next post, but later today I'll have thoughts on Manny, the Red Sox, LA sports fans, and being a stranger in a strange land in Oxnard. But the quick takes: We'll miss Manny but it was time to go and he's already electrified LA. The Sox will be fine. Everything you've heard about LA fans seems to be true. Say what you will, but the Cowboys' Brand is a pretty powerful and far-reaching one. More later.