Saturday, February 22, 2014

More Kudos

In the last few days, Salt Lake's Ted Ligety and Vail's Mikaela Shiffrin have vanquished any notion that America's Alpine skiers weren't bringing home enough medals from Sochi. Skiing in his third Olympics, Ligety won gold in the giant slalom with a supersonic run that was one for the ages. On the other end of the experience spectrum, 18-year-old Shiffrin became the youngest gold medalist ever in women's slalom. Her first run yesterday was so much faster than everyone else's that it would have taken a crash in her second run to drop her out of first. There is a long way to go between here and the end of Shiffrin's career, but she has a chance to surpass Picabo Street as the best female skier in U.S. history.

Slovenia:  Tucked  between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, Slovenia is a tiny country with a population half the size of the Boston metropolitan area's -- which makes it all the more remarkable that it has the twelfth largest medal tally in Sochi with 88 countries competing. Tina Maze's golds in downhill and giant slalom made her one of the stars of these games. Many Slovenians are almost as proud of their men's hockey team, which did not medal but did make history by reaching the medal round and defeating "big seven" power Slovakia on the way there.

Bjoerndalen:  Nordic skiing (cross-country, biathlon, and the like) never gets any publicity on our shores so you probably aren't aware that Sochi has seen the crowning of the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. Participating in his sixth Olympics, 40-year-old Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen won gold in the sprint biathlon and then led his country's team to gold in the mixed biathlon relay. That brings his lifetime haul to thirteen medals, including eight golds, surpassing fellow Norwegian Bjoern Daehlie (who won twelve overall including eight golds). Today Bjoerndalen participates in the 4 x 7.5 km biathlon relay, which gives him a chance to add yet another medal to his sizeable trophy case.

Speedsters Part One:  With so many countries on Earth, who knows why there are some sports in which one country dominates all the others? Ping pong has China, long distance running has Kenya, basketball has the United States -- and short-track speedskating has South Korea. South Koreans are always among the medal contenders and often win gold, a fact that has continued to hold true this year. And it is worth noting that Viktor Ahn, who has won two golds and a bronze while skating for Russia during these games, was born in South Korea and moved to Russia just three years ago.

Speedsters Part Two:  Then, in traditional speedskating, you have The Netherlands. Speedskating is considered its national sport and its citizens (the Dutch) have been earning medals in disproportionate numbers for a long time, but this year they have taken their dominance on the oval to a stratospheric level. Coming into today, the Dutch had won more than two-thirds of all the speedskating medals earned in these games and had swept the podium on four separate occasions. All you can say is wow!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

American Kudos

My last post opened with a segment about Shaun White and Shani Davis being disappointments, and proceeded to pooh pooh the attention being given to the preliminary round win by the U.S. men's hockey team over Team Russia.

Almost as soon as I hit "publish," I worried that I might have given the impression that I think our athletes are having a substandard Olympics and are not giving us anything to be proud of. Since that is certainly not the case, I have come back to mention positives about American Olympians in Sochi.

Admittedly, as I type this I am overlooking the epic collapse of our women's hockey team this morning, but enough about that. We currently have two more medals than any other country, and here is a small sampling of the great stories surrounding our athletes in Sochi:

The Stunt(wo)men
On February 9th I enthused about Americans Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson sweeping the slopestyle snowboarding golds, and went on to praise that sport's free-wheeling nature as being quintessentially American. In a larger sense, what I sought to praise was all of the acrobatic and relatively new snow sports that have been working their way into the Winter Olympics over the past generation.

In the last 48 hours the United States has scored another gold sweep in one of these events -- ski halfpipe -- with David Wise winning the men's and Maddie Bowman winning the women's. Ski halfpipe has been around for a while but this is its first year in the Olympics.

Wise and Bowman hail from close to one another. He is a product of Reno, Nevada, from which the snow-capped peak of Mount Rose appears close enough to touch. From the ski resort on Mount Rose you can gaze down at the blue waters of Lake Tahoe as it straddles the Nevada-California border, and on the shores of that lake sits the town of South Lake Tahoe, which is home not only to Bowman but to the aforementioned Jamie Anderson.

David Wise is only 23 and sits atop one of the most individualistic sports known to man, yet he's the married father of two-year-old Nayeli. After winning the halfpipe gold, he said he "could just feel her spirit cheering for me" while making his historic run. Sniff sniff.

There is no reason to be euphemistic: Historically, men's bobsled is a sport in which Americans have absolutely sucked, so we should be very happy that we are now among its leaders.

Throughout my childhood I sat in front of the TV every four years and watched teams from East Germany and other Soviet Bloc nations fly down the track while the poor sap American sled kept slipping farther and farther behind. It was as if the Commies brought MiG jets and our guys brought covered wagons, and unfortunately our ineptitude continued for two decades after the Cold War ended. 

Then came 2010, when the Americans won gold in the four-man bobsled to break a 62-year drought in that event. Piloting our sled was Steven Holcomb, a then-29-year-old National Guard veteran who had overcome serious vision problems caused by the eye disease keratoconus.

Then, three days ago over in Sochi, Holcomb broke another 62-year medal drought by piloting our two-man bobseld to the bronze. I am usually not one to make much of a fuss over bronze medals (doesn't third place mean you didn't win?), but when you consider that Harry Truman was president the last time an American earned any medal in this event -- and when you consider that Holcomb made the podium despute being plagued with a calf injury that surely affected his push-off and thereby hurt his time -- there is no denying that this bronze is a big deal.

My inclination to not "make much of a fuss over bronze medals" is based on an assumption that is not always true: Specifically, that the person who gets bronze was thought to have a genuine chance to win gold but came up short. Fortunately, pauper-to-prince stories like that of Alex Deibold prove that not all third place finishes are created equal.

The Manchester, Vermont citizen made it to the 2010 Winter Olympics, but not as a participant. He was the guy in the wax room who inhaled acrid odors while dutifully applying wax to the bottoms of the snowboards on which our athletes hoped to (and in some cases did) attain glory. Over the next four years he trained diligently at snowboarding in order to earn an Olympic berth, while working odd jobs to pay the bills.

When Deibold arrived in Sochi, he did so as an Olympic participant in snowboard cross, though not a highly regarded one. Team USA brought four competitors in the event and Deibold was considered the least talented of the bunch -- which is to say, he was thought of as being nowhere near the third best snowboard crossman on the entire planet. His name did not appear on observers' lengthy lists of medal contenders.

Snowboard cross is not a race against the clock with one person at a time coming down the course, nor is it a gymnastics-like discipline decided by judging and made suspect by subjectivity. It is a head-to-head race in which boarders take off at the same time and zoom down a steeply sloping, often undulating course. As the qualifying races unfolded Wednesday, Deibold seemed to always finish as the last or next-to-last person who qualified to advance to the next round. And he would not have made the medal race if not for the fact that in the semifinals, he reached the finish line six inches ahead of teammate Trevor Jacob while both were splaying out for it.

In the final Deibold spent much of the race in fourth place behind France's Paul Henri De le Rue, but on a late turn he cut to the inside and passed De le Rue as the latter hit a brief skid. From there on his lead over De le Rue never contracted. When he crossed the finish line he was mobbed by his American teammates, each of whom was more highly regarded and all of whom had been eliminated before the finals.

Never before has a third place finish felt so worthy of celebration.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thoughts Midway Through

Semi-random thoughts now that the Olympics are a little more than half over:

The High Profile Disappointments
So much attention was given to the attempts by Shaun White and Shani Davis to win gold for the third straight Olympics -- and so little given to the fact that each of them was only one of many world class competitors gunning for the gold in their respective events -- that I had a hunch they would fail. Years of watching sports have taught me that when fans and media act like an outcome is preordained, said outcome usually does not materialize. Call it the "That's Why They Play The Games Effect."

Still, I never would have predicted that neither of them would earn any medal at all. Though their Olympic careers have been great, this was a very disappointing way for them to end. Perhaps one or both of them will make another run four years from now, but Old Man Time's merciless nature makes it unlikely.

A Less Obvious Disappointment
This one has nothing to do with the performance of any one athlete or team. Instead, it has to do with the reaction of our country's fans to our hockey team's preliminary round win over Russia. There is nothing wrong with trumpeting the stellar, four-goal performance of T.J. Oshie in the shootout. There is, however, quite a bit wrong with the way lots of people are trumpeting the win without acknowledging that there was something dubious about it.

Technically, the refs were correct to wave off Russia's third period goal that would have won the game for them in regulation. The refs were correct because the peg lodging the left goalpost to the ground was bent, resulting in the goal cage being microscopically off its moorings. Check out the picture below, which was taken several seconds before the disallowed goal, to see how insignificant it was. If you look close, you can see that the left post is a whisker back from the goal line compared to the right post:

2 15 2014 8 59 38 AM

Keep in mind that the post was still fastened to the ground and never became dislodged. The goal would have stood in the NHL, but international rules do not permit discretion in this instance, and therefore do not permit common sense. If Team USA had lost a game because of such a small and unimportant technicality, we would be screaming that we got robbed and agitating for the rule to be changed, and we would be right to do so.

A dumb rule does not suddenly become a good one when it delivers a benefit to your team. It remains a dumb rule all the same. If we are the paragons of sporting ethics that we claim to be, our reaction to Saturday's game should be nothing other than: "We caught a lucky break and then Oshie was brilliant and inspiring in the shootout, but it would be a crime if a game in the medal round gets decided by something like that."

Alpine Skiing
Overall, our results in the events collectively known as alpine skiing have been below expectations, but I don't see that as a reason to gnash our teeth. Every one of those events amounts to barreling recklessly down a steep mountainside with life and limb at risk, knowing full well that something as capricious as touching a two-inch area of differently compacted snow might slow you down by a mere fraction of a second that somehow drops you from first place to fifth.

When a country's alpiners make fewer trips to the podium than expected, that tends to be a function of the sport's nature as opposed to the skiers having choked under pressure. And it is not as if our guys and gals have given us nothing to cheer about, as evidenced by 36-year-old Bode Miller becoming the oldest person (by two years!) ever to medal in an alpine event.

Beware the Finns
Obviously I want Team USA to bring home the hockey gold. And I am fully aware that most people consider Canada to be the favorite because of its depth, while many others expect Russia to triumph because they are on home ice. Regardless, if I had to wager money on who will win gold, I would put my eggs in Finland's basket.

Like I pointed out in my previous post, it is Finland, not Canada, that has won the most hockey medals since NHL players started participating. The Finns have always been able to put a plethora of snipers and superb skaters on the ice; but with Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, and Antti Niemii between the pipes this year, they now have what I think is the strongest goaltending contingent at these games.

It baffles me that none of the sportswriters and sports anchors are talking about the Finns as gold medal contenders. I, for one, will not be the least bit surprised if they finish atop the podium.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Greatest Competition

I have written before about why I love hockey.

And NHL players participating in the Olympics, which they have done since 1998, is a reason to love it even more.

Although invented and first perfected in Canada, hockey is an international sport in which multiple countries invest a great deal of pride. The Olympic teams of the "big seven" hockey nations (Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, the USA, and the Czech Republic) are all loaded not only with NHL players, but NHL stars.

And those are not the only countries whose Olympic rosters include NHL'ers. Team Slovenia features Anze Kopitar, who led the LA Kings to their first ever Stanley Cup championship by tallying 20 points during the 2012 postseason. Team Latvia includes Buffalo Sabers winger Zemgus Girgensons, and counts retired goalie Arturs Irbe (13 seasons in the NHL) as an assistant coach.

The "excellence parity" among the sport's international leaders is illustrated by the fact that in the first three Olympics that included NHL players, six different nations reached the gold medal game and a different champion was crowned each time. It is also illustrated by the fact that despite all the focus on Canada, Russia, and the USA, it is Finland that has won the most medals in the "NHL Era" of the Olympics.

In a touch of cosmic perfection, every gold medal game during this era has pitted rival nations against each other, kicking off with the Czechs upsetting the Russians in 1998. That outcome triggered a wave of national pride among Czechs who resented the larger country for having held theirs under its thumb during the Cold War. Throngs gathered in Prague for a victory ceremony, with some people holding "Hasek is God" signs in honor of goaltender Dominik Hasek.

In 2006, when Arctic Circle neighbors Sweden and Finland met for the whole ball of wax, it was such a big deal that the two countries practically shut down so their citizens could watch the game and cheer for their warriors on skates to beat the guys from next door.

And when our country's team faced Canada's in 2002 and 2010, it represented not just a duel between countries that share the longest border on Earth, but a duel of pride in which Canada desperately wanted to stop its yappy southern neighbors from staking a claim to Canada's game, while the USA desperately wanted to show its preening northern neighbors that they do not have a divine right to hockey supremacy just because.

Perhaps the biggest testament to hockey's greatness is that NHL players (most of them stars) have an insatiable desire to play in the Olympics, practically for free and undoubtedly at risk of career-ending injury. They do it because of their passion for the game and their love of their homelands.

So many of us criticize professional athletes for being all about themselves; for having no loyalty to anything bigger than their own personal bubble; for continuing to play only so they can line their wallets -- yet too few of us appreciate the fact that hundreds of professional hockey players routinely give us a reason to free our minds of that cynicism.

The only discouraging thing is that 16 years after the NHL started allowing its players to play in the Olympics, so many NHL management types are openly disdainful of Olympic participation and are making noise about doing away with it after this year's games come to a close. They drone on about how NHL players should realize that playing in the Olympics is "not their job" -- as if it were some petty whimsy akin to your high school son wanting to play video games instead of study for his geometry test.

Well, pardon my faux Quebecois French, but fuck that. Those management types should be ashamed of themselves. They should realize that the "higher purpose" aspirations of their players (I'm sorry, their "employees") is the precise attribute that draws fans to the game of hockey and thereby allows the league to prosper, which in turn allows those very same management types to work in dream jobs and dwell in nice big homes in the suburbs.

For decades hockey has been the Winter Olympics' marquee event. For 16 years it has been even more marquee than before, because the players lacing up have been indubitably the best in the world. It might be hard to quantify how much the NHL gains from allowing its charges to participate in the Olympics every four years, but I have no doubt that the losses it would experience if it denies their future participation would be obvious. And impossible to deny.

The league's leaders should stop their grumbling and announce that they will never try to deny their players' God-given right to play for their countries and for their love of the game. This game is great for a reason, and the Olympics exemplify that reason. May it ever be so.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Opening Thoughts

Semi-random thoughts now that the Olympics' opening weekend has drawn to a close:

The Opening Ceremony
With a schoolgirl "flying" dreamlike on cables while new projection technology created all kinds of imagery, it was spectacular. The illusion of breaking ice was striking. The depiction of a circa-1700 warship portrayed strength without portraying aggression. The majesty of Russia's culture was transmitted, the magnitude of its size made vivid.

However, the depiction of twentieth century Russia was more than a little disturbing. Since twentieth century Russia was marked by one of the worst tyrannies in human history, maybe there is a case to be made that asking for a "good" depiction was asking too much, but I don't think so. You could put a heavy emphasis on Yuri Gagarin being the first person in space; infused with a flower-of-peace allusion to the large role Russian soldiers played in defeating the Nazis; followed by a tribute to Alexander Solzhinetsyn, whose freedom-loving soul was every bit as Russian as it was anti-Communist.

Instead we got a locomotive that was explicitly meant to recall the mid-century "propaganda trains" that were used by the Soviet government to carry speakers and films into the hinterlands to sway the minds of uneducated peasants. In the wake of that locomotive we got a hanging sickle bathed in red, and as we all should know, a sickle is not merely a tool, especially in Sochi's corner of the world.

Putin & Co. saw to it that Friday night's extravaganza made no mention of Lenin or Stalin, and of course it displayed no images of gulags. But it made sure to present Russia as an alpha wolf, while Putin himself, KGB veteran that he is, watched with a wry smile. It gave many reasons for people to view it as confirmation of the widely held belief that Putin wants Soviet-style hegemony to be restored.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the games... felt good to see the United States sweep the slopestyle snowboarding golds, with Idaho's Sage Kotsenburg winning the men's event and Tahoe's Jamie Anderson taking the women's. There is something inherently American about this sport. Ours was the first nation ever to be based on a creed of individual freedom as opposed to an accident of geography, and slopestyle is an event where the freest of spirits use athletic prowess to push their individual creativity to the limit.

Winter's Kenyans
If anything is for sure when it comes to the Winter Olympics, it is this: When the medals ceremony for men's luge is held, the top flag will be yellow, red, and black and the music that gets played will be "Das Deutschalndlied," because Germans dominate luge in much the same way that Kenyans dominate long distance running. These games have already seen that dominance continue, with Felix Loch finishing almost a half-second (which is to say, a racing eternity) ahead of silver medalist Albert Demchecnko.

Ominously for the rest of the luging world, Loch is only 24 years old, which means he may not even have hit his prime yet; and this is already his second Olympic championship, since he also won gold in Vancouver four years ago. He has a very legitimate chance to wrest the title of "greatest luger ever" from his countryman Georg Hackl, who won gold in three different Olympics during the 1990's and was known to celebrate his victories by hitting the pubs and openly chugging liter after liter of beer.

Chicks on ice
I'm not talking about figure skaters in tights and sequins, I'm talking about hockey players with sticks and pads. Having watched long parts of three games over the past two days (U.S.-Finland, Canada-Switzerland, and Russia-Germany) I have to say that the quality of play in the women's game is far ahead of where it was one or two Olympics ago. The speed is real, the passes sharp, the shots crisp. Watching a women's basketball game is dull and torturous, but watching a women's hockey game is genuinely exciting -- as a hockey fan.

But unlike men's hockey, in which seven countries have a legitimate chance to win gold, women's hockey has seen us and Canada play for the gold every single time since it became an Olympic sport. The rivalry is so heated that over the weekend I heard one talking head ask if there will be a fight when the teams play this year.

Well, I am glad to hear that our gals take things so seriously, but I'm here to say that based on my "eyeball analysis," I don't think they have much of a chance to win it all. Based on the games I have watched, the team from north of the Great Lakes seems to be in a league of its own. Our team might also be in a league of its own, but it looks like it is destined to be a second place league unless goaltending upends everything.

And lastly...
...the "gay thing." The human rights violations of the Russian government are so sweeping that it is embarrassing to watch our government make it all about some law concerning "gay propaganda" (whatever that means) being pushed on children. It makes our government look small, pandering, and ridiculous. So Putin wants to beef up his arms while protecting a nuclear-ambitious Iran and cajoling us to reduce our defenses? Well, so what, but how dare he harbor negative thoughts about gay people! Let's send Taylor Swift over there to educate him about how insensitive it is to be a bully!

But that should not overshadow the fact that the gay athletes Obama sent over as part of our delegation have handled themselves with class and dignity. Neither Brian Boitano nor Caitlin Cahow are blind to the fact that they were named to our delegation because of their sexuality, not their athletic accomplishments, yet they have conducted themselves as athletes first whose sexuality is incidental.

They talk about the Olympics, not their private lives, and only address their sexuality when they are asked about it. Prior to being named to our delegation, they neither hid nor broadcast their sexuality. Most of us figured Boitano was gay, but we remembered him because the American flag was raised when he won the gold, not because he ever wrapped himself in a rainbow flag.

I don't like Obama....and I think his singular focus on gay athletes is definitely absurd and possibly fake...but I think that Boitano and Cahow have made themselves among our most respectable Olympians ever.