Monday, August 29, 2016

Olympic Wrap-up, Part Two

It's a given that wherever the Olympics are held, NBC will spangle our televisions with the handsomest views that the host city and surrounding countryside have to offer. The 2016 Summer Games ended eight days ago and were no exception.

We saw the green, sawtooth peaks of the Brazilian Highlands rising over tall buildings by the beach.

We were treated to aerial views of the statue Cristo Redentor -- Christ the Redeemer -- perched atop the narrow pinnacle of Corcovado Mountain with the city of Rio de Janeiro far below.

We caught a glimpse of a ribbonesque waterfall cascading down a steep slope.

We got an extended report by Tom Brokaw that showed him eating steak and hanging out with gauchos in a landscape that looked like the Ozarks.

And also, during these Olympics and right there in Rio, an unseemly incident occurred with a man who happens to be one of the highest ranking figures in the International Olympic Committee.

When the Games began, Pat Hickey, a 71-year Irishman, was serving as president of both the European Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Ireland. He was considered Europe's top Olympic official and a major player who could help bring the Summer Games back to that continent in 2024.

Eleven days later (four days before the Games concluded) he was arrested stark naked in a luxury hotel on suspicion of helping run a ticket scalping racket of greater than three million dollars.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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There has always been friction between the fantasy of the "Olympic movement" and the reality of the bureaucratic machine that lords over the whole shebang... but over the last 15 or so years, that friction has become particularly bad.

There is something inherently good about the world's greatest athletes convening to compete in their respective sports to determine who is best, and doing so with a sense of national pride... but there is something inherently wrong with governments spending multiple billions of their currency constructing facilities that will, after two weeks of use, sit empty with no anchor tenant for the rest of time.

There is something inherently good about athletes making their own path and earning their own way without asking for public handouts... and there is something inherently bad about the fact that while athletes do that, and while they also spend countless hours in thankless training, Olympic officials jet around accepting bazillions in bribes and feasting on $50 steaks while promoting amateurism for athletes.

On the heels of the notorious grift of the Sochi Winter Games, these Rio Summer Games kept right on pushing the cart further down the hill. God knows how much money passed hands during the "getting ready" stage, yet things were so poorly organized that spectators couldn't get to the events they came to see, and the diving pool turned green, and the Olympic Village was so incomplete and ramshackle that at least one country (Australia) warned its athletes to lodge elsewhere due to safety concerns. It seems like a lot of money went into someone's pockets without ever being put to use, and it's hard to believe that situation won't repeat.

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Which leads to a related question: Have the Olympics grown too big?

Which leads to another: Are they worth continuing to stage at their current extent?

Some of the world's finest and richest cities -- i.e., the ones best equipped to stage the Olympics -- have dropped out of the bidding process in recent years after deciding the costs are too high and that the potential rewards do not outweigh the actual risks.

Stockholm was favored to get the 2022 Winter Games, but shocked everybody by withdrawing its bid. Its withdrawal put Oslo in the driver's seat, but Oslo's own citizens were so antipathetic toward the idea of hosting the Olympics that its committee merely went through the bidding motions rather than going all-out. The unsurprising result was that those Games were awarded to the human rights disaster known as China, which will of course use them to propagandize about the, ahem, glories of their "communist experiment."

Meanwhile, Boston dropped its bid for 2024, and Chicago, which was gung ho about bidding for 2016, didn't even bother to re-submit for 2020 or 2024.

If places like those are bowing out, how can places like Rio justify the expense? On this front, I have plenty of questions but no answers.

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Theoretically, if we could get past the issues of money and security and lopsided cost-benefit ratios, Earth is filled with all kinds of intriguing places that could host future Olympics.

Although we think of Israel and Lebanon as hot desert nations, they both have ski resorts because they both have mountains that receive significant snow. Lebanon even has its famous cedar groves that look somewhat like the evergreen forests of California's High Sierra. So how about having the Winter Olympics in the Middle East?

Ideally they would be in Israel, not Lebanon -- better to have them hosted by a first world democracy than by a Syria-influenced puppet state run by the terrorist organization Hezbollah -- but again, I'm talking theory, so they could be in either. And hey, if you really want to show that the whole "Olympic Movement" thing is not a fraud, how about those two countries, one Jewish and one Muslim, get together and co-host the Games?

How about Winter Olympics in South America? When we think of that continent we think of sweaty rain forests and tropical heat, but the Andes have some of the snowiest summits on Earth and there are ski resorts in Chile and Argentina. So why not?

And since Beijing, the headquarters of Communist China, will have hosted two Olympics in fourteen years come 2022, how about the IOC man up and make a statement about independence and sovereignty by awarding a Summer Olympics to Taiwan? They should make Taipei the host city and call the country Taiwan instead of spinelessly referring to it as "Chinese Taipei" or "Republic of China." They should have the whitewater events in a free-flowing river in the Central Mountain Range. And trust me, it would be good.

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Of course all of that is a long shot and some of it is, at least for now, a pipe dream.

But it doesn't have to stay that way. Even the Israel-Lebanon co-hosting idea could eventually become plausible, when you remember how close the Cedar Revolution came to succeeding.

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The next three Olympics will all be in the Orient: Winter 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Summer 2020 in Tokyo, and Winter 2022 in Beijing.

That is good, but the Olympics obviously need to step away from that that neck of the woods for 2024, and it will be interesting to see which neck they choose to enter.

Los Angeles is bidding for those games (Go America!) and if it wins, it will mean the City of Angels gets to host on the 40th anniversary of its staggeringly successful 1984 Summer Games.

But Paris is also bidding (last hosted in 1924) and so is Rome (last hosted in 1960). And so is Budapest (going for its first).

I do not know the logistics -- i.e., number of hotel rooms within a certain radius, abundance of facilities, reliability of public transport -- but I do know that Budapest would get my vote if everything else is even close to equal.

It is one of Europe's greatest cities, but nobody (or at least no American) ever thinks about it.

It would be the first non-Russian city from behind the Iron Curtain to host an Olympics since the Iron Curtain got ripped down.

It would put an often overlooked country, Hungary, front and center on the world stage.

I say do it!

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And with that said, I'll sign off. I've rambled long enough and this blog post isn't going to change anything, but it was fun to opine. And fortunately, the World Cup of Hockey is right around the corner!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic Wrap-up, Part One

The 2016 Summer Olympics have come and gone with lots of highs and lows... and I am talking mostly about the actual sports, and not at all about the long strange trip of Ryan Lochte & Co. This post promises to be a Lochte-free zone.

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Things started with a bang, as the first few days alone turned up almost everything you could ask for.

There was talk of dangerously inadequate housing in the Olympic Village, and whispers about whether NBC deliberately covered up that story in order to put a happy face on the games it pays so much to support.

There was a rules controversy (thought not a judging controversy) which centered around Gabby Douglas getting screwed out of an earned opportunity to defend her gold medal from 2012.

And there was a PED scandal focused on the Soviets Russians, who arrived under a cloud of suspicion due to recent revelations about systemic, state-sponsored doping in their sports programs. This triggered pointed, vocal, and very open contempt criticism from many non-Russian athletes, including American swimmer Lily King, who pointed her finger directly at competitor Yulia Efimova.

On the PED front, it almost felt like the Eighties again. The only thing missing was a squad of bearded East German women the size of Orlando Pace heaving shot puts 50 feet and lifting 500 pounds on the clean-and-jerk. I felt almost nostalgic for the bad ol' days.

But getting back to the actual sports, since I did promise to talk "mostly" about them...

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What could be cooler than a 19-year-old American chick wielding a rifle and outshooting the world to win the first gold of the games? Especially when she has such a perfect name: Virginia Thrasher!

What could be more energizing than our female gymnasts securing a second straight team gold, and following it up with Simone Biles and Aly Raisman finishing 1-2 in both the individual all-around and individual floor routine? Well, how about Biles winning four golds and a bronze at the somewhat-old-for-gymnastics age of 19?

What could be more pleasantly surprising than our swim team accumulating a record-tying 33 medals, and multiple world records to boot?

What could be more mind-boggling that Michael Phelps cementing his place as the greatest Olympian of all time, by winning five golds and a silver at the age of 31 -- and performing just as impressively as he did eight years ago in Beijing?

What could be more noteworthy than our men's and women's track teams prevailing in three of the four sprint relays? How about Allyson Felix being on two of those and anchoring one, and thus becoming the first woman in history to win six track golds in an Olympic career?

What could be more "world's greatest athlete"-ish that Ashton Eaton winning his second consecutive Olympic decathlon, becoming only the third person ever to do so?

Or more sweeping than Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin owning the podium by going 1-2-3 in the 100 meter hurdles?

Or more emotional than the women's water polo team winning their second consecutive gold -- and every player proceeding to drape her medal around the neck of Coach Adam Krikorian, whose brother Blake died of a heart attack days before the opening ceremony?

What could be more smile-worthy than Team USA winning both the men's and women's shot put? Or Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. becoming the first American to win the 1,500 meters in 108 years? Or Galen Rupp winning bronze in the marathon after having previously run just one -- yes, one -- marathon in his entire life?

And what could be more age-defying than cyclist Kristin Armstrong, at the age of 43, winning her third straight Olympic gold in road time trial?

Or more unprecedented that shootist Kim Rhodes becoming the first Olympian to 1) medal in six consecutive Olympics, and 2) medal in Olympics on five different continents?

In typing all those major American accomplishments, I am leaving out many more because there are simply too many to mention. That's a problem, but a good one.

But the Olympics are, of course, not only about our country, so I will move on...

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I do not care for soccer, but I have to admit that the most enduring images from these games flowed from the host nation's championship-clinching victory over Germany.

Soccer is almost a religion in Brazil, and two years ago the Brazilians got eliminated from the World Cup when Germany blew them out 7-1 on their home turf; so when the two countries squared off for the gold on Saturday night at legendary Maracana Stadium, it was, to say the least, a big mofo of a deal.

The roar of the crowd -- 70,000-plus, overflowing, clad almost uniformly in yellow and green -- was the kind of thing that makes sports so cathartic. When the same crowd loudly sang the national anthem during the medal ceremony, it was even better.

But as important as soccer is in the host country, it does not occupy the entirety of that nation's sporting soul. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million (or maybe only five) times: Soccer is Brazil's religion, but volleyball is its #1 sport. I'm not sure what that means because it makes no sense, but I first heard it during the 1984 LA Olympics and haven't forgotten it... and since volleyball means a lot down there, it swelled the nation's pride to see Brazil get medals in three of the four volleyball events: gold in men's indoor and men's beach, plus silver in women's beach.

Although Brazil did not finish extremely high in the overall standings (its 19 medals resulted in a 12th place tie with Holland), the fact that it struck gold in the sports which matter most to its citizens is sure to make these games an event that will be remembered fondly.

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Meanwhile, someone has to give a shout out to Great Britain.

The land of afternoon tea and "God Save the Queen" was once an athletic afterthought, a lightweight that people from other countries snickered about whenever the Olympics rolled around.

Sure, the Brits produced some athletic heroes in the 1924 Olympics (who would have been forgotten if not for the movie Chariots of Fire) but for generations after that, their impact on non-soccer international sports was negligible.

But in the 2004 Athens games, they shimmied up the pole and tied for ninth in the standings, dead even with South Korea both in golds (9) and overall medals (30).

Four years later in Beijing, they landed among the big boys by finishing fourth in both golds (19) and overall (47) -- ahead of longtime juggernauts Germany and Australia, and nipping at the heels of roided up highly regarded Russia.

Next came 2012, when the games were held in London itself and Great Britain ensconced itself among the sporting elite by soundly beating Russia to finish third in the gold medal count (29 to their 22) and crushing Germany to finish fourth in the overall count (65 to 44).

And now in 2016, despite fielding fewer athletes than in 2012, the Brits have done even better by finishing third both in golds and overall. For the first time ever, they beat both the Russians and Germans in both metrics (27-19 in golds and 67-56 overall versus the former; 27-17 in golds and 67-42 overall against the latter)... and perhaps most impressively, they finished with more golds and more silvers than Mao's Machine China.

The Anglosphere now sits atop the sporting world -- not just a nose ahead of the rest of the world thanks to the US and Australia, as has often been the case, but considerably ahead thanks to the founding Anglo(-Saxon) country having become a sports superpower.

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But don't ever overlook the Balkans. It remains as true today as ever that the countries from the Balkan Peninsula know how to punch above their suspected weight class

Back in the 1980's, when worries began to surface that the rest of the world was rapidly catching up to the US in basketball, it wasn't Russian players who triggered the fear, it was Yugoslavians. And when Europeans started playing in the NBA, it was players born and reared in Yugoslavia who made the most waves.

Of course, before long there was no more Yugoslavia, as that artificially mashed-together country split up into its constituent parts and, well, Balkanized. Though it became six different nations, its impact on international hoops remained major because one of the "new" nations, Croatia, was quickly recognized as the world's #2 basketball power and retained that title throughout the 1990's.

Croatian hoops was a non-factor in these Rio Olympics, but Serbia, another of the "new" nations from the former Yugoslavia, proved that Balkan basketball remains powerful. In the preliminary round, Team Serbia outplayed Team USA's roster of NBA stars and came within one missed shot of forcing overtime. Ultimately the Serbs won silver.

Meanwhile, the men's water polo final turned into an all-Balkan affair with Serbia defeating Croatia for gold, while another Balkan country, Montenegro, just barely lost to Italy in the bronze medal match. (If you watched the battle for gold, you certainly noticed that the Serbs and Croats can't stand each other, which goes to show that the word Balkanization wasn't coined in a vacuum!)

Plus there is the tiny country of Slovenia. Fresh off a stellar showing in the Sochi Winter Olympics, it grabbed four medals in Rio despite having a population smaller than Kansas City's metro area.

Like I said: Don't ever overlook the Balkans!

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The Rio Olympics had examples of poor sportsmanship. Egyptian judo fighter Islam El Shehaby refusing to shake hands with Israel's Or Sasson was a definite example of anti-Semitism and likely example of Islamist supremacism. And American soccer goalie Hope Solo proved her domestic-abusing self to be a disgrace by calling the Swedes "cowards" after they defeated Team USA.

Hope, do you think Jim Valvano's 1983 NC State Wolfpack -- also known as the 1983 NCAA basketball champions -- were "cowards" for outsmarting the Houston Cougars in one of the greatest title games ever played, or do you think they were winners for outsmarting them? Or are you too ignorant to know about that seminal event in sports history?

Go home, shut up, face the criminal charges pending against you, and stop pretending you represent my country. You are an embarrassment and I hope you are never again asked to wear the "USA" anywhere near your "not as good as Brandi Chastain's" bosom.

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Ok, sorry. I might have gotten a little carried away. But I meant it.

Anyway, that brings me back to the positive counterpoint: The Rio Olympics had many more examples of good sportsmanship than bad sportsmanship.

American Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin helping each other finish the 5,000 meters, after a mid-race pileup injured them both, will live forever.

So too will (or should) the image of Sandi Morris embracing Ekaterini Stefanidi in a congratulatory hug after finishing second to her in the pole vault.

So too will (or should) the poolside interview of David Boudia and Steele Johnson immediately after they won a synchronized diving silver. Live on camera, they unashamedly professed their Christian faith and declared that it keeps them grounded; keeps them from placing too much emphasis on a medal; keeps them from becoming bitter about winning silver rather than gold; and gives them the mental strength that is necessary to win medals in the first pace... Many people (ahem, Ms. Solo) could learn a lot from their example of humility.

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When all was said and done, my favorite "athlete reaction" to making the podium was the twofer provided by American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak. That pair of swimmers tied for the gold in Olympic record time in the 100 meter freestyle, but it was a while before either of them realized it.

Manuel surfaced, looked around, touched her cap, and casually glanced over at the scoreboard as if she was merely curious about her time. After a second or two, when she realized she really was seeing what she was seeing, her mouth flew open and her hands came up and she broke into tears.

And as she did that, Oleksiak remained oblivious to what she had just accomplished. Way over in Lane 8, she waited a full 25 seconds before even bothering to turn around and face the scoreboard. When she finally did, her open-mouthed smile was every bit as amazed as Manuel's.

Manuel went on to finish the games with four medals, which puts her in a tie with Cullen Jones for the title of most decorated black swimmer in Olympic history... Oleksiak also went on to finish with four, making her the first Canadian to win four medals in a single Summer Olympics... This photo of them meeting in the water after finishing their "co-golds" race is a good one:

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Of course, there are many things about the Olympics that deserve comment but have nothing to do with the actual sports... so I'll just save those comments for the next post.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

et ceteras

First: I did not come up with that name. As far as I can tell, it was coined by a classmate of mine (from St. Pete High and Auburn University!) because he's tired of "gate" being attached as a suffix to every actual, semi, and psuedo scandal that comes down the media's pike.

Second: I don't give one flyin' friggin' flip about this story. It pits Brazilian authorities, who aren't exactly trustworthy and have quite a chip on their collective shoulder, against a bunch of young dudes who gave conflicting stories about an incident that took place a couple hours before dawn, when they were intoxicated in the late stages of an all-nighter. Let's just say that credibility is wanting on all sides.

Why would the American swimmers concoct a story against nobody in particular, when there was not already an allegation about them that needed to be explained away? Who knows? And more to my point, who cares? This story doesn't even move the needle for me... yet I have just spent three paragraphs of my blog writing about it... ugh.

Meanwhile, in other news... 
...Vladimir Putin, who by all appearances took control of the Russian government by orchestrating the terrorist murder of innocent Russian civilians and precipitating a war that killed Russians and Chechens alike, continues to resurrect Russian imperialism without a peep of criticism from either of the USA's major-party presidential nominees... and without a peep of mention by the USA's mainstream media outlets, which prefer to talk about LochMess and the divorce of 26-year-old quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Surely the citizens of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- to say nothing about the citizens of already-attacked Ukraine and Georgia -- have taken notice that the Soviet bear is again on the prowl and is prowling unopposed.

Talk about one of history's greatest victories for freedom and morality being on the verge of getting thrown away due simply to laziness and non-seriousness. I don't mean to sound overly pompous or melodramatic, but this is... how do I say it?... a fucking disgrace. If we don't change course our country will have to answer for it, but it is the citizens of other countries who will pay the price and it will be mostly our country's fault, not theirs.

The Bayou State is currently being devastated by major floods that have damaged at least 40,000 homes, killed at least 13 people, and, statistically speaking, rank as the nation's worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy.

And President Barack H. Obama is spending these days vacationing in that one-percenter playloungeground known as Martha's Vineyard, without any criticism from the USA's mainstream media outlets.

I seem to recall that when the same state was devastated by major floods from Hurricane Katrina, the USA's mainstream media outlets accused President George W. Bush (who actually went to Louisiana in real time) of not caring that Louisianans were dying. More specifically, they said he didn't care that Louisianans were dying because so many of them were black, and they non-critically publicized people who claimed that Bush had actually steered the hurricane toward Louisiana in order to cull America's black population.

Just sayin'.

And with that...
...I'd better quit while I'm ahead.

Not that I'm really ahead, because I haven't said anything positive in this post. But if I keep writing I'll keep digging an ever deeper hole, so stopping now does keep me ahead of where I would otherwise be.

And seriously, I am somewhat positive in spite of the seeming shitstorm in which the word seems trapped.

I see and appreciate beautiful sunrises every morning and I always remember these words from Churchill: "I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else."

C'est la vie!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Greatest Day

First, we Americans should appreciate that our country's Olympic history is marked by an abundance of victories and accomplishments.

Undoubtedly (at least in my mind) the greatest moment in that history was the Miracle On Ice -- the sight of our hockey youngsters tossing their sticks in the air as the final second ticked away on their shocking upset of the Soviet National Team in 1980.

But there is a seemingly endless number of contenders for the #2 spot on the list.

Jesse Owens winning four golds in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, refuting Hitler's notion of Aryan supremacy in front of Hitler himself, was seminal.

Mary Lou Retton nailing a perfect 10 on the vault in LA in 1984, thereby becoming the first American gymnast to win the individual all-around, stands out like a solar flare -- as does Kerri Strug nailing her vault in Atlanta 12 years later, thereby securing the first ever women's team gold for American gymnastics.

When Mark Spitz notched seven golds in one Olympics in 1972, it seemed like something that couldn't be duplicated... until Michael Phelps notched eight in one Olympics in 2008.

There is speedskater Dan Jansen finally winning Olympic gold, in his final Olympic race, in 1994 -- and breaking the world record in the process -- after literally years of unspeakably freakish misses, one of which happened on the same day his sister died.

There is polio survivor Wilma Rudolph winning the 100- and 200-meter sprints in Rome in 1960; and Michael Johnson, wearing gold-colored sneakers to emphasize his goal, winning the 200- and 400-meters in Atlanta in 1996.

There is Bob Mathias winning the decathlon in back to back Olympics in 1948 and 1952, a feat matched by only one other person in history.

The 1968 Summer Games produced two athletically momentous events: 1) Dick Fosbury taking the high jump with a revolutionary technique -- backwards, head first, back down, kicking his legs up at the last second -- that came to be known as "the Fosbury Flop" and is now used by everybody; and 2) Bob Beamon taking the long jump and pulverizing the world record by such a large margin (21¾ inches) that his mark was not broken for 23 years and has not been equaled in the 25 years since that.

With all that in mind, we should especially appreciate that this past Tuesday, August 9, 2016, was probably the greatest single day in American Olympic history. What made it so was not the fact that Team USA won four golds that day, but that all four had a feel of legend about them.

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It began in gymnastics with our female team (they're more girl than woman) prevailing not only by the largest margin ever, but by one so large the outcome was never in doubt. I'm exaggerating only slightly when I say it looked like the Harlem Globetrotters going up seven Washington Generals.

They were so dominant it felt almost anti-climactic to see defending all-around champ Gabby Douglas perform her best balance beam of the year and current queen Simone Biles conclude with a sizzlingly mind-bending floor routine.

Then they went out and declared themselves "the Final Five" to pay homage to Martha Karolyi, the longtime coach who has been America's national team coordinator since 2001. Because she is retiring this year, these five girls (Douglas, Biles, Aly Raisman, Lauren Hernandez, and Madison Kocian) are the final team to be fielded under her watch.

And we should say a thank you to Romania, since that is where Martha Karolyi and her even more legendary husband Bela were born. Before they defected to the United States in search of freedom, Bela coached Nadia Comaneci when she won gold and scored the world's first ever perfect 10 at the 1976 Summer Games. Once here, he coached Mary Lou Retton to her 1984 gold and proceeded to coach several others (including Strugg, Kim Zmeskal, and Dominique Moceanu to name a few) to great heights.

And while "the Final Five" were making history on Tuesday, Comaneci watched from the stands. Now a US citizen, she lives in Oklahoma and runs a gymnastics school with her husband, Bart Conner, who captured a pair of golds in '84.

Seriously, what could be more All-American in this nation of immigrants?

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The rest of Tuesday's historical glory took place in the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, where Katie Ledecky's championship in the 200-meter freestyle cemented her a place among the best women swimmers in history.

She had already won the 400-meters in word record time, almost 5 seconds ahead of silver medalist Jazmin Carlin, but she was heavily favored in that race and not so much in this one. The 200 included the world record holder, Federica Pellegrini of Italy; most observers considered it a toss-up between Ledecky and Swedish superstar Sarah Sjostrom, with Pelligrini, China's Shen Duo, and Australia's Emma McKeon and Bronte Barratt also being major threats.

Sure enough, as the swimmers chopped toward the wall in the final leg, it came down to Ledecky and Sjostrom battling each other stroke for stroke and the field pushing strongly right behind them. At the very end, the 19-year-old American reached the wall thirty-five hundredths of a second ahead of the 22-year-old Swede.

Added to her performance in London and in the previous days in Rio, it was her fourth overall Olympic medal and third gold. Combine that with the fourth gold she added on Wednesday -- when swam a decisive, tour de force of an anchor leg in the 4x200 freestyle relay -- and she it puts her in the same league as Jenny Thompson, Janet Evans, Natalie Coughlin, and the mystifyingly overlooked Amy Van Dyken.

And since she is not yet 20, there is reason to believe that Ledecky will eventually surpass them all and stand alone.

However, even she was eclipsed on Tuesday by another American: her fellow Marylander, Michael Phelps.

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Lately it has become a reflex to say Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time; but reflex or not, it is true.

Phelps finished the 2012 Summer Games with an astonishing 22 medals to his name -- and even more astonishingly, 18 of them gold -- over a career that had spanned four different Olympics. But it was obvious he had lost some of his spark, that he was no longer enjoying swimming as much, and few doubted him when he said on air that he was "done" and retiring.

He then went on a self-described "downward spiral" that bottomed out with a DUI in September 2014 and 45-day stay in rehab. Eventually he decided to help himself right his ship by returning to the pool, where, in his own words, he "fell back in love with the sport again."

Phelps qualified for these Rio Olympics at the overripe age of 31. In his first event, the 4x100 freestyle relay on August 7th, he pretty much single-handedly secured gold for Team USA, which was trailing when he dove in to swim the second leg. He proceeded to storm ahead of the field, execute a flawless turn at the midway point, and give the team a lead of more than a full second when he was finished his part. Its final margin of victory turned out to be sixty-one hundredths of a second.

And then came Phenomenal Tuesday.

One of the main reasons Phelps decided to un-retire was a lingering bad taste in his mouth from having "only" won silver in the 200-meter butterfly in 2012. In that race he was beaten by a fingertip (0.05 seconds) by South Africa's Chad le Clos; and he remained bothered by the result not so much because he came in second, but because he thought he gave it away with a slightly errant final turn. He arrived in Rio determined to make amends for what he considered a failure in London -- and an insufferably cocky le Clos arrived determined to duplicate his London success.

In the pre-race waiting room, while Phelps sat in a chair waiting for the swimmers to be called to the pool, le Clos stood in front of him shadow boxing over and over. When the swimmers went to the pool, le Clos stared at Phelps until it was time for the race to start. It was an obvious attempt to get inside the American's head, and the American responded by not responding.

Tuesday's race turned out to be neck and neck most of the way, not only between them, but between them and many of the others. These are, after all, the best eight butterfly swimmers on the entire planet. And in the last leg, Phelps reached down deep and found the mettle that makes him the best ever. As everyone neared the wall with several of them in position to pull it out, it was Phelps who actually did pull it out. His final stroke-and-touch put him to the wall 0.04 seconds ahead of Japan's Masato Sakai. It made him the oldest person ever to win an individual gold in any Olympic swimming event -- and the first swimmer ever to win individual golds 12 years apart.

But he wasn't done for the night, because less than an hour later he raced in the 4x200 freestyle relay final -- swimming the anchor leg to boot. Having to compete in two finals in such compressed time, both of them against the best in the world, would be too much even for most elite athletes to prevail in both. Especially those with 31-year-old bodies. But not this Balrimorean.

Team USA was ahead when Phelps entered the water, though not by an invincible margin. But he made that lead invincible by performing like only he can. When he finished a full body length of ahead of the UK's James Guy, Team USA's margin of victory margin of victory was 2.47 seconds, which is like winning the Super Bowl by four or five touchdowns.

Tuesday's golds gave Michael Phelps 21 for his career, far more than any Olympian in history, and they were accomplished in very different but equally indelible ways: one a nail-biter decided in the last hundredths of a second, the other a can't-touch-this display of domination.

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American highlights have continued to pour in since Tuesday, with so much greatness that it's almost impossible to distinguish the greatness of each triumph from the greatness of another.

Phelps added two more golds to his haul and Katie Ledecky added three more golds (and two world records) to hers.

In gymnastics, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman finished 1-2 in the women's individual all-around, arguably the most prestigious event of the entire Summer Games.

Michelle Carter became the first American woman to win gold in the shot put... and first to win any medal in that event since 56 years ago.

Kristin Armstrong won her third consecutive Olympic gold in the grueling bicycling event known as the road time trial... and did so at the age of 43.

Our women's eight rowing team won its third consecutive Olympic gold.

Kim Rhode's skeet shooting bronze made her the first athlete to medal in six straight Olympics. Starting all the way back in the 1996 games in Atlanta and ending (?) with these 2016 games, her medal-per-Olympics run includes three golds, a silver, and a pair of bronze.

And back in the pool, on Thursday, Simone Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle to become the first black woman ever to win an Olympic gold in swimming... and on Saturday she won another gold, swimming the anchor leg on the 4x100 meter relay.

Also back in the pool, Anthony Ervin won the 50-meter freestyle, and in so doing broke two of the marks Michael Phelps set on Phenomenal Tuesday: Because Ervin is 35, he became the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold in Olympic history; and because he had last won gold in Sidney in 2000, his 16-year span between golds eclipsed Phelps's 12-year span.

And how is this for something to say about Ervin: He was 19 when he won in Sidney and 35 when he won in Rio, yet he never participated in an Olympics in his twenties. Holy friggin' cow!

With all that it seems like it would be hard to pick any one day as the best, even of just these particular games, for our country.

But I still think this past Tuesday was not only the best in Rio for America, but the best in all of America's Olympic history... and I will always remember it with a smile.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Summer elegy

As July slid to an end, it ushered in the dog days in so many ways. On the one hand, I can't step outside without Florida's furnace of heat and humidity causing me to sweat so bad my clothes stick to my skin. And on the other hand, as I think about the recent political conventions and upcoming "debates,"  I can't stop thinking that our body politic is flushing our freedom and virtues down the toilet without a second (or even first) thought.

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Since it's easier to criticize the party to which you don't belong, I will start by going after the Democratic National Convention, which I found to be one of the most breathtakingly dishonest productions in American political history.

The Democratic Party (by which I mean its elected officials and donor class) has for decades been openly contemptuous of American principles, American ideals, and everyday American citizens. It and the leftists who run it are the very entities that concoct and embrace condescending terms like "flyover country" and smugly presumptuous books like What's the Matter with Kansas?

They sneer at Boise and Dallas while rhapsodizing about Brussels and Davos -- blissfully unaware that without the sweat and toil of American patriots from places like Boise and Dallas, Brussels and Davos would not have been free enough or safe enough to be Brussels and Davos for the last century.

These are the people who hold the Rosenbergs up as heroes, unaware of (or not caring about) the fact that the Rosenbergs' treason allowed the USSR to spend half a century enslaving half of Europe and exporting tyranny around the globe.

These are the people who eagerly apologize for anti-American murderers like Che Guevara while shrugging their shoulders about Iran getting nukes.

Hearing them chant "USA! USA!" -- when in reality they don't care one whit about the principles that make the USA the USA -- caused me to want to break the dishes in my house.

Michelle Obama's speech was widely praised on both sides of the aisle, which can only mean that people were praising her ability to lie through her teeth while maintaining a smile on her face.

She implored us to not "let anyone tell you that America isn't great." Well, sorry Michelle, but it is you who said during the 2008 DNC, when you were 44 years old and earning a salary of more than $300,000 per year, that you had never at any point in your life been proud of your country until it made your husband a presidential nominee. Some of us have memories and can't be fooled.

And of course, this year's convention ended with the Democrats -- who claim to be against big money, big power, and bad ethics -- nominating the most money-grubbing, power-hungry, and ethically challenged nominee in our history.

Bleh. A thousand times over.

But don't take that to mean that the GOP offers a hint of salvation in these dog days.

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No, I am not saying the overall Republican Party is as bad as the overall Democratic Party.

At the state level, Republicans have recently produced an all-star lineup of governors (chief among them Scott Walker and Rick Perry) who have presided over outsize economic growth, increases in government accountability, and decreases in bureaucracy. At the federal level, they have produced a bumper crop of young legislators (for starters, Tom Cotton, Tim Scott, Mia Love, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio) who eloquently espouse conservative values while actively opposing Leviathan and standing up for the Constitution.

As the 2016 presidential season opened, the GOP fielded a roster of conservative and conservative-leaning candidates that was undoubtedly the largest and most impressive one in my lifetime -- and probably the largest and most impressive one in the party's 160-year history.

But unfortunately, with all that quality from which to choose, the party's voters opted for a man who is the least conservative, least impressive, least qualified, and most unfit-for-office choice in the party's 160-year history.

Sure, it says something good about GOP primary voters that a sizable majority of them checked the box for somebody other than Donald Trump. Nonetheless, it is bad that they never coalesced around a small enough number of alternatives to overcome Trump's stubbornly strong plurality -- and it is bad that Trump ever had a stubbornly strong plurality to begin with. That is why these are such troubled and dangerous times for our national soul.

Although the Democratic Party has raced far leftward over the past decade, it has always been a left wing party and therefore its leftism should come as no surprise. It has always been uninterested in national defense and unwilling to defend free people abroad from tyranny abroad... It has always (or at least for two generations) looked down on people of non-Islamic faith and been unwilling to support the First Amendment... It has always aimed to silence dissent, undermine private property rights, and increase government power with no regard for how that affects individual rights and personal freedom... It has always been ambivalent about human life and morbidly attracted to death (via abortion and euthanasia).

Until recently the Republican Party was a reliable (albeit imperfect, and sometimes compromised) right wing counterbalance to left wing Democrats. It held national defense to be the federal government's primary responsibility... It regularly supported free people abroad from tyranny abroad, sometimes in deed, and when not in deed, always in word... Republicans reliably stood up for people of faith (including Muslims) and defended the First Amendment even when it was used against them... They supported private property rights... They may not have liked dissent, but they did not seek to silence it and they at least gave lip service to being concerned about how government growth affects individual rights and personal freedom... And last but not least, the GOP was never ambivalent about human life, for only in the GOP could you find unapologetic opposition to abortion and euthanasia.

But now, with the elevation of Donald Trump to the titular head of the party, all that is gone. With his elevation, the Republican Party has been shoved so far to the left that it now sits in the Democrats' lap. This means the American people have been left without a real choice between their two major parties, and that is extremely bad for our republic.

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In National Review's Corner blog, David French already summed up perfectly what I think about prospective Trump policies, so rather than cook up "my own words," I will just go ahead and start this segment by quoting him:

If I go by Trump's words and actions, he'll raise taxes, implement touchback amnesty, support government-run health care, appoint pro-abortion judges, fund Planned Parenthood, order troops to commit war crimes, try to defeat ISIS with Exxon, destroy American credit, radically increase the deficit, cede NATO countries to Russia, abuse eminent domain, restrict First Amendment rights, start trade wars, retweet white nationalists, support gender-neutral bathrooms, inflame racial tensions, and traffic in absurd conspiracy theories. Trump himself has made the case that he'd be a disastrous president. 

I understand why some Republicans, even some conservatives, have pitched their tents in Trump's camp. They want to defeat Clinton because she is a poison in the bloodstream of the body politic, and on that point I agree with them.

But then again, if defeating Hillary Clinton means putting Donald Trump in the Oval Office, what's the point? Defeating one candidate usually means electing another who will do what you think is right more than half the time. Failing that, maybe the one you elect will do the right thing only 25 percent of the time, but at least that's five times more than the five percent you'd get from the other candidate.

In the case of Donald Trump, however, where is there any evidence that he will ever do the right thing? There isn't any.

Near as I can tell, the conservative case for voting for Trump is that he might, just might, accidentally do the right thing. Once. If we're lucky. (Or maybe even twice if we're supremely lucky!)

I hasten to add: Or never.

If Clinton wins, it will be a disaster.

If Trump wins, it will be  disaster... but not only that, it will also mean the party of Reagan has abandoned its commitment to individual rights over government power; abandoned its commitment to protect small nations from hegemonic ones; and abandoned its commitment to protect alive but unborn children, who are the most vulnerable and persecuted demographic in our country.

It will mean that the party which defeated 20th century Soviet communism will have consented to the rise of 21st century Soviet communism, by virtue of Trump saying we won't defend our Baltic allies from Russian attack despite being treaty- and duty-bound to do so.

It will mean the party that was founded specifically to fight slavery -- the party of MLK, the party that defended the Little Rock Nine in the 1950's and voted in the greatest numbers for the civil rights laws of the 1960's -- will have surrendered its leadership to a man who refuses to disown the support of white supremacists.

It will mean the party that has always claimed to advance the sanctity of marriage will have surrendered its leadership to a man who has been divorced more times than all the other presidents in our history combined.

Many of us don't want Hillary Clinton becoming POTUS on our watch, but that doesn't mean we have to be agreeable to Donald Trump becoming POTUS on our watch. Our core principles should not be for sale and should never be sold.

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When I re-read the words I just wrote, I don't see how I can have any reason for optimism, but for some reason I do.

Two Sundays ago we walked on the Atlantic shore. The taste of salt was in the air. Sarah enjoyed leaping over the breaking waves, Parker enjoyed running into them, and Erika strode beside me smiling. It felt good, even though the back half of my mind was worried about some symptoms I had been experiencing.

Then, the following day I got the results of the lab work and they were normal. Turns out all is well on the medical front.

Every time I read the conservative media I am reminded that many Republicans continue to oppose their party's nominee, to the point of withholding their votes in order to stop the party's leftward lurch.

It's bad that neither the liberal nor mainstream media (I know, birds of a feather) don't focus on Clinton's atrocities drawbacks like they focus on Trump's. I wish the contingent of Democrats willing to withhold their votes from their party's nominee, in order to stop the party's embrace of corruption, was as big as the Never Trump crowd is in the GOP -- but the contingent does exist and its members mean what they say.

Even if I never agree with the policy ideas of the anti-Clinton Dems, their refusal to accept the use of bad means to achieve their desired ends is a good sign. The fact that they openly declare themselves, even though it means they are crossing a powerful person who is one of our all-time most vindictive and ruthless politicians, is a great sign.

In other words, there are always good things happening, just as there are always bad; and while it's corrupting to ignore the bad, it's also corrupting to ignore the good.

Times are dire and our country could very well fail, but we have emerged from darker times before. I won't pretend to know how we will manage to emerge in better shape once these dog days are over, and yes, it is very possible that we will emerge in much worse shape than we are now. Nevertheless, I have a weird and inexplicable feeling we will emerge okay.

But please follow the instructions Billy Joel once turned into a song title: Don't Ask Me Why.