Sports


For the most part, I grew up without a television, but there were two notable exceptions at my father’s house: the Olympics and professional tennis. To watch or not was never a dilemma at Mom’s because we didn’t have a TV. As a result, I’m an inefficient TV viewer. I find it nearly impossible to wrest my focus from the little buzzing box and therefore I generally choose to forego it entirely. However, I’ve been following the swimming events closely this summer mostly thanks to Dara Torres. I’ll save my rant on ageism in this country for another post, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to watch a middle-aged woman make her teenage and twenty-something competition look slow. In the process of following the swimming events, I’ve been moved and amused by the antics of human beings everywhere. Here’s a sampling.

Bob Costas, do your homework. I, along with the studio crew, applauded gymnasts Nastia Luikin and Shawn Johnson following their interview with the NBC anchor and Bela Karolyi. The poise of these two remarkable young women saved what has to be one of the worst performances from a experienced news anchor I’ve ever witnessed. Shawn Johnson, in particular, never let the smile leave her face as she patiently answered a series of the exact same question from Costas. What did you think Bob, that a young woman who races top speed down a runway to throw herself at a vault and land solidly on her feet after performing two somersaults with a couple twists thrown in for good measure is going to buckle under your inexpert questioning? Next time, instead of digging for dirt, try for a little substance. Here are a couple of suggestions: What event made you the most nervous? Which element were you particularly happy to stick? What advice would you offer to young gymnasts who would like to follow in your shoes? Put things into perspective for our audience, how many hours weekly do you spend training? I could go on. Why couldn’t Costas?

Out-touched. In swimmer parlance, this means being beaten just as one touches the wall. In a sport that is regularly decided by tenths of seconds, these are not uncommon, but we’ve witnessed some particulary spectaclar touch-outs at this meet. 1. Jason Lezak’s surge to the finish in the men’s 4×100 free relay. 2. Natalie Coughlin’s picture perfect underwater thrust to the wall (with a dolphin kick for good measure) in the 100 back . 3. Michael Phelps’s mid-stroke finish in the 100 fly. The latter was particularly unbelievable. For a man who typically stays underwater longer than most of his competitors, his instincts proved spot-on allowing him to beat Milorad (Mike) Cavic by the slimmest of margins.

Kobe Bryant is fluent in three languages. How cool is that? Is this common knowledge? If it’s not, it should be. Bryant’s tremendous star-appeal would go a long way sending a powerful message to kids about the importance of education.

Mom on deck. When the suits of the one of the girls in Dara Torres’ 50 free semi-final heat tore, guess who kept the other swimmers from hopping up on the blocks until she could wiggle into a replacement? You’ve got it, the only parent in the pack. The NBC commentators made much of her sportsmanship, but more remarkable is the decisiveness with which Torres sized up the situation, communicated the plan with the other swimmers and the starter, and kept confusion from ensuing. Easier said than done! Torres was dealing with potentially eight different languages and a bunch of keyed-up swimmers focused only on getting from one end of the pool to the other as quickly as possible. The experience necessary to deal with the unexpected and then hop on the block and post the fastest qualifying time in your event only comes with age.

American sportsmanship. Perhaps more than anything else, I’ve been impressed with the poise, humility and statemanship exhibited by the American athletes. At a time when this nation’s ideals were taken hostage by an administration crippled by the fear and ignorance causing tremendous damage to our reputation abroad and placing us in further jeopardy from extremists, there are no better ambassadors to repair the damange done.

All in all, this time in front of the TV has been well spent.

Discovery Team - Paris

The world of professional cycling will say goodbye to the American-backed Discovery Channel team (formerly the US Postal Service team) this year. The move coincides with the retirement of team manager Johan Bruyneel, who lead Lance Armstrong to his seven wins of cycling’s greatest prize. Alberto Contador’s individual victory as well as the team’s top placement in the Tour de France mean that they are going out on top. However, according to Mark Zalewski, writing for cyclingnews.com, the team’s general managers felt that they could no longer recommend a professional cycling team as a solid investment in the current climate of the sport. And so at the hands of those who feel the need to win at whatever cost, the sport loses a key team and the only major American presence in the predominantly European sport.

ArmstrongWho is to blame? Certainly the dopers themselves, but then the current crisis never would have evolved if the teams themselves were not looking the other way, fostering an attitude of permissiveness. I’m disappointed in the recommendation made by managers, Stapleton, Stagg and Armstrong, but recognize too that given the current controversy surrounding the sport, it’s entirely possible that they would have been unable to secure the financial backing required to run a first-class cycling team. And given the mess of the cycling community itself, maybe the loss of key players will send the necessary message to the rest of the teams, play fair or there will be not much left to play for. Nonetheless, I still cannot help but to be sad for the passing of an era. Stan and I have been married for ten years and during those years, we watched Lance Armstrong battle back miraculously from cancer, become one of the most formidable riders ever to grace the slopes of the French Alps and Pyrenees, and head up one of the most remarkable teams in cycling history. It is with regret–but also reverence–that I mark the passage of that team and in doing so, close a chapter on my life as well. Thanks for the memories, USPS and Disco.

Picture of Discovery riders atop the podium in Paris in 2007 courtesy of cyclingnews.com. Photo of Lance Armstrong riding for USPS courtesy of cyclinghalloffame.com.

Stan’s passion is cycling. He raced BMX as a kid, then turned his attention to mountain biking, road racing and cyclocross as he grew older. His latest obsession is racing a single speed mountain bike.Two weekends ago he competed in USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals held at Mt. Snow, Vermont. He’s been pretty busy this summer with grad school so he has not had as much time to ride and train as he would like, but when he learned that two of our friends were going to be making the trip, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join them. One of the best aspects of mountain biking is the camaraderie of the sport. Riders obviously go to races to compete, but riding a mountain bike is a lot of fun and that attitude seems to pervade every aspect of the sport. Stealth campSo while Stan and his teammate Mike stealth-camped the first night (notice the construction equipment in the background), they stayed at some pretty swank accommodations the second night courtesy of pros Mary McConneloug and Mike Broderick (their rider diary can be viewed here) who they met that weekend through our other friend Jeff. This sort of generosity is typical of the sport.

Pre-raceIt was raining cats and dogs when they arrived and they did one pre-ride lap in the rain to check out the course. It was so slick that both Stan and Mike were concerned about finishing the race in a reasonable amount of time. (The pre-ride lap took them almost two hours, and their race length was four laps!)But the rain cleared up overnight and the course dried out a lot by the next morning. Post raceThe two pictures included here are before and after shots of the race. You can see the apprehension in their faces in the before shot, but the after shot says it all: they had a blast. Our friend Jeff is in the after shot as well. Jeff, incidentally, is the coolest bike/ski shop owner on the planet and an absolutely rockin’ backcountry skier, but more on that another time.

Irony!I realize that in my last post I said I was through with professional cycling, but today’s events at the Tour bear mention. It seems as if my own disgust with the doping problem is finally being echoed by the team organizers. The French team Cofidis pulled out of the race (a really monumental move considering they are French and this is the Tour de France) when one of their riders, Italian Cristian Moreni tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. This revelation was closely followed by the announcement the Danish team Rabobank fired their team member and Tour leader, Michael Rasmussen, who failed to show for three scheduled drug tests this past year. (That’s him on the left in what may be one of the most ironic cycling photographs ever taken.) These are welcome developments. Until the riders feel that risks of doping outweigh the potential gains, the sport will continue to be fraught with problems.

I admit that I do not follow most professional sports with much regularity, but Mike Lizza writing for a New York Times blog, “The Lede: Notes on the News,” noticed that there has been a rash of sports scandals this summer. His advice, roll up your newspaper to form a megaphone and start screaming about what you don’t like about sports. Not bad, but I think closing down their source revenue would be even more effective. After all, it’s money (and probably some warped sense of glory) that motivates athletes to cheat, so it will be money that will finally put an end to all of this. After all, if they cheat and we still pay to watch, who’s the fool?

Photograph of Michael Rasmussen and fan (wearing a Dopers Suck T-shirt) is taken from http://doperssuck.typepad.com/.

Cheaters suck. I can’t put it any other way. I have followed professional cycling since Greg LeMond won the Tour de France and back in the day Andy Hampsten used to be my favorite cyclist. Obviously, like many other Americans I closely followed the Tour during the years that Lance Armstrong dominated. I ride both road and mountain bikes for recreation and occasionally let myself get talked into competing locally. However, with the latest revelation that fan favorite Alexandre Vinokourov failed a drug test after pulling off a spectacular stage win at the Tour, I think I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for professional cycling as it stands today. I used to tell the uninitiated that following professional cycling was a little like watching the soaps. Over the years you could get to know a cyclist, watch the rise and fall of their career, revel in their successes and commiserate with their poor performances and crashes. George HincapieSome of my favorite riders are David Millar (for his humanity and honesty), George Hincapie (the ultimate domestique and a very strong one day racer in his own right–that’s him on the left racing in one of the Spring Classics), and Oscar Freire (for his ability to find the right wheel in a sprint on his own). Unfortunately the revelations of this and last year’s Tours force me to question my assumptions about these and other professional cyclists. I would like to believe that my personal favorites are above making such mistakes, but before their falls from glory–testing positive for performance enhancing substances–I admired Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, and yes, Alexandre Vinokourov. How can I possibly get excited about a rider’s performance when in the back of my head I’ll be asking whether or not it was legitimate? Until the promoters and participants in the sport find a way to keep it clean, I’ll be focusing my attention elsewhere.

The picture of George is taken from an interview by Thomas Valentinsen published on Roadcycling.com