Beijing 2008: Logging on and tuning out

Some have presumed that the reason why the Olympics have lost some of its luster isn’t because it’s a professional sporting event as opposed to one showcasing the top amateur athletes. After all, even in the old days there was hardly such a thing as a true “amateur athlete.”

During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the East German teams were loaded with pros. Behind the Iron Curtain elaborate sports schools complete with special training and special “vitamins” weren’t just part of the sporting culture, they were accepted training practices.

Meanwhile the specter of the Soviet monster was the perfect foil for the U.S. and international athletics. It was very difficult not to look at that menacing and simplistic “CCCP” on the front of a jersey and not be scared shitless. Everyone knew what it meant, which was, “get ready – this might hurt.”

Coming from the United States it’s difficult to understand if that splashy and decorative, “USA” had the same affect. Oh sure, anyone can admit that the “U-S-A!” chant was obnoxious and annoying, but was it fearsome? Did strike worry into the opposition?

Who knows? Americans were always taught that “CCCP” was pure evil, while the Soviets saw the amateurs from America as weak.

It’s kind of funny – in an ironic way – that t-shirts or trinkets with “CCCP” on them are now viewed as “kitsch” or vintage throwbacks to the old days.

Sigh.

But the dissolution of the classic Cold War didn’t ruin the Olympics, either. Neither did the inclusion of non-traditional and fringe sports to the games like beach volleyball or BMX, events that took center stage in past television broadcasts. Instead it was NBC’s decision to focus less on the actual competition and more on the human-interest dramas. Apparently, NBC felt that sports – even Olympic competition – was not enough.

Not only that, NBC decided that the sports they did telecast would not be in real time. Worse, they chopped up the recordings of the events, edited out the nuance and details, and presented them as it would an episode of “Friends.”

For someone who remembered watching Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner in Montreal in ’76, the Miracle on Ice in ’80 and the avalanche of American victories during the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984, the made-for-TV vignettes forced down viewers’ throats was insulting.

Worse, it was a turnoff. Literally.

But for the Olympics starting today in Beijing, NBC won’t have the built-in excuse of time zones inconducive to American-viewing audiences. For the 2000 games in Sydney and the 2004 games in Athens, it was rare for fans in the U.S. to see a live event. Worse, Michael Johnson’s epic run in the 200-meters in Atlanta wasn’t even shown live.

But for the Beijing Olympics NBC can go live all the time. One reason is that the time difference is convenient. When it’s 7 p.m. in Beijing, it is 7 a.m. in Philadelphia. Sure, people have to go to work in the morning, but a die-hard sports fan can easily get up to watch the competition.

Better yet, more so than any other time in history technology will play an instrumental role. The proliferation of the Internet makes it impossible and even stupid to stage made-for-TV events. Apparently NBC knows this because it will stream events live on its web site. Plus, along with the growth of Internet, cable television has grown since the last Olympics. As a result, NBC will show 23 ½ hours of Olympic coverage a day on its various networks ranging from MSNBC to CNBC to Universal HD to Panavision.

Plus, NBC has to know that its reputation and culpability are on the line if they don’t give American viewers an honest, un-filtered presentation. A bad showing could push sports fans to the Internet in droves. Everything else will be on NBCOlympics.com – not that new high def TV you just bought.

Who could have predicted Twitter in 2004?

Nevertheless, by the time NBC got around to broadcasting the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, all of the debris, smoke from the fireworks and debris had been swept away, the people had all gone home and the Olympic Stadium, called the Bird’s Nest, was being prepared to host its first events.

Aside: And no, when NBC showed President Bush talking to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they were not talking about the drum number as Bob Costas suggested. It was probably something more like Putin’s decision to invade former Soviet republic, Georgia, on Friday.

Nice try, Bob.

But according to The New York Times, seven events will give medals on Saturday, but NBC will only broadcast two of them live. This begs the question:

How can an American broadcasting corporation be almost as restrictive as the Chinese government?

Maybe it’s time to get a satellite dish in order to get the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s unbiased, live and unpretentious coverage?

OK, nobody really gives a crap about Bob Costas or NBC. (In best Jim McKay voice) We, as sports fans, want the unparalleled human drama that is only captured in the Olympics. Once every four years athletes have a chance to capture immortality. Imagine having to wait that long for the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Moreover, just rooting for your home country isn’t enough. In a global society where more American products are made in China than around the corner, we root for the hometown heroes.

They say all politics is local. So too are international athletics.

Certainly those of us who write about sports in Philadelphia have plenty of topics. Here are the local folks to keep an eye on:

Kobe Bryant – Yeah most people have heard of the Lower Merion High grad who also is the diva of the NBA. After flopping with his Lakers in the NBA Finals against the Celtics, Bryant and LeBron James are in charge of returning the gold medal to the U.S. in basketball. Most pundits have picked Team Nike USA to win it in Beijing, but if they don’t expect plenty of criticism for the very precious Kobe.

Sarunas JasikeviciusThe Lithuanian basketball star made his fame when he torched the U.S. during the 2004 Athens Olympics. This time around he was the flag bearer for his home country. But aside from playing collegiately at the University of Maryland, Sarunas played his high school hoops for Solanco High in Lancaster County. Back then he was secondary offensive option for a prep team that featured short-lived Temple star, Johnny Miller.

Needless to say, it looks as if Sarunas has done OK for himself.

Jen Rhines ­- Coached by her husband and fellow Villanova All-American Terrence Mahon, Rhines has defied the distance runner evolution. After competing in the marathon in Athens in 2004 and the 10,000 in Sydney in 2000, she is running in the 5,000-meters in Beijing. Chances are Rhines will struggle to make the finals in a deep event, but berths on Olympic teams in three different events is pretty amazing.

Brian Sell The true cult hero in the running world. Though Sell didn’t even break 10-minutes for two-miles in high school, ran collegiately for Division III Messiah College near Harrisburg before transferring to little know D-I St. Francis in Loretto, Pa., he kept on running. As a result he improved year after year as the marquee runner for the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks project.

And as Sell, from Woodbury, Pa., continued to improve by routinely ticking off upwards to 160-mile weeks, he got married to a girl from Lancaster County, had a daughter, bought a house, put off dental school and continued to work at Home Depot.

How many Olympians do that?

Sell isn’t expected to crack the podium in the marathon in Beijing. In fact, he’s not expected to be the top American finisher in the event either. Ryan Hall is America’s hope for gold. But Sell is looking for a top 10 finish after logging those 160-mile weeks in nasty conditions in anticipation for the heat and humidity of August in China.

“I’m hoping for the worst conditions possible,” Sell told Runner’s World. “It could be a big equalizer.”

Amanda Beard – She’s not local, but why not?

Michael Phelps – The new Golden Boy is kind of local. He’s from North Baltimore, which is closer to a lot of places considered part of the Philadelphia viewing area than Philly.

Other subjects of interest:

  • China – The Olympics are the biggest thing that happened to this mysterious country since Richard Nixon visited. It also sounds as if it’s just as important as all of the U.S. companies moving its manufacturing centers there.
  • Pollution/environmental issues – A few athletes, like Haile Gebreselasie, have backed out of the games because of health concerns. Reports are the Chinese government is pulling out all the stops to lower the smog and pollution rate, but how much is sure to be an issue.
  • Politics – Naïve types like to say that the Olympics are not about politics, but athletics. Yeah, right. If that was the case there would be no parade of nations – just the top athletes regardless of their nationality. Nevertheless, be prepared to hear about Darfur, Tibet and various other human rights issues… it’s about time.
  • Censorship – Marcus Hayes from the Daily News told me in an e-mail that he couldn’t access his web site from the media center in Beijing. Americans and journalists traveling to China for the games expect restrictions on civil liberties, but how much they stand for will be an interesting sub plot.
  • Doping – yeah.
  • Corporatization – Coke, Nike, General Electric, NBC, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, and Visa. Try this out: on the U.S. basketball team, 11 players are sponsored by Nike, one is with adidas. Nike is also the official sponsor of Team USA… and probably the entire games. That is if Coke lets them.

So now the choice is ours. Do we log on and tune out or just allow the pretty high-def hues on tape delay from NBC wash over us?

As tough as a girl

Gavin FloydIt wasn’t all that long ago when I wrote an essay about how a 14-year-old female swimmer was tougher than then-Phillies pitcher Gavin Floyd. Actually, the swimmer just wasn’t tougher mentally than Floyd, but I had an inkling that if it ever went down, the girl would give him a beating.

The point was that Floyd was soft. I based that assessment from listening to his teammates, coaches and team executives talk about him, as well as from body language. Floyd just didn’t seem comfortable in his own skin. He was intimidated by the media, his teammates, himself and worse, the competition.

Floyd had talent to spare and dominated his way through the minors even though he was rather uninspired. He yawned his way through a minor-league no-hitter and pitched, as some experts observed, as if he was bored. But when he got to the Phillies and quickly realized that everyone was talented and that he would have to become fully engaged, well, that’s when things got difficult.

“The competition isn’t a threat,” pitching coach Rich Dubee said in a story dated June 5, 2006. “It should be a challenge. It intimidates him sometimes. Everything’s life and death, and it doesn’t need to be that way. This needs to be something that he enjoys doing. I’m sure he felt extra heat – a lot of a lot of good players have had to go backward to go forward. Hopefully, he can get straightened out and get back up here.”

That was when I wrote about how 14-year-old Amanda Beard, the Olympic champion and a contemporary of Floyd’s, could kick his ass.

Nevertheless, after a four-inning stint in Los Angeles on June 1 of 2006 where Floyd gave up seven earned runs on seven hits, three walks and three homers, the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft never pitched for the Phillies again. Though he was drafted ahead of big-league regulars like Mark Teixeira, Aaron Heilman, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Noah Lowry, Dan Haren, Scott Hairston, Kevin Youkilis, Dan Uggla, Ryan Howard and David Wright, the Phillies packaged him up as a complimentary piece in the deal to acquire Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox.

Who would have guessed that Garcia got just one more win for the Phillies after the trade than Floyd?

Or who would have guessed that Floyd’s nasty sweeping curve would return to form and become one of the best pitches in the American League? Who would have guessed that Floyd would have solidified himself as a main cog in Ozzie Guillen’s rotation on the South Side?

Better yet, who would have guessed that Floyd would have carried two no-hitters into the eighth inning – and beyond – during the first month of the season?

Amanda BeardAnyone? Pat Gillick? Charlie Manuel? Cole Hamels? Anyone?

As Charlie Manuel told MLB.com in today’s edition:

“When I see Gavin pitch like that, it shows he can do it,” Manuel said. “He’s 3-1. He’s been kind of inconsistent in his career, but his stuff, everyone in baseball and everyone in our organization and the White Sox organization sees the same stuff. That’s why he was projected as someone who could be a good big league pitcher.”

Just somewhere else.

“I think the change of scenery helped him,” Manuel said. “I think he was ready for a change of scenery from Philadelphia, and it’s been good for him. He’s pitching to his potential.”

Floyd came five outs away from a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on April 12 where he struck out four and gave up just the one hit in a 7-0 win. Earlier this week, Floyd took a no-no into the ninth against the Minnesota Twins before Joe Mauer – the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft – laced a double to left-center with one out.

All told, Floyd has a 3-1 record with a 2.50 ERA in six starts – all in which he has pitched at least six innings. If there has been one mar on Floyd’s slate it is that he ahs just 19 strikeouts to 18 walks this season. However, opponents, obviously, aren’t getting too many hits off him. In nearly 40 innings, Floyd has given up just 20 hits to hold the opposition to a .149 batting average.

As fellow first-round draft pick and minor-league teammate Cole Hamels told MLB.com:

“It’s great for him,” Hamels said. “He’s always had the stuff. It’s always been a confidence factor. I don’t think he ever got comfortable in Philadelphia. He has tremendous stuff, and now he has to go out there and show everybody what he’s really all about and the player that a lot of people saw.”

His new manager Guillen saw it and was willing to send his close friend Garcia packing in order to get Floyd.

As Guillen told the Chicago Sun Times:

“So far, he makes me sound like a genius,” Guillen said. “Everything is mental. If you believe in what you have and that you can do this, it’s going to be easier. There’s no doubt this guy has great stuff.

“I like his arm, and that’s the reason we take the chance. He believes in himself now and has confidence.”

Can Floyd keep it up? Only time will tell. But the one thing for sure is that Guillen and the White Sox are going to give him a chance. Confidence and comfortability seem to have given the tall righty the toughness that was missing during his time in Philadelphia. Experience seems to have helped, too. The mark of a good athlete is how he (or she) handles defeats. It’s easy to cruise through games with yawns and knockouts, but it’s much more difficult to get back up after being knocked down.

The tough ones get back up.

Maybe Floyd is as just as tough as Amanda Beard? The difference now appears to be that one was simply a late bloomer.

Formula for Floyd: Toughen up

During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, swimmer Amanda Beard went home with three medals – one gold and two silvers – in part because of her tenacity. Oh sure, Beard had a lot of talent. She had to in order to simply make the Olympic team. But the difference between Beard and a middle of the pack swimmer was her mental toughness.

But just being tough against the competition was the least of it. Beard dealt with a lot of pressure that had nothing to do with swimming. That summer, TV cameras followed Beard around, sometimes basing the day’s programming around her basic daily routines. Then there was the promise of fame and money and all of the ancillary trappings that go with that kind of stuff if she swam exceptionally well against the best in the world.

And don’t forget the press attention and the expectations from family and friends as well as the petty jealousies that always seem to crop up when someone is rising faster than expected. In other words, it wasn’t about swimming for Beard. It was about everything, yet through it all she still handled it all with great aplomb.

Now here’s the crazy thing: Beard was just 14 years old during the ’96 games.

At that young of an age she already was as mentally tough as even the most seasoned of athletes. After all, weaklings usually don’t win Olympic medals.

That summer when Beard was swimming her way into the record books, young Gavin Floyd, the pitcher who was just demoted from the Phillies’ rotation to the minors so that he could go get “tough,” was just 13 years old and undoubtedly dominating his baseball league near his hometown Severna Park, Md. Like Beard, Floyd had talent to spare. That much was evident when the Phillies made him the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft when he was just 18.

In fact, it took a big signing bonus (and the promise to pay for his college studies) to keep Floyd from giving the Phillies the J.D. Drew treatment and enrolling at the University of South Carolina. Once in the minor league system, Floyd’s ascent was quick with very few challenges. His domination in the bushes – one that included a no-hitter in Single-A ball – got to the point where team insiders and observers said that it appeared as if the tall right-hander was bored.

The difficult part, some offered, was hoping that Floyd became engaged in a game, or that his interest was piqued.

That’s not something anybody ever said about the great ones. Beard, at 14, was invested in her sport. The same goes for all of the true competitors in recent sports memory. Michael Jordan with the flu in the NBA Finals. Curt Schilling with the bloody sock in the World Series. Aaron Rowand doing a face plant into an exposed metal bar on a fence.

Heck, even that kid in the National Spelling Bee that fainted, pulled himself off the ground, composed himself and then stepped up to the mic and correctly spelled the word all have something that the fourth pick of the 2001 baseball draft seems to be lacking.

Toughness.

No one is really inspired by the guy with all of the talent in the world who suffers from boredom.

What’s most baffling, according to some of the coaches and players with the Phillies is that Floyd is talented. Actually, he’s very, very talented. But to live up to the expectations others have set for him, as well as the goals he has set for himself, Floyd is going to have to do something he has never had to do before…

Stand up and fight.

“It’s just to a point where he has to look down deep within himself and find something that will help him in his career,” catcher Sal Fasano told Phillies.com.

But even with his talent and the soul searching that will come during the next few weeks, there is no guarantee that Floyd will ever return to the Major Leagues. He really has to do some work and it has nothing to do with boning up his repertoire of pitches to accompany one of the most knee-buckling curveballs anyone has ever seen.

“The competition isn’t a threat,” team pitching coach Rich Dubee told Phillies.com. “It should be a challenge. It intimidates him sometimes. Everything’s life and death, and it doesn’t need to be that way. This needs to be something that he enjoys doing. I’m sure he felt extra heat – a lot of a lot of good players have had to go backward to go forward. Hopefully, he can get straightened out and get back up here.”

Some have suggested that Floyd simply needs the tough love, that he needs someone to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and scream at him, “You are good!” But that metaphoric kick-in-the rear seems so simple and even a little trite. It shouldn’t have to come to that.

After all, no one had to tell 14-year-old Amanda Beard that she was good.

Formula for Floyd: Toughen up

During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, swimmer Amanda Beard went home with three medals – one gold and two silvers – in part because of her tenacity. Oh sure, Beard had a lot of talent. She had to in order to simply make the Olympic team. But the difference between Beard and a middle of the pack swimmer was her mental toughness.

But just being tough against the competition was the least of it. Beard dealt with a lot of pressure that had nothing to do with swimming. That summer, TV cameras followed Beard around, sometimes basing the day’s programming around her basic daily routines. Then there was the promise of fame and money and all of the ancillary trappings that go with that kind of stuff if she swam exceptionally well against the best in the world.

And don’t forget the press attention and the expectations from family and friends as well as the petty jealousies that always seem to crop up when someone is rising faster than expected. In other words, it wasn’t about swimming for Beard. It was about everything, yet through it all she still handled it all with great aplomb.

Now here’s the crazy thing: Beard was just 14 years old during the ’96 games.

At that young of an age she already was as mentally tough as even the most seasoned of athletes. After all, weaklings usually don’t win Olympic medals.

That summer when Beard was swimming her way into the record books, young Gavin Floyd, the pitcher who was just demoted from the Phillies’ rotation to the minors so that he could go get “tough,” was just 13 years old and undoubtedly dominating his baseball league near his hometown Severna Park, Md. Like Beard, Floyd had talent to spare. That much was evident when the Phillies made him the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft when he was just 18.

In fact, it took a big signing bonus (and the promise to pay for his college studies) to keep Floyd from giving the Phillies the J.D. Drew treatment and enrolling at the University of South Carolina. Once in the minor league system, Floyd’s ascent was quick with very few challenges. His domination in the bushes – one that included a no-hitter in Single-A ball – got to the point where team insiders and observers said that it appeared as if the tall right-hander was bored.

The difficult part, some offered, was hoping that Floyd became engaged in a game, or that his interest was piqued.

That’s not something anybody ever said about the great ones. Beard, at 14, was invested in her sport. The same goes for all of the true competitors in recent sports memory. Michael Jordan with the flu in the NBA Finals. Curt Schilling with the bloody sock in the World Series. Aaron Rowand doing a face plant into an exposed metal bar on a fence.

Heck, even that kid in the National Spelling Bee that fainted, pulled himself off the ground, composed himself and then stepped up to the mic and correctly spelled the word all have something that the fourth pick of the 2001 baseball draft seems to be lacking.

Toughness.

No one is really inspired by the guy with all of the talent in the world who suffers from boredom.

What’s most baffling, according to some of the coaches and players with the Phillies is that Floyd is talented. Actually, he’s very, very talented. But to live up to the expectations others have set for him, as well as the goals he has set for himself, Floyd is going to have to do something he has never had to do before…

Stand up and fight.

“It’s just to a point where he has to look down deep within himself and find something that will help him in his career,” catcher Sal Fasano told Phillies.com.

But even with his talent and the soul searching that will come during the next few weeks, there is no guarantee that Floyd will ever return to the Major Leagues. He really has to do some work and it has nothing to do with boning up his repertoire of pitches to accompany one of the most knee-buckling curveballs anyone has ever seen.

“The competition isn’t a threat,” team pitching coach Rich Dubee told Phillies.com. “It should be a challenge. It intimidates him sometimes. Everything’s life and death, and it doesn’t need to be that way. This needs to be something that he enjoys doing. I’m sure he felt extra heat – a lot of a lot of good players have had to go backward to go forward. Hopefully, he can get straightened out and get back up here.”

Some have suggested that Floyd simply needs the tough love, that he needs someone to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and scream at him, “You are good!” But that metaphoric kick-in-the rear seems so simple and even a little trite. It shouldn’t have to come to that.

After all, no one had to tell 14-year-old Amanda Beard that she was good.