Bolt smashes World Record… or did he?

I will be posting women’s marathon updates on the Twitter page. Race starts at 7:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern.

Nearly three hours after Tyson Gay had un-triumphantly pulled off one of the biggest Olympic flops since Dan & Dave of the Reebok ads in 1992, and an hour after Usain Bolt ran the fastest a human being as ever run for 100 meters, NBC decided it was a good time to run its first advertisement/feature hyping the 100-meter showdown between Gay and Bolt.

Gay was “quietly fierce” and determined to bring gold home for the ol’ U.S.A. He talked about how his sister had inspired him to run and how he loves to sign autographs for fans because athletic careers are short and one day no one is going to ask.

It was very sweet and, no, that’s not sarcasm. How often do we ever hear about athletes that enjoy all the trappings of their celebrity?

Nevertheless, the Gay-Bolt hype felt a lot like reading last week’s newspaper… or worse. Actually, it felt insulting as if NBC were pretending that we all live in caves that are wired just for cable TV. To NBC, nothing else exists beyond what they beam out for air.

Frankly, it’s a lot like the offerings the Chinese government transmits through its state-run TV networks, which, incidentally, anyone can watch live on the Internet at CCTV. Yeah, that’s right – Americans can watch Chinese television on the Internet, but not NBC.

How does that work?

Actually, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite mean. Yeah, it’s mean as if a big monolithic corporation once owned primarily by a group best known for making light bulbs and nuclear bombs were making fun of us. They’re taunting us nanny-nanny-boo-boo style as if they were the big bully on the playground.

But the worst-kept secret behind every bully is that they are insecure. The fear is right there on the surface, lurking around with nervous glances and irrational behavior. Because they can’t reason with the changing media dynamic (much like the majority of the newspaper business, incidentally) they throw punches and force feed things in the same, tired way. Sit still, be quiet and take whatever it is we give you, they say.

It’s mean.

The television is as much an anachronism as a newspaper. Sure, people still watch TV – they numbers bear that out. But people aren’t going to sit down at 8 p.m. because corporations like NBC tell them that’s when the show will be on. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

More importantly, if something occurs and NBC has the ability to air it live, it is their responsibility to do so. If they want to put on a basketball game on the TV because people are tied to their old habits, fine. Do it. But if a basketball game and a big track meet are taking place at the same time, it’s OK to put one on TV and the other on, say, the Internet. It’s OK to do that now. We all seem to understand how the Internet works and fits into the modern household. Let’s just stop pretending that that the message can only be delivered one way when there are many different methods of delivery.

This isn’t just about the Olympics coverage. Oh no. It goes for politics, news and everything else. If the whole world is watching, as they say, I want to know what they are looking at. I want the truth, not the script.

Instead, fans of certain sports are being forced to live in a parallel universe. It’s the bizarro world where what you might know didn’t really happen. It’s like the old “if a tree falls in the woods” bit except it’s more like, “if a guy runs the 100 in 9.69 and NBC doesn’t air it or stream it, did it happen?”

According to The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN, CNN, Pravda, Al Jazeera and any other organization in the world that claims to report news, it did. But, you know, they aren’t the rights’ holders. Those people – the people that own air – are letting you watch Chris Paul talk to Craig Sager about basketball.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know. It’s the same old argument every four years. Track fans (or fans of rowing, shooting, horse jumping, tae kwon do, etc., etc.) don’t get to see the events they like best. Instead it’s too much hype about Michael Phelps powering through the water from 1,629 different angles – all in high definition. Too much Misty May all sandy and sweaty with all that skin slowly slipping out of that skimpy, tight beach volleyball bikini – in high def. Too much of Bob Costas’ hair, meticulously groomed as if it were the actual Olympic Green – again, in high def.

Bring back the TripleCast. Give us pay-per-view because the Olympics happen once every four years and it’s cheaper to own a TV than travel to China.

But come on. Give us something. Sure, NBC is streaming a lot of events – tons actually. However they only show it if they can’t package it or only after it aired on one of the handful of NBC-owned networks. Things like the track & field card were not only aired on television until at least 12 hours after it occurred, but also not streamed. For instance, the women’s 10,000-meters finals (a big event for track geeks, especially since Shalane Flanagan won bronze) went off at 10:15 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Friday, but was not shown in the U.S. until approximately 1 a.m. on Saturday morning.

What, were they trying to get the smallest audience possible?

I get it. Track is not very popular in the U.S. (something I don’t get, but that’s me), but at least give us an option. Charge us $10 to watch a full slate of a specific event. Give us something.

Hell, even throw in the commercials, we’ll take ’em. We’re desperate. Look, we know the reason NBC won’t put certain events on the Internet is because they are afraid of the truth – they are afraid that TV is quickly heading in very much the same direction that newspaper business finds itself. They’re afraid of how good the numbers on the Internet coverage will be. They’re afraid that viewers will make the switch and never come back. The Internet gives just too much portability, responsibility and power to the viewer. Imagine, someone can lug around a laptop or a cell phone or an iPod or a PDA and watch the Olympics. Come on, imagine it.

But oh, no, no, no… not on NBC’s watch. Not if they can help it. Not if they can tell you one thing and show you another.

Plus, the network sold the TV air time. Coke, Visa, McDonalds, AT&T, Budweisser and all of the major sponsors want their shiny, over-produced ads superimposed on Michael Phelps’ Speedo as he swims to another gold medal – in high def. Maybe the execs at the big advertisers are just like their counterparts at the networks in that they are too old for the new demographic. They don’t get this new-fangled techie stuff. Why in their day they had 12 channels and rabbit ears and they liked it that way. They prefer things the way they used to be.

You will watch what they tell you when they tell you…

But not for long.

Looking past Phelps: The epic Finger Food Olympic track preview

edited Aug. 14 @ 2:34 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time
edited Aug. 16 @ 4:58 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time

The Olympics has been a huge ratings bonanza for NBC and its web site, NBCOlympics.com. Certainly there are a lot of reasons for this such as the common sports fans’ disinterest in regular-season baseball and pre-season football; actual live coverage of big events, and of course all of the drama.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt to have Michael Phelps chasing Olympic history during the first week of the coverage. Nor does it hurt to have a rare interview with the President of the United States in China on a Sunday night in the summertime.

It’s almost as if NBC has a captive audience.

Nevertheless, it seems as if the schedule will break nicely for NBC because after the swimming winds down, the track & field programme will start this Thursday night in the Eastern Time Zone.

Needless to say there will be some huge differences in the competition in the swimming and track events. Aside from the obvious (one has water the other just sweat), the actual elements of Beijing will become a factor. While world-records fall in nearly every heat in the swimming programme because of the turbo-charged pool and technological advances of the sport, the runners on the track will be attempting to beat the heat.

And when the heat and humidity come into play, running becomes a war of attrition.

So when Michael Phelps wraps up his assault on the record books, NBC will have Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in the 100-meter preliminaries beginning at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.

If it isn’t enough to have the glamour event of track & field front and center on Day 1, the glamour event for distance geeks also gets going with the opening round qualifiers for the mile. Americans Bernard Lagat, a contender for the gold, as well as Lopez Lomong, the flag bearer for Team U.S.A. during the Opening Ceremonies, will be in action.

With the weather expected to turn warm this weekend in Beijing, the heat, humidity and air quality will be fairly significant. According to AccuWeather, the runners can expect temperatures in the 90s on Friday with a high UV index and humidity reaching over 60 percent. Fortunately, when the women toe the line in the 10,000-metre finals at 10:45 p.m. Beijing time, the cover of night should cool things down a bit.

It will be humid on Sunday morning (Saturday night for the U.S.) for the women’s marathon, though. Certainly, the women’s race will be a good chance for everyone to see just how much the pollution, fog, smog or whatever else they call it in Beijing, truly affects the athletes.

Anyway, here’s a little primer for the track events of the Beijing Olympiad, complete with short synopsis and predictions.

Hell, if Sports Illustrated can do it, why can’t I?

Women
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:25 a.m.)
With defending World Champion Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica not in the race, this one is poised to be a U.S. sweep.

1.)    Muna Lee, U.S.A.
2.)    Torri Edwards, U.S.A.
3.)    Lauryn Williams, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Shelly-Ann Fraser, Jamaica
Silver: Sherone Simpson, Jamaica
Bronze: Kerrone Stewart, Jamaica

200-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 9:10 a.m.)
Undoubtedly this will be hyped as the duel between Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown and American Allyson Felix. In Athens Campbell-Brown won gold and Felix got silver. During the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Felix got gold and Campbell-Brown took silver. Whose turn is it in Beijing?

1.)    Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
2.)    Allyson Felix, U.S.A.
3.)    Kerron Stewart, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
Silver: Felix, U.S.A.
Bronze: Stewart, Jamaica

400-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:10 a.m.)
Jamaican-born, U.S.-raised Sanya Richards has a lot to prove in this event. She finished fifth in the 2007 World Championships, ninth in the 2006 World Indoor Championships, second in the 2005 World Championships and sixth in the 2004 Olympics. Mixed in, Richards smashed the U.S. record for the event, swept the 2006 Golden League meets and won the 2006 World Cup and World Athletics meets. Meanwhile, her fiancé is New York Giants’ cornerback, Aaron Ross.

1.)    Sanya Richards, U.S.A.
2.)    Novlene Williams-Mills, Jamaica
3.)    Rosemarie Whyte, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Christine Ohuruogo, Great Britain
Silver: Shericka Williams, Jamaica
Bronze: Richards, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:35 a.m.)
Veteran Olympian Hazel Clark is the top U.S. runner in this event as well as a member of the legendary Clark family. Her sister is 800m legend Joetta Clark-Diggs, her sister-in-law is American record holder Jearl Clark and her father is Joe Clark, who was played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, Lean on Me. But Kenyan Pamela Jelimo has run five of the top seven times in the world this year.

1.)    Pamela Jelimo, Kenya
2.)    Janeth Jepkosgei, Kenya
3.)    Hasna Benhassi, Morocco

Results
Gold: Jelimo, Kenya
Silver: Jepkosgei, Kenya
Bronze: Benhassi, Morocco

1,500-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:50 a.m.)
Haddonfield, N.J. native Erin Donohue is the local favorite, though she will have a tough time making the finals. Shannon Rowbury of San Francisco is the top American miler, though she has her work cut out for her, too. Three runners stand out in this race, but which one will take gold is up for grabs.

1.)    Maryam Jamal, Bahrain
2.)    Geleta Burka, Ethiopia
3.)    Iryna Lishchynska, Ukraine

Results
Gold: Nancy Langat, Kenya
Silver: Lishchynska, Ukraine
Bronze: Nataliya Tobias, Ukraine

3,000-meters Steeplechase
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 9:30 a.m.)
Recent U. of Michigan grad Anna Willard dominated the steeple in the Olympic Trials to set an American record. However, in international competition, Willard came in eighth in the heats of the 2007 World Championships. Willard will be easy to spot – she will probably color her hair pink, fuscia or electric blue. She will also be the one with U.S.A. on her jersey chasing the pack.

1.)    Yekaterina Volkova, Russia
2.)    Eunice Jepkorir, Kenya
3.)    Gulnara Galkina, Russia

Results
Gold: Galkina, Russia
Silver: Jepkorir, Kenya
Bronze: Volkova, Russia

5,000- meters
(Friday, Aug. 22 – 8:40 a.m.)
The U.S. has a solid team in the 5k with Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Villanova’s Jen Rhines. Goucher won the event in the Olympic Trials and set the American record in the half marathon in late 2007. Rhines is a three-time Olympian in three different events, and Flanagan might have been the top American distance runner heading into the Trials. Beginning in early 2007, Flanagan set the American record in the 3,000-meters, 5,000-meters and 10,000 meters. However, a bout of food poisoning she picked up Tuesday at the U.S. distance camp in Dalian, China could derail her chances. If food poisoning wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. team will face two of the best 5,000-meter runners in the world.

1.)    Meseret Defar, Ethiopia
2.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
3.)    Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Cheruiyot, Kenya
Bronze: Defar, Ethiopia

10,000-meters
(Friday, Aug. 15 – 10:15 a.m.)
Goucher and Flanagan double for the U.S. in the 10k with Amy Begley, the Trials’ Cinderella Story. Again, the issue will be how well Flanagan recovers from food poisoning and the strong Ethiopian and Kenyan teams.

1.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
2.)    Mestawet Tufa, Ethiopia
3.)    Kim Smith, New Zealand

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Elvan Abeylegesse, Turkey
Bronze: Flanagan, U.S.A.

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 7:30 p.m.)
Oh man… this one is deep and wide open. That’s especially the case when it was announced that defending Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi dropped out this week with fatigue issues. Moreover, world-record holder Paula Radcliffe has missed significant training time because of a stress fracture in her left thigh suffered just three months ago. Radcliffe, of course, has won every major marathon she has entered except for the Olympics and seems determined to get after it this weekend. She reports that she feels “fresh” but “undertrained.” American-record holder and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor is in the race looking to improve on her finish in Athens, while Kenyan star Catherine Ndereba (who used to train exclusively in Valley Forge, Pa.) aims to add another Olympic medal to an epic career.

Oh, there’s more. Ethiopians Gete Wami and Berhane Adere are gold-medal threats. Others to watch include Japan’s Reiko Tosa, and Russians Svetlana Zakharova and Galina Bogomolova.

Most notably, though, is China’s Zhou Chunxiu who has the distinct advantage of training on the course with all of the elements that could prove to be too much for the foreign runners.

Meanwhile, the forecast is calling for somewhat cool temperatures but 80 percent humidity. That means anything goes.

1.)    Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain
2.)    Zhou Chunxiu, China
3.)    Catherine Ndereba, Kenya

Results
Gold: Constintina Tomescu-Dita, Romania
Silver: Ndereba, Kenya
Bronze: Chunxiu, China

Men
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 10:30 a.m.)
Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt? Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay? Gay, Bolt or Asafa Powell? Either way, all three of the top contenders in the 100 have had the world-record for a bit in the past year. We give the advantage to Gay because he won’t run the 200 and can focus on one event.

1.)    Tyson Gay, U.S.A.
2.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
3.)    Asafa Powell, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Richard Thompson, Trinidad and Tobago
Bronze: Walter Dix, U.S.A.

200-meters
(Wednesday, Aug. 20 – 10:20 a.m.)
With Gay out after pulling up with a hamstring injury during the Trials, it opens the door for Bolt to stake his claim. Watch out for Americans Shawn Crawford and NCAA Champ, Walter Dix.

1.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
2.)    Walter Dix, U.S.A.
3.)    Shawn Crawford, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Crawford, U.S.A.
Bronze: Dix, U.S.A.

400-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 8:55 a.m.)
Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt each have five of the best 10 times in the world this year. More interestingly, Wariner and Merritt have split their last 10 head-to-head meetings, with Merritt taking the past two. Wariner, though, as the defending Olympic Champ, might have the most to prove.

1.)    Jeremy Wariner, U.S.A.
2.)    LaShawn Merritt, U.S.A.
3.)    David Neville, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Merritt, U.S.A.
Silver: Wariner, U.S.A.
Bronze: Neville, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 a.m.)
People are still talking about the 800-meters finals from last month’s Olympic Trials where five men all finished within a second of each other for the three spots to go to Beijing. Christian Smith was the surprise member of the team after his dive at the tape past K.D. Robinson and Lopez Lomong punched his ticket. Needless to say, the mystery over the U.S. team remains. Nick Symmonds could surprise in Beijing because of his ability to start his kick from long range, while no one really knows how good Andrew Wheating is or can be. Wheating just finished his second year at Oregon and has only been running seriously for two years.

Be that as it is, the U.S. runners will have to perform just like they did in Eugene last month to be a factor. Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if a Sudanese runner took gold in China?

1.)    Abubaker Kaki-Khamis, Sudan
2.)    Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, South Africa
3.)    Wilfred Bungei, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bungei, Kenya
Silver: Ismail Ahmed, Sudan
Bronze: Alfred Kirwa Yego, Kenya

1,500-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:50 a.m.)
The old glamour event on the track always excites. It might have lost some of its luster to the faster races, but the fields have always been deep, talented and the races exciting. This year will be no different, though an American could win gold for the first time since Mel Sheppard in the 1908 London Games.

1.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
2.)    Augustine Choge, Kenya
3.)    Abdalaati Iguider, Morocco

Results
Gold: Rashid Ramzi , Bahrain
Silver: Asbel Kiprop, Kenya
Bronze: Nicholas Willis, New Zealand

3,000-meter steeplechase
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:10 a.m.)
One of the more interesting athletes representing the U.S. this time around is Anthony Famiglietti, a New York-native who until recently trained exclusively in Brooklyn. And no, he didn’t train on the streets of New York City to better prepare him for the pollution of Beijing. Versatile and passionate as a runner, Famiglietti is more philosopher and scholar than quintessential jock. He also has been the producer and subject of two documentaries and is keeping a riveting video journal of his time in China for Runner’s World, including the latest installment where he tapes the Chinese security hiding in the bushes or sitting outside his room.

But Fam will be overmatched in Beijing. Actually, the entire field will be swimming in the wake of the Kenyan team. All that’s left to determine is what color the Kenyan’s medals will be.

1.)    Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya
2.)    Brimin Kipruto, Kenya
3.)    Richard Matelong, Kenya

Results
Gold: Kipruto, Kenya
Silver: Mahiedine Mekhissi-B., France
Bronze: Matelong, Kenya

5,000-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 8:10 a.m.)
This was Steve Prefontaine’s signature distance, and the U.S. hasn’t had a contender close to challenging the world in the 5,000 since Pre’s run in Munich in ’72. Sure, Bob Kennedy surged to the lead with 300-meters to go in the 1996 finals in Atlanta, but was quickly swallowed up by the rest of the field to finish sixth. No American has medaled in the 5k since Jim Ryun got silver in 1968, while no American has won gold since Mel Sheppard in 1908.

However, all Bernard Lagat is missing for his medal collection in the 5,000 is the gold. In Beijing he is not only looking for gold in the 5,000, but also he’s attempting to pull off an incredible double in the 1,500 and 5,000.

Tall order.

Look out for Australian Craig Mottram… he’s tough as hell.

1.)    Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya
2.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
3.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Kipchoge, Kenya
Bronze: Edwin Soi, Kenya

10,000-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:45 a.m.)
edit: Haile Gebreselassie is on the official entry list from the IAAF for the 10,000-meters, an event in which he won gold in 1996 and 2000. However, though Gebreselassie says he’s fit and set for one more crack at the 10k gold, nagging injuries and the fact that he is racing in the Berlin Marathon in September doesn’t change my predictions submitted earlier.

But yes, Geb will be a factor.

It would seem as if the 10k would be wide open with all-time great Haile Gebreselassie out of the Olympics in order to lower his record in the marathon in Berlin. But even with the great Geb going after the money, the Ethiopian grip on the event is still strong. After all, the defending champ will return as the prohibitive favorite.

Kenenisa Bekele will be running for two in a row as well as for his fiancé, who died while out for a run with him. Bekele’s countryman, Sileshi Sihine, is also a contender. The American hope is Abdi Abdirahman, who will head to a third straight Olympics. But, “The Black Cactus” has not broken 27-minutes (no American has), which seems to be a prerequisite for winning an Olympic medal.

1.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia
2.)    Sileshi Sihine, Ethiopia
3.)    Moses Masai, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Sihine, Ethiopia
Bronze: Micah Kogo, Kenya

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 p.m.)
Edit: Robert Cheruyiot withdrew from the marathon with an undisclosed injury on Aug. 16. The Kenyan team replaced him with runner Luke Kibet. As a result, I changed my predictions to what is displayed. Originally I had chosen Cheruyiot for the silver.

The traditional last event of the Olympics could be the most thrilling. No, Gebreselassie is out and Paul Tergat of Kenya deferred to the younger, up-and-coming runners. But the race will feature some of the champions from the major marathons. Martin Lel of Kenya, who has won three out of the last four London marathons and the last New York City Marathon, is the favorite. Countryman Robert Cheruyiot, the winner of four of the last five Boston marathons and the 2006 Chicago Marathon can run in all sorts of conditions as evidenced by his win in Boston in ’06.

Deribe Merga (2:06:38) and Tsegaye Kebebe (2:06:40) of Ethiopia will be threats, as well as Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru (2:05:24), who lost to Lel in London last April and holds the world record in the half-marathon.

Meanwhile, defending Olympic champ Stefano Baldini of Italy will toe the line along with two-time New York champ Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa and Abderrahim Goumri (2:05:30) of Morocco.

But all eyes will be on the baby-faced, blonde-haired kid from California.

Ryan Hall has been called everything from the “future of American running,” to a serious contender for gold in Beijing. Both seem true. Based on the story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Hall will is headed to Beijing prepared to be in the mix the entire race. His 2:06 in London last April was groundbreaking, but is it enough to put him with the elite of the elite?

Meanwhile, Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Pennsylvanian Brian Sell have legitimate shots to finish in the top 10. For a runner like Sell, who is quasi-local, a top 10 finish in the Olympic marathon is mind-boggling.

1.)    Martin Lel, Kenya
2.)    Sammy Wanjiru, Kenya
3.)    Ryan Hall, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Wanjiru, Kenya
Silver: Jaouad Gharib, Morocco
Bronze: Tsegay Kebede, Ethiopia

Protest is (not) futile

No, it wasn’t exactly John Carlos and Tommie Smith atop the medal stand in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics, but for Kobe Bryant that simple gesture caught by a photographer during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on Friday morning was about as political as it gets.

From the way it looked it was nothing more than a fleeting moment. Like a trendy, throwaway gesture that all the kids make that really doesn’t mean anything. Oh sure, maybe Kobe Bryant is for peace. Maybe deep down he believes the Chinese government-supported and bankrolled genocide in Darfur is further proof of the decay of society. The thought that human life is worth less than barrels of oil should make Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and every athlete for every nation march into the Olympic Stadium with black-gloved fists in the air.

But to make a gesture that actually had meaning behind it – that actually meant what it stood for – would be a risk for an athlete of Kob Bryant’s stature. After all, Kobe is one of Nike’s top spokesmen in the Beijing Olympics. Since a lot of Nike’s products that are sold in the U.S. are made in China, and because the shoe company has a large stake in the Chinese economy, spokesman Kobe can’t go around making declarations for human rights.

Protest is futile.

Or has Kobe simply been muzzled? Certainly we know the Lower Merion grad has some thoughts on issues like Darfur based on a public service announcement he made earlier this year. Here it is:

But in China, with Team USA, Bryant says he won’t comment on the issue anymore.

“That’s where we’ll leave it,” he told The Washington Post.” We’re going to focus on what we’ve got to do. We’ve got enough on our plate to bring back the gold medal. So we let the people that know best about the situation handle that situation and us do what we do.”

Who might that be? Is it Team USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who reportedly addressed the Olympians and told them not to politicize the games, a charge he later denied in the Post story?

“We have empathy for what’s happening, be it in Tibet or Darfur, and if our players are asked and their heart tells to say something, that’s up to them,” he said. “I know people want quotes from some of these athletes on these issues, but come Aug. 26, I don’t think we’ll be asking those same questions. It’s kind of newsy now. I don’t have an issue with that at all.”

Wait… so human rights violations and genocide only matter when it fits into the proper news cycle? Is it me or was there a time when Darfur or Tibet has not been news?

Nevertheless, Coach Mike Krzyzewski says he and Colangelo have encouraged the basketball players to speak on whatever they want, but encouraged politeness toward the Chinese hosts.

“We want to make sure that we’re good ambassadors for our country and make sure that we’re representing our game here in the Olympics,” Krzyzewski said.

Because representing basketball and Nike is the bottom line, right?

So that’s where Team USA will leave it. Kind of a political don’t-ask, don’t-tell where the most provocative comment came from James.

“I don’t want to bring no distractions to our team. My number one goal coming here was not to speak on political issues, it was to come win a gold medal,” James said. “I said if I was asked the question then I would answer, and I’d say that basic human rights should be protected. That’s how I feel. It’s not going to go further than that. It’s not going to go less than that.”

Here’s where the curious part comes in. Though athletes were politicized a generation or two ago and sometimes even risked arrest and the loss of their career to make social and political statements, the latter generations have been defined by its public apathy on issues that do not mesh with capitalism, commerce and bling.

They can cite Michael Jordan as the trail blazer in that regard when he famously failed to famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Too be fair, Jordan quietly contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Barack Obama’s run for the White House. Besides, people have the right to shut-up, too.

But the notion that the Olympic Games – of any era – are not political is incredibly naïve. Oh sure, we want it to be about the best athletes from all over the globe representing their country in fair competition, but even that is political. Governing bodies in each country select the athletes, bias and favoritism is bought and sold and then comes the bureaucracies that do the drug testing.

Perhaps the only time the Olympics were pure was when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in the air.

Regardless, the Olympic ideal remains. The idea that pure sport and the best of competition is hard to be cynical about. For that the U.S. has no further to look than the man who carried the flag into the Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies last Friday morning.

Middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong’s story certainly has been told and re-told enough since the U.S. athletes voted him to be the flag bearer. In fact, it’s hard to read a sentence about Lomong that doesn’t note that he was a once a “Lost Boy” from Sudan directly affected by the Chinese policy in that country. Torn from his family that hat he believed had been killed by Sudanese rebels when he was six, Lomong spent the next 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before being adapted by a family in the U.S.

The rest is the quintessential American Dream.

Yet by selecting Lomong (a member of a group of athletes known asTeam Darfur) to do nothing more than carry the Stars and Stripes into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. athletes sent an unmistakable message against the Chinese government’s role in the Darfur genocide.

So maybe there was something to Kobe’s peace salute after all.

Go U.S.A.

Nothing to see here except for everything

By the time the Olympics end, chances are the story of the American murdered at the Drum Tower on will be lost beneath an avalanche of stories about Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Tyson Gay and the rest of the probable heroes of the Beijing Games.

But that’s a shame. Todd and Barbara Bachman, both 62, parents of the wife of volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon, were stabbed by a Chinese national on Saturday. Todd Bachman died and his wife sustained what were described as life-threatening injuries. Their daughter, Elizabeth Bachman McCutcheon, an Olympian volleyball player in the 2004 Games in Athens, witnessed the entire tragedy, which included the alleged murderer’s leap to his death from 130-feet from the tower.

Reports are that the man was wearing a red shirt and laid on the ground, face down, for two hours before he was removed from the scene.

More strangely, American writers were on the scene covering the murder in great detail before sending the stories back to their papers and onto the World Wide Web. But reports are that the Chinese government made no mention that anything happened on the state-run news broadcasts.

As far as the Chinese government was concerned, nothing happened.

For us, Phil Sheridan and Marcus Hayes delivered riveting accounts of the scene and circumstance of the tragedy. In a time of anguish and despair, Marcus and Phil stepped up.

Read the accounts:

Phil Sheridan: Fatal China stabbing raises questions

Marcus Hayes: Thunderous Silence

***
Meanwhile, back to the relative tranquility of the United States…

Back in 1984 in the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., I stepped onto an elevator with Robin Roberts. We chatted about the Olympics, which was topical since the L.A. Games were approaching and since he was working for USA Baseball as a consultant. The next time I had a chance to talk to Roberts was tonight just as the Phillies were starting the game against the Pirates.

Twenty-four years between chats is too long.

Anyway, aside from the talk about the 1950 baseball season and his ability to pitch nine innings seemingly every time he took the mound, I asked Roberts about that 1984 Olympic team.

“Man, we had some good players,” he said.

They sure did. Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff and a catcher from Philadelphia named John Marzano took the silver in the first year baseball was re-introduced to the Olympics.

Strangely, the next time I talked to Roberts about Olympic baseball was before the last time the sport will be a part of the Olympic program.

Talk about the circle of life…

Regardless, seeing Roberts wasvery fun. I even wrote about it.

Baseball fans should treasure guys like Roberts for as long as they can.

***
Coming tomorrow in full, blow-by-blow detail:

Charlie vs. Myers.

Don’t mess with Charlie.

Plus, Kobe, LaBron and Darfur.

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?

All Brett, all the time

I have a theory. No, it’s not the one where I offered that everyone, at one point or another, has dined on a loogie at a restaurant. This new theory is totally different and much less solid than my other theory.

This one has to do with Brett Favre and ESPN, which based on the recent wall-to-wall coverage of all things Favre and the Packers, is almost like eating a loogie in a TV viewing sense.

Anyway, my theory is since the Olympics are set to begin and NBC has decided to devote 23 ½ hours of its programming per day to Olympics coverage, the so-called World Wide Leader is going to the dance without a date… so to speak. ESPN/ABC cannot show the Olympics – they can only attend and cover it like everyone else. So to turn away heads from the biggest sporting event in the world this year, ESPN has barraged the sports-viewing public with “All Brett, All the Time.”

No, I don’t think it’s anything as sinister as choosing to report a less important story. After all, the Olympics haven’t even started yet. However, a lot of newspapers have sent teams of writers to China to cover one of the more mystifying and intriguing set of Games in a long time. From what I recall, there was no such intrigue regarding the Olympics in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney or Athens.

China, to those of us in the West, is still mysterious. That’s especially the case when one takes in account the political, social, environmental and human rights concerns. For Americans it’s kind of odd that we actually have someone to look down upon in those regards, but there China is, anchoring an entire continent with its sprawling landscape that is becoming more and more developed by the day.

Think oil prices are high now? Wait until the Chinese citizens in the outer provinces put down the bikes and get cars.

So with the writers heading for the Far East, the MLB season entering the so-called dog days and the football season still a month away, why wouldn’t ESPN try a little misdirection? It’s as if they are screaming, “Hey, don’t look at the biggest sporting event in the world – you know, the one where we are not the rights’ holders. Look over here – to Wisconsin, U.S.A. That’s where the real story is. Come watch.”

And like the Chinese government, ESPN adds, “If you choose not to, we will make you.”

OK, it’s just a theory. There are more holes in this argument than Swiss cheese, but it’s out there nonetheless.

Speaking of out there, my friend and all-around swell guy (and ex-Phillies writer), Marcus Hayes, is in China for the Olympics. He arrived Tuesday at 2 p.m., which was 2 a.m. Tuesday morning here on the East Coast… or 2 a.m. tomorrow — time zones always mess me up. Chances are he’s pretty jet lagged.

Nevertheless, Marcus will be updating a blog (do people even use that word anymore… seems outdated to me) for the Daily News and I suggest everyone read it.

OR ELSE!

Seriously, it might be the second or third place I go when I make my rounds through the Internets every morning. Meanwhile, I had hoped to do one of those Slate.com-esque e-mail exchange columns with Marcus and the Inquirer’s Phil Sheridan, but it seems as if they are going to be too busy.

Instead I’ll just tune in to the 23 ½ hours of daily coverage and write about it here.

In the meantime, Marcus reported that he made it to Beijing after a 14-hour flight. In response to an e-mail where I told him I was envious that he got to go to the Olympics and I get to go to Citizens Bank Park, our hero wrote, “You wouldn’t be so envious if you just spent 4 hours sitting across from a smelly Latvian with 4 spiked hairs.”

See, Beijing isn’t all that different than Philadelphia.

He also reported that he cannot read his own site because it has been blocked by the Chinese government.

Anyway, I told Marcus that it would not surprise me if he went to China and an international incident occurred. Marcus Hayes in China just screams “international incident.”

Better yet, remember Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter? You know, he went to Vietnam and never made it back because he went AWOL from a hospital in Saigon in order to play Russian roulette for money… for some reason I foresee a similar fate for Marcus.

OK, back to the Brett Barrage, which is kind of like Russian Roulette but only brain cells are in danger.

Read: Marcus Hayes’ Olympic Proportions site

Rest up

sheepThere’s a whole bunch of stories that piqued our interest today regarding the Phillies and intriguing topics.

On the Phillies it seems as if Kris Benson is a little dinged up, though that doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Actually, it just sounds like Benson needs what we marathoners call an “easy day.” After weeks of piling hard days on top of each other, it sounds like Benson’s right arm told his brain that it was shutting it down for a few days.

“I’ve been going a month straight now, throwing every single day, and it’s held up pretty good,” Benson said. “I’ve gotten pretty far along in this process. I think to expect me to go from the first day of camp to the last day of the season without taking a break here and there because it’s going to fatigue out is … not going to happen.”

So Benson needs to go easy, which is how the body builds its self up. Most folks believe that the hard workouts are what makes an athlete strong, but that’s not even the half of it. Muscle regenerates and grows during recovery and rest – it suffers micro-tears and gets beat to bits during work. That’s part of the reason why human growth hormone is so popular – not only does it help create lean muscle mass, but also it allows an athlete to skip some of the recovery process.

Sleep, of course, is an important part of the process, too. In fact, celebrity doctor Mehmet C. Oz writes in the April, 2008 edition of Esquire that people need sleep more than they need food. That makes sense when one considers that it is during deep sleep that the body naturally produces HGH.

Writes Oz:

If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, you’re in trouble. You need sleep more than you need food. When you’re always tired, you actually age faster than you should.

In other words, work hard and then rest up because that’s what it takes.

“If I could take a break now and take advantage of it and use this to build myself up for the 60-pitch area, to bump up to the next area, then I think in the long run it will be a good thing,” Benson said.

Kris BensonOf course who could blame Benson for pushing it a little harder than he should have over the past few weeks? With the backend of the Phillies’ rotation struggling and looking for some help, Benson probably saw a spot or two ripe for the proverbial picking. There are jobs to be had on a potential playoff club at stake and Benson rightfully reasoned that one of those spots could be his.

It still could, but it seems as if some extended spring work in Clearwater, followed by a minor-league rehab stint will be needed in the meantime.

***
Working-class hero Chris Coste’s memoir, The 33-Year Old Rookie hit stores today. With a copy en route from the good folks at Ballantine Books, we will be sure to have a full review here ASAP.

***
Allen Iverson returns to Philadelphia for the first time with the Denver Nuggets tomor…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Allen IversonOh, sorry about dozing off in the middle of a sentence like that. It’s just that in Philadelphia, it’s a tired old story that another all-time great is returning to town with another team. There are many issues with this trend, namely, why do all the really good players want to leave town?

How much time do we have?

Nevertheless, it will be a more exciting story when the all-time greats play their entire careers for a Philadelphia.

***
Sports and politics are always a bad mix, just like it was a bad idea for the Carter Adminstration to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. But if there were ever an Olympics to be boycotted, this summer’s games in Beijing are ripe.

Excluding the issues regarding China’s horrendous human-rights record, environmental and pollution atrocities as well as the most recent killings in yet another crackdown against basic freedoms in Tibet make one wonder why the International Olympic Committee would ever consider having its games in China in the first place.

HailePlus, athletes aren’t even allowed to sign autographs for their fans as evidenced by the Chan Ho Park incident in Beijing last week.

Perhaps the best measure of protest against the Chinese is the French Olympic committee’s move to boycott the opening ceremonies in August. Even better is the subtle – but powerful – protest by Haile Gebrselassie to skip the Olympic marathon. This is quite meaningful because Gebrselassie shattered the world record in the marathon last October. Plus, Geb is the most decorated distance runner in history with stirring Olympic victories in the 10,000 meters in 1996 and 2000 in what are regarded as the most dramatic runs in the event’s history.

So when Geb says pollution in Beijing is a concern enough to skip the Olympics, the issues are worth investigating…

Like why would the IOC award Beijing with something like the Olympics in the first place?

***
The autopsy for top American marathoner Ryan Shay was finally released today – 4 ½ months after his death in the Olympic Trials in New York City. It appears as if Shay’s heart was too big – no drugs, no foul play. But everyone who knew Shay never suspected any of that in the first place.

***
Tomorrow: Lenny Dykstra and the NCAA Tournament