One last look at the Beijing Games

My original plan was to write about how Bob Costas has morphed into the Dick Clark of sports broadcasting as well as how NBC’s Olympic coverage was xenophobic, shallow and insulting to one’s intelligence.

I was going to do that, but I figured I’ve been there already. No sense retracing my steps.

Besides, there are far smarter people who have written far more eloquently about matters than I could have. Jason Whitlock, writing for Fox Sports had a similar idea as me in that he believes NBC blew it by not offering the competition live. He also sends a warning – as I have – that all of the traditional media ought to wake up in regard to the changing media dynamic.

Who knows, it might even be too late.

Additionally, Gary Kamiya of Salon.com, wrote about how much of a letdown it was not to see “traditional” Olympic sports on TV. NBC virtually ignored track and field, which are the essence of the games.

Actually, NBC chose to ignore track and field – and most other events, too – because they did not fit into its broadcast plan devised way back when Beijing was awarded the games in 2001. According to a story in The New York Times, NBC and IOC chairman, Jacques Rogge, worked together to finagle the schedule of swimming events so that they could be aired during prime time in the United States. But before doing so, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC sports, had to run the plan the network and IOC past one person:

Michael Phelps.

When was the last time the commissioner of baseball asked a player what time he wanted the games to start? How about the president of ESPN or Fox checking with Jimmy Rollins to see what time would be best to put the game on TV?

Answer: never.

But NBC was so hungry for ratings and the IOC so complicit to make the network happy that they were OK with a TV network setting the agenda at the most prestigious athletic competition on the planet.

Nothing was going to interrupt NBC’s vision for how the Olympics should look. That was the case when an American was killed at the Drum Tower and when political, envornmental and social questions came up regarding China. Instead, NBC dispatched its reporters out to sample some wacky food, like scorpions.

Imagine that, they eat different food in China. Good story.

So when Usain Bolt sprinted onto the scene and suddenly, like lightning, became the face of the Olympics – the unadultered, non-sponsored International star – well, NBC wasn’t having that.

To NBC, Usain Bolt did not turn in the most otherworldly performances in Olympic history. He was a party crasher. Didn’t he get the memo that Michael Phelps was the star?

To knock him down a peg, NBC lapdog Jacques Rogge claimed Bolt’s celebrations were unsportsmanlike (Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post nails it). Costas waded into the fray, too, echoing the IOC boss’ complaints. However, when Phelps pounded his chest, flexed, screamed and posed after several of his victories, they said nothing. Actually, Bob and the gang fawned all over their White Knight and wanted you to do the same.

Please ignore that man running faster than anyone else in history of the world. That has nothing to do with us.

Interestingly, Costas and Rogge sat down for an wide-ranging interview that was divided into three segments where the IOC head was asked all the trenchant questions. But since Rogge’s answers were so nuanced and in-depth, that NBC reasoned there was no way it could be shown to a prime-time audience. Instead, portions of the interview were shown during the gold-medal basketball game, which was one of the network’s few non-Phelps live events. Tip off was 2:30 a.m.

Even some of the former Olympic greats in Beijing backed off when asked about Bolt’s epic performances. In the instance of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic medalist, it had nothing to do with TV, networks or overt agendas. But it had everything to do with corporations.

When asked for his thoughts on Bolt becoming the first man to win the sprint double in the Olympics since he did it in 1984, Lewis demurred with a nod to his sugar daddy:

“He’s a Puma guy. I really can’t say anything,” Lewis said “I said something the other day and the Nike people saw it and they weren’t happy.”

Join the club.

Nevertheless, to the rest of the world and for those not influenced by NBC Chinese-government-esque agenda, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were one hell of a track meet. Bolt clearly stole the show and become – to most – the face of the games, but the Jamaican prodigy had some competition.

After Bolt (and Phelps) here are the performances I will remember the most from the 2008 Games:

Sammy Wanjiru sprinting wire-to-wire to win the marathon
OK, he didn’t sprint, per se. But the 21-year-old Wanjiru ran the first mile in 4:41 and didn’t slow down until he shook off all challengers to set an Olympic-record (2:06:32) and to become the first Kenyan to win gold in the Olympic marathon.

The thing that makes Wanjiru’s run so amazing wasn’t exactly the time. After all, Wanjiru set the world record in the half marathon with a 58:53 in 2007 and ran 2:05:24 in April at the London Marathon – just his second attempt at the distance.

No, what was amazing about Wanjiru’s run was the fact that he kept his pace even though the temperature in Beijing rose to 80 degrees while the humidity held steady over 70 percent under sunny skies. Anyone who has ever run in the summertime when the humidity is over 50 percent knows it’s pretty damn difficult. But to run routine 4:40 miles over and over again in such conditions coupled with the stress of the deepest field ever assembled for an Olympic Marathon is more than impressive.

Sitting at home and watching the spotty coverage on television, I shook my head in disbelief figuring Wanjiru had set off on a suicide mission at his pace. Apparently, I wasn’t alone – Wanjiru’s competitors thought the same thing.

“I was running three minutes per kilometer,” said Ryan Hall, the U.S. champion who finished a minute behind Wanjiru in London last April, but 10th in 2:12:33 in the Olympics. “That was plenty fast.

“It was insane,” said Hall of the pace in the heat. “You’re just hoping the crowd will come back – hoping that guys will drop out or something.”

Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished first amongst the three-man U.S. team in ninth place in 2:11:59, also impressed.

“To run 2:06 in this is incredible,” Ritzenhein said. “He’s a very young guy. He’s going to be an incredible marathoner.”

“I thought I had a chance at a medal, and tried to put myself in it early,” he said. “But I looked at the clock at 5k and we were already out at, I think, 14:55. I knew if I kept that up, that I wouldn’t be finishing.”

The Redeem Team gets back the gold
I actually stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch the U.S. play Spain in basketball for the gold medal. The plan was to watch the game until it got out of hand and then I would trudge off to bed knowing that the U.S.A. was again the Olympic champion in basketball.

It was a solid plan, I felt, because the U.S., led by one-name stars Kobe and LeBron as well as Dwyane Wade, had been chewing off the faces of every team it had faced in the tournament. Earlier in the week the Kobe, LeBron and the gang beat Spain by 37, which meant my plan was solid.

But instead of getting to bed by halftime, I was up until the team stepped on the podium to get the gold medal.

So much for my plan, huh?

Regardless, it was pretty cool to see a team of NBA players engaged in the Olympics for a change. Though Kobe had begged off in the past, he said all the correct things and filled an important team-centric role. It was very cool.

Even cooler was when the players slipped their medals around coach Mike Krzyzewski’s neck. Coaches don’t get medals in the Olympics and the tribute to the guy who kept the team together and motivated was quite touching.

On another note… how about that game against Spain? Every time it looked as if the U.S. was about to flip the switch and end it, Spain came back with some crazy rally spurred by some wild offense.

In that regard, it was kind of worth it to stay up so late… or early.

Other moments of greatness:

  • Constantina Diṭă-Tomescu, the 38-year-old Romanian runner from Boulder, Colo., ran away from the pack to be a bit of a surprise winner in the women’s marathon. Inexplicably, when Tomescu made her move, no one else gave chase. The result was an cake walk in 2:26:44.

The thing that made this race so significant wasn’t the victory by Tomescu – she has won big races in the past. The neat part was that a 38-year-old runner is the Olympic champ. For those of us quickly approaching the latter part of our 30s, 38-year-old gold medal runners from Boulder are always cool.

  • Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh in the gold medal beach volleyball game played during a downpour turned into a veritable wet t-shirt contest. I’m not sure about the legitimacy of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport, but I do get why NBC chose to show this one live.
  • Bryan Clay’s victory in the decathlon used to mean a shot at the Wheeties box, or, at the very least, a Reebok ad a la “Dan and Dave.” This time around it means the decathlon and Clay come out of obscurity for a moment or two.

Heck, Clay even appeared on NPR on Tuesday.

  • The U.S. sweep in the 400-meters, particularly LaShawn Merritt’s victory over defending champ, Jeremy Wariner. Those two runners have created quite and interesting, back-and-forth rivalry lately with Merritt winning six of the last 11 meetings. That tally should even out if the pair go head-to-head in European track circuit this summer.
  • Shalane Flanagan winning the bronze in the 10,000-meters on the first day of the track program was an apt achievement for a runner quickly moving up the all-time best charts in U.S. running. With an American record in the Olympics, Flanagan is the fastest American ever in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000-meters. Better yet, some believe her best event might be the marathon. Look for her to move up by 2012.
  • The Ethiopian doubles in the distance events was pretty spectacular, especially Kenenisa Bekele’s victory in the 10k. Though the great Haile Gebrselassie made the race by serving as a highly decorated rabbit for his countryman, Bekele went on to set Olympic records in the 5,000 and 10,000-meters and was the first double champ since Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976.

Fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba set the Olympic record with a blistering 10k for gold, but then showed some range in the 5,000 in a ridiculously tactical race. In fact, Dibaba’s winning time for the gold in the 5,000 wouldn’t have won a lot of local weekend road races. Still, it’s doubtful Dibaba would have lost any race in Beijing regardless of the pacing.

Disappointments

  • Tyson Gay – Amazingly, a sprinter some picked to win gold over Usain Bolt (who knew?) failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meters.
  • Bernard Lagat – Looking to bring home a gold for the U.S. in the 1,500-meters for the first time since 1908, Lagat, a past Olympic medalist and defending world champion, failed to qualify for the finals. In the 5,000-meter finals Lagat couldn’t match Bekele’s blazing finishing pace to come in ninth place.
  • U.S. 4×100 team – can’t drop the stick in the heats, folks.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Hopefully we can do this in London for the 2012 games from a closer vantage point.

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.

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?