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.