Gone with the wind? Someone do something about the heat

aliATLANTA – The first thing one notices about Atlanta are the trees. They’re everywhere. In fact, from a certain vantage point the landscape is shrouded with green as far as the eye can see. They weave in and out of the office buildings, too, which is quite something. How many urban centers have this many trees?

And we aren’t just talking about the fact that every other road is called Peachtree. Apparently when the city was rebuilt after Sherman’s march to the sea, they planted tons and tons of trees and ran out of ideas for street names.

There are worse things one can say about a city, I suppose. I haven’t checked out the crime statistics or the murder rate or anything like that. However, it’s interesting to note that even though Georgia is a profoundly deep Red State, its biggest city’s most well known citizens in recent history are so-called “liberals.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former president Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and Andrew Young looked at things differently than the consensus in these parts, yet still have streets and buildings named after them.

Go figure.

A couple of those buildings (and streets) I will get to see during my visit here to catch the Phillies play the Braves. Strangely, the Phillies are in Atlanta for the first time this season even though the Braves have been to Philadelphia twice. That means the Phillies have two more trips here during a stage of the season where things really get tight, the games take on added significance and the weather is much more hotter than it is now.

It gets really freaking hot down here. Hotlanta? More like Humidapolis.

Anyway, at Turner Field yesterday the first thing I wanted to see was the configuration of the playing field. After all, the ballpark was originally built to be the Olympic Stadium for the centennial games back in 1996. All of the track and field games were held at what is now Turner Field as well as the finish for the marathons and the opening and closing ceremonies.

Turner Field is where Muhammad Ali, clad in white, dramatically and unforgettably appeared out of nowhere with an Olympic torch in his hands and lit the cauldron. Now I’m not one who gets all choked up or overly-sentimental at sporting events – that’s just not how I am, because it’s just a game – but imaging Ali atop that ramp that hot summer night still gives me chills.

Now I’m a track geek. More specifically, I am a distance running nerd. Between watching lots of baseball and distance running I’m a hoot at parties. Woo-hoo!

So it was with great interest that I attempted to see if there were any relics or pieces of the Olympics in ’96 still within the playing surface at Turner Field. For instance, the track was said to be notoriously hard, which led to blistering times in a bunch of the running events. Like, it was during those games where Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia beat Paul Tergat of Kenya in the 10,000-meter dream race where Geb solidified his legend with an Olympic record and a dramatic victory.

Standing in the visiting team’s dugout I looked out at the field and thought, “This is where Bob Kennedy tried to steal the 5,000-meter finals when he brazenly surged to the lead at the top of the curve of the last lap. It was a move that was so daring and unexpected that I shrieked (not smart since the race wasn’t aired until nearly midnight and woke up the entire house) and thought of what a bad-ass Kennedy was even though he faded to sixth place.

That was how Prefontaine must have done it, I thought.

The lasting image of those games, though (aside from Ali), was Michael Johnson coming off the curve in the 200-meter finals. Clad in those gold Nikes, Johnson was moving so fast that it seemed as if Johnson was going to burst onto flame or take off like a rocket ship into the soupy, humid air.

How can anyone forget the shock on Johnson’s face when he turned around to see the clock and saw that he had just moved faster than any human being on two feet? Remembering Johnson’s reaction as well as the reaction of everyone else in the stadium is part of the reason why Usain Bolt’s record-breaking 200-meters victory in last summer’s Beijing Games was so amazing. No one thought Johnson’s record would ever be broken, or no one thought it would ever been broken after just 12 years.

fulton_countyRegardless, if it were up to me, I’d have plaques placed on the spot where all of those memorable events occurred. Certainly the Braves have done a nice job preserving old Fulton County Stadium by keeping some of the outfield fence as a relic in the parking lot beyond the gates of the “new” place. It was in the so called “Launching Pad,” where Chief Noc-A-Homa stood guard and Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974.

Anyway, we’ll be back at Turner Field tonight to see how the Phillies respond to last night’s extra-inning loss. And for the record, the warning track that rings the playing surface is very hard… no plaques though.

The big debate: Bolt or Phelps?

Almost since the hundredth of a second after Usain Bolt crossed the line of the 200-meters and entered Olympic history, the argument started. In fact, I started fielding the questions and e-mails about it as soon as word trickled out from Beijing about Bolt’s explosion in the 200-meters.

The question:

Which is more significant in Olympic history – Usain Bolt winning the 100 and 200-meters and obliterating the world record in both events, or Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in eight events in the swimming competition?

It was an easy question and one that I didn’t put too much thought into.

“Bolt,” was my knee-jerk answer and I just left it at that.

Mostly, my answer was based on my own biases. Track and running is far and away my most favorite sport and easily the most exciting. Actually, I just received a message from a writer covering the Olympics in Beijing in which I was officially proclaimed, “The Duke of Running Dorkdom.”

It’s a proud honor.

Nevertheless, I thought about the comparison between Bolt and Phelps on the drive back to The Lanc last night and came to the conclusion that the argument is odious. There is no way to quantify the two sports simple because they are so different. Sure, athletes in running and swimming go anaerobic for significant amounts of time. Fitness and training is the cornerstone of being good at both sports. However, one is non-impact and in the other the athlete takes a beating.

I don’t know about swimming mostly because it always seemed like a bit of a country club sport to me (maybe I’m wrong), but it doesn’t seem as if there are many injuries outside of sloppy training issues. For instance, overtraining and fatigue are probably the biggest culprits that could derail a swimmer’s career.

But in running everyone will get injured at one point or another. Guaranteed. If you train to run you will get injured at some point in your career.

This is not to compare which one is tougher. That’s odious, too. Besides, whenever I get in the pool I sink right to the bottom. I’m about as buoyant as a brick and that makes swimming difficult. But in terms of significance and the event that will have the most impact on its sport, I’m sticking right there with Usain.

Firstly, Bolt’s double was a Neil Armstrong moment. The fastest any human had ever run the 100 meters was 9.69 by Obadale Thompson in 1996, but that record was thrown out because a significant tailwind had pushed the sprinters to the finish line. When Bolt ran his 9.69 in Beijing last Saturday, he was the second slowest runner out of the blocks and then shut it down over the last five strides of the race so he could celebrate.

Bolt had built such a devastating lead over the rest of the Olympic field that he had time to look back to see if anyone was gaining on him. In a race decided by tenths of a second, such a notion is absurd – especially in a race where the best runners in the world are present.

Ato Boldon, a track commentator for NBC and four-time Olympic medalist in the 100 and 200 meters said Bolt could have broken 9.6 if he had run to completion.

It was otherworldly.

“You have people who are exceptions,” said Stephen Francis, the coach of Bolt’s main Jamaican rival, Asafa Powell, the former 100 world-record holder. “You have Einstein. You have Isaac Newton. You have Beethoven. You have Usain Bolt. It’s not explainable how and what they do.”

Bolt ran to completion in the 200 and the result was the same. However, this time Bolt smashed a record that most track aficionados thought would never be broken – or at least not broken in just 12 years. When Michael Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, it was viewed as a man-on-the-moon moment. No one had come closer than 19.62 before or since Johnson stunned the world.

In calling the action on TV, Boldon screamed about how he could not believe that he just saw the one record he believed was untouchable, torn apart. Watching the race as a commentator for the BBC, Johnson celebrated along with 90,000 in the Olympic Stadium. Not only had Johnson seen his record beaten, but also Bolt had run into a headwind to do it.

At its essence, Bolt’s feat was a transcendent sports moment. It was the “Shot heard ‘round the world.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, who finished sixth in the race. “How fast can you go before the world record can’t be broke? How fast can the human being go before there’s no more going fast?”

People thought the same thing when Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta.

“I didn’t think I’d see under 19.30 in my lifetime,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, a former gold medalist in the 100 hurdles for the United States. “[Bolt is] doing something we’ve never seen before.”

Phelps, with the jingoist coverage of NBC promoting his every move (not his fault), took advantage of the technological advances in his sport to one-up Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in 1972. Some have called the new swimming suits and the scientifically-engineered pool in Beijing, “technological doping.” In fact, even Spitz points out that if there were the same amount of events in 1972 that exist now, he would have won more than seven gold medals.

Though he appears to be the best swimmer, Phelps did not look invincible during the Olympics. Perhaps in another time without the cameras and technology draped over every angle and inch of the Olympic pool, Phelps might have been awarded the silver in the 100-meter butterfly that he won by .01. Or if his relay anchor had swum just .01 slower Phelps would have bagged an early silver while watching from poolside.

Not to diminish the feat – especially since he swam in 17 preliminaries and finals to get his eight medals – but Phelps had some luck on his side.

Bolt left no doubt.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the cultural significance of Bolt’s show in Beijing can’t be understated. Though NBC downplayed Bolt’s races, showing them some 13 hours after they occurred and then offering just one replay, the rest of the world was tuned in live and celebrating right along with the Jamaicans. Part of that is because track and field is wildly popular in the rest of the world and part of it is because NBC doesn’t get it.

Regardless, thanks to Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican sprinters that piled up the medals on the track in Beijing, the tiny island country is galvanized. Jamaica is a poor island country of just 2.8 million people with a high crime and poverty rate. As a result, the most popular sports are the ones that don’t require a lot of expensive equipment.

Running, the most egalitarian of sports, is clearly where the Jamaicans are best. In fact, three of the top five best times in the 100- meters have been run by Jamaican-born athletes. Meanwhile, three out of the last five Olympic champions in the 100 have been born in Jamaica.

This time around, Jamaica has won eight medals on the track.

In the U.S., Phelps is undoubtedly one of the most popular athletes. However, will his popularity last when the NFL season hits its stride? Is Phelps’ popularity to a level that teems of kids are asking their parents for memberships to the aquatic club in order to train to be the next Michael Phelps?

Probably not. Take what Olympic scholar, Kyle Whelliston wrote on his site, Swifter Higher:

No matter what Jacques Rogge says on Sunday night, these are not the Greatest Games Ever, Dream Games, or even Spectacular Games. The International Olympic Committee awards a nation and city the right to carve out a place for a temporary Olympia every four years, and no government has accomplished this as destructively and as cruelly as China. Thousands have been displaced to create these stadiums, and countless numbers of citizens have been detained and killed in the name of Olympic security.

But this is just another chapter — the twenty-ninth — in the history of the modern Games, and it’s certainly not the first time the Olympics have fallen short of its goal to better the world through sport. But the local and national governments have tackled the problem of hosting this festival in an unprecedentedly negative and destructive way, nearly always at odds with the high human ideals of the original founders. Beijing 2008 will always be remembered as a show of brutal strength.

To me, Usain Bolt is the true center and defining face of these Olympics. Not Michael Phelps, who had promised to show us something we’ve never seen before. The thing is that we have seen this before — the white American hero who conquers the world and takes home all the prizes.

This time, though, it comes during an era when the U.S. has a tragic misunderstanding of the East, a damaged global reputation due to its own government’s bloody conquests, as well as an economy dangerously dependent on foreign credit. Phelps’ eight gold medals are little else than a distraction, pleasant nostalgia of easier times for those who don’t want to accept 21st Century reality. Underneath all the forced politeness, the Olympic host country is America’s mortal enemy — and a formidable loan shark in the making.

Amidst all this, a happy young man from an island nation who rewrote the books of records and rules, here in the miniature and insignificant world of athletic achievement. Sure, this is a lot to be made of people running around a rubber track, but maybe Usain Bolt can represent a symbolic ray of hope.

Maybe on a larger scale, there are still some new solutions to be found for old problems.

In Jamaica, a country seen by outsiders only from the resorts, the celebration for the 22-year-old Bolt is just getting warmed up.

So which man feat is the most remarkable? Who knows. But don’t doubt that Bolt’s runs were more significant.

Bolt… twice!

When Michael Johnson sprinted through the curve in the 200-meters on that fast track in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, it looked as if he was either going to soar into the atmosphere and into space, or just burst into flames.

At the time it was determined that Johnson , at his apex in that race, was running faster than any human had ever run. When he crossed the line and looked back to see his time flashing there on the trackside scoreboard, no one could believe it…

19.32!

Johnson’s record was one that most track aficionados thought would stand for a long, long time. After all, aside from Johnson, no one had ever run 200-meters faster than 19.62. The record was not “soft” as they say. When Johnson and his gold Nikes blazed to that unthinkable record, he nailed it. There was no doubt.

But after 21-year-old Jamaican Usain Bolt came onto the scene with a 19.67 in the 200 and a world record in the 100 meters in New York City this summer, all bets were off. People knew he was good – the record makes that obvious – but how good was he?

This week everyone found out.

Not only did Bolt obliterate his record in the 100 with an unthinkable 9.69 in which he nearly stopped running before breaking the line in order to showboat, but also he took care of Johnson’s record.

Bolt ran 200-meters in 19.30 on Wednesday night in Beijing. In doing so, Bolt became the first man to win the Olympic gold medal in the 100 and 200 meters since Carl Lewis did it in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But unlike when Johnson nearly burst into flames in Atlanta, it seems as if Bolt can go faster. No, he didn’t slow down to celebrate over the last 20 meters as he did in the 100, but at 21, the six-foot-five Bolt is just starting out. He’s been training seriously for the 100 for less than a year and the 200 is considered his strongest distance.

“Incredible,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the race. “He got an incredible start. Guys of 6-5 should not be able to start like that. It’s that long, massive stride. He’s eating up so much more track than others. He came in focused, knowing he would likely win the gold and he’s got the record.”

Bolt is young, though, and his first appearance on the International stage has come this week in Beijing. What happens when he figures out what he’s doing out there? Wait until he gets more experience.

“I’m shocked; I’m still shocked,” Bolt said. “I have been aspiring to the world record for so long.

“I got out good, I ran the corner as hard as possible and once I entered the straight told myself to keep it up, don’t die on me now.”

Migraine day

Yeah, my head hurts from doing all that thinking so I’m taking a break until tomorrow or Tuesday when we get back to the ballpark. That’s where the Phillies will have a nice break by getting back to playing teams in their own division… you know, teams they can beat.

Most interestingly, though, some people are curious about the reception Jimmy Rollins will get after his comments on the syndicated cable TV show, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.”

It seems to me that the title would work better with an exclamation point.

Nevertheless, perhaps the whole thing has blown over. After all, people have gotten on with their lives, the Phillies have played more games, and there have been more interesting things that have gone on in the world.

Specifically more interesting is that little gathering in Beijing. Sure, some folks are a little worn down by the hype over “The Baltimore Bullet,” Michael Phelps, but come on… 8-for-8? He swam in 17 races in less than a week and set seven world records?

Pretty amazing.

But is it the greatest Olympic performance ever? That’s a question that a lot of people will fret and ponder for a long time. I’d have to put it up there though I’m not ready to nail it down as the greatest ever until further review. For now I’m leaning toward Emil Zatopek winning gold in the 5,000-meters, 10,000-meters and marathon during the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. But, as usual, it’s tough to compare eras. Zatopek ran on a cinder track with shoes and equipment that no junior high team would dream of using now.

The same, obviously, goes for comparisons between Phelps and Mark Spitz. In that regard it’s kind of like comparing Tiger Woods to Bobby Jones. The technological advances in the equipment and life have changed the games entirely.

Still, it was an incredible week for Phelps and it should be interesting to see Usain Bolt race the 200-meters final on Wednesday. His run for the gold and world record in the 100-meters on Saturday goes up there with one of the most otherworldly single sports performances I’ve ever seen. Seriously, how did he run 9.69 when he was next-to-last in reaction time coming out of the blocks and then broke it down to celebrate for the final five strides.

Think about how significant five strides is in a 100-meter race… typically, Bolt takes 41 strides over the distance so showboating over the last five is 12 percent of the race. Factor in the slow reaction time at the start and it’s reasonable to think that Bolt could have gone 9.59.

Wait until fast Bolt goes when he figures out what he’s doing. He’ll turn 22 on the day of the 200-meters finals – how about taking apart Michael Johnson’s world record he set in the 1996 Atlanta games as a birthday present?

For the record, watching Michael Johnson on the curve of the 200-meters in Atlanta is the most beautiful thing in sports. It’s a work of art – a masterpiece. Let’s see if Bolt can make it prettier.

Finally, how about the Jamaicans’ dominance in the sprinting events? And that’s just not in Beijing, but the last several Olympics. Of the top five best performances in the event, three are by Jamaican-born runners and of the last five Olympic champions in the 100, three were born in Jamaica.

The Jamaican runners are much better than the bobsled team.

Ten years already!?

Watching a game from Turner Field makes me think about the summer of ’96 when Atlanta was the home for the Olympics and the Braves’ field was configured quite differently. These days, it’s a typical nouveau ballpark that have popped up in nearly every American city, only Turner Field, nee Olympic Stadium, plays slightly in favor of the pitchers.

Since the Braves bread-and-butter has always been their pitching prowess, it makes sense that the stadium developers would skew things that way. It also gets very hot and humid during the summertime in Atlanta, which often causes the baseball the sail a little farther. They didn’t nickname the Braves old stadium the Launching Pad because it was kitschy.

Anyway, I always have to remind myself that some of the most memorable sporting events that I have ever seen occurred in that stadium during that summer 10 years ago. I’ll never forget Muhammad Ali, dressed in white, dramatically appear out of nowhere to light the Olympic torch. Now I’m not one who gets all choked up or overly-sentimental at sporting events – that’s just not how I am, because it’s just a game – but imaging Ali atop that ramp that hot summer night still gives me chills.

Along with baseball, track, specifically the distance events, is my favorite sport to watch. Most people would call these two sports among the most dull to watch, but I can’t really think of anything more interesting. Needless to say, the track events at the Olympics are about as exciting as sports spectating gets.

Call me crazy.

Anyway, the track events on that famously hard track that ringed Turner Field produced some events that running geeks still talk about. Like, for instance, when American Bob Kennedy brazenly surged to the lead at the top of the curve of the last lap in the 5,000-meter finals. It was a move that was so daring and unexpected that I shrieked (not smart since the race wasn’t aired until nearly midnight and woke up the entire house) and thought of what a bad-ass Kennedy was even though he faded to sixth place.

That was how Prefontaine must have done it, I thought.

Along that outfield warning track is also where Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia beat Paul Tergat of Kenya in the 10,000-meter dream race where Geb solidified his legend with an Olympic record. The two will meet up again in the London Marathon next weekend in possibly the greatest collection of marathoners ever, but more on that at a later date.

But the image that really sticks in my mind is Michael Johnson coming off the curve in the 200-meter finals so fast that either his gold shoes were going to burst into flames or he was going to soar into the humid sky. How can anyone forget the shock on Johnson’s face when he turned around to see the clock and saw that he had just moved faster than any human being on two feet?

If it were up to me, I’d have plaques placed on the spot where all of those memorable events occurred.