Carl Lewis is still running

Even now, with his 48th birthday quickly approaching, Carl Lewis looks like he could go 9.9 in the 100. Heck, on a good day with a nice tailwind and a fast track, Lewis looked as though he might even be able to pull off a 27-footer in the long jump.

No, he didn’t get those nine gold medals and one silver in four different Olympics by accident. Nor was it a mistake when Sports Illustrated named Lewis the greatest U.S. Olympian of the 20th Century.

Clean living
Chalk that up to clean living (Lewis is a vegan and a fitness devotee even though he retired from professional sports after the 1996 Olympics), which is a concept that doesn’t seem to jibe with modern pro sports based on the latest headlines.

Then again, Lewis is all-too familiar with the seamy side of athletics. Actually, he had a front-row seat for a few of sports’ all-time dirtiest moments. Of course none were more notorious than the September day in Seoul, Korea where Lewis ran a time good enough for a new world record in the Olympic finals of 100-meters only to watch as Canadian Ben Johnson ran away from him like he was stuck in the mud.

Three days later Johnson was disqualified when his drug test was tainted with the steroid Winstrol. Coincidentally, Winstrol is the same steroid baseball player Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for in 2005 and is also reported to have been used by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens during their careers.

So yes, Lewis knows a thing or two about drugs in sports, and, he thinks he has some idea about when an athlete might be using it.

“The reality is that most people are clean,” Lewis, the Willingboro, N.J. native, said following his appearance on Daily News Live. “When you have two out of 100 that’s two percent, but if those two are in the finals, suddenly that’s a very high percentage. And if two win medals, that’s two out of three. That’s [67] percent. Just so quickly it, goes up.”

Continue reading the rest of this story…

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.

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.

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.

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 Part II

I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theories. That goes for conspiracies within government as well as sports. For one thing, the organization and planning of the degree needed for such intricate subterfuge is often beyond the types that work in these businesses.

Plus, keeping secrets is way too difficult. From what I know about writing about politics and sports over the years is that those people leak like sieves. The worst-kept secret is that there are no secrets. As a result, it makes the art of deception and conspiracy rather difficult.

However, when I heard that Brett Favre – the most famous man on the planet if you believe the breathless dispatches from ESPN — had been traded to the New York Jets, well, I started looking behind the grassy knoll.

An attention hound quarterback with decades of fawning by the largest sports media outlet in the world headed to the largest media market in the country… nah, there can’t be anything behind it, could there?

Brett Favre in New York? Mere coincidence.

To be fair, accounts coming out of Wisconsin or Mississippi or 34,000-feet above the earth or wherever the hell Brett Favre is these days, indicate that he really didn’t want to get traded to the Jets. After all, the Jets were 4-12 last season, which is four games worse than what Favre’s Packers were during a dreadful 2006, but identical to the 4-12 2005 season Favre masterminded in 2005.

Hey, it’s not like the Jets are getting Doug Williams or Trent Dilfer [1]to replace Chad Pennington, who nearly guided the surprising ’06 team into the AFC Championship. And they certainly are not getting a Bart Starr in the twilight years in Favre. Make it more like Johnny Unitas going to the Chargers for one last go-around or Willie Mays with the Mets, flailing away on the turf at Shea during the ’73 post-season.

Sure, the New York media will give the big star some love when he arrives. New York loves a media event and a star, after all. But in New York (to paraphrase Lou Reed) there are no stars in the sky – they are all on the ground.

Maybe that’s why Favre reportedly preferred a trade to Tampa Bay? Sunny skies, warm weather, and plenty of things to do outdoors during the winter instead of sitting inside and watching the old quarterback flail around on the turf while attempting to turn the clock back.

***

Back in the old days when Sports Illustrated was the king of all sports media, they used to put out a special Olympic preview in the weeks before the games opened. Aside from the feature stories and the look into the American athletes’ chances in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, etc., etc., the magazine predicted the winners of the gold, silver and bronze in every event.

It was pretty cool, I thought. Sometimes they were even accurate with the predictions.

Wouldn’t you know it that Sports Illustrated still makes its predictions? Here they are.

After a quick glance, here’s what caught my eye:

  • Bernard Lagat taking the silver in the 1,500, but off the podium in the 5,000.
  • Kenyan Martin Lel atop the field in the Marathon. Strangely, of the 14 nations to take gold in the marathon, Kenya is not one of them. Incidentally, Lel and countryman Robert Cheuriyot are the best, big-race marathoners in the world, but I still say don’t sleep on Ryan Hall.
  • No American women in the distance events. Not even Deena Kastor, who took the bronze in the marathon in sweltering heat and humidity at the Athens games.
  • Tyson Gay over Usain Bolt in the 100.
  • Usain Bolt over everyone in the 200.
  • Jeremy Wariner over LaShawn Merritt in the 400.

Aside from Ryan Hall, Brian Sell, Dathan Ritzenhein and the other distance guys, it will be interesting to see how NBC covers Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang as he attempts to beat world-record holder Dayron Robles in the 110-meter hurdles. NBC went all out in reporting on Australian Cathy Freeman during the Sydney games, which is understandable. But along with women’s marathoner Zhou Chunxiu, Liu Xiang is the biggest threat to win gold for the host country.

***

Finally, Philadelphia Will Do’s Dan McQuade is chronicling the Olympics in blog form for Vanity Fair (yeah, freaking Vanity Fair!). Here’s his first post.

For the record, Dan is Luke Skywalker to my Obi Wan… well, probably not, but I’m going to say it anyway.


[1] QBs just like Brett Favre in that they have won exactly one Super Bowl.

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

Better with age

WASHINGTON – The opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing are less than a week to away. That means for one more week we will read the standard patter of the potential of doping scandals as well as the political situation and pollution in China, and, of course, the crackdown on foreign journalists’ usage of the Internet.

But once the torch is lit and athletes (at least those that actually choose to go to China for the ceremonies) stroll into the stadium for the parade of nations, the focus will shift from the realities of modern-day China and its problems to the feel-good athlete profiles that have defined NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

In the years since Jim McKay and ABC’s stately and iconic presiding over the games, NBC, with Bob Costas at the helm, has turned fierce athletic competition into a Hallmark card come to life. Sometimes they will even show a sporting event in real time without interruption, but only in the wee hours when the viewing audience is its smallest or when they can squeeze it in between that day’s saccharine sweet profile in which a pampered jock overcomes something to champion the human spirit.

Or something like that

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how NBC piles on to the Dara Torres story, which has already been told deftly by the national writing press, especially The New York Times. In fact, Torres was clearly the media darling during last month’s swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, where she set an American record and qualified for two different U.S. teams in Beijing.

The finer points of Torres’ story have already been told, such as the 41-year-old swimmer first competed in the Olympics at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. She won nine medals in the ’84, 1988, 1992 and 2000 Olympics before deciding to retire after a haul of five medals in Sydney.

But at an age well advanced in comparison to her teammates and competitors, Torres heads into next week’s Olympics in the best shape of her career. Yes, her elaborate and detailed training regimen was documented in The Times story as was her outspokenness and innovative stance against performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the fact that Torres was one of the first athletes to volunteer (yes volunteer!) for the toughest urine and blood doping tests, it didn’t stop skepticism from the idiot fringe of the mainstream sporting press.

“I went to USADA and talked to the CEO there and said, ‘Hey, people are talking about me. They can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m an open book. DNA test me, blood test me, urine test me, do whatever you want. I want to show people I’m clean,'” Torres said on a recent episode of the “Today” show.

Yes, what sportswriters actually know about training, doping and athletics could fill a thimble…

“I just take it as a compliment,” Torres said of the baseless and reckless doping charges.

So with her life already an open book, Torres and fellow swimmer Michael Phelps could be the Wheaties box jocks of 2008 – that is if the Wheaties box still meant something. Bruce Jenner is long gone, folks.

Phelps, of course, could eclipse the Olympic greatness of Mark Spitz during the Beijing games. At 23, the Baltimore native won eight medals in Athens at the 2004 Olympics and will go for nine in China. But Phelps’ talent and achievement is so far out there that it might be impossible for him to capture the imagination of typical American sports’ fans addicted to the mundane routines of stick and ball games.

Torres, on the other hand, is interesting because of her age. Better yet she is a relic from the good-old days of the Olympics back when the U.S.A. was fighting to fight the Cold War in sports with the aim to beat the medal totals of the U.S.S.R. At the same time, Torres has been the catalyst behind a battery of tests, research and analysis regarding age and elite-level athletics.

Based on the returns noted in The Times (amongst others), age really is not a factor in determining ability in sports. Torres, of course, is a prime example. At just a smidge under six-feet tall, Torres competed in the Sydney Olympics at 160 pounds. But at 41 she’s headed for Beijing at a lean and mean 149 pounds of chiseled muscle thanks to workouts that stress flexibility, strength and recovery.

A high level of fitness and an insatiable competitiveness appears to be the key to athletic longevity.

“In some ways, I’m like all the other swimmers (going to the Olympics) because I still feel the passion for what I do,” Torres said. “In some ways I’m like none of them, because I’ve lived their lives twice.”

Torres is just one example. In Beijing French cyclist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli will compete in her seventh straight Olympics – just two months shy of her 50th birthday.  Kenyan distance runner Paul Tergat recently turned 39 and has a resume that rivals the greatest runners of all time. In 2003 he set the world record in the marathon when he was 35 and ran his fastest 10k on the roads when he was 37.

Hockey player Chris Chelios, at 46, has shown no signs of slowing down (or retiring) after 25 years and three Stanley Cups in the NHL to go with four appearances in the Olympics for the U.S.

Chelios’ secret? He’s part of Don Wildman’s “Malibu Mob,” a consortium of athletes and celebrities/fitness freaks who workout together with the aim of pushing each other well beyond their limits.

Closer to home there is Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old lefty starting pitcher for the Phillies who won his 10th game of the season last Wednesday night in Washington. In doing so, Moyer joined Phil Niekro, Jack Quinn and the immortal Satchel Paige as the only pitchers in baseball history to win at least 10 games at the age of 45.

“I didn’t play against any of them,” Moyer deadpanned after the game before changing the subject and explaining that he is just “here to do my job.”

“You start getting caught up in things like that and you might start losing some focus on things you need to do,” Moyer said about contemplating his place in baseball history. “I think there’s plenty of time for me to look back at the end of the season or at the end of my career and say, ‘You know what? That was cool,’ or ‘I remember that,’ or ‘I remember that game.’ But for me, having the opportunity to have the longevity that I have is the most special thing for me. To continue my career and to play and to contribute with a team, I think that is first and foremost. If you are around long enough, those things are going to start to happen.”

Better yet, Moyer leads the Phillies’ pitchers with his 10 wins and heads into another free-agent winter with the desire to keep playing. Generally, Moyer gives the pat, “as long as I’m still having fun and I’m contributing, I’ll keep playing,” when asked about his retirement plans, but based on a conversation last Tuesday regarding Torres, age and competitiveness, the fire still burns hot for the Phillies’ lefty.

“Look, I feel great and I’m pitching well and I love playing so I have no plans to stop,” he said. “But I could come in here tomorrow and the desire could be completely gone.”

Clearly that’s not the case. Moyer prepares and competes at 45 no differently than he did when he was a green rookie coming up with the Cubs in 1986. However, if there is something behind Moyer’s motivation to continue to pitch (and to pitch well) it seems to be the slights he took from baseball people back when he was struggling in the early 1990s. No, Moyer didn’t cite it as a motivating cause, but then again he didn’t have to.

“Fourteen years ago I was told to retire,” Moyer said with a smirk.

Moyer was unfamiliar with Torres’s story when asked, but quickly became interested in the finer details. Particularly, Moyer agreed with Torres’ idea that consistent workouts, a solid fitness foundation and smart recovery were the key to athletic longevity. Then he pondered the reasons why some players give up the game long before they could.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” he said. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Moyer, to paraphrase a famous quote, asks “why not?” He expects to turn in his customary 200-innings and double-digits win total somewhere during the 2009 season. Certainly his age will play a factor in whether the Phillies move to re-sign him this winter, but equally important – if not more important – is the fact that Moyer has not missed a start for injury since 2000, has been on the disabled list just once dating back to 1997 and just three times during his professional career, which began in 1984.

Better yet, young pitchers Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick go to Moyer as a Jedi would seek out Yoda.

Besides, Yoda had a pretty good record, too.

USA Basketball names Olympic team

Here’s the team that will be going for gold in Beijing:

player, team
Carmelo Anthony, Nike
Carlos Boozer, Nike
Chris Bosh, Nike
Kobe Bryant, Nike
Dwight Howard, Adidas
LeBron James, Nike
Jason Kidd, Nike
Chris Paul, Nike
Tayshaun Prince, Nike
Michael Redd, Nike
Dwyane Wade, Nike
Deron Williams, Nike

Fearsome foursome

Furyk & TigerCertainly the Masters isn’t what it used to be. The course has changed in order to reign in the game of one particular player and there is absolutely no way the proletariat will ever be admitted past the giant hedges and steely gates that separates Augusta National from all the chain stores, strip malls and sprawl that surrounds it.

The fact is Augusta National and the Masters is mainstream elitism on full display. I suppose folks can take that for what it’s worth, but they sure do know how to put on a good golf tournament down there. Better yet, Masters weekend could be the most properly hyped sporting event out there. Based on the TV ratings the NCAA Tournament doesn’t quite pack them in any more. Perhaps that’s because of the ridiculously tired and hokey “One Shining Moment” malarkey. Come on already, they’re pro athletes… enough with the fairy tales. The TV networks can save those tired old bits for the Olympics lest the protests and attention to China’s human-rights violations make advertisers squirm.

News, apparently, is a product too.

Anyway, Along with the Kentucky Derby, which one can attend and not even see a damned horse, the Masters is a must-watch event.

At least it is here. Hey, clearly I’m prone to hyperbole.

Nevertheless, a big sporting event demands bold predictions. Actually, how bold will it be to pick the best golfer in the world, or a guy who grew up in your wife’s neighborhood to win the biggest golf tournament in the world?

Nope, not bold at all.

Enough blathering. Here’s my prediction for the top foursome at this year’s Masters:

  • Tiger Woods – yeah, going out on a limb there.
  • Jim Furyk – what’s bigger… hitting a 20-footer at the buzzer to beat Lebanon to win the Section 1 title game for Manheim Township, or another Top 5 finish at the Masters?

Hey, at the time it was a pretty clutch shot…

  • Ernie Els – He’s won three majors (U.S. Open twice; British Open), but has finished second at the Masters twice in 2000 and 2004. Maybe he’s ready to breakthrough.
  • Padraig Harrington – the Irishman is the defending Open champ and has three Top 10 finishes in the last eight major tournaments. Then again, he’s also missed the cut in three of the last eight majors, too.

***
The London Marathon also takes place this weekend. Here’s a prediction: Ryan Hall will become the first American-born runner to break 2:08.

Hall, of course, won last November’s marathon Olympic Trials in New York City and is coached by former Villanova standout, Terrence Mahon.

Morning clicks

John AdamsIf I was a contributor to the web site Stuff White People Like, I would add something about HBO docudramas about dead presidents/founding fathers in Colonial America that are produced by Academy Award-winning actors that appear to be defined by the subject matter of the web site, Stuff White People Like.

Or something like that.

The truth is, like most people described on that site, I like hating corporations, coffee, knowing what’s best for poor people, and Mos Def. I also have enjoyed the first three installments of HBO’s series, John Adams, which, I think, shows just how messy it was to set up a representative democracy in a time when the population was not connected by mass media or a mouse click. Actually, there wasn’t even electricity and the men wore some of the fanciest powdered wigs this side of the Christopher St. Halloween Parade.

I think it’s a cross between awesome and totally awesome.

Instead, being a citizen took effort by today’s standards, though it likely wasn’t viewed in such a manner. Based on my reading of Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin, participation elaborate civics duties wasn’t just relegated to certain cliques. No one claimed that our founders were in “show business for ugly people.” Actually, politics didn’t have an entertainment value and it seemed as if the participants were in it more for the common good than some sort of jewel at the end of a long campaign spent raising millions and millions of dollars.

For instance, Adams spent years away from his family in Europe where he campaigned to the swells in France and Holland for money to fund the revolution. While there he kind of had a knack for rubbing folks the wrong way with his uncompromising ways, belief in American independence and inability to promote and market himself the way his buddy Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could.

In fact, Adams sacrificed much personal glory for the sake of American ideals and goals. He very well could have been the main architect of the Declaration of Independence, but instead took a role in the background as Jefferson’s editor and compass. Yes, Jefferson gets all the well-deserved credit for writing the Declaration, but the document is as much Adams’s as well.

So yeah, if I’m not already in bed resting up for an early Monday morning to prepare for Opening Day and escaping The Lanc before Barry Obama shows up in town for the big rally at Stevens Trade, I’ll tune in to the fourth installment of the Adams epic on HBO. After all, there won’t be any college hoops on the tube and it appears as if I have the bracket competition all but locked up.

Dead presidents and founding fathers… hell yeah!

In the meantime, former Phillies and all-around gentleman, Doug Glanville, wrote another Op-Ed piece for The New York Times. It seems as if ol’ Dougie is itching to get the glove and uniform back on, but, you know, a new career calls. Besides, the Phillies don’t really have a need for a reserve outfielder with a low on-base percentage and limited power. CBP was built for American League-style ball, baby. The Phillies need to bash.

***
Elsewhere on the baseball front, ESPN’s Jeff Pearlman focused on the death of left-handed pitcher Joe Kennedy and how his family is coping. As some may recall, Kennedy died suddenly last winter in Florida the day before he was to attend a wedding, leaving behind a 26-year-old pregnant wife.

Though just 28, Kennedy died from hypertensive heart disease.

My memory of Kennedy is from the 2001 season when he shutdown the Phillies while pitching for the Devil Rays around the time manager Larry Bowa and Scott Rolen had it out after the skipper told a writer that the middle of the order “is killing us.”

That game in St. Pete could have been Kennedy’s finest as a big leaguer.

***
Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post became the first mainstream writer — at least that I’ve seen — to take the IOC to task for awarding the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.

Before I write, “What were they thinking…”, and yes, I know what they were thinking. The dollar signs where their pupils used to be are easy to spot. Try this out from Jenkins:

Up to this point, the IOC has soft-pedaled these events under the rationale that “engagement” with Chinese officials is better than nothing. President Jacques Rogge defends the decision to send the Games to China, saying they are an opportunity to expose a fifth of the world’s population to the “Olympic ideal.” But it’s safe to say the Olympic ideal isn’t getting through to the Chinese people. Only the McDonald’s billboards are. On Monday, Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion.” His crime? He posted on Internet sites under the theme, “We don’t want the Olympics, we want human rights.”

Seriously… what were they thinking?

***
Finally, from Gina Kolata of The New York Times, running can, indeed, make one feel high.

Duh!

More
HBO: John Adams

ESPN: Joe Kennedy is gone, but not forgotten

The New York Times: The Boys of Spring

The Washington Post: IOC Needs to Step In Or Perhaps Move On

The New York Times: Yes, Running Can Make You High

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

Time to stretch

Will & HeidiI’m not an expert on much, but it seems to me that there is much more anticipation about the official opening of spring training this year than in the past. Folks are charged up about baseball and spring training as if the day pitchers and catchers are expected to report to camp has some sort of significance. I don’t know – maybe it is significant. But it’s kind of like the first day of summer or something in that it might be hot for weeks leading up to the “official” day, but it’s not really summer until the third week of June.

Spring training “officially” begins this Thursday, but it’s largely ceremonial – a made-for-TV moment, if you will. The fact is most of the ballplayers have been working out since November and shifted their regimes to Florida or Arizona earlier this month. This Thursday teams like the Phillies will stretch and run formal drills with the wags from the press in attendance. But really, nothing changes for another few weeks when they kick-off the exhibition season.

Still, who doesn’t like the first days of spring training? Watching ballplayers stretch and go through old-timey calisthenics under sun-soaked skies from snowed-in northeastern cities is a way to mark the seasons. TV folks trot out the standard clichés while the newspapermen get to work on the issues facing the club, such as when will the team add another arm to the pitching staff and when will they come to terms on a contract with the top slugger.

New year, same themes.

So while the ballplayers go through their stretches and cover-first drills, I’m going to hang out up here in the snow and cold until Feb. 25. That’s when I’ll go to Clearwater for all the color and pageantry of spring training. Besides, spring training is the best part about baseball.

Until then, it’s back to the ol’ grind.

Here are a few sports-related stories that actually turned my attention away from the stuff I normally read about for a spell:

***
Bryant GumbelBryant Gumbel’s Real Sports on HBO is easily the best sports show out there. The reasons for that are myriad and too long to get into now, but it’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to topics that get into issues.

One of the issues tackled by Gumbel in the latest episode of the show was the ethics of Roger Clemens’ lobbying of Congressmen ahead of tomorrow’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gumbel questioned whether Clemens’ overt wooing of specific Congressmen would affect the legitimacy of the hearings and closed the show with this:

“Finally tonight, a few words about flattery. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and notorious self-promoter, once observed that ‘Those who say flattery doesn’t work have never had it practiced on them.’

“That quote would seem to have registered with Roger Clemens, who, facing congressional hearings this week into his alleged steroid use, suddenly became civic minded last week, and made a number of personal house calls on Capitol Hill. Given Clemens’ well-earned reputation for surliness, his transparent charm offensive was to many— exactly that. Aside from the obvious question about why elected officials would consent to meet with a freshly deposed witness in advance of his testimony, you’ve also got to wonder just how much Roger’s shameless slurping may have compromised the objectivity of those slated to question him.

“Following some face time with the accused, one California Republican came away gushing about how much Clemens was the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. Since neither party has a monopoly on bad judgment, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn named Edolphus Towns, all but fell at Clemens’ feet. Parroting the pitcher’s defense after their meeting, Towns claimed his half hour personal visit had made him a believer in Clemens’ character.

“Now I obviously have no idea if Roger Clemens is guilty of that which he is accused. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But you do have to wonder why someone who’ll be under oath and claims he’s innocent would engage in what looks like the political equivalent of jury tampering to try to influence his reception before a House committee. You could argue it’s good insurance. Or you could conclude that on the heels of an interview, a press conference, a taped phone call and a deposition…he doth protest too much.”

It makes one wonder not only about the relevancy of Congress tackling the issue of steroids in baseball, but also if the hearings are nothing more than the typical political dog-and-pony show. The New York Times examined the issue, noting Congressmen in charge of questioning the pitcher posed for pictures and got autographs during Clemens’ lobbying jaunt.

***
According to published reports, The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was released this week. Hey, who doesn’t like swimsuits? But really, does the SI swimsuit issue really matter anymore? With all the stuff out there on the Internet – swimsuit or not – is the issue just another media anachronism from another tired magazine?

Hey, I’m not telling them to stop…

***
One of my favorite sporting events takes place this weekend in San Diego where some of the best runners in the country will battle it out over the hills and dales in the U.S. Cross Country Championships. This being an Olympic year with the Trials in Eugene quickly approaching, some runners decided to sit out, like defending champ Alan Culpepper. But the top two finishers in last November’s Marathon Olympic Trials will be there.

Undoubtedly, the 12-kilometer championship race will be hyped as the match-up between tough Dathan Ritzenhein and the American distance running’s great hope, Ryan Hall. Runners Dan Browne, Andrew Carlson, James Carney, Anthony Famiglietti, Jason Lehmkuhle and Jorge Torres will also be in San Diego fighting for both a national championship and a spot on the national team for the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 30.

Livan HernandezSo who’s going to win? Certainly it’s hard to bet against Ritzenhein and Hall, who clearly are the class of the field. Dan Browne is another Olympian and a veteran of some big-time races, while Torres is an excellent cross runner and Famiglietti has the pedigree, too. But my dark horse is James Carney, a graduate of Millersville University, who won the U.S. championship in the half-marathon last month in Houston.

With the way he has been racing, Carney could make the Olympic team in the 10,000-meters if he isn’t careful.

***
Speaking of the Olympics, there was an interesting story in The New York Times on how the USOC will supply athletes with American food and chefs while in Beijing for the games. Now we all know that holding the Olympics in China is wrong for thousands of reasons, with pollution, environmental and human-rights concerns right at the top.

But according to the story in The Times, an American delegation traveled to Beijing and tested out the food sold in Chinese supermarkets… let’s just say it didn’t go well.

While in China, USOC caterer Frank Puleo picked up a 14-inch chicken breast and had it tested – the results:

“We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.”

That’s really saying something considering how full of hormones and steroids (and other things) meat sold in the U.S. is loaded up with. That is, of course, if author Eric Schlosser is wrong… which he is not.

***
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the Twins signed Livan Hernandez for $5 million for one year. An innings-eating right-hander, Hernandez hasn’t missed a start in years and routinely piles up 200-plus innings every season. Even last season when his Ks-per nine innings were way, way down, Hernandez still threw close to 220 innings (counting the playoffs).

Knowing that it only took $5 million to get Hernandez, 32, to sign with the depleted Twins, would it have been wise for the Phillies to take a shot at the righty? I say yes because I like sure things. Hernandez is almost guaranteed to turn in another 200-innings season in ’08.