No keeping up with Bolt

“You have people who are exceptions. You have Einstein. You have Isaac Newton. You have Beethoven. You have Usain Bolt. It’s not explainable how and what they do.”

— Stephen Francis, Olympic track coach

usain boltBased on the last few posts on this little dog-and-pony show, it’s fair to say I’ve taken a few folks, ideas and institutions to task. Certainly not my favorite way to go, but sometimes I just can’t stop being bitchy.

Which is better than whiny is the periodic table of jerkdom.

Sadly, I’m not done yet. I have another bee in my bonnet that may only be worth a couple hundred words based on how stupid the whole notion is.

Anyway, what got me all riled up was a poll or debate (or something) which compared Y.E. Yang’s victory over Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship in Minnesota to Usain Bolt’s 100-meter world record at the World Championships of track and field in Berlin.

Yeah, I know…

The question asked which feat was more impressive: Yang rallying to beat Tiger to win the PGA or Usain Bolt running faster than any human in the history of measured time. I cringe just typing the sentence. Seriously, a media conglomerate wasted lean tissue and brain matter on creating a faux discourse over which moment in time had more of an impact.

Never mind the fact that there are many gold tournaments played each year in which Tiger Woods does not win – the mere fact that a relative unknown knocked off the so-proclaimed best golfer in history with some solid play on the back nine last Sunday was too much to fathom. Apparently the thought of Tiger Woods coughing up a late lead like some baseball closers ranks up there with the otherworldly.

Please.

Look, Tiger Woods is a pretty darned good golfer. He appears to be athletic, fit and whether they want to admit it or not, the powers have actually altered the machinations of the game in order to trip him up. It’s kind of like how the NBA changed a whole bunch of rules shortly after Wilt Chamberlain showed up.

But, you know, it’s golf… at the British Open last month, 60-year-old Tom Watson was just a four-foot putt away from winning the thing. No, there never has been a man as old as Watson to win a major golf tournament, but just the thought that Watson could hold off the best golfers in the world and come one yipped putt on 18 away from victory tells you all you need to know.

Stewart Cink ended up beating Watson in a four-hole playoff and Watson missed his chance. Some experts weighed in that Watson and other men of his advanced age missed a once-and-only chance to pull off such a stunning upset.

I’m not so sure.

Golf, at its essence, is a skill sport. For every athletic Tiger Woods there is a handful more guys like John Daly or Phil Mickelson. In no other sport do out-of-shape and elderly athletes have a chance to compete – and beat – younger, faster and fitter foes.

It’s kind of what makes golf cool. It’s an anachronism in that anyone on any given day can be the best in the world at putting that damn ball into the hole.

However, for as cool as that is, it does not put the sport on equal footing with anything Usain Bolt does.

Bolt ran the 100 in 9.58 last Sunday. In the history of putting one foot in front of the other, Bolt is the only man ever to break 9.70 in the event. He dramatically ran a 9.69 in Beijing at last summer’s Olympics before ripping off the new record this week.

And just for a point of reference, Bolt’s top speed in the record-breaking run was 30-mph. His average speed was better than 23.35-mph. The next time you’re in your car try to cover 100-meters at roughly 25-mph… then imagine being beaten by a lean and lanky 22-year-old kid from Jamaica.

Take a look:

Nothing against Tiger, but Usain Bolt just might be the greatest athlete we’ll ever see.

Better yet, the 100 isn’t even Bolt’s best event. Watch him run the 200-meters and he just might spontaneously combust. What makes the whole thing even more compelling is Bolt’s life story. First, he was no child prodigy who was handed a golf club in the crib and told to go be a champion. He didn’t get lessons, a private coach, club membership or a spot on the Mike Douglas Show. Bolt ran because it was something to do.

It also was a way to put some food on the table.

Last summer we wrote about how Bolt’s Olympic double in the 100 and 200 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 August, 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. Last Sunday he did the unthinkable.

“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 last summer 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 sprinter Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis. “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 the 200 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.”

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the cultural significance of Bolt’s show first in Beijing and later in Berlin, 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.

Regardless, thanks to Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican sprinters that piled up the medals on at every international competition, 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.

In Jamaica, a country seen by outsiders only from the resorts, the celebration for the 22-year-old Bolt is just getting warmed up. Every time his Puma spikes touch the track, it’s a touchstone moment and the threat of something otherworldly could occur.

It’s beyond history… it’s alchemy. It’s history, physics, poetry and science all rolled into one.

But yeah, you can see why people get into golf, too.

Going the distance

Tiger & RoccoFor my money the best tiebreaker in all of sports is the one-on-one showdown over a full round of golf at the U.S. Open. That, folks, is as pure as it gets – one round and mano y mano.

Argue all you want. Go ahead and waste your breath because you are wrong. The U.S. Open tiebreaker is the best there is because the participants actually play the entire match. There is no silly exhibition like in college football or the NHL where a watered-down skills competition decides the winner. Unlike the NFL the winner isn’t decided by a coin toss or by a role player.

Instead, to decide the winner of the U.S. Open golf tournament after four rounds have been played to a tie, the participants play golf. No chipping competition or a putting contest or even a reward for the best driving abilities – instead the winner is determined by the ability to play golf.

Imagine that.

At its core, golf is a sport all about endurance and like most endurance sports golf is a game in which improvement comes to those patient enough to put in the time, discipline and sacrifice. It’s about putting oneself in position for the next shot and then the shot after that as opposed to right now. Fortunately the pace of the game gives the player a chance to think about future shots with all of the walking and quiet meditation.

And yes, golf is a game best played by walking. Otherwise, what’s the point?

But like endurance sports where improvement comes over time and practice, golf is sport that one can rarely master. Even Tiger Woods, probably the best golfer who ever lived, has to learn the art of humility on the course. That because golf, like most endurance sports, exposes every flaw and weakness. It’s like marathon running that way in that imperfections are chewed up and snarfed back out into the dirt.

So to send Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate – the ultimate PGA Tour grinder – back out onto the souped-up (yet fair) Torrey Pines links for 18 more holes is about as good as it gets in sports. Also, maybe an 18-hole playoff – or 19 as it turned out to be with Woods prevailing by a shot – is the only chance a player like Mediate had. A 23-year touring pro ranked as the 158th best player in the world, Mediate said his only chance to ever win a major was here and now.

He nearly pulled it off.

The good part was we all got to watch Tiger Woods persevere after getting pushed around by Rocco. Woods needed every dramatic shot he made just to get into Monday’s playoff. Just the 18th hole at Torrey by itself was center stage for three of the most dramatic shots in recent golf history for three days in a row. Those were three holes that Woods played eagle, birdie, birdie just to be able to have a chance.

Without the 18-hole playoff we don’t get that.

Better yet, the U.S. Open tiebreaker is played on a Monday morning when people normally are at work or watching soap operas. Instead of manufactured hype and over-wrought production, we got sports.

Pure and simple.

Beat that.

***
Speaking of overwrought, manufactured, phony and annoying, what’s with all these Red Sox fans?

Maybe the Inquirer’s Bob Ford knows?

Nevertheless, the press box here at the Bank is filthy with folks who have ventured out of the proverbial woodwork in order to take a gander at the crowded Red Sox bandwagon. But what they won’t be able to decipher is a difference between the Sox and the New York Yankees. After all, when teams throw around that kind of cash it all just blends together.

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.

Fully engaged?

Barack & HillaryToday is another Super Tuesday of sorts in the Presidential primary races. It gets the all-encompassing “super” moniker simply because of the implications the races in Vermont, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. For the Republicans it means that shoo-in nominee John McCain will collect the necessary delegates to put him over the top.

On the Democrats side, a four-state sweep by Barack Obama could push Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid to the brink. However, if Clinton wins the two delegate-rich states in Texas and Ohio, be ready for a full-court press by both candidates before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Here comes the understatement of the week: There is a lot at stake today.

But that fact has been known for a very long time. In fact, media reports indicate that the 2008 bid for the White House has galvanized voters of all ages in ways that have not been seen in a very long time. People are engaged in the process, they are listening to the speeches out on the campaign trail, dial up the relevant news on the Internet, and have turned out to the polls in record numbers.

Everyone is engaged, especially 20-something year-old voters, who, according to reports, have turned off the ridiculous YouTube videos and dived into the national discourse. Better yet, those folks are asking questions and confronting conventional wisdom… these are all very good things. Frankly, it should make all citizens, regardless of political philosophy, to see so many people engaged.

It is an exciting time in our history.

But according to an ESPN.com story by Jeff Pearlman, there is one subset of folks whose precarious bubble has not been pierced to allow reality inside. That group?

Major League Baseball players.

According to Pearlman’s story, there are little fraternity houses in every ballpark around the country where Maxim magazine, the lack of fuel efficiency of one’s Hummer, and the run-of-the-mill superficiality of the bling-bling culture have not been offset by a true historical moment. Yes, according to Pearlman, baseball players are as dumb as ever.

Chronicling his visit with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals and the lack of political discourse therein, Pearlman charted the top 10 topics of discussion. They were:

Indeed, a top 10 list of spring training topics discussed by ballplayers would look something like this:

1.Baseball
2. Free sunglasses
3. Breasts
4-5. Jesus/golf (tie)
6. Dinner options
7. The Kyle Kendrick YouTube video
8. Britney Spears
9. Strip clubs
10. More Jesus/golf (tie)

C.J. WilsonNot every player is so switched off, though. One who was not shy about discussing his disdain for his teammates’ apathy was reliever C.J. Wilson, a left-hander who has been described as a Taoist and adheres to the Ian MacKaye-inspired “Straight Edge” philosophy of personal politics. When asked who amongst his teammates is as interested in the Presidential races as he, Wilson glumly answered, “No one.”

“It’s frustrating,” Wilson told Pearlman. “I’d say there are two reasons. One, there’s a general lack of education among us. But two – and most important – you’re talking about a population that makes a ton of money, so the ups and downs of the economy don’t impact whether we’re getting paid. Therefore, we often don’t care.”

“It’s not that complex,” Wilson says. “Baseball players think about baseball.”

That’s true. Baseball players get paid a lot of money to play a game and there are always dozens of players just waiting to get a chance to bump off another from the lineup. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure involved in keeping such a high-profile and high-paying job.

Yet at the same time there is a ridiculous amount of downtime for professional athletes. Games don’t last all that long and there is only so much time that a player can devote to workouts and treatments and whatever other job-related tasks. As a result, Pearlman’s list is pretty apt, though he seems to have missed on the ballplayers’ devotion to gambling, card playing and crossword puzzles as favorite pastimes.

At the same time, maybe Pearlman picked the wrong clubhouse? The Phillies have a few players switched on to issues, if not elective politics. Chase Utley is a budding conservationist and has lent his name to environmental and animal-rights initiatives. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins, the team’s player representative, is quietly aware of history regarding civil rights and baseball.

Jamie Moyer runs his Moyer Foundation, which created and funds Camp Erin, the largest national network of bereavement camps for children and teens; Camp Mariposa, for children affected by addiction in their families; The Gregory Fund, for early cancer-detection research; and The Moyer Foundation Endowment for Excellence in Pediatric Palliative Care for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Additionally, Moyer’s father-in-law, Digger Phelps, worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also served as an observer in the 1993 elections in Cambodia.

Those things are little more involved than simply following along with the process. Still, baseball players have – and various athletes in general – have picked up the label as being nothing more than “dumb jocks.” Some have chided golfer Tiger Woods for refusing to take a stand on various racial and political issues. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan 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[1].”

That’s hardly as inspiring as Ali’s, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong,” but perhaps Jordan and Woods have to protect their corporate interests first? If that’s the case, how does one define ex-cyclist, turned marathoner, Lance Armstrong, who has been nothing if outspoken in endorsing political candidates and calling out others for their failure to work for improved cancer research and better health care?

Greg Odenwhat about Greg Oden, the top pick in last summer’s NBA draft? Out with an injury for the entirety of the season, Oden has spent his time following the campaigns and musing about them on his blog. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s, Michael Wilbon, Oden admitted some of his naiveté about politics, but said he is committed to being fully engaged in the process.

“I can’t even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state,” Oden told Wilbon. “I’m just at the point where I’m watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I’m not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I’m getting there.”

During various campaign stops, Oden has had a telephone conversation with Obama and introduced First Lady Laura Bush at a campaign event. He admitted that both events were quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, Oden has come out with an endorsement for Obama on his blog and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can’t say I know every single one of his policies by heart,” Oden told Wilbon, “but I’ve done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?”

None. None at all. Perhaps all this engagement could have some sort of influence on our democracy and maybe even get a few more folks involved.

***
Also by Pearlman: Nomar is a creep.


[1] To be fair, Jordan contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Obama’s run for the White House. Plus, people have the right to shut-up, too.