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On the Problems with the Rio Olympics July 27, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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Does this look like a venue fit for Olympic sailing and swimming?

Has the IOC learned its lesson yet (I’ll pause for laughter)?  Frankly, I would not hold out hope for this.  This is, after all, the same IOC that gave the Olympics to Nazi Germany in 1936 (both Winter and Summer Games).  That awarded the 1980 Summer Games to Moscow, the epicenter of the slave society bent on taking over the entire world (I mean Communism, of course).  They also awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing despite the decades-long, grotesque train of human rights abuses on the part of Red China.

Then there was the disaster that was Sochi in 2014.  Leave aside the fact that Vladimir Putin has made every effort to cast himself in the mold of a Soviet Premier.

Focus instead on the grossly inadequate lodging; the issues with the available food; the $51 Billion overall boondoggle of hosting the Games; the subtropical climate (keep in mind these were Winter Olympics); the putrid water supply; the state-sanctioned killing of stray dogs, and, not to mention, the state-sanctioned doping of the Russian athletes (no wonder Russia came out of nowhere to win so many medals after so many mediocre performances in recent Winter Games).

Now the world is turning its attention to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the train wreck it is rapidly becoming.  Granted, Rio holds a special mystique for people all over the world:  a megacity in beautiful, tropical surroundings, and miles of warm, sexy beaches.  Sounds great to host the Olympics there, right?  That is, it all sounds great until reality is considered. To wit:

Economically, the Brazil is in its worst recession since the 1930s, partly because of the declining oil prices on the world market.  Locally, Rio de Janeiro has declared a financial state of emergency.  Falling oil prices alone cannot be totally blamed for this crisis.  Indeed, a much larger factor is government corruption, a hallmark of Third World politics.  To that point, a major investigation into the state-controlled oil corporation Petrobas has already forced several government officials to step down.  That is good, but will their replacements be reform-minded?  The cynical side of me says, “don’t hold your breath.”  Still, the political corruption scandals leading up to the Games have already had considerable fallout, for even Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment.  That may be good for justice, but not good timing for a country to have a political crisis when it is about to host something as mammoth as the Summer Olympic Games.

As a side note, why does an oil company need to be state-controlled in the first place?  The free market, coupled with sensible regulation, has proven to be an effective means of governing, say, Chevron and ExxonMobil.  But this is what helps make the developed world the developed world.

In any case, health-wise, things are no better.  Yes, the tropics are lush and beautiful, with nice, sunny weather and gorgeous palm trees swaying to and fro.  The bad news is that all that nice weather helps breed pathogens and vectors thereof that are non-existent in the non-tropical latitudes of the developed world.  Yellow fever and malaria are two classic examples, but what has recently made news is the presence of the Zika virus in Brazil.  Did the IOC consider this when they awarded the Games to a country that is A) tropical, and B), still mostly Third World?

But that’s not the half of it.  Another hallmark of Third World countries is a much greater degree of pollution than in the developed world.  Outdoor aquatic venues for sailing and open water swimming are contaminated with trash and (drum roll, please) raw sewage.  Let that sink in for a moment or two.

Violence, of course, is another Third World problem (spare me the talk about developed world exceptions like Chicago and other inner cities where bad, warped values in those locales rule the day so as to provide Third World situations in an otherwise developed region).  A human foot and other body parts have recently washed up on a beach at Rio.  That’s bad enough.  Worse is that this particular beach is the same venue slated for beach volleyball events.  Speaking of violence, armed robberies on the street are up 24 percent.  Some athletes who have already shown up in preparation for the Olympics have sadly experienced this first-hand.  In May, an Olympic gold medalist from Spain and two other fellow member of their sailing team were robbed at gunpoint in Rio.  More recently, the same thing happened to two Australian paralympians.  Oh, and recently, a group of armed men stormed a hospital.

This rise in violence coincides at the same time with city police resources in Rio being strained to the breaking point.  They are so cash-poor that they have had to beg for basic office supplies and toilet paper.  Because of the lack of resources brought on by Brazil’s economic crisis, the police have had to ground their helicopters and have had to park half of their fleet of cars to save fuel.  Not what you want when hundreds of thousands of visitors, athletes and spectators alike, are about to count on police protection in that city.  Some policemen in Rio have threatened to shirk their duties on account of their paychecks being delayed as well.

The athletes themselves, many of whom have been gradually filing into the Olympic village in advance of the Games, have also borne the brunt of Rio’s many problems.  The village, which consists of 31 17-storey towers, has been plagued with leaky pipes, exposed wires, and blocked toilets.  Keep in mind that this is brand-new construction, not some dilapidated public housing tower.  Gotta love those Third World construction standards.  Already the Australian, Italian, and even Argentinian teams have rented hotels and/or apartments until the contractors can fix these issues.

Anybody with a healthy dose of common sense would quickly point out that when you give something as huge and important as the Olympic Games to a Third World country, even one as borderline and emerging as Brazil, that issues like these are par for the course.  So how did the IOC foolishly decide to let Rio de Janeiro host the Summer Games anyhow?

Three possible reasons:  One possibility is that the IOC is corrupt itself.  How else does one surmise that it gave the Winter Games to Sochi?  How else does one explain Russia not being entirely banned from these Olympics despite proven state-sanctioned doping at those Games?  Over the past decade, one thing I have learned is to never underestimate the IOC’s susceptibility to bribes.  The same thing could have happened in the Rio case.

A second reason is that political correctness clearly played a part in tainting the IOC’s collective judgment.  There is this politically correct mentality out there that every major city/major region deserves to host the Games.  Giving the Olympics to a South American country for the first time ever helped the IOC solidify their PC bona fides and thus they felt very good about themselves in the process for being so “inclusive”.

Third is that the International Olympic Committee was sold a bill of goods.  Brazil’s economy was on the rise in 2009.  Some observers at that time naively thought that Brazil’s economy would eventually surpass those of Britain and France.  The folks from the Rio organizing committee played on that, as well as the sexiness of the city, along with the beauty of the geographical surroundings.  Christine Brennan of USA Today, in an interview with Colin Cowherd on his FS1 radio and TV show The Herd, pointed out that this combination clearly played a factor when the IOC made their decision seven years ago.  All that was before Brazil’s Third World hang-ups helped cause its economy to crash and is now behind those of Italy and even India.

Solutions to avoiding issues like these in the future shall be explored in another article shortly come.  But for the time being, the economic crisis, the political crisis, the construction and infrastructural issues, the rampant pollution and the rising crime add up to a train wreck-in-the-making for these upcoming Olympic Games.  Maybe it will take such a disaster for the aristocratic-wannabes in Lausanne, Switzerland to finally wake up and use better judgment to avoid such disasters in the future.

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American Pride Sliding Down the Track at Sochi February 16, 2014

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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The author with the United States bobsled team after they won the 4-man world championship at Lake Placid in 2012. I was so elated to have my picture taken with these fine fellows, my grin distorted my smile! L-R: Steve Holcomb, Steve Langton, Patrick Murray, Justin Olsen, and Curt Tomasevicz.

With a full week of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi now in the books, it is finally time for my personal favorite winter sport to commence, that of bobsled (“bobsleigh” being the preferred international, i.e., non-American term).  With recent success in the sport over the past 12 years, surely the bobsled events are to gather some decent attention here in the United States, and with good reason.  We stand good chances of winning medals in all three events (2-man, women’s, and 4-man), but more importantly, we have great athletes who are also outstanding individuals representing the U.S.A.

When I first started watching the Olympics in earnest as a youngster (Calgary 1988 to be exact), I’ll never forget the first time I saw a sled fly down the track on TV.  I thought to myself, “Oh my, that was so cool!  What is that?”  Needless to say, I got hooked on bobsledding, and eagerly anticipated watching those events above all others during every Winter Olympics cycle.

If you are a football and track & field guy like I am, this is the winter sport for you.  It combines the strength, speed and power aspects of football and track, as well as the team coordination of football.  Make no mistake about it; bobsledders are the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes in all of the Winter Olympic events.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at how Johnny Quinn (a pusher for USA-2) managed to escape being trapped inside a bathroom.

Plus, it’s racing on ice, and in a country that enjoys auto racing as much as we do, that should seriously count for something as well.  And yes, our 4-man sleds are built with NASCAR technology, which is why they’re the best!

In any event, the Games in 1992, 1994, and 1998 all ticked by, and every time I watched in frustration as a medal in the sport continued to elude us.  It therefore goes without saying that one of my favorite moments of the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake was witnessing on TV USA-2 break a 46-year* medal drought by winning a bronze medal in the 4-man event, only to be bolstered further by USA-1 winning the silver.  America was “back” in the sport, and it felt great.  The fact that women’s bobsled was introduced as an Olympic event that year, with America winning the gold, was the icing on the proverbial cake.

Several years later, I started following the US bobsled team during the regular seasons (yes, there are such things in these relatively obscure Olympic sports), and started to learn the names of the fine fellows pushing and driving our American-designed and built sleds, courtesy of a project spearheaded by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.  The 2008-2009 season particularly grabbed my attention, as I found ways to watch the races online, and pay close attention to the news of Team USA winning the 2009 World Championship, the first time America won such a distinction in literally 50 years (1959).  The following year, we won the gold medal in the Vancouver Winter Games, the first time we achieved that since 1948 at St. Moritz.

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With my good friend and fellow Purdue Boilermaker Doug Sharp, who was part of the USA-2 4-man team that ended America’s 46-year medal drought in bobsled by winning the bronze at Salt Lake in 2002. Behind us is the “NightTrain” sled that our American boys used to win the gold medal at Vancouver in 2010.

I had the blessed opportunity to travel up to Lake Placid, New York (as in, the holy grail of Winter Olympics in the Western Hemisphere) to photograph the 4-man world championships there in late Feb. of 2012 (photography being my main hobby these days).  There, I met up with a friend of mine and fellow Purdue Boilermaker, Doug Sharp, who was on the USA-2 team that won bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  During the races, I managed to take some decent sports shots, despite my learning curve.  In between the races, though, my friend Doug introduced me to a number of bobsledders, both past and present.

After runs 1 and 2, for example, I was invited into the team garage — it was like being in the dugout with the Yankees!   There, I was able to meet John Napier, a fine younger driver who was at the time the driver for USA-2.  I also met Chris Fogt, who earned a spot on the USA-1 team at the start of this season.  Moreover, I met both Adam Clark and Dallas Robinson, both from the Louisville, Ky., area (my native city and still current area of residence).  Robinson, interestingly enough, is now the brakeman for USA-2 at Sochi, both 2-man and 4-man.

During the VIP luncheon, I had the opportunity to thank a number of ladies and gentlemen for representing America so well with their accomplishments over the decade, but even after the part was over – several hours later – and the sun had already gone done, the day was not over yet.

When we left the track that evening, Doug took me over to the Olympic Training Center, where, in a most unexpected turn of events, I was able to meet three of the four current men of Team NightTrain** (such is the nickname for the USA-1 crew; they dubbed their sled “The NightTrain” during the 2008-’09 season for its fearsome black color scheme).  They were polishing their sled’s runners for runs three and four the next morning, and at this surprising opportunity, I once again was able to relay by heartfelt thanks for their efforts and for honoring our great nation in winning gold.

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USA-1 as they race down the track at Lake Placid, N.Y., during second of four runs, and en route to winning the 2012 4-Man Bobsled World Championship. Photo taken by the author.

Meeting and befriending these fine fellows was truly a pleasure.  Unlike the prominent athletes in major professional sports here in America (say, the NFL, MLB or NBA), these guys don’t get much attention for what they do.  In countries like Germany, or especially Switzerland, bobsled drivers garner as much fame as quarterbacks do here in the NFL.  How many people here in the States, who don’t follow the Olympics, know who Steve Holcomb is, let alone his push athlete teammates?

In addition to meeting Holcomb that evening, I was also able to meet Justin Olsen, who was part of the team that won gold in Vancouver.  Steve Langton took over for Steve Mesler after the latter retired, and the former is considered one of the finest push athletes in the world.  Watch for Langton as the brakeman for Holcomb in the 2-man event.  Nick Cunningham was also on hand to polish the runners for his sled.  Watch for him as the driver for USA-2 in both the 2-man and 4-man events.

They hail from all over this great land.  Holcomb comes from Park City, Utah, and was originally an alpine skier before taking up bobsled (interestingly enough, the legendary Italian driver Eugenio Monti was first a skier before he himself took up bobsleigh).  Nick Cunningham is from Monterey, Calif., home to one of the finest public aquariums in the world.  Justin Olsen is from San Antonio, home of the Alamo and the beacon of liberty that it represents to Texans and many Americans elsewhere.  Steve Langton is from the Boston area (and was a track star for Northeastern University).  The brakeman for Team NightTrain, Curt Tomasevicz – who will reportedly retire at the conclusion of these Games – hails from a small town in Nebraska, and was a linebacker for the Cornhuskers before taking up this sport.  Honestly, part of the fun of getting to know these guys was just talking to them about their native towns.

Suffice it to say these guys did not get into the sport for the fame, for there is relatively little (that is, on this side of the Atlantic, at least).  These guys compete for love of the sport and love of country.  In fact, many of these men support themselves as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and have been, or still are, active in the National Guard.  Chris Fogt even served a tour of duty in Iraq.

But one thing that really struck me positively as I got to know these outstanding fellows is how much they appreciate their fans.  Many prominent professional athletes seem to wall themselves off from the majority of fans – given all the crazies out there, one can surely sympathize – and hard-core fans to them are a turn-off (here’s a tip:  want to ingratiate yourself to prominent professional athletes?  Be a fan who has perspective).  But to our American bobsledders, passionate fans are not a turn-off; in fact, they feed off their energy.

For the record, the ladies who represent America in the women’s bobsled events are no less gracious or appreciative of their fans as well.  Like their gentlemen counterparts, they are educated, industrious, dedicated, and down-to-earth.  In other words, they are every bit the embodiment of how we would ideally envision an Olympic athlete to be.

They, both the men and women, are also incredibly approachable.  They put on no airs of being “above it all,” and are always glad to meet new fans and supporters.  The fact that fans here in the States are relatively few and far between compared to the big money sports might be a factor in this, but that does not detract one iota from this positive trait.

What is even more amazing about what these talented, dedicated men and women achieve is that they do so on a relative shoestring budget compared to prominent programs in other countries.  Germany, Switzerland, and recently, Russia, lavish massive funds on their respective programs, albeit with mixed results.  Germany is never to be counted out, and the Swiss have performed decently in the 2-man as of late, having to earn back their dominant spot that they kept throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.  Russia is a constant threat to medal in the 4-man as well (Canada’s not too shabby either, fyi).  But this season, Team USA has been in contention to win almost the entire time, winning enough races for USA-1 to win the overall World Cup trophy in the 2-man event and finish second overall in the 4-man (the latter alone is impressive when you consider the crash they had at Winterberg, Germany in early January).  When one considers that these good fellows of ours achieve this with far less funding than other countries’ programs, it makes this momentous feat all the more incredible.

In short, the dedicated men and women that make up the U.S. Bobsled Team embody everything that we as fans ought to admire in world-class athletes.  You could not ask for more outstanding individuals representing the United States of America, and I for one cannot wait to cheer on my friends as they race down the ice at the Sanki Sliding Centre.  Go Team USA!

*Prior to 2002, the last time that the USA won a medal in bobsled was bronze in the 4-man event at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D’Ampezzo.  Moreover, we have not won the gold in the 2-man event since 1936 (!) and have not medaled at all in it since 1952.  That could very well change come Monday.

**USA-1 won the 2009 World Championship, the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 2012 World Championship (all in 4-man) using the NightTrain sled.  Geoff Bodine’s “BoDyn” program soon designed a new sled for USA-1, which they immediately dubbed “NightTrain²”, and is the sled they have been using for the entire 2013-2014 season, the Sochi Games included.  USA-2 has thus inherited the original “NightTrain,” so both sleds will be put to good use!

America’s Greatest Music – It’s De-Lovely October 25, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely…” Those are some of the most famous lyrics within the body of work of Cole Porter, the last two of which being the title of the in question.  Given that it is one of Porter’s most recognizable songs (save for “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and several others), it merits a very prominent place in the Great American Songbook.

Here’s the catch, though; despite it being a great song, few of us can think of lots of notable recorded renditions of it.  Sure, a number of second-tier bands had moderate hits with it in the mid-1930s, but that will not turn lots of heads of music listeners who are not passionate and/or academic about the Swing Era.

The song originated when Cole Porter wrote it in 1936 for the show “Red Hot and Blue.”  On the big screen, it was introduced to the masses by Ethel Merman and Bob Hope.  Indeed, Merman would record a studio version of the song, which can be heard below.  Note that the approach she takes to the song is one that would highlight the potential silliness/gayety of the situation described.

As mentioned earlier, several second-tier bands promptly recorded their respective renditions of the song, including Eddy Duchin, Shep Fields, and Vincent Lopez, whose 1936 version can be heard below:

But one version easily stands out over all, and that is Ella Fitzgerald’s take on the tune from 1956 (which would be the same time of decade when she would tackle the “Cole Porter Songbook” and leave many wonderful records for posterity in so doing).  Frankly, nothing compares to this rendition.

Notice, in contrast to Ethel Merman’s approach from 20 years earlier, Ella puts all kidding aside and focuses on the shear passion that this tune can excite, what with being with the right gal (or guy) at the right time, along with the ensuing opportunity to create a magical evening.