Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Beijing Olympics - Where 13 Is The New 16

Okay, first of all…when did Bob Costas start imitating Johnny Carson? Is it the late night programming or what? If it weren’t for the mysterious absence of ANY gray hair (can you say “Just For Men”?), you would think it was JC, not BC, up there doing scripted monologues and interviewing people on couches. Where’s Ed McMahon when you need him? I hear he could probably use the work. “Heeeere’s Bobby!”

I really do like The Games though, even if I have to reconcile some serious issues with the host country, Al Trautwig, and the IOC in an effort to truly appreciate the athletes. Part of me just can’t help but be skeptical of a few performances but for the most part, the Olympics provide an opportunity to see the best of the best - often competing in events that hardly anyone will care about for another 3 years and 60 some-odd days. “Hello Badminton, my name is Field Hockey. Have you met Synchronized Diving? Didn’t think so.”

In cycling news, our often marginalized sport (but still better than Archery) did its best to distinguish itself by providing the first positive doping test of the Games. Which was nice. Way to go Spain - between this and the Basketball photos (seriously…?), you’re really the life of the party. It’s only the Olympics – no one’s watching anyway. Except, of course, many of the people who would rather see Checkers or some other weak “sport” replace anything with two wheels. See: WADA. Sweet timing.

The most interesting part about this doping story is that Moreno bugged out prior to the race and never even made the start, blaming her withdrawal on an “anxiety attack” after being tested on the first day of her arrival in Beijing. Yeah, I’d probably be a little anxious too – especially if I knew I was cheating and had a good chance of getting popped in both pre and post-race tests. Perhaps it could have been called an “anxiety/conscience attack.” That voice in your head can get pretty loud sometimes. Too bad she didn’t listen to it earlier.

In other news, the Men’s Road Race looked pretty rough from the 10 minutes of footage I was fortunate enough to catch over the course of about 17 hours of programming. I really liked how they showed the first clip of the start at like 9:30 in the morning, had three or four 60 second clips between then and noon, and then showed a whole 6 minutes of the finale at 11:00 at night. That was rad. Okay, it may not have been that strung out, but I do have a completely used 6-hour tape that supposedly has the race on it – I just can’t seem to find it amid the excitement of Beach Volleyball, Knitting and Toad Licking or some other crap. Thanks NBC – now I hate peacocks.

Anyway, the race played out as most people thought it would, with the field gradually succumbing to the course and conditions, thus allowing the big names to fight for the medals. Andy Schleck appeared to be the strongest on the day but was completely marked by Slammin Sammy Sanchez and Davide Rebellin. Everyone thought that there would be an Italian and a Spaniard fighting for the win but most eyes were on Bettini and Valverde, thus giving their less notorious teammates a chance at Gold. The best move of the day was certainly the effort of Fabulous Cancellara, who rode everyone in the chase group off his wheel, bridged up past Rogers and Kolobnev to the leaders and then grabbed the bronze ahead of a fading Schleck.

If it weren’t for the bronze medal that The Mayor of Santa Rosa brought back to the Golden State from the TT, I may have had to comment on the footage of Levi seemingly marking Fab-Can’s move and then looking around and sitting up. Oh wait, I guess I just did. Now…it would be rather foolish to suggest that anyone in the world could have gone with The Swiss Cheese at that point but man…it would have been nice if LL Cool Heimer could have held that wheel and been able to contest the final climb with the leaders. Oh well…11th in the RR and Bronze in the TT has to be regarded as a great week.

So…to the surprise of virtually no one, Nicole Cooke and a Spanish guy won the Road Race while Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong took Gold in the Time Trial. I think we saw those results coming. It’s pretty cool that AAA Armstrong has her own Cervelo commercial though. I can’t recall many female cyclists getting that kind of publicity – and she certainly deserves it. Amazingly, her result was the first Road Gold (not to be confused with Rold Gold – “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”) medal for the U.S. since 1984. Wow. Would it be too early to start putting Armstrong near the top of the list for U.S. women all time? Actually, the World Championship already did that so I guess we’re probably already past that point. Super nice lady too – way to go KA.

Speaking of famous female cyclists (Connie is still Numero Uno for those who don’t know), The Phinney Family logged some good airtime as Taylor slugged it out on the track in the newly renamed Bradley Wiggins Pursuit and Davis continued to inspire all Parkinson’s sufferers. I vividly remember DP telling me that he was trying to convince Mini-Phinney to race the Pursuit a little over a year ago and that he had an outside chance at the Olympics. I didn’t think too much of it at the time but in retrospect, I am amazed at how it has all unfolded and the wisdom of Davis’ prediction. Understanding that NBC was going to broadcast the event sometime on Saturday, I happily watched the Points Race on the USA network and was momentarily thankful that multiple cycling events were going to be on TV that day. Nice.

This brief state of pleasure was subsequently shattered upon flipping back to NBC and realizing that I had missed the beginning of the Pursuit coverage because it was being broadcast at THE SAME TIME as the Points Race. Then my head exploded as I tried to come to grips with the fact that the Donkeys in charge of Olympic programming had decided to basically screw those of us who actually thought we were going to be able to watch all of the events without the need for multiple television sets.

Honestly, have they done that with ANY other sports so far? I don’t recall having seen gymnastics or swimming literally competing for viewers on multiple channels at the same time. They couldn’t have staggered the airtime by 30 minutes so we could watch both? Really? Everything is tape-delayed anyway – so what was the problem? There has been some seriously heinous stuff going on at The Games but for me…the programming has been the most problematic by far. Well…maybe not by far.

Every time I start to get excited about watching an event, they inevitably cut to something that I could not possibly care less about. I am still recovering from the small brain hemorrhage I suffered the other night as they repeatedly tempted me with the possibility of 400m coverage and then force-fed me an hour of diving and gymnastics as an unwanted appetizer.

Thankfully, I did get to see my peeps Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt cruise to ridiculously easy 44’s in their 400 meter qualifiers and then reflected on some good memories of not running nearly that fast back in my School Days. Sadly though, I also watched Sanya Richards basically choke on her “accessories” in the Women’s Final, and get third in a disturbingly slow race. Honestly, did anyone else take issue with the amount of crap she had on during that race? The ridiculous arm warmers (style is not THAT important), the absolutely incomprehensible leg warmers (which were comically bagged up around her ankles as she flailed down the final straight), not to mention the 5 pound engagement ring from her NFL fiancĂ©e and half-dozen earrings and necklaces? Not to be too critical but…I ran those times as an 8th grader. But then again, all I had on was a track kit and not the entire contents of my Mom’s jewelry box.

I’ve always wondered about the jewelry/accessories thing in cycling as well. How many dudes will drill holes in their derailleur cages and then wear a huge watch or necklace while they race. Huh? Am I missing something here? I know that there is a weight limit for the bikes but don’t the pounds you carry on your body have something to do with the end result as well?

Anyway…Here are some final thoughts on the Olympics so far:

- How frustrating must it have been as an American swimmer this year? “Hey, you just won an Olympic medal so…what’s it like to see Michael Phelps win eight gold ones?” or “Good job setting that World Record in the relay…what would you have felt like if you had lost the gold medal for Michael Phelps?” or “Congratulations on being one of the best swimmers in the world…can you get me Michael Phelps’ autograph since he is so much better than you?”

Honestly, I couldn’t believe how dismissive many of the interviews were toward the other swimmers. Especially the relays - where they would have all four guys standing there after the race answering questions about Michael Phelps. I felt bad for the other guys but I also felt bad for Phelps. Somehow I think he’ll come out of it okay (the $100 million earnings projection will help) but it’s got to be difficult being on a “team” when the focus is so squarely on one person. But until he wins gold by swimming all four legs of the relay – let’s maintain some appreciation for the other athletes okay?

- Usain Bolt is a scary guy. He’s 6’5” and has a beautifully athletic running style but I am very nervous about him. Well, I should actually say that I am nervous about almost all Caribbean sprinters as they dance away with an overwhelming majority of the speed-related hardware – with nary an off-season drug test to disrupt their preparation or celebration.

But Bolt in particular is terrifying. The ease with which he mocked the 100m World Record was eerily reminiscent of a young Italian athlete who did some shocking things in the Tour de France a month or so ago. What was his name again…Ricky something? Anyway, the Lightning Bolt then proceeded to crush the 200meter World Record and immediately occupied a place atop my “I don’t know about this guy” list by dethroning my main man Michael Johnson in the record book and displacing Carl Lewis as the most recent 100 and 200 winner. Sorry man, I hope you’re clean but you just punked two of my favorite athletes of all time so…let’s just say my curiosity has been piqued.

Plus – the showboating and post-race foolishness (seriously, who poses like that? Tyra?), combined with an apparent total lack of humility or respect for any other athletes (past or present) has been a bit difficult to tolerate and has not exactly endeared the young man to my particular tastes. Or Jacques Rogge’s for that matter. When the notoriously lenient IOC Chief starts dissing you in public – perhaps you’ve stretched the boundaries of sportsmanship a little too far.

Maybe the wounds inflicted by the Ricco Show at the Tour are still too fresh, but anytime someone makes it look too easy and is exceedingly arrogant in doing so (like they KNOW that they have an extra advantage), I can’t help but get suspicious. Unless, of course, the athlete is named Michael Phelps and is incapable of human error - as the U.S. media would seemingly have us believe. At least he was respectful of Mark Spitz and the other swimmers though. Ugh…I don’t know anymore.

Anyway, as the shocking paperwork declaring all of the Chinese gymnasts over 16 years of age seems to indicate…perhaps not all is as it seems at these Olympic Games. Oh…you think so Doctor? Whatever, I’m off to go put on some Marley and crack open a Red Stripe in honor of the fastest country in the world. Let the chips – medals and World Records – fall where they may.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fanning The Flames Of Fanaticism

For various reasons, I have taken some time recently to contemplate the psychological components of being a professional sports fan and specifically, an American fan of pro cycling. While I have not conducted any clinical research, I consider myself a 30+ year-old, passionate case study and am fairly confident in the validity of my conclusions. I will begin by examining some concrete traits and then move on to the more intangible elements of perception. And we all know that perception is reality, right?

As always, there is room for interpretation in this process and while I have attempted to maintain a certain level of objectivity, it should be acknowledged that my personal feelings on this subject have been developed over many years of informal data collection. I say informal because I was rarely graded or paid for my efforts, but in reality I have pursued knowledge of the sport with equal or greater vigor than any educational or occupational pursuits. Additionally, since the overwhelming majority of my experience with this subject has taken place within the United States, it is also important to note that my conclusions are based on the unique experience of following a largely European sport from an American cultural perspective.

One of the primary elements of the typical American cycling fan or “U.S. Cycle Racing Advocates and Zealots for Entertainment and Excitement (U.S.C.R.A.Z.E.E.)” is the physical connection to the racers. This is important when distinguishing an “average” European fan versus the typical American fan for a number of reasons. Due to the widespread cultural importance of cycling in many European countries, there is a level of interest which transcends the boundaries of individual participation and extends into the general public far more so than in the United States. In the U.S., the majority of fans are cyclists themselves and have an inherent appreciation for the act of cycling. As such, there is a strong identification with the riders as like-minded people with similar interests and behavioral patterns.

Danish National Cyclocross Champion Joaquim Parbo recently commented on this phenomenon after having spent the last few seasons in Boulder and participating in many U.S. events. Essentially, Parbo claimed that while there may be more spectators at European races, the fans of cycling in the States are far more respectful and understanding of the riders because they are often cyclists as well. He followed this statement with stories of wading through cigarette smoke, beer, hecklers and the more “average” sports fans at European events. Sound familiar to anyone?

In this respect, the typical European cycling fan may be more similar to the typical American Football fan who probably never even played the game but is able to find entertainment in the sport in a more “common” fashion. Anyone who has been to a major professional sporting event in the U.S. can infer what I mean here but for clarity – I am not exactly praising the motives, vocabulary and hygiene of the “common” American sports fan. Is there a European equivalent to the Oakland Raider Nation?

Anyway, at this point it will be helpful to identify the basic reasons that people become fans of a sport to begin with. The driving forces that make people sports fans, have been studied by psychologists, such as Dan Wann at Murray State University and they generally attribute people becoming fans to the following factors:

Entertainment - Sports spectatorship is a form of leisure. “Except for all the Donkeys who run alongside the riders in the Mountains. That’s got to be pretty hard when you’re that drunk.”

Escapism - Being a fan gives one an excuse to yell at something, an activity that may be constrained in other areas of one's life. “What other sport allows drunken spectators to yell and spit right in the face of the athletes as they perform nearly inhuman feats of strength and endurance?”

Euphoria/Stress - Fans experience euphoria during moments when play is going well for their team, and stress when play is going against their team. This generates pleasure. “Two of the happiest days of my life were when LeMond beat Fignon in 1989 and when Landis made his comeback in 2006. Two of the saddest were when Hamilton got popped in the Vuelta and when Floyd cracked in the yellow jersey. Don’t even get me started on the Giants and Niners.”

Aesthetics - Some people are fans simply because they appreciate the aesthetics of the game, such as the precision or skill of play. “Bike racing may be a little hard for some people to appreciate but generally speaking, guys like things that go fast and crash a lot and ladies like hairless dudes in tight shorts. There is obviously a lot more to it than that – but we are talking about Americans here.”

Family Bonding - Fans going on a family outing to watch a sports event form a psychological bond with one another as a family. “This is where the future of cycling in America is going to come from. People who grew up in the LeMond/7-Eleven/Armstrong eras are starting to have lots of kids. And many of them have a lot of money to spend. Would you rather have a child that races bikes or plays football?”

Self-esteem - Fans identify with their teams to the extent that they consider themselves successful when their teams have been successful. “I have always been fascinated by the strength of this phenomenon and am certain that much of the Lance Armstrong Effect was purely a result of his dominance in the Tour as a proud, flag-waving American. Regardless, there is a palpable confidence which comes from supporting a winner. Unless, of course, you happen to be from France.”

It is clear from this academic analysis that actual physical participation in the sport itself is not high on the list of motivating forces for becoming a fan. Interestingly, professional bicycle racing provides all of the driving factors listed above but has not grown in popularity to the extent that it has been able to draw in casual American sports fans. The Lance Armstrong Effect was the closest we have come to having non-cyclists comprise a significant portion of American cycling fans but since his retirement, many of these followers have left the sport behind largely because they were following a personal interest story rather than bike racing.

And here is where the perceptual element of being a cycling fan in America gets tricky. If you are like me, the L.A. Effect was appreciated for its presentation of the sport to an audience that would otherwise never have taken an interest but at the same time, it generated a mild resentment for the occasionally blatant “Band Wagon” followers. I wrote an article about this a while back that kind of sums up my thoughts on the whole deal.

In this respect, bicycle racing in the United States is kind of like your favorite band or TV show that hasn’t really gotten popular yet. There is a certain sense of pride that we are among the few individuals sophisticated enough to follow this marginalized sport/band/program without it being crammed down our throats by the mainstream media. As such, there is often a resulting desire to determine the “real” fans from those who have hopped on the Band Wagon of rising popularity. For example, I loved the first couple Black Eyed Peas albums but after they started getting popular, I moved on and let the Fergie Generation have them.

The L.A. Effect was a perfect example of this phenomenon as the development of the New Lance Fans began to overshadow the Old Cycling Fans in both visibility and commercial value. No matter how good that NRC race or early season Semi-Classic was, it just can’t match the broad marketability of a group of cancer survivors on a charity ride. And just like Bridging The Gaps is a far better song, My Humps is the one that made the BEP’s millions of dollars.

There is no denying that the Lance Armstrong Effect took the sport of cycling in the U.S. to a point of cultural importance which it likely would not have reached otherwise. For this, I believe most fans are truly grateful – despite the fact that we now have a former bike racer as tabloid fodder. But here lies the problem as well.

Cycling fans in the United States have historically been part of a small but extremely passionate group. When the sport grew in popularity (albeit somewhat artificially inflated by the L.A. Effect) during the Texas Occupation of France, many of the long-term followers rebelled against the resulting spotlight. I cannot speak for everyone, but it seems that many fans had difficulty accepting that their beloved sport had “sold out” to a certain extent. Perhaps those fans forgot about the old Taco Bell ads that Greg LeMond did, but still, it was odd recognizing that the sport had grown beyond the confines of VeloNews and into the realm of US Weekly.

At this point, I feel it may be necessary to acknowledge that the average cycling fan in the U.S. identifies with the riders – not necessarily other fans. This is important in that it is almost entirely opposite of the experience of average fans in other sports. The next time you go to a Football, Baseball or Basketball game, take a look around see how many people have absolutely no interest in the action taking place in the competition. There is a social component to the typical American sports fan which often elevates camaraderie (and inebriation) over competition and the sport itself.

It is also far easier for the average cycling fan to identify with Christian Vande Velde or Carlos Sastre than it is for Joe Sports Fan to identify with LeBron James or Tom Brady. Most of us are not 6’9” and even fewer of us have dated Giselle Bundschen. Therefore, many cycling fans are almost over-protective of many professionals because there is a sense of kinship that does not exist in many other sports. The life of pro football, baseball and basketball players is so foreign to most of us – both physically and financially – that they almost cease to be human. As a result, the treatment of these athletes by their fanbase can range from complete idol-worship to complete disdain and criticism.

This final point is worth looking into in greater detail and I will expand on this premise shortly. But in the meantime, I will offer a few internal dilemmas:

I want cycling to grow in popularity. But…I want it to be popular with people I like and respect. Unfortunately, I often do not like or respect many of my fellow Americans.

I want cycling to get to a point where it can be discussed intelligently and critically, similar to the broad range of coverage styles of “ESPN-level” sports, where there is little concern about offending the hyper-sensitivities of any particular fanbase. But…I also want to continue defending the sport as a whole. This may seem contradictory but I feel that by both defending and criticizing the sport of cycling, there is an opportunity to promote the sport and make it more intellectually stimulating as well.

I want cycling to be given the respect it deserves in the United States for making headway in the Fight Against Doping while all of the other sports have stuck their heads in the sand. But…I also want the topic of cheating to remove itself from all of the mainstream coverage of the sport. Even though cycling has been more proactive against doping than any other sport, it will continue to be cast as a venue for cheaters simply because efforts are being made to successfully catch them.

Again, I will delve more into these issues in the future. Now…off to Beijing where cycling is a big fish compared to events like synchronized swimming and archery. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

Friday, August 1, 2008

TdF - Just One More Thing...

This one is for all of the fellow fans of Lieutenant Columbo out there. Not to be confused with Rolf Aldag, also known as Lieutenant Columbia. You thought you were done with the Tour commentary, didn’t you? Not so fast.

- Okay, whose idea was it to have Pat Reilly and Michael Douglas on the stage when Carlos Sastre was presented with the yellow jersey on Alpe d’Huez? That individual should not be allowed to get anywhere near the Tour de France ever again. Did Sastre even know who they were? Was he back there asking Douglas about his nude scenes with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct? Was he blinded by Pat Reilly’s oil-slick hairdo and luminescent tan?

Oh…Just one more thing. Is it just me or do Dwyane Wade’s coach and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband actually kind of look alike? The more I think about it, when Douglas played Gordon Gecko in Wall Street he was basically just doing a Pat Reilly impression. The ego, the greed, the win-at-all-costs attitude and especially the greasy, greasy hairdo. How did I not notice that earlier?

- How much of a relief was it to see Damiano Cunego drop out of the Tour? After getting shelled on every climb, crashing nearly every day and then literally tasting cement in Stage 18, the Fresh Prince was yet another belated victim of my Nickname Jinx. Sorry man. I wouldn’t wish two and a half weeks like that on anyone.

Oh…Just one more thing. How many more Grand Tours is Cunego going to disappoint himself and his fans in before he starts hedging his GC chances and going for stage wins and the Classics? Seriously, there is no reason that he should be putting himself (or us, for that matter) through this anymore. It’s like watching a spider try to keep itself from going down the drain. Brutal. The tattoo makes it even worse.

- Is Carlos Barredo just a total punk or what? It seemed like he pulled out every cheap trick in the book to take advantage of Marcus Burghardt and still got served in the finale of Stage 18. Serves him right actually. It was almost comical to watch him try to cheap-shot his way to a stage win. Sorry Booredo, the Cycling Gods do not look kindly on guys who attack their breakaway companions when they are trying to zip up their jersey 10km from the finish and then act like a chicken-with-it’s-head-cut-off for the remainder of the race. Have some respect man.

Oh…Just one more thing. Did you see his tantrum at the finish? What kind of Donkey finishes second by meters, uselessly throws his bike and then makes more dramatic gestures with both hands than the guy who actually won? Seriously, I hope his teammates or directors heckled him about that. Or his Mom.

- I hate to ask this but…was Robbie Ventura wearing a Woman’s belt and pants on the early Versus coverage? Not that I usually pick up on these things, but C-Mac pointed out his pleated khakis and woven leather belt the other day as we were going through the VHS tapes and…I have to say I was a little confused. Maybe that’s why he got a little high-pitched while he was in the Garmin-Chipotle car and in some of the post-race interviews with Vande Velde. Gotta love the excitement though RV. Maybe they weren’t clear about the wardrobe requirements in the pre-race meetings but I think he stuck with the flat-fronts eventually.

Oh…Just one more thing. Did Bruyneel really put the Lance Hex on Frankie Andreu to keep him off the Prime Time coverage? Cyclingfansanonymous pointed this out earlier and I think there may be some real validity to it. I understand that things may not be easy breezy between Johan and Frankie but still…I wonder what kind of conversations have gone on behind the scenes over there. Bruyneel does bring some things to the table in the coverage but Frankie has a certain style that I have come to appreciate and look forward to. I can’t really get a read on Johan. He’s a little too reserved for me to believe that he actually commented on everything he noticed. He was clearly scouting for 2009.

- How much energy did Cadel Evans waste by being so impatient and hyper-sensitive with the press during the Tour? Was it enough to cost him the race? Personally, I think his demeanor and stress was the difference. He can blame his team as much as he wants but his attitude off the bike could have cost him the Yellow Jersey. I cannot comprehend the pressure he was under but still, he has been a Pro for a long time and did not seem to handle it all very well. I have a lot of respect for Cadel and again, cannot begin to understand what he was going through but I think I called this one a while ago. Sorry mate, I really do hope you can beat Contador next year but some things are going to have to change. Most notably in the old melon.

Oh…Just one more thing. Did anyone else catch the comment that Evans made prior to the final stage when asked about the difference between 1st and 2nd in the Tour? His immediate response was “Many hundreds of thousands of Euros.” Wow, okay. While he may be totally correct from a financial perspective…that was a pretty crass thing to say. It was hard to tell if he was joking or not, but I am always fascinated by how consistently money reveals itself as a terrible motivator for professional athletes. Those who succeed in the highest levels of sport are often driven far more by internal motivation than external. Do you think Carlos Sastre or Christian Vande Velde would have said something like that? Even as a joke?

- Am I the only one still waiting for the final lab tests to come back before I really feel a sense of closure to the Tour de France? It’s probably the residual effect of the Landis victory (I will always call it that) which forces a certain sense of fear beyond the Champs Elysees that I cannot escape. Sad but true.

Oh…Just one more thing. Despite concerns about the ASO and all of the negative headlines, is the Tour de France still the greatest sporting event in the world? Maybe only Lieutenant Columbo knows for sure.