Friday, February 26, 2010

Birthing a Sport--Snowboarding & Olympics

If you think about it, it really makes no sense. A board, just a board, with a person on it. Put wheels on the board and you can skate around, if you can balance yourself and not fall over. Put the board on snow with some wax and you can ride the snow balancing and spinning and doing cuts that traditional skis don't permit. Put the board on the water, stand up, hold your balance, look for a breaking wave and you can surf.

People do amazing things just for the hell of it, just for the sheer joy of it. I mean shooting a round ball through a peach basket or kicking a ball around and between two poles or hitting a ball, any old ball with a bat, a racket, a paddle, none of it makes any particular sense. Except the rhythm of the motion, the clarity of accomplishment the thrill of mastering the activity, they add up.

Many of our sports emerge from the simple fascinating kinetic joy of doing something. Kids try it; as they get older they refine it. Someone does something on the board, with the ball, and someone else, probably a male, thinks, "I can do that." Then they think, "I can do something even more interesting or harder. They spend time practicing it. Hitting the ball against a garage, practicing the skate on the streets or on a slope avoiding skiers. Then, the inevitable happens. Two skaters, hitters, surfers, kickers, basket-shooters challenge each other. Who can hit if farther? Who can kick it farther or who can get it between the poles more often? Who can skate the farthest, or jump the skate onto a rail or skate over an ice covered stump and fly. The evolution flows naturally.

So sports emerge. The ancient sports almost all trace their lineage to skills needed for survival or war. Modern sports emerge from more loose kinetic free form, the sheer diversity and joy of moving in space in different ways. They grow from a cauldron of experimentation and street activities. Stick ball; kick ball, football; skating.

One aspect of the Olympics I enjoyed the most was watching the skateboarding competition. Only two Olympics old, the sport still flaunts its bad boy/girl image. The skaters are inventing it as they go along and so Shaun White become so important simply because he keeps pushing physical boundaries of his sport, his body and the possibilities of a human being flying through the snow and air and tumbling, contorting, twisting and then sticking it.

The sponsorship disease will soon overcome aspects of it, but it has not yet professionalized itself in its pipelines; anyone with a board and time and mountains nearby can give it a try.  The sport still sports a raw danger. White smashed into the edge of the pipe during a practice run and one of his greatest rivals, Kevin Pearce, struggles to recover from massive brain trauma when he shattered himself by crashing head first against the ice edge of the pipe.

The sport migrated from street to slopes to Olympics in about thirty years. It reminds me about the infinite variety and capacity of human movement whether in dance or athletics. It reminds me that  some individuals will push the boundaries of the body and discover the emerging possibilities of a form of movement just for the hell of it. It reminds me that some of us will seek not only to push the form but to prove we can do it better or faster or higher or quicker than others. The movement grows into a competition which grows into a sport.

I'm looking forward to Parkour in the Olympics.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

America's Cup Race: Is this really sport?

The recent America's cup nonrace victory by the BMW Oracle team's S-90 behemoth demonstrates what happens when technology trumps humanity in competition. It demonstrates what happens when sport no longer becomes a test of individual or team skill, training and effort matched against each other on a playing field. When does an competitive activity cease to be a sport between humans and reduce to a technological arms race?

You have two high trained human beings with roughly equivalent skills, tenacity, and  training regimes. In normal competition they would each beat each other fifty percent of the time. But suddenly one wears a swimming suit with special bouyancy and friction attributes; that swimmer now wins 100 percent of the time. Two equal tennis players; one now uses a newly developed racket with a larger sweet spot and greater recoil; now she wins 100 percent of the time. At this point we are no longer witnessing sports competition based upon human attributes and discipline, but technologically mediated advantages that nullify skill and judgment.

Most sports from NASCAR to softball manage the balance between human competition and technologically enhanced superiority with severe regulation of technology. The attempts are two fold. First, they try to keep the sports human based and second to ensure a level and fair playing field where if there is a technological innovation that creates assymetric competition, everyone has access to it.

The America's cup has always been the hobby of the rich. First the idle rich, then millionaires,  then multi-millionaires, now multi billionaires. The last race no longer reflects sailing skill, but superior technology. Larry Ellison of Oracle and  Swiss  billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, two time winner, have battled for a decade over rules and technology. Gone forever are the beautiful old fashioned monohulls of Captain Courageous Ted Turner. Those boats relate to the modern hulls as a biplane to a jet.

The BMW-Oracle Godzilla  is an awesome technological marvel. At the cost of 200 million dollars (its' OK, the Alginhi side spent over 200 million also) the boat represents multiple revolutions in technology. Now a tri-hull versus Alginhi's catamaran, it carried a rigid wing for its sail 18 stories tall. It's three hull catamaran construction permitted it to literally fly through the wind and sail close to the wind in unimagined ways even four years ago. It simply destroyed the Alinghi boat by virtue of its quantum superiority in design. Images of the boat with two of its three hulls out of water entranced people who follow the billionaires' squabble from afar.

To me the race symbolizes what happens when technology trumps sport. Minimal regulations exist that create something like an equal field so that the competition is not predtermined at the begining, not by the quality of the humans doing the sailing, but by the designers of the sail boat, or the new baseball bat, or the newest swim suit. The screwy America's Cup home advantage rules lead to innumerable legal battles, utter lack of sportsmanship and anger driven innovation.

Barring act of God, this race was over before it started, and it had nothing to do with the skill of the crews but of the engineers. Judgement and skill could simply not hope to overcome the technological differential, where is the sport in that? Where is the competition on the field in that?

In some ways I'll take soccer or basketball where the game remains fundamentally the same; same ball, same baskets, same shoes (no jet assists allowed yet).  The differences emerge from intelligence, developed skill, focus and the humanly controlled dimensions that make sport a human activity and a celebration that we can all share and admire because of our shared humanity.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympics and Nationalism

The Winter Olympics opens today. Pageantry, glory, promise, 800 plus hours of NBC TV on 5 channels, no snow and 30 athletes  disqualified so far for positive drug tests. I love the Olympic ideal and truly believe that athletics like art and science transcend cultural and national boundaries. The founders of the  modern Olympic movement dreamed that the Olympic peace (all the Greek city states agreed to stop their wars for the period of the competition) of the original Olympics would promote harmony and respect across nations rather than the realpolitik of endless competition and war.

Even as I enjoy the artistry and achievement of the Olympians, I remember that the athletes compete for themselves but are here for their country. In this world of vagabonds and mercenary athletes this is a time when athletes return to the womb and compete for their country. Lest we forget, they march in together and wear the same uniforms (can you imagine Ralph Lauren designing military uniforms?).

The original Olympics held a tenuous peace but that did not prevent a form of war by proxy in the Olympic games. Nor did it stop regular attempts to steal athletes from one city state to compete for another, just as modern Olympic citizenship can become rather porous.

This aspect of Olympic competition seems to grow from a collective egoism. As a citizen I identify with them not because of excellence but because they win; they conquer; they prove superior to everyone else (if you root for the Yankees you know what I'm talking about). The Olympic peace transforms, as it did in the original games, into a war by proxy; I prove my superiority over you as a person or country when my team beats your team. Hitler raised this to its most exalted insanity with his Berlin Olympics designed to showcase the superiority of the master race. Unfortunately Jesse Owens and the University of Washington crew team, among others, showed up and punctured the Swastika clad  propaganda staged Olympics. During the cold war years TV commentators breathlessly kept medal counts, kind of like the ballistic missile counts, to see whether the US or USSR would "win." (Now if you think about figure skating as an agent for the cold war, it does seem a little silly).

The Olympics also permits a form of assymmetric war to occur. Small countries or poor countries can invest alot in athletics or pick a few sports to excel in.  The most successful and tragic episode occurred with East Germany, a small state, the Prussian remnant of Germany occupied by the Russians at the end of World War II. The country made a concerted and secret effort to reinforce its identity and legitimacy through sports superiority. Young boys and girls were recruited at a very early age; sequestered in sports clubs and academies where they trained relentlessly. They lived in splendid and privileged isolation from the poor society at large. The kids were also fed a finely calibrated diet of "vitamins" to ensure their health. The steroids and hormones they ingested generated immense strength, more rigorous training because they bounced back faster and created prodigious human beings. For over 15 years East German men, but especially women, who looked like mutant Valkeries, dominated swimming, track and field and weight lifting. The whole state sponsored system was designed to prove the superiority of communism over capitalism. It provided a great counterpoint to the relative failure of West German athletes and offset the incredible West German economic and political success.

The Olympic and World medals piled up. Other countries noticed the inhuman physique of the athletes. The whole house of cards came down as drug testing got better and the East European communist system collapsed. The lingering results today are a group of men and women who against their knowledge were permanently injured, as were many of their children, by the experiments upon them in the name of garnering Olympic glory and stature for their country.

I will enjoy the athletes, ignore ice dancing but wallow in curling and laugh at the antics and spectacular innovations of snow boarding. But I will remember these are humans first, athletes second, citizens third. I will not let some atavistic glory in their relation to my country or other countries take away from the true glory of their achievments.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NLI Day, College and Team Loyalty

A seventeen year old high school senior sits before assembled microphones and gazes out at the national TV audience of ESPN-U; a sly smile, looks again at the three hats before him and reaches out, a fake toward one hat, and then plucks the next hat with its distinct university color and logo, plunks it on his head and smiles. So the ritual of NLI (National Letter of Intent) day for football occurs. It's the culmination of weeks of frenzied speculation in local media and sites like Like the hotstove league, it's an off season pasttime of speculation and unbelievably intense recruiting, commitments, rumors of commitments, uncommitments, re-recruiting. The season takes on a frenzied aspect about dreams, hopes and possibilities for teams who wish to stay on top and others seeking to gain their place in the son. This relentless ruthless recruiting now makes college coaching a full time job.

I want to think about a different dimension of sport that NLI day underlines. I continue to grapple with the question of why and how folks like me invest their loyalty and time and identity into sports teams especially when the teams have no organic relation to their own community. But these signings signal a difference. Most of the signings occur at local school, city or state wide celebrations. Families, teachers, principals are all there with festive colors. It's  a success because the young man or woman. They won a scholarship and are pursuing a dream to plan and to graduate with a degree.

College sports actually provides a unique counterpoint to the trend of teams becoming mercenary assemblages brought together for a  single campaign and then disassembled and reassembled into new teams for the next campaign.

NLI day signals an initial intent by a player and a coach to have a continuous relation together with each other, a sport and an institution for a four or five year period.  If all goes well, here, at least, a relationship exists between the athlete, the institution and the fans. The athlete actually attends school, lives on campus or nearby, attends classes and “represents” the institution in a strong moral and symbolic sense.

When alumni roots for their school team, they know that the player is going to class and playing for the same institution that they attended. When a booster or citizen of a state or a a fan who has adopted a team, as we often do, roots for the team, they understand that the kids actually go to that school and if they graduate will carry that school as their alma mater.

Many of the student athletes will not come from the local area where the school resides, but welcome to America. Heck some of them will come from foreign countries as well as foreign states (UW gets lots of kids from California!). But the athletes voluntarily choose to attend the school, they choose that hat, they choose the school colors, that  coach, that conference to attend and play for. As many of us know who attended schools away from our home, this is the United States and the experience of living and learning at that place can engender an identification and memories that help forge our  fluid identity. So rooting for my alma mater, unlike rooting for the corporate shell that assembles teams for a single campaign, is actually culturally different.

Obviously reality can inrude with this picture. Players sign to play and win and get noticed, not just to attend a college. In college basketball 40 percent of all players transfer because they become vagabonds more committed to playing thatn to schools. But in the Olympic sports the transfer rate is 3-4 percent and in football it is 8 percent. Leaving aside basketball with its one and out types and deeply distorted youth culture, most student athletes stay and play at the schools they commit to. Most graduate, even in football the graduation rate can approach 65 percent roughly the same for regular students at large state universities. Most of the players don't go on to the pros but enjoy college and being a part of the team .

Here at least a more organic relation exists between our fans and our loyalties and the players on the team.

(photos courtesy of AP)