Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vancouver Day 5: I Left My Heart in Yokohama

I really enjoyed the USA-Japan women's curling match (match feels better than game). It must be an incredibly aggravating sport to play but it's definitely fun to watch. Everyone's so polite, too.

I have a confession to make. In international sports, I tend to favor Japan over the United States. I am, otherwise, proud of my nationality even if the lack of universal healthcare is barbaric. But I fail to see how that should obligate me to root for the national team.

My affection for Japan is lifelong. You'd never know it to look at me as I have Northern Europe written all over me but I was actually born in Japan. As noted in an earlier post, my father was in the diplomatic service and both my sister and I were born in Tokyo. Obviously, I had no more choice in my birth place than I had in my born nationality but as a family, we've always harbored a love for the country and I feel it is as much a part of my heritage as the European nations of my ancestors.

I didn't make it back to Japan until my early 20s, when I was accepted to the JET Program to teach English in Yokohama. I stayed for two years and it was, without question, the formative experience of my young adulthood. I am a better husband, father, teacher, world citizen and man for the time I spent there.

My love for the Japanese national teams began with the '98 Winter Games and continued through the country's first ever appearance in the World Cup that summer. The soccer team lost all three games in France but the excitement that swept the entire country surpassed anything I've ever seen in the States. One could not help but get caught up in it.

And so, I was not the least bit surprised to find myself rooting for the Japanese to pull off the upset against the Americans, which they did.

The Canadian men's hockey team is downright scary. The names on the backs of the jerseys are intimidating enough: Crosby, Pronger, Nash, Niedermayer, Luongo, Richards, Iginla, etc. These are the gods of the NHL. Martin Brodeur, a future Hall of Famer, is the backup goalie, for crying out loud! Canada is to hockey as Brazil is to soccer. On paper, they always have the best team. However, as with soccer, the rest of the field is far too strong for the favorites to take anything for granted. In the three Winter Games involving pros, three different nations have won gold: Czech Republic in '98, Canada in '02 and Sweden in '06.

Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, has said that he's having doubts about letting NHL players play in the next Olympics. This is, of course, crazy talk. The argument is that the pros are too tired when they get back to the league and that compromises the rest of the season. This may just be a play in ongoing collective bargaining negotiations with the players union. But the fact is this, Mr. Bettman: for a league that's eager to promote itself internationally, hockey has no better platform than the Olympics.

When the NHL players were first allowed to come in '98, six countries could field teams loaded with stars: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the USA. While those are still the powerhouse nations of the sport, the rest of the field gets stronger all the time. Until hockey has a quadrennial World Cup like soccer, for which they'd also likely have to give up players midseason, the Olympics will be the sport's biggest international showcase.

Alexander Ovechkin (Russia) has threatened that he will leave the NHL if the league won't let him play in Sochi in 2014. If the sport's best player can't get Bettman's attention, I don't know what would.

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