Sunday, February 28, 2010

Vancouver Day 17: See You in Sochi

Yes, the Canadians set the record for gold medals in a Winter Games. Yes, they got the one they really wanted and Sidney Crosby's legend is secure. But ultimately, I think the real winner of these Games will be the British Columbia tourist industry. I expect the Olympics will do for BC what The Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Postcard perfect! We went to Oregon for our honeymoon and just fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. If we hadn't been so set on settling in the Eastern Time Zone, I think that part of the world would have been a wonderful alternative. Perhaps in the next life...

What a hockey game! I'll say it again, how could Gary Bettman not want this?'s Michael Rosenberg had an excellent column explaining why the NHL should stick with the Olympics forever. My favorite line from the piece: "If you don't like watching Olympic hockey, you will never enjoy watching hockey."

The only reasonable alternative would be a quadrennial World Cup in the summer and I have a very difficult time imagining that hockey on its own could generate Olympic-level buzz in the off season. Olympic hockey is already steeped in mythology and casual fans are going to pay attention. Granted, we're not always going to get the storybook ending we got this time but there is no substitute for the best in the world playing for love of sport and pride in country.

My Wife, an enthusiastic gardener, was curious about the flowers given to the medalists. According to Slate Magazine: "A combination of spider chrysanthemums, hypericum berries, and aspidistra leaves." Here's the scoop, along with the answers to many other Olympic questions.

There were peaks and valleys in the Closing Ceremony but boy, I love that Russian national anthem! It is definitely the world's best and I got to play it once in high school band as part of a welcoming ceremony for some Russian (then Soviet) exchange students. It should also be recognizable to fans of the film The Hunt for Red October. I love the Olympics but to be perfectly honest, I'd be just as happy with two straight weeks of Russian choral music. I'm not even kidding. As much as I like Sarah McLachlan and Joni Mitchell, I'll take Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky anytime.

The Games were great. Sticking with hockey and curling and thus minimizing my exposure to human interest stories worked out pretty well. It's good to get a glimpse of all the different sports but it's also nice to dig more deeply into one or two. I have yet to latch on to a Summer Olympic sport as I did with curling this time. Maybe I'll find one in 2012. On to London in two years and Sochi in four.

Vancouver Day 16: Air on a G-String

Great curling matches in the medal round, though very different from each other in pace if nothing else. The Swiss and the Swedes both take forever to make a decision whereas the Canadians and Norwegians moved at a pretty fast clip. All three medal winning teams are fully deserving.

It's a wonderful thing to have found a new sport, and it seems I'm not the only one. Between the Norwegian pants and the unusually enthusiastic crowd, this Olympiad was a coming out party for curling. As of this writing, the Norwegian pants fan page has 546,679 fans. Not bad for two weeks of work. If anything, the Norwegian team has missed its calling. They should really go into marketing!

With so much concern/delight over the unanticipated crowd noise, I think the finest moment of the tournament was when the Canadian-partisan crowd booed the knucklehead who was blowing his signal horn to distract the Norwegian team. The message was clear: we want to win, but not like that. The impromptu performances of "O Canada" were nice, too. The first time it happened, Kevin Martin & Co. looked mystified. When it happened during the final, they all looked like they were on the verge of tears.

What a beautiful sport!

Our Girl has claimed speed skating as her favorite and I have to say, the team pursuit is a lot of fun to watch. I love the Japanese body suits, too, though I am sad the women's team fell short of gold. You can decide for yourself if that's their underwear showing through. I say yes. My Wife says no. The Japanese have just one more chance to win gold in these games. They have just one skier entered in today's men's 50K cross-country race.

Finland wins bronze in men's hockey, which means the same three countries will medal in both men's and women's hockey, potentially in the same order. Slovakia's strong showing is great for the sport. One more game for gold!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vancouver Day 15: They're Going to Need Their Left-Handed Scissors

My Wife actually watched the end of the women's gold medal curling game with mild enthusiasm. What a heart breaker for Canada! I did find it amusing that the commentators questioned almost every decision the Swedes made in the last two ends and they won anyway.

The bronze medal game was a bit of a let down. Our Girl and I were pulling for China so that was fine but it was such a whiff for Switzerland that it was hard to be too thrilled. I am doing my best to pass on my philosophy to my daughter: a good game is one in which everyone plays well and it's just a shame that someone has to lose. Our team won but it's still disappointing that the other team didn't play well. She's an empathetic soul. I think she understands.

I almost thought Slovakia was going to pull one out of the hat against Canada in their hockey game this evening. That's a fine team they have and I think they have a real shot at taking out Finland tomorrow night for the bronze. The gold medal game should be a great one. I do think that Canada has the edge - superior talent can carry you pretty far. But Team USA has already beaten them once. Can they do it again?

Vancouver Day 14: Women's Hockey

Both of the women's hockey games yesterday were pretty good games. It's also funny to realize that the same three countries could end up medaling on the men's side. We'll see if Slovakia can spoil the party.

There are many who argue against the viability of women's ice hockey as an Olympic sport. It's not a matter of thinking that women shouldn't play hockey, though there are undoubtedly some who feel that way. The real problem is the yawning gap between the powerful Canadian and American teams and everybody else. It's nearly always Canada/USA in the finals, and not just at the Olympics. The same is true at the World Championships. Sweden and Finland comprise a solid second tier but apart from the Swedes upset of the US in Torino, they're pretty much always playing for bronze.

The Olympics do have a history of supporting sports dominated by a small group of countries, or even just one. Basketball was in the Olympics for 40 years before anyone other than the United States won gold. The Olympics were essential to the growth of the sport in other parts of the world and there's no reason to believe that the same can't happen for women's ice hockey over time.

Girl's hockey in Vermont is growing. My daughter's future high school has a girl's team, though the town where I teach does not. Our Girl doesn't seem to have much interest in playing and we're just fine with that. It is not a cheap sport and traditionally, hockey parents have to get up pretty early on the weekends. Her best friend's dad is the Nordic ski coach so I suspect she might ultimately be encouraged in that direction instead. It's a much healthier sport anyway and better for your teeth.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vancouver Day 13: Caps Sent Packing

Today was a hockey day. Hats off to the Swiss! With all of the NHL all-star teams in the tournament, the virtually anonymous Swiss came ready to play. They made the Americans earn it. And I have to say that I really like the way the US responded to the challenge. USA is an all-NHL team but they do not boast as many superstars as Canada or even Finland for that matter. To win the tournament, they'll need to be the team that does all of the little things and works well together. So far, so good.

Checking in with the Capitals

All five Caps were sent packing yesterday, the Russians in particularly dramatic fashion. The much anticipated Canada-Russia match-up was a dud. The Canadian game plan was obvious and effective: blitzkrieg. The Canadians hit the ice ready to knock every Russian player hard into the boards and to pepper a goalie they quickly found to be vulnerable. The Russians were rightly criticized for not offering much in return but it was clear they didn't know what hit them. The Canadians reminded me of Kentucky basketball circa 1996 when it felt like Pitino's team always had six players on the floor. The Canadians sent a clear message to the rest of the field with this win, too. If anyone is going to beat them, they're going to have to be ready to play through pain. I doubt Slovakia or Finland would be up to it. Team USA, on the other hand, might just be the team to do it.

Of the five Caps, Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) leaves the Olympics with the best stat sheet: 5 assists, 1 goal, +3 plus/minus rating. Fleischmann (Czech Republic) did well, too. He was a real workhorse, pulling loads of special teams duty. One hopes Ovechkin and Semin (Russia) take the Canada loss as inspiration for the rest of the NHL season.

The good news is that they all get a week off before the Caps' season resumes next Wednesday. Hopefully the disappointment will provide motivation in the playoffs.

One has to figure that with the loss, Ovechkin will do everything he can to play in Sochi in 2014, no matter what Gary Bettman says.

I need to let My Wife get back to work. She's staying home due to weather today.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vancouver Day 12: Look Ma, No Bristles!

I satisfied a couple of curiosities yesterday. I had been wondering about the 361 Degrees logo on the Chinese curling jackets. 361 Degrees International Limited is a Chinese sporting goods company. 361 Degrees seems particularly appropriate for curling: a game of circles. According to Wikipedia, "It denotes 360 degrees of a protractor circle plus one extra degree, representing the company’s goal of establishing this brand to meet athlete’s need for professional functionality, plus an added degree of innovation and creativity."

I had also been wondering about the fact that some of the teams use brooms that appear to have no bristles. They have what almost looks like a sponge on the end but that couldn't possibly be practical. Apparently, they use an abrasive polycarbonate instead.

Checking in with the Capitals

It was great to see Fleischmann score his first Olympic goal for the Czechs last night. He had a great game, adding an assist to his name as well. So, all of the Caps are in the quarters and they're all in action today.

The tastiest match-up of the day is, of course, Russia-Canada, adding yet another chapter to a Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry which is only just beginning. Mr. Bettman, how could you not be in favor of this?

Hockey is one sport that definitely benefits from a sense of urgency. Player emotions ramp up and high energy play ensues. The next few days should be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vancouver Day 11: Officially Hooked

It has happened. The Olympics have officially turned me into a curling fan. I've watched far more of the curling coverage than that of any other sport and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I must now start petitioning DirecTV to start carrying the Canadian networks so I don't have to wait another four years to watch again. In case you were wondering, the world championships for the women are next month in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The men play in Italy in April.

Some Websites for those of you interested in pursuing my new interest with me:

World Curling Federation

USA Curling

USA Curling also has a facebook fan page.

A few of the selling points for curling and the Olympic coverage thereof:

- Almost all of the coverage has been live.

- Far less of the human interest garbage you see in the mainstream broadcast. I like Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams but NBC has literally hours of event coverage which they could and should be airing instead of interviewing them.

- Blowouts are brought to a timely and merciful end as concession beyond the sixth end is expected as a matter of etiquette.

- Etiquette. Everyone is really very pleasant with each other. In a different context, one can easily imagine the players standing around the ice with a beer in hand - not recommended for bobsledding.

- Safety - no need for helmets in this one.

- The clothes are surprisingly cool - and far more tasteful than figure skater garb.

- Ample opportunities for jokes about rocks and stones.

- Strategy is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. That said, how anyone gets a 42-pound rock to move the way s/he wants it to is extraordinary to me.

- Men's and women's competitions are equally competitive and compelling - not so for ice hockey, where only the USA/Canada gold medal match offers much suspense on the women's side.

- Any game in which you get to yell at people to sweep has got to be satisfying.

I realize that my interest is likely to wane as soon as the Games are over but for me, this is what the Olympics are all about: learning about sports you don't get to see the rest of the time.

Our Girl beat Ravenclaw and Slytherin yesterday. We've got Gryffindor in our sights this morning. The game has renewed her interest in the books and I think we may spend some time reading them this week.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vancouver Day 10: Curling Fashion

In addition to the Norwegian Men's Pants, I'm also a fan of the Canadian shirts, especially the red on black. Curling shoes are cool, too. It was only yesterday that I realized that they can peel off the rubber sole for a low-traction surface underneath. Pretty nifty!

Now that I've set out to learn more about curling strategy, I'm quite annoyed that the broadcast cuts away from the action early in a given end. On the other hand, I admire the fact that the game doesn't stop for commercials.

I also didn't realize until yesterday that a team qualifies for the Olympics as a foursome, rather than taking the best players from several different teams as happens in other sports. I suppose it makes sense that you'd want a team that is used to working together.

Checking in with the Capitals

I must begin by stating the obvious: Alex Ovechkin's hit on Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic) in the open ice was breathtaking. It was also layered with deeper meaning: the current stud takes out a member of the old guard. Jagr was also the last superstar forward to play in Washington before Ovechkin. Jagr's resurgence had been one of the big stories of the tournament thus far and Ovie brought that to an end in a heartbeat. But at the end of the day, it was just good hockey as he instantly turned defense into offense, winning the puck and sending his team streaking to a goal at the other end. He is the reigning league MVP for good reason.

I must apologize for misunderstanding the structure of the medal round. Apparently, everyone is in with the preliminary round used to determine the seeding. Of the five Caps, Nicklas Backstrom is in the best position going forward as Sweden will have the second seed in the medal round. Russia, with its compliment of three Caps, also gains a first-round bye with the third seed. Tomas Fleischmann's Czech squad is the fifth seed and must face Latvia in the first round with the winner to take on Finland. The Czechs topped the Latvians 5-2 in the preliminaries.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Press Start to Begin: Quidditch

We crossed a threshold as a family yesterday by introducing Our Girl to my Playstation 2. My daughter and I are both on February break this coming week and My Wife suggested it as a good time to try it on her. The addictive power is clearly potent. We've already set clear limits: one hour a day, tops and only on weekends or vacation days. I don't want her to be the kid who spends her entire day in front of the TV. It's too late for me...

I've had the PS2 for quite a few years now and, as luck would have it, I happen to have a few child appropriate games in my collection. I started her on Wallace & Gromit: Project Zoo. We are big W&G fans at our house. It was the one game My Wife and I used to play together before parenthood took over our lives. It's a nice game for Our Girl to be able to explore the controls without any time pressure.

Next we tried Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup. That one was a bit more challenging for her but she did alright with it. She seems to prefer W&G for the moment.

The Harry Potter series is exceptional for numerous reasons but I think J.K. Rowling deserves considerable praise for inventing a genuinely viable sport within her wizard world. In 2001, she published Quidditch Through the Ages under the pseudonym of fictitious Quidditch expert Kennilworthy Whisp. All proceeds from the book went to charity. I think it has since gone out of print but if you can find a copy, it's a lot of fun.

Undeterred by the inability to fly, college students around the country have adapted the game of Quidditch to Muggle limitations. Middlebury College in Vermont hosted the third annual Quidditch World Cup this past fall. The Intercollegiate Quidditch Association has both a Website and a facebook fan page. Perhaps we'll need to check it out this fall.

Vancouver Day 9: But Gretzky Scores on the Rebound

I thought it was an exciting day in the curling broadcast booth when Vernon Davis stopped in for an interview. In the evening session, living national treasure Wayne Gretzky made an appearance. Has there ever been such a highly revered athlete who came across as so genuinely humble? Is this where Federer and Nadal found their inspiration?

I loved the way the commentators were ribbing Gretz. When he was being shy about calling a shot, the color commentator said, "Come on, you are The Great One!" Good stuff.

Today was my day for curling immersion. I sorted out a few of the rules that had confused me. For instance, I now know who gets the hammer in a given end: the team that didn't score in the previous end. I also now better understand the delegation of responsibilities among team members. My next goal is a better comprehension of strategy.

Watching the Canada/Great Britain game (the on-air folks refer to them as games) was particularly instructive. In advising anyone new to international soccer, I would recommend that they watch as many other teams as they could before watching Brazil. They're the one team that makes everything look easy but it's difficult to appreciate that until you've seen others struggle. In tennis, replace Brazil with Roger Federer. With curling, Canada is clearly the model with the Brits providing a highly worthy foil.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Vancouver Day 8: Vernon Davis Sighting

Vernon Davis, honorary captain of the USA men's curling team, was on hand for the team's first victory of the bonspiel, defeating France. Davis is a Pro Bowl tight end for the San Francisco 49ers and was the MVP of my fantasy football team this year. As I've written before, he has turned out to be a far more interesting person than I would expect an NFL tight end to be.

Checking in with the Capitals

I caught some of the Czech Republic/Latvia game and was thus able to see Tomas Fleischmann play. All five Caps are now assured of being in the medal round. The Czechs and the Swedes each boast two wins. The Russians, despite having lost to Slovakia in a shootout, can finish no worse than eighth overall, thus guaranteeing a spot in the quarters.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Vancouver Day 7: Danish Roots and Norwegian Pants

Do not underestimate the cultural reach of the Norwegian Men's Curling Team's Pants. They've been on The Today Show and they have their own facebook fan page. I must credit My Wife with bringing them to my attention earlier in the week.

Also, you must see's Separated at Birth: Olympic Hockey. I'm quite certain they've featured a lot of these before but some of the likenesses they've found are astonishing - and hilarious.

While watching the women's USA/Denmark curling match, we got to talking about family heritage last night. Between us, My Wife's family and mine are all over the map but amazingly, we each have some Danish heritage. My paternal grandmother was 100% Dane. Though she was born in Omaha, she spent a decent part of her childhood in Denmark. She didn't teach us much Danish but I did learn the word for thumb: tommelfinger. My Wife has some Danish heritage in her maternal grandmother's line. We are both big fans of ebelskivers, a Danish breakfast treat. The pans are family heirlooms in my clan. Our Girl is always interested to hear about grandparents, great-grandparents and so forth. She's also increasingly interested in other countries so she had lots of questions.

Last night, we watched Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a wonderful series in which the Beer Summit academic traces the family roots of many famous Americans. My father has done quite a lot of genealogical research and has, in fact, written two short books on the subject - one for his mother's Danish line and one for his father's German AND Danish line. I haven't dug too deeply into the Danish one yet. Perhaps I should now that my daughter seems eager to learn more.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vancouver Day 6: Curling Rocks!

For the second night in a row, I found myself completely drawn in by a curling match - USA/Switzerland men this time. I missed the extra end, though. Our Girl's bedtime story took precedent: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket. Pretty rough start for the American teams: 0-5 between the men's and women's teams.

Checking in with the Capitals

I caught the end of the Sweden/Germany men's hockey match. The Swedes are nearly as stacked as the Canadians: Lidstrom, Forsberg, Zetterberg, Alfredsson, the Sedin twins, etc. Contributing to the effort is the Washington Capitals' young center, Nicklas Backstrom.

In all, five Caps are in Vancouver for the Games. Tomas Fleischmann is skating for the Czech Republic. The Russians boast three: Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov. With one game in the books for everyone, Ovechkin is doing the best so far - big surprise! Two goals for Ovie, one behind Jarome Iginla (Canada) for the tournament lead.

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vancouver Day 4: Love on the Ice

It's a fairy tale ending for Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China, who came out of retirement for a shot at gold in pairs skating and they pulled it off, ending a half-century of Russian/Soviet dominance in the event. Shen and Zhao are one of many skating pairs who are also husband and wife. I suppose it shouldn't be terribly surprising, considering the amount of time they must spend together and the trust that must be built over a period of many years. It stands to reason that people who are compatible athletically and artistically are likely to be compatible on other levels as well.

What's more extraordinary to me is that we don't hear more about the more contentious relationships in the sport. There must be pairs who grow to hate each other - it's only human nature. I found myself thinking last night how lucky these skaters are to find someone with whom they can work so intimately for so long. But I realized I was probably looking at it the wrong way. The skaters who can't find a suitable partner probably never make it this far, or perhaps they stick to singles.

Bear in mind, my thoughts on the matter are colored by the fact that we've been watching Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage TV series. Relationships can certainly be complicated even without having to work together all day.

Men's hockey begins today, as does curling. Let the bonspiel begin!

Follow Up: Alexandre Bilodeau

A nice story on the gold medalist, including the excellent family back story which Mock mentioned:

Even with Drought Over, Canada Still Sets Gold Standard in Class by's Michael Farber

Follow Up: Legitimate Safety Concerns

For obvious reasons, there's also been quite a lot of interesting discussion of safety at the Winter Games. My own position is pretty straightforward. Obviously, the IOC has to draw an audience to make money and some of the more exciting sports are also the most dangerous. But death and serious injury are not acceptable prices to pay. It is most definitely not in the Olympic spirit to compromise athlete safety for television ratings.

I am also willing to admit that it's a nuanced discussion and that it's oversimplifying the issue to say that a sport like luge is too dangerous to be in the Olympics. Some of the more interesting articles and columns I've seen:

For Everyone's Sake, Reckless IOC Must Sacrifice Thrills for Safety by's Selena Roberts, written the day of the horrible accident

Post-Tragedy Course Changes Bring More Controversy to Luge Events by's David Epstein

Luge Is Safe? One Study Says It Is an alternate view, also offered by Epstein

PBS's NewsHour also had an excellent piece on safety at the Olympics.

I do think that while they may ultimately prove important in the investigation of the incident, I feel that all of the stories regarding Nodar Kumaritashvili's cryptic conversations with his father before the crash are in extremely poor taste. This particular story does not require any extra sensationalism on the part of the media.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vancouver Day 3: Alexandre Bilodeau, National Hero

Thank goodness Canada finally has its first gold as host nation. Alexandre Bilodeau won the men's moguls. Now we don't have to hear about the jinx anymore.

Caught a fair amount of the day's action. My daughter sat with me quite happily for a while. She seems to like the luge the best, a terrifying thought for her parents. She already knows she's not allowed to try it.

I find I enjoy the Nordic ski events a lot more than I used to. Obviously the pace is not as fast as in other sports but given that everyone is on the course at once, it feels like more of a race. Coverage has improved as well. With more cameras, they can quickly shift focus to different sections of the race. The close finish in the Nordic Combined was pretty exciting. Congratulations to Johnny Spillane for winning USA's first ever medal in the event. It's crushing to lose a long race at the finish like that but he looked pretty happy on the medal stand.

The ladies in my family are both home today: My Wife because of Presidents Day, Our Girl because she's been running a fever. For me, one more week before February break.

Still eager to see a competitive hockey game.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vancouver Day 2: Six for Ohno

Congratulations to Apolo Ohno for becoming the USA's all-time leading male medal winner in the Winter Games. He won the silver medal in the short-track 1500 meters. I would still contend that Eric Heiden's sweep of the golds in speed skating in 1980 is far more impressive but six medals over three different Olympics is pretty darn good.

No gold medals yet for Canada, still looking for its first on home soil. They're sure to win others along the way but it seems that with men's and women's competitions in both hockey and curling, they should win at least one if not all four.

Meanwhile, I am eager for men's hockey to start. The women's games are fun, too, but somehow I doubt that the Canadian men could manage an 18-0 result against Slovakia.

There has been much discussion of NBC's highly questionable taste in airing the footage of yesterday's luge disaster. I haven't watched it and will avoid ever doing so. I simply don't have the stomach for it. Beyond my own discomfort, it's gaper's block on a world feed and I can't help feeling that it's more than a little disrespectful to Kumaritashvili's family and teammates. What is the motivation for NBC? Ratings? Exposing the high risks of what is, quite frankly, a crazy sport? I have a hard time believing that it's all about journalistic integrity.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vancouver Day 1: O Canada

Without a doubt, the Olympics bring out the best in video montage editors. Tom Brokaw's piece on the relationship between the US and Canada was absolutely breathtaking. Consecutive images of Wayne Gretzky and Peter Jennings nearly made me tear up. And, of course, the shots of the mountains were stunning.

Overall, I'd say the opening ceremony was a success. It definitely dragged at times but any show featuring the work of Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen is alright in my book. The Joni Mitchell segment, in particular, was extremely well done. One couldn't help but wonder for a moment if they were just going to make Gretzky hold the torch for two weeks. I was relieved for his sake to see the technical glitches clear up.

Rest in peace, Nodar Kumaritashvili. May you serve as an important reminder that some of these sports, as exciting as they are to watch, are critically dangerous. I'm scared to death of sports like luge and ski jumping but I can certainly understand how it would be thrilling for someone else. Winter hardly needs X Games. The conventional sports are pretty harrowing already.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Winter Olympics: A Family History

Growing up, we almost never watched TV at the dinner table. Mealtime was sacred - not to be interrupted by phone calls or anyone reading anything (apart from the newspaper over breakfast). Television would be almost unthinkable. Almost.

Occasional exceptions were made. Most of them pertained to politics: party conventions, debates and so forth. And every four years, the rest of my nuclear family would temporarily join me in my sports fanaticism. Mother, father and sister all found my interest puzzling but none of them could resist the lure of Olympic figure skating.

The first Olympics which we all watched avidly together were the 1984 Games in pre-war Sarajevo. The star of the ice that year was Katerina Witt of East Germany. Elegant and beautiful, she was my first athlete crush - and a Communist, at that! Scott Hamilton (USA) won gold that year as did the incomparable Torvill & Dean (UK) in ice dancing.

Through the '80s and '90s, skating was always a bonding topic for the four of us. We loved both Brians: Boitano (USA) and Orser (Canada). We were all crushed when Sergei Grinkov (USSR/Russia) died at 28, leaving his beautiful wife and skating partner, Ekaterina Gordeeva, to skate alone. We were all charmed by Midori Ito (Japan) and Michelle Kwan (USA). The sport has changed over the last dozen years or so and the current stars are not familiar to me. But I will always have very fond memories of sharing that time with my family.

My earliest memory of the Olympics, however, is from the 1980 Games four years before. Sadly, I missed the great hockey game against the Soviets but heard the story from my father the next morning. I was six years old and asleep in bed. Now, it's astonishing to think that my father willingly watched a hockey game without me. We did watch the final game against Finland together. It is, in fact, my earliest memory of watching a sporting event on television at all. I also remember hearing Eric Heiden's name a lot as he won all five golds in men's speed skating.

The 1998 Games also hold personal meaning for me. I was in Yokohama teaching English from 1996 to 1998. In early spring of '97, my parents came to visit. My parents were in Japan from 1969 to 1976 while my father was in the diplomatic service and they are both very comfortable in the country. As a result, we were able to get off the beaten path and spend some time in Nagano prefecture during that visit. We stayed mostly in Matsumoto but drove past some of the Olympic facilities during our explorations: the ski jump, most memorably. It is a beautiful part of the world, far from the endless concrete jungle of the Tokyo megalopolis. We got to see snow monkeys and everything!

And, of course, I was there for the Games themselves, though I watched from the comfort of my apartment. The simultaneous, worldwide performance of the "Ode to Joy" during the opening ceremony is one of the great television moments of my life.

I think Americans are a bit jaded about winning medals - expecting it and therefore not really appreciating it. For the Japanese, every medal won during those Games in particular was a huge deal. Their first gold was won by Hiroyasu Shimizu in men's speed skating, 500 meters. On the medal stand, his vanquished Canadian rivals towered over him, but he was all smiles knowing he'd smoked them on the ice. He was on the talk show circuit for a week afterward. Japan won five golds in all and each one was cause for national celebration.

The 2006 Games were my first to watch with my daughter. She was only two years old so I would not have expected them to make much of an impression. But upon seeing a hockey game on the TV, she suddenly jumped up saying, "My turn! My turn!" She ran into her bedroom to find anything approximating a hockey stick and started whacking a ball around the living room. I haven't been able to expand that into a larger interest in hockey but she does love to skate and is finally in lessons four years later. Appropriately, the lessons are a gift from her grandparents.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Follow Up: A Hog in the Hall

Russ Grimm, offensive guard for the Washington Redskins in the 1980s and early 90s, has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first member of The Hogs to be so honored. The Hogs were the Skins' dominating offensive line in their glory days and is considered by many (particularly Redskin fans) to be the best unit the NFL has ever seen.

Grimm was always the star of the group, though he wasn't even considered the best lineman on his college team. At Pitt, Grimm played center. His teammate, and fellow future Hog, Mark May won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the country their senior year. The Redskins picked May with their first draft pick in 1981. Grimm was their third round pick that same year.

Checking in with the Hoyas: A Great Team? Maybe?

I just caught the very end of Georgetown's 103-90 victory over second-ranked Villanova. The Hoyas have been impossible to pin down of late. Nearly two weeks ago, they were hammered by Syracuse, losing by 17. A week later, they beat Duke in a much publicized game due to an Obama appearance. Then on Wednesday, they lost to a team they should have creamed: South Florida. Now, today's win. Who are these guys? Are they really as good as their #7 ranking suggests or are they doomed to disappointment in March? They have seven more regular season games to go, all in conference. Then the Big East Tournament. They SHOULD be good enough to make the NCAAs but they completely fell apart about this time last year. They've proven they can beat good teams - just not every night.

Just how crazy good is the Big East these days? Four of the nation's top 7 (Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia and Georgetown) are in the conference (though that will change) and none of those four is the same as the three which made it to the NCAAs as 1 seeds last year (Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Louisville). It's the mid-80s all over again - only better.

We submitted a haiku for Serious Eats's Seriously Delicious Super Bowl Party Giveaway: Mike Mills Baby Back Ribs and Pulled Pork but, alas, failed to win. Here is our losing entry:

Vermonters snowed in,
Weber Grill hibernating,
Ribs heal our frostbite.