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Friday, August 31, 2012

At least he's not a gold digger

Gold diggers have a justified reputation for being some of the slimiest creatures around. They feign affection in order to entrap some successful man in an effort to gain access to his money. They tend to be very manipulative and self-centered. A lot of them are sociopaths; most are at least narcissistic personalities.


(Anna Nicole Smith, who at age 26 married 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall, who was worth $500 million)

A male gold digger, who marries a woman for her money, somehow seems even worse. Many of the most publicized cases have been of gay men who marry rich women who are either extremely old or extremely addled. When you hear about a case like this, it's hard not to think, what a slimeball.


(David Gest, who was briefly married to Liza Minelli)

Of course, straight guys who marry for the money are no better.

John McCain left his first wife, a former model, after she'd been in a disfiguring automobile accident, in order to marry Cindy Lou Hensley, whose father owned one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributorships in the nation. Cindy helped bankroll McCain's first run for Congress in 1980.


John Kerry married Teresa Heinz, the billionaire widow of Senator John Heinz, in 1995. (Has character ever been better reflected in a face?)


Would either of these men have married their wives had those women not been extremely rich?

Both McCain and Kerry signed pre-nups before getting married, but both men still obviously benefit from access to their wives' fortunes. Kerry keeps a yacht moored in Rhode Island and McCain famously couldn't recall how many houses he owned during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

What does it say about politics that two recent major party Presidential nominees both apparently married for money? What would you have thought had Anna Nicole Smith, or David Gest, run for President? McCain and Kerry are obviously far more intelligent and far more presentable. But is their character all that different?

I've always wondered why their apparent gold-digging tendencies didn't get more attention. I suppose because it's hard to prove. (How does one prove that someone doesn't really love his wife?)

Every time I hear the Democrats excoriate Mitt Romney for being a plutocrat, I can only think, well, at least he earned his own money.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"A Look Back at the Olympics"

For swim fans only:

http://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/lane9/news/USA/31825.asp?q=A-Look-Back-at-the-Olympic-Games

(There's a little stuff from the blog, but it's mostly new.)

Lauren Holly

Back around the time that Dumb and Dumber came out in 1994, I thought Lauren Holly was one of the most attractive women in Hollywood. Here's an early shot:


And another:


The other day, curious to see what she looked like now, I Google-imaged her. This is what I found:


No one can hang on to their youthful beauty forever. But I've never quite been sure why women do this to themselves. To me, breasts that can be seen from across the length of a football field and that feel like granite, are not attractive. Once a woman starts to look (and sometimes act) like a proud marble statue, she loses her femininity.

Had Holly simply aged, staying slim but gaining a few wrinkles, I would have still found her attractive.

Seeing that she has turned herself into a monument has cured me of that.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Armstrongs

The two most famous Armstrongs have both been in the news recently: Neil for dying, and Lance for being banned for life from all sports the USADA has jurisdiction over. The two men led their lives in vastly different ways.

Neil was a fighter pilot, then a test pilot, then an astronaut. All three activities require significant physical courage.

After Neil retired from NASA in 1971, he initially avoided the many offers he had from various corporations to act as their spokesman. He finally relented in 1979, and became a spokesman for Chrysler, partly because he admired their engineering department, and partly just because they were in trouble. After that, he served as a spokesman and director for several other companies, though he refused to work for any non-American firms.

After 1994 Neil stopped giving autographs because he heard that they were being resold for large sums of money. According to Wikipedia, "He also stopped sending out congratulatory letters to new Eagle Scouts, because he believed that these letters should come from people who know the Eagle Scouts personally."

One way Neil probably didn't live his life on the straight and narrow was when it came to women. He met his second wife in 1992, two years before his first wife divorced him. I have to imagine that having been the first man on the moon, along with a certain amount of natural flyboy swagger, made him absolute catnip to the ladies.

Lance has been in the headlines much more than Neil for the past fifteen years. This blog made the case that he is a sociopath back in November of 2010; his recent behavior has been true to form.

As the United States Anti-Doping Agency net has closed around him, Lance has continued to deny all the claims against him. He continually cites the drug tests he passed, accused the USADA of acting unconstitutionally, and filed a countersuit against them trying to prevent them from proceeding. But early Friday morning he gave up his right to arbitration. The USADA reportedly had over ten former teammates, trainers and doctors ready to testify against him, and had recent blood samples which were "consistent with doping."

Lance was self-righteous to the end, saying, "there comes a time in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today -- finished with this nonsense."

No mea culpas, no feelings of embarrassment that he has finally been caught, no sense of guilt that he might have deprived a clean athlete of his moment of glory. Just the anger that the constitutionally guiltless feel when accused of something they are guilty of.

Both Armstrongs were American icons. Only one stood up to close scrutiny, however.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Half-woman

There is no clearer way for a man to declare to the world that he is a spineless, hen-pecked little worm than to have only one email address -- which he shares with his wife.

You can't carry on a correspondence with him, which is probably no great loss to you. More to the point, he can't really carry on a correspondence with anyone else.

It's as if he's saying, "I have no secrets worth keeping, no opinions which any female would find offensive, no independence, no life of my own."

"I've been neutered and I have no problem with that."

Suit yourself, buddy.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Junk sport

Both the Spartan and the Tough Mudder runs feature obstacles like wall climbs, rope shimmies, jumping into cold water, ascending slippery mud slopes, crawling beneath barbed wire, and balance beams. (You're guaranteed to be covered in mud by the end of the race, hence "Tough Mudder.") 

The videos for both make them look like something out of Navy Seal Hell Week.  

But when I asked my friend Ed Gendreau, who recently completed the 3.7 mile Spartan race mentioned a few posts ago, what percentage of people finish the course, he said 98 to 99%.

I then looked up the Tough Mudder, the 10-12 mile races designed by British SAS commandos, which advertises itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet." They have a completion rate of roughly 85%.

When 98%, or even 85%, of the participants can finish a race, how tough can it be? Where is the satisfaction to be had? What kind of macho rite of passage is it when you see unathletic-looking females doing it?

Tough Mudder doesn't even post results after its events, saying that since camaraderie and group efforts are encouraged, i.e., helping people over obstacles, so times and rankings would be meaningless. 

(Doesn't being helped over obstacles makes the entire event meaningless?) 

Here's Ed -- at age 50 -- with his girlfriend Jana after they finished a race two weekends ago:



(Ed is 6'1", Jana one inch shorter.)

Ed has been ranked number one nationally in several events in masters swimming over the years, which puts him in at the very top of that sport. He's a good runner, and as I once mentioned in this blog, makes a point of going surfing whenever there's a hurricane.

Surfing in a hurricane takes courage. Thinking that finishing a Spartan race makes you sort of like an old-tme Spartan takes.....self-delusion. (I'm not suggesting Ed is deluding himself, but my guess is that some of the participants are.)

In any case, for someone with Ed's athletic credentials, the Spartan race seems a little beneath his dignity. A little like when an ex-NFL player goes into professional wrestling.

This may be a little unfair -- the Spartan, unlike the Tough Mudder, posts results, and Ed finished toward the top of his age group. He wants to do better next year, especially on events like the spear throw which he didn't practice for and failed. (Failing an obstacle means you have to do thirty squat thrusts.) And self-improvement is always worthwhile. 

When I characterized these runs as junk sports to another friend, he told me not to be such a wet blanket: "It's a fun way to exercise, and with a third of Americans overweight, and another third downright obese, so why would you want to discourage them?"

But Ed obviously doesn't fall into either of those two categories.

Neither does a young woman I know who recently completed a Tough Mudder. She has run 1500 meters in 4:23, the equivalent of a mile in roughly 4:44. (For purposes of comparison, the women's 1500 at the London Olympics was won in 4:10.) So she should be extremely proud of her 1500 meter time, which puts her well into the top one percentile of women who run. But should she be proud of having completed a Tough Mudder? 

That may have something to do with the way these events get marketed. The Tough Mudder video features an announcer (a young black man doing his best Mr. T imitation) who announces, "If you can do this, you can do anything you can put your heart and mind to."

Yes -- you and the other 85% who finish.

The whole thing reminds me more of a Tony Robbins-style confidence-building exercise like walking through coals than an actual athletic competition. I suppose the spectacle wouldn't be so annoying if they didn't cover themselves with that faux machismo. Both races have "Weekend Warrior" written all over them. 

I have to admit, when I first saw the video, I found the idea appealing and wanted to do one of these runs myself. It was only upon further reflection that I decided that the 85%+ success rates rendered them junk sports.

A nicer person would find that inclusivity appealing. But I subscribe to the late Gore Vidal's philosophy of life: "It is not enough that one succeed; others must fail."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Che


My son always held the kids who wore Che Guevara t-shirts to his high school in complete contempt. He viewed them as weak, empty-headed, knee-jerk liberals -- a pretty accurate assessment, in my view.

But my son, who actually knows his military history, said something interesting to me the other day: "Che wasn't the type of guy who would have worn a Che t-shirt."

The image most of us have had of him was of a particularly noble-looking mestizo peasant who rose up against his oppressors, Fulgencio Batista and United Fruit, fighting side by side with Fidel in the mountains of Cuba.

The truth is more complex. Che -- real name Ernesto Guevara Lynch -- grew up in a well-to-do Argentinian family. He was of Spanish, Basque, and Irish (!) descent. This son of the sod enjoyed swimming, golf, soccer, shooting, cycling, and rugby. He also competed in chess tournaments from the age of 12. According to Wikipedia:

He was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, Cesar Vallejo, and Walt Whitman. He could also recite Rudyard Kipling's "If --" and Jose Hernandez's "Martin Fierro" from memory. The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner, Andre Gide, Emilio Salgari, and Jules Verne. Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin, and John-Paul Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H.G. Wells, and Robert Frost.

He cataloged in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals including...analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the oedipus complex. His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, mathematics, engineering, political science, sociology, history, and archaeology

Years later, a February 13, 1958, declassified CIA 'biographical and personality report' would make note of Guevara’s wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as "quite well read" while adding that "Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino."

(Sure sounds to me as if he was intellectual by any standards.) I have to wonder if his interests really ranged that widely; if they did, his knowledge was probably broad but shallow.


In any case, he wasn't exactly a poor, uneducated campesino trying to overthrow the landowners who had exploited him. 

At age 22, Che took his famous motorcycle journey throughout South America, during which he witnessed many instances of poverty and injustice. This sowed the seeds for his lifelong support for socialism.

It would be easy to dismiss Che as a rich dilettante and naive idealist; but, as with all of us, his political outlook was shaped by his time and his environment. He didn't have the benefit of our hindsight, getting to watch the Soviet empire collapse under its own weight, etc.

After meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico City, Che joined his movement to overthrow Batista in Cuba. (Che later characterized Mexicans as "a band of illiterate Indians.")

Although he had planned to become a combat medic, Che showed talent in every aspect of his military training. After they started their guerilla war in Cuba, Castro quickly gave him command of the second column of the army. 

In the battle of Santa Clara, Che was surrounded by Batista's soldiers, outgunned, and outmanned 10 to 1, but still managed to pull out a victory. For that, and for his strategy in many other battles, he was later described by military historians as a brilliant tactician.

Che was also extremely courageous. He was always in the front lines, and sometimes recklessly risked his own life to help fallen comrades. On one occasion it was reported that Batista's soldiers actually held their fire because they were so impressed that Che had run into the field of fire in order to rescue one of his soldiers.

At the same time, Che was also known for his brutality. During the Cuban Revolution he was known to hunt down deserters from his army and execute them on the spot, without benefit of a trial.


After the revolution, Che later became head of the war crimes tribunal and Finance Minister in Cuba. He tried to export his revolution to the Congo, but was unable to effect any change.

Che later said of this experience, "Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn."

Unlike those who wear his t-shirts, Guevara -- or Lynch, if you prefer -- was not exactly politically correct. At one point (before he went to Africa), he wrote in his diary:

"The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving."

He was also known to have said, "We're going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing."

But at the same time Che was expressing his own opinions about race, he was also inveighing against Jim Crow in the United States.

Che's downfall came when he tried to export his revolution to Bolivia. After waging a brief guerilla war in the mountains there, he was captured and executed by Bolivian authorities.

Che's main legacy, in this country at least, seems to be as a t-shirt vendor. But the man himself was far more well-rounded -- and complicated -- than is generally known.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Whoa....

I had always assumed, from their builds and demeanor and sudden improvements, that most of Usain Bolt's competitors were juicing. But I had held out hope -- based on his build and demeanor and abnormal talent from a young age -- that Bolt himself was clean.

But then Guy Davis forwarded this article from Muscle Week, which makes the case for Usain Bolt being a doper. If Bolt in fact did hire Heredia -- which some of the commenters dispute -- that's pretty damning evidence.

Guess I should dial down my enthusiasm for Bolt a notch.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pinheaded excuse

The USA ended up beating China in the total medal count at the Olympics, 104 - 88, and beat them in gold medals as well.

Yahoo News ran an article this morning with the headline, "China's response to 2012 Olympics: American physique tough to beat."

My first reaction to seeing this headline was, aha, finally, someone is injecting a note of realism when it comes to racial differences in athletic ability. Since the 1984 Olympics, there have been 64 finalists in the men's 100 meter dash; every last one of them has been black. One would have to be willfully blind not to see the obvious genetic correlation there. On top of that, both blacks and whites are generally larger and stronger than Asians, so that's a disadvantage as well.

My only surprise was that this admission was coming from a nominally communist country. In the past, communist countries have been the most aggressive about insisting on all forms of egalitarianism.

Then I read the text of the article. Evidently the China People's Daily had analyzed the matter and come to the conclusion that Americans "had bigger chests and heads."

I can't think of a single sport where having a large head is an advantage. There are some sports where tactics count, but the correlation between brain size and IQ is only .3 to begin with, and most of the tactics employed in Olympic sports aren't all that complicated anyway.

And I can think of many sports where the weight of a large head is a disadvantage.

A larger chest often goes hand in hand with a generally stockier, stronger build. And to the extent that a larger chest harbors more lung capacity, that can help in some events. But a larger head?

The only Chinese who need larger heads are the lamebrains who came up with that excuse.

More evidence for the sweet spot

I'd been wondering what happened to Genzebe Dibaba, the Ethiopian pre-Olympic favorite in the 1500 meter run and the younger sister of Tirunesh Dibaba, who won the 10,000 meter run in London. Turns out she pulled her hamstring in the opening round of the 1500.

Looking at her picture reminded me of what I'd said earlier about how from an attractiveness point of view, it's far better to run middle distance than distance races. With two sisters, we actually have a somewhat controlled experiment. Here's Tirunesh, the 10K champ:



She has that somewhat emaciated, mummified look that long distance runners can get.

Here's Genzebe, the younger sister. She doesn't have Olympic gold; but she does still have her cuteness:



Even Genzebe may be too lean for some; but at least your initial instinct on seeing her would not be to wonder what refuge camp she came from.

The anti-McCain, anti-Palin ticket

A common tendency in human behavior is to act in the way we were most recently reinforced to act -- or not to act.

Last time around, the Republicans picked a physically unattractive war hero who had been a young hellion and screwup and who'd been married twice to be their Presidential candidate. He, in turn, picked a sexy woman with more spunk than know-how as his running mate.

Their campaign fell short.

This time, the Republicans picked a handsome man who'd never been in the military, who has lived his life on the straight and narrow, and who has been married to the same woman for 43 years. He, in turn, picked a nerdy-looking, well-mannered budget wonk as his running mate.

We have yet to see how this campaign will turn out.

But if it doesn't turn out well, at least it won't be for the same reasons as last time.

How not to pose

Couldn't help but notice the goofy grin on the face of Thomas Caffall, the Texas A&M shooter, when his picture was released last night:


It reminded me of the look I'd seen on two other faces in the news. Most recently, of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooter:


And before that, of Jared Loughner, the January, 2011 Tucson shooter:


The only picture that would have alarmed me on its own was the bottom one, of Jared Loughner, but his unhinged look stems from his blackened left eye and shaven head. Hold your hand over the top of Loughner's face and his smile appears the same as the other two.

Their expressions seem to be halfway between foolish grins ("Okay, so I'm a pervert, so what?") and smirks ("I'm going to kill a whole lot of people and you have no idea").

Is this the new look of mental illness?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What to expect from Ryan's fashion line

I've always been a fan of Ryan Lochte-the-swimmer. He's shown incredible versatility, he's a tremendous racer, and he's trained extremely hard, both in the pool and on dry land.

The news this morning that Ryan would design his own fashion line gave me pause, however. While I'd love to be able to emulate him in the water, I can't say I'm wild about his sense of style.

Here are a few of his looks, photos courtesy of Huffpost:


This is Ryan's I'm-wearing-my-colorblind-father's-shoes look.


Wigger chic.


What the most uninhibited guy at your high school wore to the prom in 1975.


The bring-back-the-60's look. (It wouldn't be so bad if Ryan didn't look so proud of himself for wearing these outfits.)


Anybody would be proud of those medals. Flavor Flav would be proud of that grille.


Headwaiter at that restaurant with the mariachi band.


Evoking Marlon Brando from Guys 'n Dolls, 1955.


Sporting a backpack any tween girl would be proud to wear to middle school. (Even Phelps looks a little embarrassed to be seen with him here.)


The I-hate-being-white look. (Note the skull pendant -- badass!)

Ryan's new fashion line should attract a lot of interest from the look-at-me crowd.

Lochte

Ryan Lochte said at the beginning of the Olympics that he intended to swim all the way through to the Rio Olympics in 2016, when he would be 32.

This morning it was announced that he was moving to Los Angeles where he intends to start his own fashion line, have his own reality show, and possibly appear on Dancing with the Stars.

He's not going to make it to Rio.

Spartan

A friend, Ed Gendreau, did the 3.7 mile version of the Spartan race yesterday. The official video makes it look like a lot of fun.

After watching the video, and also a couple videos of specific races, I really wanted to try this. Luckily, the feeling passed after about four hours.

This kind of thing is always more fun to contemplate than to actually participate in. When you actually get onto the course, the reality of the mud, cold water, barbed wire, mosquitoes, and so on set in and tend to dampen your initial enthusiasm.

Ed said it wasn't that much fun, and he sustained a bad cut and possible shoulder injury. But, he's planning to do it again next year. (Pump a guy full of testosterone and he has a hard time resisting a challenge.)

Spartan seems to be a ripoff of the Tough Mudder. They are very similar in concept and in terms of the obstacles that have to be overcome.

Evidently it's a very profitable enterprise. The entry fee was over $119, the unavoidable parking fee was $10, and you had to pay $5 to check your bag. They ran heats of up to 300 people from 8AM to 5:30 PM all weekend, and a total of 8418 people participated. So even assuming an average of two people per car, the organizers took in over a million dollars for the weekend.

That's a lot of people paying a lot of money merely to be put through some unpleasantness.

So instead of doing it, I'll probably just sit at home and think about how good I would have been at it had I actually done it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The bodies

I mentioned a few posts ago that the reason we watch the Olympics is to see athletes perform feats we could never dream of doing, and feel awe.

I forgot the other reason we watch: to see perfect physical specimens.

Given that sports are in large part a testosterone contest for both men and women, one would expect to see fewer ideal examples of feminine beauty at the Olympics. And it's true, you do see a lot of mannish women there.

Track and field is, at it highest levels, a sport of freaks, for both men and women. One would never mistake the unnaturally well muscled 100 meter runners for marathoners. As a matter of fact, one would rarely even mistake them for 400 meter runners. And one would certainly never confuse the monstrous shot putters or discus throwers for any sort of runners.

Watching the women's 1500 meter run yesterday reminded me of a conclusion I came to after watching the world track and field championships in Seville in 1999: the sweet spot for women runners is generally the 800 or 1500.

The 100 and 200 runners are generally far too muscular to be attractive in any sort of traditional feminine way. (Alysson Felix is an exception.) The distance runners, from the 5000 on up to the marathon, tend to be stick figures, almost anorexic-looking. But the 800 and 1500 runners are often quite pretty, with rumps and legs which are pretty close to the feminine ideal.

Occasionally you'll get an 800 runner who looks as if she's on steroids, like Jarmila Kratochvilova, who set the current world record back in 1983. But watch any world class 800 or 1500 field, and there will always be one or two runners -- usually not the medalists -- who look as if they could be fashion models.

Here are two views of Lucia Klocova, who got eighth place in the 1500 yesterday:



Ekaterina Kostetskaya of Russia ended up in ninth place in the same race:


For men, the pole vaulters and decathletes tend to have ideal builds. There's pretty much not a single competitor in either event who isn't close to the masculine ideal. All evoke those original Greek statues.

Here's Bjorn Otto of Germany, who won the silver medal in that event yesterday:


The decathletes have to balance the power needed to put the shot and throw the discus with the litheness required to run and jump. And they need endurance for both the 400 or 1500. Here are yesterday's three medal winners after they finished the 1500, the last event:


If you're going to pursue a sport, you might as well pick one which is going to make you look good.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The NBC coverage

I know no one who doesn't have some complaint about the way NBC has covered these Olympics.

Some dislike the way they have to wait until after 11PM to watch their favorite events. Some disdain the uninformed commentators. Others object to the US-centric coverage. Some dislike Bob Costas.

At least we no longer have those "up close and personal" segments we were forced to sit through 12 and 16 years ago. Remember those? "Little Johnny lost his grandfather when he was only 12. Ever since that traumatic loss, he's trained with his grandfather's original encouragement in mind, and he's dedicating this Olympics to his grandfather's memory."

NBC filmed those in a cynical attempt to woo female viewers for the Olympics, thinking that these sappy, prepackaged, utterly ridiculous vignettes would stir emotions in female viewers which would cause them to want to watch the Games more.

Journalism is at its worst -- and this is saying a lot -- when it tries to milk emotions for and from their viewers. How many times have you seen some reporter, under the guise of false sympathy, ask some recently bereaved relative how she feels about her loss, hoping desperately to get her to cry?

NBC's up close and personal segments, now long gone, were really not too far removed in spirit from that.

At least we can be thankful that those are gone.

Michael and Usain

Michael Phelps has been the dominant figure in swimming for the past three Olympiads, and Usain  Bolt has been the dominant figure in track and field for the past two.

Phelps had his first taste of the Olympics at age 15, in 2000. After that, his goals obviously centered around world records, world championships, and, mostly, future Olympics.

Phelps turned pro as a high schooler, never competed collegiately, and thus never really focused on competitions conducted in 25 yard pools, which are actually the most common in this country. He competed in yards meets a few times, mostly in Baltimore, and set a couple of American records at them, seemingly almost by accident. But he never took a serious run at the yards record book.

Bolt also competed in the 2004 Olympics, but did not do well. He became a household name in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, furthered his reputation with his remarkable world records at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, and cemented his legacy as the greatest sprinter in history at the London Games.

Bolt has never bothered to compete at any of the major indoor meets. I've never seen a time listed for him for the 60 meter dash, or the 300.

There's a certain telling symmetry here. If you're that big, why bother to compete on a smaller stage? Leave that to the mortals, who have to scramble for glory where they can find it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Usain, again

I've followed track and field for a long time, but have never seen another athlete who's come close to capturing the public like Usain Bolt, who repeated as Olympic 200 champion today. 



Bryan Oldfield, the shot putter from the 1970's who revolutionized the event with the double spin, set a world record of 75 feet which was disallowed because of his association with professional track. Oldfield finally set an officially accepted world record with 72' 9" in 1984, at age 38. When asked by an interviewer how he did it, he said that he had had a "throw-gasm." Oldfield appeared in Playgirl in 1975, and declared "When God created man, he wanted him to look like me." Oldfield could reportedly high jump 6' 6", and once ran 80 meters in 8.8 seconds. He sometimes smoked in between throws at competitions. He was a controversial figure, not always beloved by the public or his competitors. But he knew how to make a joke out of his size and strength and garnered a lot of attention while he was competing. 



Sergei Bubka, the Russian pole vaulter active in the 80's and 90's, exuded a certain robust virility that was appealing. He had the speed of a sprinter, and the upper body strength of a gymnast. This combination allowed him to clear twenty feet, a height no man has cleared since. Bubka also had the demeanor of a Spetsnaz operative. He was widely regarded with awe, if not affection.

Here is Bubka as he looks now:






Eamonn Coghlan, the great Irish miler from the 70's and 80's who set the world indoor record for that event several times, was a very popular athlete. (I put a recent picture of him right below Bubka's because I was struck by their similarity. One has a Slavic cast to his face, the other an Irish one, but even in middle age, both look like men just spoiling to get into a fight.)

Coghlan was known as the "Chairman of the Boards" for his dominance indoors. There was no one else who could get the crowd at Madison Square Garden on its feet the way he did. (That a lot of Irish-Americans always showed up to the Millrose Games may have helped.) But Coghlan was also beloved by the folks at home, and now serves as an Irish Senator.

There have been a number of great sprinters before Bolt, though I can't think of any I'd consider charismatic. Michael Johnson, whose 200 record was beaten by Bolt and who still holds the 400 record, had a workmanlike personality. He was exciting on the track, but dull off it. Carl Lewis, the great sprinter and long jumper from the 80's and 90's, was utterly charisma-free. (Unless you consider being bitchily self-righteous charismatic.)

Long distance runners are almost by definition introverted and dweeby (and East or North African, meaning, there will probably be a language barrier as well). 



In any case, I've never seen a track athlete who captures the public's fancy the way Bolt has. He is not tough like Bubka or Coghlan, nor witty like Oldfield. But he has a certain loose-limbed playfulness that is all his own. He is the star attraction wherever he goes, and even has to have teammates act as quasi-bodyguards in the Olympic Village. Pictures of him in his famous archer pose greet visitors at Jamaican airports, and European meet organizers know that his appearance guarantees a sellout crowd.

Maybe the ultimate accolade is that the other sprinters, generally a trash-talking lot, never have a bad word to say about him.

Addendum, a couple days later: No, the ultimate accolade is actually that so many other athletes in other sports seem to be imitating his archer pose now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Usain


The extent to which Bolt left the fastest field in history in the dust is mind-boggling. It's as if for the last three years, since he set those unbelievable world records in '09, he's just been playing with his competitors, letting them think they had a chance, when, really, they did not. As he showed in the finals of the 100 on Sunday evening.

So we'd all be marveling at his athletic feats no matter what. But if he were just another big, threatening, suspiciously well muscled black sprinter who glowered behind the blocks and was constantly proclaiming that he was the greatest of all time, we wouldn't like him.

Bolt simply doesn't take himself that seriously.

When the camera focuses on him before the start, he pretends to be an airplane about to take off. He pretends to be arranging his hair while looking at himself in the reflection of the camera lens. He pretends to be a boxer warming up. While the other sprinters try to look formidable, he plays at acting cute.

(It's a lot easier to get away with this act when you can blow the doors off all of the badasses.)

After his races, Bolt continues to run for another 100 meters or so. Then he does his famous archer pose. He has a number of silly dance moves he makes. And he likes to wade into the crowd and interact with the fans.


What makes Bolt so appealing is that he expresses joy so eloquently, and seems to be without animus. There are no chips on his shoulder, no grudge matches of any kind to settle. He simply delights in his ability to run fast and amuse the crowd.

When interviewed, Bolt's demeanor tends to be that of a schoolboy talking to a teacher.

At a recent press conference, when told of the plastic beer bottle that had been thrown in his direction before the start of the 100 meter dash, he said that was the first he'd heard of it and seemed amused. When he was told that a female Dutch judo champion had taken the offender down, slapped him hard on the back, and held him until police arrived, he simply shrugged and said, "I don't advocate violence, so I can't approve of that."

Had this been the typical champion American sprinter of the past three decades, one suspects the response might not have been quite so pacifist.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mirror, mirror, on the wall.....

Back on September 20, 2009, I pointed out that gay men often seem to marry other men who look like them, and speculated if there wasn't some sort of deep narcissism at work.

Three more years of looking at the NY Times Wedding section has not disabused me of that notion. Today's Times featured the following couple, John Pariseau, 64, and Dario Sacramone, Jr, 73:


No one would ever mistake these two for twins, but they have very similar noses, mouths, and cheeks. They have different eyes and eyebrows, but the similarities are more striking than the differences.

The phrase "Opposites attract" evidently applies mostly to heteros.

Heroes

Just finished reading a few wrap ups of the Olympic swimming. Most of the editorials were pretty Phelps-centric, as they should have been. The greatest swimmer in history just put the finishing touches on his glorious career. But the tone was just a tad overly reverential for my taste.

After reading them, my only question is, what will Saint Michael do next?

Just a reminder: he's a great athlete, not a hero. A hero is someone who risks his life for other people. Every single one of those guys who used himself as a body shield for someone else in that movie theater in Colorado three weeks ago is a hero. Every soldier who goes to war is a hero.

Michael Phelps is just a guy who swims incredibly fast.

(He may be my hero, but that's only because I have no sense of perspective.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The endorsement Romney was waiting for

An article on Yahoo News today stated that porn star Jenna Jameson endorsed Mitt Romney while at a strip club on Thursday:

"I'm very looking forward to a Republican being back in office. When you're rich, you want a Republican in office."

Is that exactly the way Romney would want to be endorsed? One has to wonder how Romney would react if asked by a reporter about Jameson's endorsement. Would he pretend not to know who she is?

The article was brief, but there were over a thousand comments which followed the article, some of which were quite funny. Two of the better ones:

"I'm still waiting to see who Traci Lords endorses before I make my final decision."

"Does Jenna support Mitt? YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! OHhhh YES! YES! YES!"

Investing vs. gambling

After going through the analysis in the previous post with a friend a couple days ago, he said he had a contact in London, and I was able to put a tiny amount of money down on Ledecky. He suggested -- jocularly -- that I sell some stocks in order to increase the size of my bet.

The suggestion, of course, sounds ridiculous. If you do research and trade stocks, you're considered hard-working. But if you bet on sports, you're a degenerate gambler.

Don't ever think that when you invest in a stock you're not gambling, because you are. I've invested in stocks where I've lost my entire investment. That happens much more frequently with options than with stocks, but some stocks go to zero as well. And, of course, I've also lost sports bets.

There's really less difference between the two than meets the eye. Both boil down to probabilities, odds, informational advantage, psychology, and judgment.

As is obvious from this past week's posts, I follow swimming very closely. I could hardly justify my fan-dom by dignifying it with the name "research." (It's actually more of a vice.) But, from a sports betting point of view, it actually is research. I follow the sport more closely than the British bookmakers who set the odds. And I swam myself, so have a better feel for how and why and when swimmers perform.

When it comes to stocks, I don't have that kind of informational advantage. In fact, a lot of people, especially company insiders, have an informational advantage on me. There have been many times where, it's become quite clear in retrospect, I was nothing more than a sheep ready for shearing.

So, my friend was right. I should have sold my stocks and bet more on the race.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The women's 800 freestyle

Coming into today's 800 freestyle, Londoner Rebecca Adlington was the 1 - 2 betting favorite with the British bookies, meaning you had to bet two dollars on her to win one. She was the defending Olympic champion in the 800 free, the world record holder at 8:14.1 (a time set in a tech suit), and had the fastest time in the world so far this year at 8:18. Fifteen year old Katie Ledecky, who had won the US Olympic Trials with an 8:19, was going off at 18 - 1, meaning if you bet one dollar on her to win, you could get eighteen in return.

Adlington was the one with the royal swimming pedigree. But she had swum her 400 earlier this week in 4:03.0, eight-tenths of a second slower than she had gone at British Trials in March, so it seemed unlikely that she would improve much on her 8:18 from March.

Ledecky, on the other hand, had been doing best times virtually every time she swam since January. At the beginning of this year, she had never broken 4:10 for a 400; by Trials she went a 4:05.0. Likewise, she'd never broken 8:33 for the 800 until early this year. If you extrapolated from her recent performance curve, it seemed a pretty safe bet that her next swim would be an improvement as well.

So Adlington had the credentials, but Ledecky had the momentum.

The TV announcers kept saying that the British swimmers were being helped by the roar of the hometown crowd. But to this point, the only British swimmer who had performed up to expectations was 200 breaststroker Michael Jamiesen (who in fact performed beyond them). Virtually every other British swimmer had fallen short. The pressure from that hometown crowd evidently cut both ways.

Adlington must have felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Fifteen year old Katie Ledecky felt no such pressure. She had the fearlessness of one blithely unaware of all the history that the Olympics represented. Plus her quote from earlier in the week was heartening: "I'm just having so much fun being here with everybody." If Ledecky had been paralyzed with nerves, she would likely not have said that. Mindlessly upbeat is usually the appropriate frame of mind for fast swimming, and that outlook comes naturally to 15-year-olds.

Given all this, why were the pre-race odds so skewed toward Adlington? People -- bookmakers included -- tend to be overly impressed by resumes, and in swimming, there is no resume more impressive than "Olympic champion and world record holder."

On top of that, the odds were being set by British bookmakers, in Britain, on a British woman who is very popular at home. All the sentimental money which poured in for Adlington from her countrymen undoubtedly helped skew those odds.

A lot of people seem to bet with their hearts rather than their minds. This certainly doesn't make them bad people. It does, however, make them people you want to bet with.

Ledecky won with an 8:14.6, the fastest time in textile ever, a Spanish woman got second in 8:18.7, and Adlington got third in 8:20.3.

Thursday's finals

Rebecca Soni was magnificent. I can't recall another event where the winner broke the world record in the semifinals and then broke it again in finals. Soni seems to have only one gear: all out. Her heat time was a 2:21, then she went a 2:20.00, then a 2:19.59.

It's nice for aspiring young swimmers to see a champion of normal size: Soni is only 5' 4". The shortest woman on America's winning 4 x 200 meter free relay, by contrast, was six feet tall. 

Lochte only got a third in the 200 meter backstroke, the event in which he was the defending Olympic champion. He must dislike the winner Tyler Clary as much as everyone else; After Clary won the gold, he reached out to shake Lochte's hand, or get some sort of physical contact. Lochte gave him none and barely nodded at him as he went over the lane line past him on his way out of the pool.

Lochte was all smiles on the medal stand, but he didn't say a word to Clary. After the 200 IM, by contrast, it seemed Phelps and Lochte couldn't stop talking.

Other than admiring his swimming, I've alway been fairly neutral toward Phelps, so was a little surprised to find myself myself rooting so hard for him in both the 200 fly and 200 IM. He seems to be benefitting from the George Foreman effect: he's not charismatic, but has grown in our affections simply by virtue of his longevity. We all remember him from way back when.

So it was nice to see that historic threepeat.

Phelps looked awfully sharp in his 100 fly semifinal. After his victory in the 200 IM, his confidence seems to be back. He'll be tough to beat tonight.

Ranomi Kromowidjojo had the most understated reaction of any gold medalist after she won the 100 free tonight. The men tend to raise their arms and pound the water in triumph. The women tend to look at the scoreboard in disbelief, put their hands on their mouths, then hug their nearest competitor. Kromowidjojo just looked at the scoreboard, rested her chin on the back of her hand, gazed at the scoreboard a while longer, then gave a shy smile.

A refreshing change.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Hubris Games

For a swimming fan, these Olympics have been a lesson in humility. I've never witnessed a Games where big talk and presumption have been so uniformly punished.

One of the surest bets coming into these Olympics was the Australian men's 400 free relay. They had the two fastest 100 meter freestylers in the world in the world, James "The Missile" Magnusson and James "The Rocket" Roberts (both born on April 11, 1991, coincidentally). The Australian press dubbed the four members of the relay, "The Weapons of Mass Destruction." Magnusson boldly told the Australian press that he wasn't worried about any other swimmers and that he was the man to beat in the 100 free. The Aussies were practically chortling about how much their relay was going to win by.

Magnusson led off the relay with a time almost a full second from his best, the rest of the quartet performed similarly, and they ended up in fourth place, out of the medals.

Magnusson was subsequently beaten in the 100 free, an event in which he had been heavily favored.

Ryan Lochte famously said of these Games that "this is my time." He did win the 400 IM the first night, but then was beaten badly in the 400 free relay, and finished fourth in the 200 free, an event in which he was world champion last year. He was part of the victorious 800 free relay, and may yet pull off today's double (the 200 back and 200 IM, in about two hours as of this writing). But so far, his prediction -- and his sponsors' faith -- have come across a little premature.

Michael Phelps himself has seemed a little presumptuous, thinking he could train half-heartedly for three years before getting serious, and still emerge golden. But so far in individual events he has gotten a fourth and a second.

Tyler Clary gave that well publicized interview in which he criticized Phelps for the lack of dedication he had shown -- before the 2008 Games! (Tyler, there's this little thing called talent you fail to take into account.) Clary said he felt he deserved success more than Phelps. Clary finished off the podium in the 200 fly.

Laszlo Cseh's coaches said before the Games that he would threaten Phelps in the 200 fly. Cseh didn't make the finals of that event.

The Brazilians were arrogant enough to think they could not swim their fastest man and still make the finals of the 400 free relay. They got ninth in the heats, thus didn't qualify for finals.

The Russians didn't swim either of their two fastest men in the heats of the 800 free relay, an event in which they had been favored for bronze. They, too, ended up ninth in the heats.

Camille Lacourt, the fastest 100 backstroker in history (without a tech suit) up until a month ago, reportedly cut back on his training to spend more time on his modeling career, confident that he could still win. He ended up fourth in that event.

Even showing off in the early rounds was punished. Emily Seebohm set a textile world best in the heats of the 100 back, and was only a tenth slower in the semis. Her early bravado cost her in the finals, where she swam slower than either of her two preliminary swims, and got beaten.

Taewhan Park's coach Michael Bohl announced ahead of time that his protege was ready to set a world record. Park was thrown off his game by his initial (unfair) disqualification in the 400, and didn't come close to any records. Park certainly can't be blamed for either the DQ or his coach's predictions; maybe it was his coach that was being punished by the gods this time.

I'm not religious; I fall somewhere between atheist and agnostic. But if I did believe in God, I would surely see His hand at these Games.

The other sports

The motto of the modern Olympics motto has been "citius, altius, fortius" ever since they started in 1896. This is Latin for "faster, higher, stronger." I never understood why they used Latin since the original Games were organized by the Greeks, not the Romans. But the motto does seems to reflect the spirit of the original Games.

But the more sports that get added, the further we get from this motto.

Should beach volleyball -- the first sport designed around showing off female derrieres -- really be an Olympic sport?

The wonder of the Olympics comes from watching athletes perform and thinking, wow, I could never do that -- what they do is just incredible! I've never once watched volleyball players and had that thought.

NBC seems to stick the unpopular stuff -- like beach volleyball -- up front so that everybody has to wait around and digest a lot of commercials to see whatever they want to see. Have you ever heard a single person mention the outcome of a tournament away from the TV?

No sport for which the Olympics does not represent the apex of achievement should be in the Olympics. Runners, rowers, and gymnasts grow up dreaming of being in the Olympics. Basketball players dream of making it in the NBA, and tennis players dream of playing at Wimbledon.

The NBA players at the Olympics seem to almost be slumming. Ditto for the top tennis players. They're not quite acting bored, but this is obviously just a sideshow for them. Toss 'em out.

No sport for which the barrier to entry is as high as it is in the equestrian events should be in the Olympics either. To buy and care for the kinds of horses it takes to compete, one must be extremely rich. Dressage (accent on the second syllable, please) isn't a sport for farmhands. It's a sport for the royalty the dignitaries at the IOC like to hobnob with. Toss 'em out. (And the IOC with them.)

Or, at least award the gold medal to the horse and not the rider.

Synchronized diving has gotten a lot of airtime. Every pair I've seen has been impressive, both in their athleticism and their synchronicity. The men's version seems a little gay -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

Diving, although associated with swimming because it takes place in natatoriums, is much closer in spirit to gymnastics, and in fact, a lot of divers are former gymnasts.

The gymnasts themselves are amazing. The male gymnasts are built like body builders -- yet their muscles are actually functional.

The female gymnasts always look a little abused somehow. Many of them look as though their growth was stunted, and their hair has been pulled back so severely they look as if they've just had face lifts. You just know that a fair percentage of them have eating issues, though most are muscular as well as lean.

What they do is breathtaking. I remember being wowed by Olga Korbut doing a back flip on the uneven parallel bars in 1972. That would barely qualify as a warmup for today's muscular little robots. But any semblance of femininity and grace has long since departed.

Rowing is a sport that represents the Olympic ideal. Rowers train hard in obscurity, end up extremely fit, and emerge once every four years to shine. It's not exactly exciting to watch, though.

I suppose the same could be said of swimming.