Olympic Athletes are Coming to America

Friedman: Melting Pot Meets Great Wall. I think Thomas Friedman is my favorite writer because of the way he can recognize the world’s most serious problems and yet still find optimism. In this passage he observes something I’ve also caught onto while watching the Olympics.

Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them.

This is especially true when you include the coaches. Liang Chow, the coach of the Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, was a popular co-caption of China’s national gymnastics team in the 1980s before he emigrated to West Des Moines. The U.S. women’s volleyball team was coached by a former Chinese player, Jenny Lang Ping, when it defeated China a few days ago.Lang, a national hero in China, led the Chinese team to a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It would be like Michael Jordan coaching China’s basketball team to a win over America.

The Associated Press reports that there are 33 foreign-born players on the U.S. Olympic team, including four Chinese-born table tennis players, a kayaker from Britain, seven members of the track-and-field team — as well as Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan’s civil war, who was resettled in the U.S. by Catholic Charities, and Leo Manzano, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican laborer. He moved to the U.S. when he was 4 but didn’t gain citizenship until 2004.

It is amazing that with our Noah’s Ark of an Olympic team doing so well “that at the same time you have this rising call in America to restrict immigration,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “Some people want to choke off the very thing that makes us strong and unique.”

I couldn’t agree more – more and more American ingenuity is coming from outside our borders. This is a good thing – the best and brightest from around the world want to build a life in our country. At the same time, the rest of the world is continuing to get better and brighter. So I would appreciate it Lou Dobbs and his crazies focused their attention not on closing our borders, but on raising the bar for our education system so American kids can compete in this new world. How many new schools could be built for the price of that border fence?

China Still Interfering with Journalists and Protestors

China well-versed in controlling flow of information. Lost amongst the amazing feats and sights of these Beijing games is a sad reality – China is still nowhere close to being a free and open society. In addition to the above reports of interfering with the press, there are also reports of the government arresting people who tried to apply to protest in Beijing. Just some of the lowlights:

In what the Guardian is calling “the clearest breach yet of the host nation’s promise of free media access during the Games,” Independent Television News journalist John Ray was detained as he attempted to cover a Free Tibet protest close to the main Olympic zone. Ray was dragged along the ground and forcibly restrained for about 20 minutes.

Virtually ignored in China, there was a great deal of attention paid in the U.S. press when President Bush attended church in Beijing. There has been little coverage anywhere that Hua Huiqi, the head of an unrecognized Protestant church, was arrested while on his way to the same church service that Bush attended.

The official Xinhua News Agency said all the applications were withdrawn, suspended or rejected. Rights groups and relatives have said some applicants were immediately taken away by security agents after applying to hold a rally, prompting critics to accuse officials of using the plan as a trap to draw potential protesters to their attention.

What’s sad and shameful is NBC hasn’t covered any of these events in its primetime coverage, instead holding up Mary Carillo’s video postcards as their vision of China. I have been drawn in by the spectacle and wonder of the Chinese culture as I’ve watched these Games too, but its important to remember we’re seeing China as their government wants them to see it. I hope at some point we can get a more objective reports from China.

Update: The New York Times has a story on one of the detained protesters this afternoon.

Revisiting Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Games

ESPN is polling the wisdom of the crowds right now to find out who is the greatest Olympian of all time. I voted for Jesse Owens because as impressive as Michael Phelps’ achievements are, I love the story of an African American raining on Hitler’s parade with four Olympic gold medals at the Munich 1936 games. So I went over to the Wikipedia to read more about Owens’ achievements and discovered there was more to the story.

On the first day, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials then insisted Hitler greet each and every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens recounted:

“When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”

He also stated:

“Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor bestowed any honors by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged Owens’ accomplishments, naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”

Wow. So while we love to remember Owens’ triumph over Nazi racism, we neglect to remember how racism continued to thrive in the United States. Owens gave up his amateur status after those Olympics in hopes of commercial opportunities that would never materialize for him. After years of financial troubles he became a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. He was criticized in 1968 for supporting the athletes who gave the black power salute and tried to convince Jimmy Carter not to boycott the Moscow games shortly before his death in 1980. He died of lung cancer – the Olympic sprinter had become a heavy smoker. Just another reminder that the truth is always more interesting than the legends.

Update: I also just found this nice piece from ESPN’s SportsCentury series on Jesse Owens.

Brendan Hansen Reflects on His Career After Beijing Loss

NY Times: Unforgiving Nature of Games Personified by Hansen. A nice feature on Brendan Hansen, a local Olympian who failed in his attempt for an individual medal in the 100m breaststroke last night. It also includes mentions of one of my favorite places in the world – Karakung Swim Club. Hansen makes a good point in reflecting on his career:

“In the United States, we raise the bar so high on ourselves,” Hansen said. Then, referring to Michael Phelps, he added, “Now to even be noticed, you’ve got to win eight gold medals… You don’t know how hard it is to get on the blocks and do what he’s doing.”

Hansen’s Olympic career is typically viewed as a disappointment, because he could never win an individual gold. However with 3 medals in Athens (gold, silver, and bronze), he was one of the top 20 medalists in those games. Back then I was cynical about Hansen and Phelps, taking a little pleasure when they both failed to reach their lofty expectations. This time around though I’m really into it – I was throwing things when Hansen lost and I was jumping up and down when Phelps’ 4×100 relay won. It’s been a great Olympics so far, hope it keeps up.

On Olympic Dreams…

Warning: This post is slightly sentimental and self-congratulatory. Please forgive.

Bringing a nation’s dream to fruition was one of the many themes on display in tonight’s (this morning’s actually) Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing. Since July 13, 2001, millions of Chinese have waited for this moment when the world’s eyes would be focused on the Olympic Games in their nation. The artistic and technological achievements that went into tonight’s ceremonies are astounding and certainly something for the Chinese people to be proud of. I’m even more excited for these Games now, after that performance.

I thought it was worth noting that tonight also brings to fruition my own Olympic dream. In the fall of 1999, two year’s before the IOC awarded Beijing the 2008 games, I was a 14-year-old novice Web developer. I noticed a request for volunteers on the official Sydney 2000 Olympics site, which included positions on their Web site. So I naively sent them my name and a link to my Web site at the time, Steve Online. Unfortunately, the organizers needed applicants who were at least 18 years old and lived in Austrailia. They did send me a very thoughtful e-mail though, saying they liked my Web site and encouraging me to continue with Web development.

I forgot about the whole episode until I discovered a printout of the e-mail while cleaning my bedroom last summer. Eight years later, I was getting ready to move to Bristol, CT to work on ESPN.com. Now I’m a 23-year-old professional Web developer and I had a principal role in building our Beijing 2008 Olympics section. I did it with the support of a number of other developers and designers as well as ESPN’s army of writers, editors, and photographers. I think the final result is something we can all be very proud of and it appears to be resonating with our fans.

It’s been a grueling month and a half of work for me, including a lot of stressful days and crazy hours. I came home tonight feeling mentally and physically exhausted, as if I was actually competing in the Olympics rather than covering them. And the Game are only began tonight, so there will be more to do in the days ahead. So its nice to remember that as a boy 9 years ago, I dreamt of doing exactly what I’m doing right now. Its little things like that which make me realize how blessed I am. Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way.

Nike Lets Swimmers Pick Best Suit

Hansen, other Nike swimmers face big decision. Despite being sponsored by Nike, the company is allowing Brendan Hansen and other swimmers to wear competing swimsuits like Speedo’s LZR Racer in the Olympic trails since they are supposed to give a competitve advantage. It’s nice to know they have their priorities straight. On the other hand, if a suit does give a swimmer a competitive advantage shouldn’t swimming’s governing body ban it? Are Speedos different than steriods other than the health risk?

How to Train Like an Olympic Runner

NY Times: Changing Speeds to Go the Distance. Take that Bob Costas. Instead of the clichéd triumph-over-tragedy stories, the Times is writing about the mechanics of training. Today in text, graphics, and video they showed what a typical workout routine is for runner Sara Hall with tips for the non-Olympic runner.

Update: Since this is becoming a popular post, here’s a search listing on the NY Times’ site with all their sport profiles including swimming, cycling, and beach volleyball training.

Phillympics 2016

Olympics 2016Today I helped my uncle with his new business and killed the downtime reading local newspapers. The big buzz in the Daily News (and I imagine others) is that Philadelphia officials are meeting with the folks from the US Olympic Committee about a bid for the 2016 Games. I've heard speculation about this for a while, but its the first real steps I've seen. I think its great. Philadelphia has been getting a lot of good buzz in recent years, for example National Geographic named us the "Next Great City" last year. We've also been hosting a lot of events: 2000 Republican National Convention, two X-Games, and Live 8. Plus we got a ton of sport facilities when you combine all the professional stadiums and college venues. The best part of the DN's feature is a map of potential venues. Anyway, I'm excited to hear this is no longer just speculation and hope – somebody is actually seriously considering this.

Those Lousy Games

Remember when saying “Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X” was a joke. These days there’s been a big firestorm about the comments Gumbel made on his Real Sports program on HBO.

“Count me among those who don’t like ’em and won’t watch ’em. Try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these Games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. Try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention.”

He also went after some other easy targets like figure skating and judged sports. But the big news was that Gumbel pulled the “race card”. Well he’s absolutely right. And even if you don’t think its a race thing, you have to admit that the Winter Olympics are not for all socio-economic groups. Being a winter athlete requires more than just natural ability, it also requires the resources or support to pay for the training.

The nature of winter sports requiring things like ice or snow makes it more difficult for anyone to pick the sports up and practice regularly. Skiing and snowboarding require a lot of equipment and lift passes. Hockey is also a prohibitively expensive sport for kids to get into with equipment and ice time. Figure skating – damn, you must be rich – because you have to pay for ice time, private coaches, as well as things like costumes and music. I would love to see the upfront required to put Sasha Cohen on the podium. Sure it will payout in the end and the USOC tries to support all athletes regardless of their income levels. Still I am doubtful about how many of our Winter Olympic heroes work at McDonald’s or Home Depot to support their training. And its not surprising that there are fewer developing countries represented in the Winter Games than the Summer ones. Winter Games are elitist sports, period.

And how about the Olympics coverage NBC has treated us to thus far. I have probably watched the prime time coverage at least 1/2 of the days its been on. And all I can remember seeing is figure skating and snowboarding, with 5 minute spurts of speed skating or skiing. Note that figure skating and snowboarding are both judged sports – with little credibility in my mind. Figure skaters are judged for cuteness as much as their talent. And snowboarding is given to the most brainless American teenager who is willing to skip the X Games.

The most satisfying thing about this Olympics games has been Bode Miller’s failure to win at anything this games – despite the media attention. In fact nearly all the athletes featured in any pre-Games previews have blown it. It’s at least reassuring to know NBC can’t script these things – even the French judge couldn’t have made Cohen fall twice during last night’s long program. Anyway, this Winter Olympics has served as a lesson for me. The Winter Olympics is not a moment of global cooperation, but more a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the world’s elite.

Update: Patrick has made some good comments, so be sure to check them out. He’s right that the problem with the Olympics isn’t really racial. I do think that they are more of an elitist event though and not as accessible as other sports. Hopefully we’ll see this change in the years to come.

A Real Olympic Hero

Tonight I was really struck by a story on ESPN.com about America speed skater Joey Cheek. He won a gold medal this week for winning the 500m race, but he his honored in this article for his pledge to donate his $25,000 prize to refugees in Darfur. He even put his sponsors on the spot, calling on them to double or beat his pledge. This isn’t just a guy trying to draw attention to himself through a goodwill gesture. Cheek comes from a family of volunteers; he himself works with the Special Olympics.

The writer points out the fact that Cheek is largely overshadowed in these Games by name brands like Apollo Ono, Bode Miller, and Michelle Kwan. They all get big paychecks from sponsors, but all have yet to win in Torino. NBC has spent hours following Shawn White, an awkward snowboarder who hoped his gold medal would help him get “babes”. And yet I doubt Cheek’s race will get only a couple minutes worth of TV coverage tonight. I am not calling into question the talent or character of these other athletes, but I agree with ESPN’s Eric Adelson that Joey Cheek is the type of athlete I would like to see more of. It’s refreshing to see selflessness in the Olympics, a competition that celebrates individual accomplishment.

Update: I found out that Cheek actually donated his money to a charity that helps promote sports in third world countries, still a good cause. Cheek also got to carry the flag into the closing ceremonies and emerged as one of the few good stories of the Games.