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.