Category Archives: Olympics

Olympic athletes, the Olympic games, Olympic moments, and anything having to do with the quadrennial 5-ringed contests.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Generational Performance

I believe once every 18-20 years we witness something that constitutes a generation marking performance; a confluence of skills, poise, courage, stamina, team and individual leadership that make us sit up and take notice, in a way that we’ll use as a chronological reference point for the ensuring quarter century.

Within my sports recall lifetime:

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. The 1969 Mets and 2004 Red Sox. The “We Are Family” 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Walton in his final season with the Boston Celtics. Mark Spitz.

I’ll add a Rio quartet: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel. Nearly all of the previous generational moments happened in a world of print media, selective mediated access, and slowly evolving timelines. Our US Olympic women athletes competed in a world of social media, intense pressure, direct access to and from the athletes, and a race to expose “stories.” Each of the four battled competition and those external pressures to deliver a generational performance. Katie Ledecky literally swam away from the pack, and then was the roommate and teammate everyone wants as she cheered Simone Manuel to a gold medal. Simone Manuel combined faith and grace and power to establish new a first ascent. Aly Raisman showed how you come back from crushing disappointment with stamina, humility, hard work, and an intense smile. Simone Biles makes me question gravity, in both the physical and existential sense. She seems to be having more fun the higher she flies.

The generational moment is that I like the Olympics again, after re-assuring myself that I wouldn’t watch or care.

Kathryn Bertine’s “As Good As Gold” releases April 28

Anyone who has followed me for the last two years knows that I’m a Kathryn Bertine fan boy. It started with All The Sundays Yet To Come, and continued through her ESPN Insider tales between 2006-2008. She’s taken those articles as a starting point and knit together her 2-year effort to compete in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Bertine is a wickedly funny writer, probably because she doesn’t take herself, sports, or the Olympic aura too seriously. It’s amazingly refreshing to read a sports story that does not end in a medal, championship, undesireable geography or bizarre love geometry. It’s just about competing, pushing yourself, and what it means to represent something bigger than yourself or the guy who signs your paychecks.

As Good As Gold, Bertine’s latest book, releases on April 28th, and the Kindle-only version is available on now. Look for a book tour (coming soon to a bookstore near you, maybe) and get ready to laugh at a remarkably hamish Olympic effort.

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Au (Revoir), Canada

Another Olympics in the books. It was my favorite in years, for so many reasons.

  • US Men’s and Women’s Hockey Silver Medals. OK, so they both lost to the Canadians, but both gold medal games were great. Seeing Jenny Potter with her kids on the ice and Angela Ruggiero tearing up but still hugging her teammates defined the American effort. Teamwork and motherhood – as American as apple pie.
  • Shaun White. He’s as down to earth as a person as he’s high in the sky doing tricks. What a role model for our kids.
  • Evan Lysacek out-skating Plushenko. Yes, Plushenko did quad jumps, but Lysacek skated his heart out. It’s not a home run derby; it’s about interpretation.
  • US gold medals in Nordic combined and 4-man bobsled. First and first in half a century.
  • Apolo Ohno being himself, picking up two more medals, with humility and good sportsmanship

Along with the sad moments, and the completely confounding moments, like the Iranian delegation refused to compete in the same events as the Israelis, the entire two-week event seemed relatively conflict and scandal free. Maybe I’m the only one who thought it was funny that the Canadian women had cigars and beer on the ice after winning the gold medal, because that’s what my teammates in the beer league would do. Seeing the human, everyday side of athletes makes them seem more like the entire country they are proud to represent.

The Olympics is a house guest that comes every four years and stays for two weeks. We hope that it doesn’t break anything, that it makes us proud, and provides small moments for family bonding and stories to be told. Over the course of a year, I make as many references to the Miracle On Ice as I do to Franz Klammer and his intense 1976 downhill run. Here’s what I hope my kids learned this year: never boast, play to the final whistle, hard work pays off, and there is grace in losing.

Au revior et a bien tot, Canada. It was a fun two weeks while you were here.

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USA Hockey Magazine’s Half-Coverage

An Open Letter to the Editorial Staff of USA Hockey Magazine:

I’m a bit surprised that the “Ivy on Ice” article in the November issue of USA Hockey magazine only talks about the men’s game. Co-education has existed in the Ivies for almost four decades, and the women’s game has a younger but equally important history:

  • The Patty Kazmaier Award, the women’s equivalent to the Hobey Baker Award, was named for Patty Kazmaier, Princeton forward and daughter of Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier.

  • Laura Halldorson (Princeton) campaigned for women’s hockey within the ECAC, to the point where it gets equal billing on their website and coverage. Laura also coached her home state University of Minnesota women’s ice hockey team to back to back national titles.

  • With the attention foisted upon the upcoming Olympics, USA fans are bound to see any number of Ivy-affiliated women’s players, few more recognized than Angela Ruggiero (as much as it pains me to type it, Harvard). After facing the Donald on The Apprentice, what’s to fear from the Canadians and Swedes?

  • Gillian Apps played at Dartmouth and then took home the gold medal in Torino with the Canadian women’s team. Her brother Syl Apps III played for Princeton (and later Trenton in the ECHL), her father Syl Apps Jr. played with the Penguins and Kings, and her grandfather (Syl Apps) is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    USA Hockey usually does an outstanding job giving equal billing to men’s and women’s hockey, and I’m suprised at this omission.
    I’ll forgive leaving out Darroll Powe (Flyers, Princeton, and one of the few players to score on Brodeur twice this year).

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  • Eight Days, Eight Nights in Outline Form

    The more I blog and mention “the book,” the more questions I get about it. So here’s a summary of the book, in outline form, based on current course and speed. This is completely serious, including my sidebar comments about content and tone. Your mileage may vary, the actual contents may appear smaller than described, no bailment is created.

    Chapter 1: The Jeff Halpern Story. In short, why I started keeping a journal and thinking about a book, based on the true-life story of Jeff Halpern, Jewish NHL player who also attended Princeton. I hit 4 pages and stopped. But some of that content is in here. [done, but weak]

    Chapter 2: Number 8. The real story of the whole snowman riff, my fascination with the number 8, Willie Stargell, and youth sports. [done]

    Chapter 3: A Great Miracle Happened There. The 1980 Lake Placid Olympics “Miracle on Ice” story, as told by a high school senior who was forced to spell “Czechoslovakia” once a week and cheered when the Czechs got pounded by the Americans. Numerous Hanukah references included. [done]

    Chapter 4: Hobey’s Rink. Playing hockey in the shadow of Hobey Baker, Patty Kazmaier, Laura Halldorson, and Coach Bruce whose last name I now forget. How ignorance of tradition isn’t fatal, especially if it forms a story of its own.

    Chapter 5: An Expensive Afternoon. What happens when your wife tells you to entertain the kids for the day, and you end up at an ice skating rink, with Devils season tickets and a Stanley Cup picture in the mix. A near-death experience involving Bubba yelling at Philadelphia fans creates dramatic tension.

    Chapter 6: Today I Am An Adult. Why I started playing hockey again even though all of my equipment was encrusted with mold. Skating with a bunch of Jewish guys on a team named the Saints, and why that was less humourous than the picture of an asthmatic stallion on our jerseys.

    Chapter 7: Travel Hockey. My indoctrination to the life of a travel hockey parent. Literally having the snot frozen out of me, but thinking it was OK. My first ever hockey tournament, and why silver cups are important.

    Chapter 8: The Hagiography of Saint Patrik. The life and times of our favorite Devil, Patrik Elias, and how Lord Stanley’s Cup ended up in New Jersey one more time.

    Chapter 9: The Physics of Hockey. Yeah, really, physics like melting points and inelastic collsions. But also what holds teams together, and why I’m thrilled to come home at 1:00 AM with rink stink and bruises.

    Chapter 10: A Two-Way Game. Our first lesson in the school of hard hockey knocks, involving a nickname and scoring on your own goalie.

    Chapter 11: Beer League. Playing on Friday nights, Sunday nights and in between with men of my own age but far better skill. What happens in the locker room, and why Cheap Trick sucks.

    Chapter 12: Love Covers Pain. We go to Lake Placid but there’s no Miracle on Ice. It happens on the car ride home. [done]

    Chapter 13: Welcome to Management. My life in the scorekeeper’s box where time is malleable at the press of a button. How to prevent locker room disasters with 10 year olds: the facts of life, Santa Claus, and who brings the bad donuts.

    Chapter 14: A Poem In The Cards. The life and times of my entire pasteboard empire, from sticking baseball cards in the spoke of my bike to discovering that I was tied to an NBA player’s son through a Topps card given to me by my grandfather. Inspired by Cory Doctorow’s short story Craphound. [done]

    Chapter 15: Silver Anniversary. 25 years after the Miracle on Ice, another form of silver enters our house courtesy of the NJ state hockey playoffs.

    Chapter 16: Snapping My Twig. Jewish men, their sports equipment, our Russian heritage, and why Scott Niedermeyer’s stick changed my life.

    Chapter 17: A Great Miracle Happened Here. Yes, it’s a dreidel joke. It involves Lake Placid again. [done]

    Chapter 18: Finding Pops. Return of the son of the snowman, in a different form. What the book should have been about from the very beginning. [done]

    So the book has a beginning, middle and end. It could qualify as a novella, if there was continuity and context provided. I consider this my meta-writing exercise for the day, if i write about writing maybe I’ll be stimulated to write my 500 word allowance. But for now, the day job is calling.

    Annual ECAC Pink At The Rink Auction

    The ECAC hockey teams are hosting their annual pink at the rink auctions for the next few days on eBay. Pink-wrapped game-used sticks, scarves, ties, and some signed team jerseys make up the nearly 300 items available for auction, at prices ranging from $50 to $150. All of the money raised goes to the American Cancer Society and Hockey Coaches Care.

    Slickest item up this year: Quinnipiac College men’s team had special black and pink jerseys created, and the entire set is up for auction. Most of the women’s jerseys are autographed – here’s a chance to pick up some ink from players who will be skating in Vancouver and getting ink of their own in exactly a year.

    Olympic Proportions

    I’m regularly blown away by the comparative “regular guy” nature of hockey players, from kids to adult beer leaguers to professionals who will stop to talk, meet fans, and sign anything (or anyone) at just about anytime.

    Today’s coolness: I’m on my way to San Francisco, in Newark airport for a flight delay that is now just about as long as the flight itself (hey, mid-day thunderstorms will do that, no harm, no foul on this one). At this point I’m unclear as to whether I renewed my airport lounge membership, or what affinity card works where. So I tried, was given a polite “no”, and then the guy in line next to me says “He can be my guest, he’s a fellow hockey guy.” All because I’m wearing my favorite “Miracle on Ice” t-shirt, attempting to channel a bit of the spirit of Lake Placid to our athletes in Beijing (wrong season, wrong sports, right idea).

    Turns out my line-mate of the random rotation plays (more seriously than I do) in Chicago, is equally delayed here in Newark, and was just being nice. You want the antidote to air (or road) rage? Play more hockey.

    Trip Eights: Beijing Begins

    With a tip of the propeller hat to the Beijing Olympics, I wore a USA hockey jersey to a training class today (I was one of the co-instructors; we all wore hockey jerseys representing USA, Russia and the Ukraine). Right theme, wrong Olympics, but for some reason I’m finding it hard to get excited about these Games. Some of the malaise is that the summer games don’t thrill me the way the staggered winter events do; my mental images of the Olympics involve a snowy mountain, cold weather, down jackets emblazoned with small flags wrapped around athletes enjoying a guilty hot beverage. Lake Placid, Garmish, Salt Lake City, Torino. When I think of Los Angeles, Sydney, and Beijing, I think of humidity, oppressive heat, and traffic jams.

    I’ve also been looking for the “story” of these games. For years, I’ve tried to balance the horrors of the 1972 Munich Games, which left a deep impression on this 10-year old kid, with the 1984 Los Angeles Games, ones I watched as I packed my things to move, at last, out of my childhood home into my first “real” apartment. Mary Lou Retton proved that in a world of infinite possibilities, sometimes the impossible happens. Summer events since then: doping in track, a USA basketball team that seems to play only when it feels like it, with no sense of playing for something more valuable than a contractual bonus, and baseball’s denouement as an Olympic sport.

    The Olympics has also intersected my job as Sun is providing online infrastructure for the 2008 Beijing Games. I’ll be tracking the more obscure events online, both to follow the sports where the unknown athletes (and countries) compete and also to make sure the online experience remains one of which Sun and NBC will be proud.

    Bottom line: I’m looking for a hero or heroine. I want to cheer for our gymnasts, watch Michael Phelps prove that the Chinese fixation with the number eight is well-placed (it works for this snowman), and hope that the USA basketball team demonstrates that professional athletes can have an affiliation with a power higher than money: national pride. My personal hope that figure skater turned triathlete turned cyclist Kathryn Bertine would compete at these games ended when Bertine failed to qualify as a cyclist, a two-year training and travel odyssey that she documented wonderfully for ESPN’s E-ticket. Read all 13 parts; it’s a novella-length story with all of the Greek drama you can digest. And of course I’ll follow the Israeli delegation, competing in gymnastics, sailing, judo, and the steeplechase, among other events, because hearing “Hatikva” played at the medal ceremony pushes 1972 further away.

    Why all of the fuss over the Olympics? Why would anyone want to train for years, travel halfway around the world, and compete under duress with a billion Internet viewers watching? It’s not like there are endorsement deals for medalists in sailing – Americans want their heroes to play sports that are accessible and recognized, the precursors for commercialization. But that hits the distinction between a professional athlete and an Olympic athlete (with all due respect to hockey players, who are among the few who carry both roles with respect): Olympians are trying to prove they are the best, in the world, at what they do, and do so carrying their country’s shield and colors, not those of their team, college, or corporate sponsor. Everyone has had that longing, at one time or another, to be the undisputed best, whether in sailing, judo, basketball, selling Internet infrastructure, or writing short stories. When it comes down to matters of our own mental and physical facilities, we all dream.

    Despite not making it to Beijing, Kathryn Bertine conveyed the moral of her mental and physical voyage quite simply: “Above all else, we owe it to ourselves to show up for our own dreams.” And the Olympics remind us to take that advice to heart, every one of the other 1,420 days between staggered torch lightings.

    Raising the Roof: Sustainability Through Two Centuries

    Spent a vacation weekend in Montreal (and honestly, truly did no any work for four days, including blogging, reading email, or even texting friends from work). A work de-emphasis didn’t stop me from thinking about architecture and sustainability, however, and those thoughts were front and center as I toured the Basilica de Notre Dame and the Olympic Stadium.

    Flying into Montreal, it’s easy to pick out the 1976 Olympic venue: at 175 meters, the inclined tower is the tallest of its kind. Along with the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, it’s one of the few buildings you ascend via an “inclinator” rather than a purely vertical elevator. The stadium sports a permanent cover, making it look something like a piece of Tupperware encasing something that has run afoul of your refrigerator. Original architectural plans for the Olympic venue included a retractable roof, pulled up like a magician snatching a tablecloth from under a full place setting. However, the roof wasn’t finished in time for the 1976 Olympics and after several design failures that resulted in ripped, torn, and unusable stadium covers, the current lid was put in place with a vengeance. In only thirty years, the Olympic stadium suffered structural failures, lost its primary tenant (the Montreal Expos) and now sits as a stark (and tall) reminder of bad long-term design. Quebec residents still feel “sustainability” of a different sort, as tobacco taxes fund the remaining financial burden of the stadium.

    Conversely, the spectacular Basilica of Notre Dame is now nearly 200 years old, has survived a fire and several reconstructions, and operates as a tourist and religious center on a daily basis. Partly, I believe the difference in long-term perspectives is due to the differences in the communities responsible for the buildings. The Basilica dates back to the founding of Montreal in the 1640s, and has had a strong community interested in its upkeep, structural integrity and long-term existence. Looking up at the ornate ceiling, completely supported by the exterior walls, I was reminded of Danny Hillis’ discussion of the very long-term planning for the 14th-century era College Hall at New College at Oxford. Having a community commitment to anything, whether a building or a wiki, greatly improves the odds that thing survives in functioning form for more than a (technical) generation.