Monday, November 29, 2010

Bears Thump Eagles: A Bird in Hand

Among the fascinating tidbits I picked up from our Thanksgiving quiz this year is that:
   a) an adult turkey has about 3500 feathers
   b) Minnesota raises more domesticated turkeys than any other state, including Arkansas
   c) Israel consumes more turkey per capita than the U.S. or Canada. Or Turkey.

Here's a picture I took of a turkey displaying in our yard in Carlisle, Mass. last spring, a hunka-hunka burning love....

Here's the same turkey in profile.  He looks exactly like the paper turkeys which used to decorate the Thanksgiving table at the Onwentsia Club when I was a kid.  I love this shot.  Look at that tiny head.  And you can easily see how he would have 3500 feathers.  Benjamin Franklin lobbied hard to have the wild turkey named our national bird, and I'm sorry that he failed, especially since they keep ending up in the White House.

  (That remark is non-partisan, by the way.)              
  Ordinarily I write something about sports in this column, but I am so pleased with my beloved Chicago Bears win over the high-flying Eagles yesterday that I've decided to write about birds instead.  I have some unusual pictures I've been lucky enough to snap in the last couple of years, and I have an idea for a Christmas gift for the bird lover in your family.  You won't even have to get in the car.
   I'll begin with the most unusual bird picture in my repertoire, which was taken in Spring Island, South Carolina, just after Christmas in 2007.  I was standing in our driveway around dusk when I heard a strange, meowing sound above me, and looked up to see this owl on a branch. 
Great Horned Owl
It was a Great Horned owl.  They are common there, but shy and difficult to photograph.  This one wasn't hooting.  It was meowing like a cat.  It was very strange, because it was being answered by another Great Horned Owl that was hooting nearby.
       "Meow....meow... "
        "Hoo-hoo, hoot-hoot-hoot."
      This went on for a couple of minutes.  Suddenly the hooting stopped and out of the corner of my eye I saw something swoop over my head.  I raised the camera and snapped a picture of two great horned owls...copulating. 
Slam, bam...
   It took about three seconds, then the male swooped off into the fading light...

...Thank you, ma'am

...leaving the female speechless, meowless, and sitting exactly where she had been when I'd first seen her.  Even in that dim light, I would describe her expression as underwhelmed.

Looking underwhelmed

        Probably my favorite bird, on Spring Island or anywhere else, is the pileated woodpecker, otherwise known as the Woody Woodpecker bird.  It is crazy large and has a crazy wukwukwuk cackle and hammers away at dead and dying trees in search of grubs and beetles like a lumberjack.  This shot was taken in northern Wisconsin.  He was so intent on drilling this dead birch tree he let me get pretty close to him:

Pileated woodpecker

      Another favorite is the scarlet tanager.  I've only seen a handful in my life.   They never come to the feeder, though we have a family of tanagers that lives near us in Carlisle, perhaps even on the property, somewhere in the woods I suppose.  Every couple of years I'd see one, so easily recognized with its shocking red feathers with black wings.  Three years ago we built a water feature in the back, a couple of rivulets running down a bank, over rocks, into a small pool.  It had a couple of pint sized waterfalls.  We did it because the area was shady and wouldn't grow grass.  Little did we know once completed it would attract all manner of birdlife, including scarlet tanagers.  (It even attracted a Great Blue Heron last fall, which flew in and dined on the fish and bullfrogs that lived there.)  The tanagers, normally so reclusive, loved to take baths in the running water.  Who knew?
Scarlet Tanager

      Which brings me to my mother's favorite bird, the rose-breasted grosbeak.  When we were kids, growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., my brothers and I always wanted a BB gun. My mother forbade it.  She didn't trust us, with reason.  She was sure we'd either use it to shoot each other or, worse, one of the birds that came to the feeders.  One year a rose-breasted grosbeak built a nest in the thorn tree that grew beside our whiffle ball park.  This development was sufficiently earth shattering that all games that spring were summarily cancelled by my mother, the Commish, who watched from the upstairs hall window as mama grosbeak laid three eggs and sat on them till they hatched.  When the chicks were still little more than featherless blobs, a gray squirrel climbed into the tree one day and approached the nest while mama grosbeak chattered helplessly.  My mother's squeals were a good deal more piercing, and all three sons were called upon to defend the nest from the squirrel.  Since we didn't have a BB-gun, and were afraid of thorns, we fired tennis balls and sticks and golf balls at the critter from the base of the tree, without result.  I knew the game was up when three headless grosbeak corpses, which looked exactly like miniature roasted turkeys, dropped to the ground and the squirrel bounded away, sated.  Apparently the head of a baby bird is the most nutritious part.  We got our BB-gun the next day, but the grosbeak flew away and never came back.
       Ever since, a rose-breasted grosbeak has made my heart leap.  We have a family of them that comes to our feeder and pigs out on sunflower seeds every summer, then disappears into the woods from whence they came.  They are not particularly shy.  But here is an unusual shot of an immature male, who is just beginning to attain the signature rose-colored patch on its breast. 

immature male rose-breasted grosbeak
        Now, the Christmas present idea.  If someone in your family enjoys birds, and likes identifying birds by their calls, there is a new book out called Bird Songs Bible which is published by Chronicle Books.  It weighs about 20 pounds and comes with an attached recording device which can play the call of every single bird that nests in North America, nearly 750 in all, plus at least one that doesn't: the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, now believed to be extinct again after temporarily making a fleeting comeback in the swamps of Arkansas. (The Ivory-Billed looks like a pileated, but its call is more like one of those old bicycle horns with the squeeze-bulb: Toot-toot-toot)   The calls are from audio recordings made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and include such rarities as calls of petrels and shearwaters who only vocalize at sea.  Also turkeys, great horned owls, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks.  There are color illustrations of all 728 species, plus a diagram of their range and habitat, and while the illustrations are not to scale (the hummingbird is the same size as the turkey vulture) they are pleasant to peruse.  It should be noted that this book will be of absolutely no use in the field: it is too cumbersome and the drawings don't show the birds in flight.  But at cocktail hour it is a fun tome.  The most comprehensive book of its kind, it retails for an imposing $125.  But for readers of this blog, it can by ordered from Amazon for a more palatable $75 by clicking the link below. 
   Or not.
   The important thing is BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN!
    Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yuna Kim fires Orser and The World's Best Salsa recipe

Like most pundits in the figure skating world, I am scratching my head at the news that Yuna Kim has parted with her coach, Brian Orser, six months after she won the Gold Medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
       It wasn't the only change "Queen Yuna", as she's known in Korea, has made since her breathtaking performance at the Olympics.  She also switched management teams in April, scrapping IB Sports, the Korean company that made her one of the five wealthiest female athletes in the past year with an estimated $9.7 million in earnings, to start her own agency, All That Sports, which is run by Kim's mother, Meehee Park.  Those 25% management fees are now all in the family.
      The announcement of the coaching change was made by Orser's management agency, IMG.  Let the P.R. war begin.
       This is all changing hourly, but here's a synopsis of what's come out so far.
     1) Orser tells various media outlets he was blindsided by the news of the coaching change, which he and coaching partner Tracy Wilson received from Yuna's mother on Aug. 2.  Orser adds that Yuna didn't know what was going on either.  He suspected something was amiss, he says, because his emails weren't being answered.  He also felt "disrespected" when he learned second-hand that Yuna's new short program was being choreographed by Canadaian ice dancer Shea-Lynn Bourne, with whom Orser had never worked.  Orser claims money has nothing to do with the split, that he never had a contract with Yuna, that he never got a bonus from her for winning the Gold, and that he was the lowest paid coach at that level in skating, charging her only $110 an hour.  But he loved Yuna and wished her well.
     2) Yuna Kim's camp responds to that opening salvo by saying Orser knew perfectly well why they were leaving him, but they do not believe it's the sort of thing that should be aired in public.  Yuna writes on her  Facebook page she is "disappointed and saddened" that Orser would pretend to be blindsided, and that she couldn't sit idly by and let her mother take the blame for the coaching change when she, too, was involved.  She says that she is an adult and she and her mother made the decision together.  Yuna further contends the relationship between her and Orser was never as perfect as the media made it out to be, and that it had been increasingly "awkward and ambiguous" in the last few months.  She also says the fact that Mao Asada of Japan, her arch-rival, approached Orser about coaching her was not the main reason she was leaving.  She implies, though, it was a factor.
      Okay, here's what I think.
      Money has to be the main reason for the split.  Orser's claim to the contrary doesn't pass the smell test.  If he truly didn't get a bonus after Yuna Kim won a gold medal, he has every right to be angry.  The girl made almost $10 million last year!  Furthermore, he is represented by IMG, and all IMG cares about is money.  You think his agent at IMG is going to let him charge only $110 an hour to the Olympic favorite with no incentives built in?  Ha!  IMG also owns Stars on Ice, which Yuna Kim does not skate for.  My guess is that IMG was applying some sort of heavy-handed pressure on Kim, who has her own skating show in Korea, to join Stars, and it blew up in their face.  They may even have been using Mao Asada as a weapon: If you don't want Brian to take on Mao, you should skate with "Stars..." this winter.  I wouldn't put it past them.  They only know heavy-handed.
     The sad thing is that such a successful team should now be broken apart.  Yes, as Yuna said in her Facebook message, skater's change coaches all the time.  But not after they win an Olympic gold medal and skate two programs for the ages.  At least not when the coach is as easy going and positive as Orser and his coaching partner Tracy Wilson are.  The laid back, relaxed atmosphere at the Toronto Cricket Club, where they coach, was the perfect landing spot for the stressed-out Kim when she arrived there at age 15.  I visited there last December, and, despite all the pressure she was feeling from home to win, Yuna was clearly happy training under Orser.  I don't believe the problems that developed originated between the two of them.  And one thing was and is certain: her mother, Meehee Park, calls the shots.  Yuna is not going to buck her.  Somehow IMG and/or Orser ran afoul of the mother, and it caused the rupture of a terrific skating partnership, one that created what I believe to be the finest gold medal performance in Olympic history.  It'll be interesting to see what develops.
     Okay, now for the Recipe of the Week.  This is a great way to enjoy those ripe tomatoes from your garden or local farmer's market, a salsa recipe I found in a book called The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman (a gift from son Nathaniel last Christmas).  The key is the first step: mince one medium red onion and marinate in the juice from 1/2 lime (about 2 tbls), 1 tsp. salt, and freshly ground pepper for 20 minutes.  In the meantime, chop about 2 lbs. tomatoes into 1/2 inch pieces, add 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 jalapena pepper (finely minced and seeds removed), and 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro.  Add to the onion and lime mixture and serve.  Great as a dip with tortilla chips, or as a relish on poultry or omelets.  Truly addictive!  Summer on a chip!


Monday, August 16, 2010

The PGA controversy, Plagiarizing at The Times, and Jim Gray

I know, I's been awhile.  Just back from my niece's lovely wedding in Chevy Chase, Md., where more than one friend commented on the abandonment of Swift Kicks since the Vancouver Olympics.  The truth is, I've turned into a farmer this summer, having requisitioned a plot at the Carlisle Community Gardens, and haven't had the least inclination to sit down and write.  I used to think time and tide waited for no man.  Now my standard for unrelenting impatience is summer squash and green beans waiting to be picked.  You want tomatoes?  Right now my counter is covered with about 150 of them in various shapes and sizes in search of a mouth or a recipe.  It's enough to make a man sit down and face his blog.

It was a fascinating final round at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.  As most of you know by now, Dustin Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole, an infraction that cost him a spot in the playoff.  It was a sad thing for Johnson and the tournament, but CBS announcers made it sadder than it should have been.  Announcer David Feherty practically wept while revisiting the offending bunker, telling CBS viewers it never crossed his mind it was, in fact, a bunker, rather than a bare patch of ground.  He could see no discernible lip, no rake, and footprints were all over the sand, left by spectators who'd been standing there.  His take?  Johnson had been jobbed.
     I like Feherty, but I have trouble believing it never crossed his mind Johnson was in a bunker.  While watching the telecast, when I saw Johnson ground his club while addressing the ball, my heart immediately jumped.  It was clear to me he was in one of those shoddy bunkers: there are something like 1200 of them scattered around that course.  None of CBS's announcers--Jim Nantz, Feherty, Nick Faldo--said anything when Johnson grounded his club, however, so I assumed the bunkers beyond the ropes had been designated waste areas.  A waste area is not considered a hazard, and golfers are allowed to take practice swings and ground their clubs when in them.  Why?  Because waste areas aren't raked, and the surface of the sand is uneven and unpredictable within them, often marred by footprints and tire tracks.  The bunker Dustin Johnson found himself in on the 18th hole, which the gallery had been standng in, was just such a place.  It should have been declared a waste area, but it hadn't been.  PGA officials had specifically posted signs in the media center and the locker rooms alerting players to the fact that those areas were considered hazards and to be treated as if they were bunkers.  Johnson should have known that.  Feherty, who had the benefit of going back and standing in the bunker, certainly should have recognized it for what it was.  And Nantz and Faldo should have known the local rule and said something while Feherty was carrying on as if Johnson had been robbed.  Eventually a PGA rules official interviewed by Peter Kostis cleared the matter up.  But it was not the finest bit of sports television I've ever seen.  Then again, none of those involved--Nantz, Faldo or Feherty--should be considered a journalist. 
     So what's Jim Gray's excuse?  This guy makes Keith Olbermann look objective.  First there was his absurd performance during the LeBron James telecast a few weeks ago on ESPN, in which the self-aggrandizing Gray waited six minutes to ask the only question a real journalist would have cared to ask: Which team was James jumping to?  I didn't think it was possible for him to sink any lower, but he managed to on the eve of the PGA Championship, when Gray confronted Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin outside the press center, jabbed his chest with his finger, called Pavin a "liar", and told Pavin he was "going down."  Huh?  Down where?  The hole that Gray crawled out of?  Pavin's offense?  He told the press conference that Gray had misquoted him when Gray reported on the Golf Channel that Pavin said he'd offer Tiger Woods a spot on the Ryder Cup team, even if Tiger didn't qualify for one of the automatic selections. 
      My take?  Anyone who's ever covered sports for any length of time has been accused of misquoting an athlete.  It's very possible Pavin told Gray exactly what Gray reported.  It's also possible he told it to him off the record.  It's possible there was a misunderstanding between the two about what was on and off the record.  These things happen.  Athletes say things all the time they later regret.  Often the default response is to say they were misquoted.  Or misinterpreted.  It's happened to me a couple of times over the years.  The way for a journalist to handle it is to privately discuss the athlete's concerns with him (or her), and, if you still believe you are right, to publicly stand by your story.   That's it.  "I stand by my story."  No name calling.  No jabbing in the chest.  No calling someone a liar.  And certainly no threatening that "You're going down!!"?  Gray was unprofessional to the extreme.  It was, and is, inexcusable.  Any network that hires him going forward should know what they are getting: an unprofessional personality with axes to grind.  Not a journalist.
       Finally--while speaking of bad journalism--under the category of Low Moments in the New York Times, we have The Case of Who Plagiarized Whom?
    In Lynn Zinser's news story on the final round of the PGA Championship (Monday, Aug. 16) she writes the following about Phil Mickelson: "But on Sunday he finally got hot.  He eagled the par-5 No. 5 early and then had birdies on three consecutive holes.  He hit nice putts on Nos. 12 and 13 and hit his approach within two feet for birdie on No. 14.  That put him at seven under.  He stayed there until a wild ride on 18, which led to a bogey and a round of 67."
     Succinctly put.  This was another article in this morning's NY Times, written by Thomas Kaplan, entitled On Par, under the subhead Mickelson Steadies Himself: "But on Sunday, he finally heated up.  He eagled the par-5 No. 5 early, then had birdies on three consecutive holes.  He hit nice putts on Nos. 12 and 13 and hit his approach within two feet for birdie on No. 14.  That put him at seven under.  He stayed there until a wild ride on 18, which led to a bogey and finished a round of 67."
       If it were not for two minor discrepancies ("got hot" by Zinser vs. "heated up" by Kaplan; and the word "finished" in the last sentence by Kaplan), the paragraphs would have been identical and I would have assumed it was some sort of computer screw up.  But since those two descriptions of Mickelson's round were almost, but not exactly, the same, the hand of man is apparent.  So who wrote it, and who copied it?  I smell a nameless editor's hand in this foul till.
     Or maybe great minds think alike.  Strange brewings in Kohler, for sure.  All in all, an exciting PGA Championship that some of us would just as soon forget. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vancouver 2010: Where I rank it, and why

I get asked a lot which were my favorite Olympics and why.  Its not an easy question to answer, because so many things go into it.  Professionally, my favorite Olympics was the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, which were an organizational nightmare.  The buses went on strike, so spectators had to trudge to an from the opening ceremonies, which were held a mile outside of town.  Since it was snowing, it looked like the retreat of Napoleon's army in the Russian winter.  Hotel and restaurant owners price-gouged to such an extent that it was easy to find a table at any restaurant in tiny Lake Placid.  People left as quickly as they could after an event to friendlier environs.  But I covered all six of the U.S. gold medals--five by Eric Heiden, and that very special one by the U.S. Olympic hockey team--so it was a wonderful Olympics for me, personally.  But I still rank Lake Placid at the bottom of my list.
       So, Vancouver.
      First, the competition.
       It couldn't have ended better, with the overtime goal by Sidney Crosby, Canada's biggest active sports star, putting an exclamation point on the Games, as if it had all been scripted.  The men's hockey gold was Canada's 14th, the most by any country.  The U.S. had the most medals, 37, and Germany was next with 30.  But Canada was able to trumpet that they had "owned the podium" after all, by virtue of winning the most gold medals of any country in any Winter Olympics.  Though by the formula that I suggested in my last post, awarding 3 pts for a gold, 2 for a silver, 1 for bronze, the U.S. still finished on top:
              United States       9 gold     15 silver    13 bronze =  70 pts.
               Germany           10 gold     13 silver      7 bronze =  63 pts.
               Canada              14 gold       7 silver      5 bronze =  61 pts.
       So both North American countries had a great Games.  But I would submit that as the nationalistic fervor gripped Canada in the final week, as the gold medals started to accumulate, the tenor of the cheering changed from enthusiastic and supportive to rabid and edgy.  Many, many Canadians have told me that if the U.S. had scored the overtime goal, instead of Canada, it would have ruined the Olympics for the host nation and left a bitter taste in their mouths.  That is not the Olympic spirit.  Nor is the goal of "owning the podium" and resorting to restricting access to facilities by foreign teams who wanted to train on the new bobsled, luge, skeleton and speedskating tracks.
        Let me add the nationalistic chest thumping did not start with Canada.  But we're not used to seeing it from our neighbors to the north.  The Americans are the very worst perpetrators (U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!) and I'm certain that four years from now, Mother Russia will also want to prove its greatness by piggybacking on its athletes, as the Soviet Union used to.  And who was the first to use the Olympics, founded as a "friendly competition between nations", for propaganda purposes?  Nazi Germany, which hosted both the Summer and Winter Games in 1936.
        Look, I'm not comparing Canada (or the U.S. or Russia) with Nazi Germany.  The Canadian athletes who finished off the podium did so with grace.  But for a nation that likes to consider itself humble and understated, the Vancouver Games took them into uncharted territory.   It's why I've always loved the Sarajevo Olympics.  I believe Yugoslavia won one silver medal in those1984 Games.  They had been isolated behind the Iron Curtain for so long, they were just thrilled to be host to the sporting world, and they cheered every medal as their own.  They were the best hosts ever.

The Stars Were the Stars
      From Lindsey Vonn, shown here with some random old fart who is way too pleased with himself, to Shawn White, to Bode Miller, to Apollo Ono, to Sid Crosby, to Kim Yu-Na, the athletes we were familiar with rose to the occasion.  That's a good thing.  Upsets are fine in football, but in the Olympics, where for four years most of these athletes toil in obscurity, we need the Michael Phelps' of the world to perform up to the hype.  Or it's just hype.  They did that here.

The Organizing Committee Got Its Act Together 
      My colleague, S.L. Price, called it the greatest comeback in Olympic history.  And it was done by Vanoc, the Vancouver Organizing committee.  The first week was beset with problems, great and small.  The death of the Georgian luger.  The breakdown of ice cleaning machines at the speedskating oval.  Street protests.  Anger that the Olympic torch was behind a cyclone fence.  Grandstand tickets that were sold and then invalidated.  Fans injured at an outdoor concert when a barrier collapsed.
       The last two weeks were rife with solutions.  Those things that could be fixed, were fixed, and new problems didn't arise.  There were no lapses in security.  Buses ran on time.  Police controlled crowds without dampening enthusiasm.  Vancouver was a fun, safe place to be.

The Weather--yuck
      The weather wasn't just an aesthetic problem.  It severely affected the alpine competition, especially the slalom and the ski cross events, which were held in pea soup fog and driving rain.  About half the slalom racers skied off the course.   Four years, and then your fate is determined by whether you ski during a break in the fog or not.  As for the city, where I was the entire time, except for four or five days in the middle, which were lovely, it rained every day.  Not driving rainstorms.  Just a steady, spitting drizzle.  Bad luck?  Maybe.  But it all goes into the mix when it comes to ranking your favorite Olympics.

The Crowds--Unreal
       They just kept showing up, milling around the streets, clogging the sidewalks, wearing their Team Canada jerseys (they're called sweaters here), their funny hats, their facepaint.  Cheering Ca-na-da! till they were hoarse.  Watching the hockey games through tavern windows while standing in the rain.  It was all about being there, sharing the experience.  They didn't need tickets to feel part of these Olympics.  Walking to the press center Sunday morning, where I would catch a bus to the gold medal hockey game, I passed three bars that had lines to get in that stretched around the corner.  It was 9:20 a.m., and, since it was Sunday, the bars didn't open till 11 am.  They waited without complaint, surrounded by like-minded Canadians who would remember Sidney Crosby's goal the rest of their lives.  I'm glad I didn't have to see how they'd have behaved if the U.S. had won that game, but as it was, they were just giddy, proud, happy, thrilled fans who brought an energy to these Games the likes of which I had never seen.

So here it is: My Favorite Winter Olympics

1) Sarajevo, 1984--  Heavy snow.  Heavy smoke in loud, hot bars filled with burly locals who tried to make you understand their native tongue.  A population so appreciative to have contact with the outside world, you had the feeling they'd have done anything for you.  

2) Lillehammer, 1994--Cold, clear air.  Fresh white powder.  Grandmothers who did their shopping from sleds.  Small.  Old fashioned.  The only taint?  Tonya Harding was there, too.

3) Vancouver, 2010

4) Calgary, 1988--What I remember best is the figure skating.  Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov all won gold medals; I wrote about them all; and I was hooked.  Snow early, then a warm snap as a chinook blew in.  Canadian friendly.

5) Albertville, 1992--A wonderful opening ceremonies, very French.  Wonderful food, of course.  Managed to get a couple of days of skiing in Meribel during the Games.  Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal; and Paul Wylie won his silver.  Both great stories to tell, especially Wylie's.  (He was 27).  Too spread out, however.  Which is now the trend.

6) Salt Lake City, 2002-- They did a great job, after a very rough start. (Remember the scandal about bribing IOC officials).  As good a combination of mountains and proximity to a city as any Winter Games site ever, and the weather was perfect.  Only problem was, well, it was Salt Lake City.

7) Torino, 2006--Another site where the city and the mountains were just too far apart, a couple of hours by bus.  Rain in the city, snow in the mountains.  The food was, again, fantastic--it was Italy, right?  But the Italians didn't embrace the Games as the Vancouverites did.

8) Nagano, 1998--This is mostly a personal thing that I can't even explain.  The Japanese did a great job with these Games, and the people could not have been more hospitable.  But there was no place I found to gather with my colleagues at night, and the hotel room was small and the bed hard.  The hotel elevator gave me a chuckle, though.  The floors were inscribed in the brass plate as follows: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Robby.     I swear.

9)  Lake Placid, 1980.  My first.  I shared a bedroom in our condo with SI Editor Bob Ottum, who became a great friend and mentor.   He and Willaim Oscar Johnson, our skiing writer, would write at the kitchen table with their manual typewriters, Ottum with a bottle of vodka in front of him, Johnson with a bottle of bourbon.  It was an eyeopener for me, I'll tell you.  And a good one.  Real pros.  I miss them.  I miss the camaraderie we shared in that small condo.  It gave me my love of the Olympic Games, which has yet to diminish.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Medal Count

The Olympic Games is not supposed to be about medal counts.  But it always has been and it always will be, so they might as well get it right.  Every paper you open, and even the official Vancouver media website, has a table like this one from this morning keeping track of the medal.

     Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           34
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           27
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           21
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           20
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           15
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           15
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           14
ChinaChina 5               2               4           11
FranceFrance 2               3               5           10
SwedenSweden 5               2                   2             9

      My problem with this table is the Total.  They are assigning the same value to a bronze medal as to a silver medal, and the same to a silver as to a gold.  But as we all know, and as anyone who saw the U.S. women's hockey team in tears after they received their silver medal, while the Canadians were loutishly drinking beer and smoking cigars on the ice after getting their golds, all medals are not even close to being created equal.
  Should Sweden, with five golds, two silvers, and two bronzes, really be listed behind France, with only two golds, three silvers, and five bronzes?
          I'm told Olympic historian David Wallechinsky tracks who wins the medal race at the Olympics by listing them by gold medals accumulated, using silvers and bronzes as tiebreakers.  But that's equally non-sensical.  Canada's Joannie Rochette's bronze medal in figure skating was nearly as sweet as any gold.  Tiebreaker?  I don't think so.
      The solution?  A points system.
       What, then, is a gold medal worth, relative to a silver, relative to a bronze?
       Is one gold worth two silvers?  And one silver worth two bronzes?  If so, then it should be 4 pts. per gold, 2 per silver, 1 per bronze.  Then the current medal standings would look like this:

      Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           71
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           65
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           58
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           50
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           32
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           27
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           38
ChinaChina 5               2               4           28
FranceFrance 2               3               5           19
       Sweden 5               2                   2           26

    South Korea would move ahead of Austria and Russia in the medal standings, China would pass Russia, and Sweden would move ahead of France.  All three of these changes would more accurately reflect their performances.   The top four countries wouldn't change their order under the 4, 2, 1 system.
        But is one gold really worth four bronzes?  Would an athlete rather have two silver medals, or one gold?
      It's a fair question.  I happen to think two silvers trumps one gold, and an athlete with three bronze medals can look a single gold medalist in the eye as an equal.   Hence a simple 3, 2, 1 system would be my preference.  That would mean the medal count would look like this:

  Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           63
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           56
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           48
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           42
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           28
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           26
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           32
ChinaChina 5               2               4           23
FranceFrance 2               3               5           17
SwedenSweden 5               2                   2           21

  By this formula, South Korea again moves up two places, into 5th place overall, and Sweden again passes France.  But China remains in 8th place, and the top four places, again, don't change.  Easy to understand, simple to compute, and more accurately representative of the athlete's accomplishments.  As easy as 1, 2, 3.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hottest Olympians; hottest hockey tournament

In my first two Olympic Games, 1980 and 1984, I covered hockey and, to a lesser extent, speedskating.
Then I switched to figure skating, and I've never looked back.  People ask me all the time if I miss covering hockey.  I really don't.  That may have something to do with the fact that two of the gold medalists from the Calgary figure skating competition, Katarina Witt and Ekaterina Gordeeva, were among the most beautiful women in Winter Olympic history.  That took some of the edge off having to deal with the weird politics of the sport.
     Consensus is that here in Vancouver, there's an unusually large contingent of beautiful Olympians, many of them medalists.  Lindsay Vonn (right), who has a gold and a bronze, is in many ways the face of these Vancouver Games for America.  But she has company when it comes to hotties on the podium.  I'm guessing, because few of them are American, NBC has ignored these ladies.  More's the pity.  One more reason to follow this blog.

Meet Torah Bright, gold medal, halfpipe.  Australia


 Say hello to Tina Maze, Slovenian silver medalist, Super G:

 Ashleigh McIvor, Canadian Gold Medalist, Skicross

Curling created a bit of a stir in these games when a topless photo of the Danish skip, Madeleine Dupont, started circulating on the internet, courtesy of the website Deadspin.  The offending photo was soon taken down, but not before Dupont had been heckled to tears during her match against the Canadians.  


But the most beautiful curler is 43-year-old Cheryl Bernard, the skip from Canada, who will win either the gold or silver medal.  Her eyes could burn a hole into the granite rock she slides.

As usual, figure skating has more than its share of lovely athletes.  Tanith Belbin, who finished fourth in ice dancing after winning silver four years ago in Torino, makes anyone's list of beautiful Olympians.   
But the loveliest lady on the ice?  She skates tonight: Kiira Korpi of Finland.  Who needs a triple axel when you look like this? 
Okay, enough eye candy.  They're athletes, too, right?  Remember that.  An extraordinary group.  
      Briefly, then, a word about the hockey tournament, which, however it turns out, will go down as one of the most interesting, most competitive in Olympic history.  Among the upsets and near upsets?  Switzerland, the surprise team of the tournament, lost in a shootout to Canada, won its first playoff game over Belarus, then gave the U.S. all it could handle in a 2-0 loss, the second tally into an open net.  Second biggest surprise?  Probably Slovakia, which beat Russia in the preliminary round, 2-1, then knocked off defending champion Sweden, 4-3, to get the semifinals.  Near upsets?  Little Latvia only lost to the Czech Republic in the playoffs, 3-2.  And Norway gave Slovakia a scare in the first round, falling 4-3.  Every team but Germany was competitive in every game in the men's draw.  Parity has arrived in the men's game.
Not true, of course, in the women's game, where the U.S. and Canada, driven by their own fierce rivalry, have further separated themselves from the rest of the world, leading some to speculate that women's hockey might be tossed from the Olympics until the rest of the world catches up.  Well, you can relax on that score.  Women's hockey is secure.  The rest of the world will, eventually, close the gap, as more and more Swedes, Finns, etc. come to North America to play college hockey.  In the short term, we should just marvel at the skills being exhibited by the women players in North America.  I'm looking forward to today's women's final between the US and Canada as much as I am to the gold medal game for the men.  
My predictions for the women:
U.S.: Gold
Canada: Silver
Finland: Bronze
Canada: Gold
US: Silver
Slovakia: Bronze