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

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mid-term Report Card

We're a little more than halfway through these 2010 Olympics, so I thought it would be a good time to hand out the midterm grades.

Obviously its a huge undertaking putting on an Olympics, and things are going to go wrong. Well, they have. The transportation system has generally worked well, but early in the games there were reports of long waits for buses in the rain. After selling Grandstand admission tickets to the moguls competition, organizers decided not to honor them--they did give refunds--ostensibly because of safety concerns, but probably, according to those who were there, because of inadequate infrastructure at the mountain.  The food kiosks, bathrooms, and footpaths were so crowded that those with seated tickets complained.  So they cancelled Grandstand seating, disappointing thousands.
     Then there is the continuing saga of the hideous fencing around the Olympic flame, which I wrote about earlier.  Organizers have now removed the lower four feet of the cyclone fence and replaced it with custom-made Plexiglas. (This has been an expensive mistake.)  Better for pictures, no question.  But still an ugly fence around the flame.
        Early on, the ice resurfacing machines at the speed skating oval broke down, delaying the competition and requiring two zambonis to be driven to Vancouver from Calgary as replacements.  Now some of the speedskaters are complaining the the surface of the brand new oval is "sticky."
     And there have been injuries which could have been prevented, to both spectators and athletes.  A dozen or so outdoor concertgoers were taken to the hospital when a barrier in front of a stage collapsed. Cross country skier Petra Majdic of Slovenia was badly hurt during a training room when she overshot an icy, 180 degree turn and fell ten feet into an unprotected rock-filled gully.  And most tragically, of course, was the luge competitor from Georgia who was killed during a training run, a death that might have been prevented had the walls of the dangerous turn been higher and the steel column he crashed into been padded.
    All in all, it's a list of problems a little bit longer and more serious than one usually encounters at an Olympics, and quite a bit longer than the most recent Games in Beijing, where everything worked and everyone behaved. That said, people are having a lot more fun here, and the organizers, in every instance, have made adjustments after the fact to help rectify the problems. They have been feeling the heat.

I can't remember an Olympics when I wouldn't have awarded the competition an A. The athletes are beyond comparison when it comes to dedication, humility, courage, and desire. Watching the cross country skiers and biathletes collapse as they cross the finish line, paralyzed with exhaustion, never gets old. (I'm guessing NBC almost never shows those sports, since Americans never win them. It's too bad. One of many, many problems I have with NBC's coverage.)  No better example than that of the aforementioned Slovenian cross country star, Ms. Jajdic.  Having suffered four broken ribs and a collapsed lung from her fall into the rocks while training, she came back and won the bonze medal in the individual classic sprint.  She was in such pain afterward she had to be helped onto the podium during the medal ceremony, unable to climb up the step without assistance.
       Led by the amazing  U.S. alpine team (2 golds, 2 silver, 3 bronze), which has six more alpine medals to date than any other country, the U.S. has been the surprise team of these Olympics.  As of Sunday night Americans had accumulated 24 medals (7 gold, 7 silver, 10 bronze), eight more than second place Germany.  So far, they have done so with unusual grace and civility--Bode Miller (above) has been a paragon of good behavior, and Lindsay Vonn (below) has been...has been...let's just call her a great ambassador for America.
       The next most surprising team?  The South Korean speedskaters, both short track and long.  They have collected a total of four golds, four silver, and one bronze, easily the most of any country in speedskating, which was once ruled by the Dutch and the Germans.  South Korea will probably add one more gold in women's figure skating, where the favorite is Yuna Kim.
     The most disappointed countries in terms of performance? Certainly the host country, Canada, which is tied with South Korea for 4th overall with just 9 medals.  That wouldn't be so bad except Canadian sports officials had made a huge campaign promising the country they would "own the podium", stating repeatedly that their goal was to win more medals than any other country.  They also pushed the bounds of sportsmanship by severely restricting access by other countries to Vancouver's facilities for training--a policy that, critics say, contributed to the death of the Georgian luger.  Certainly, there are more medals coming their way.  Ice dancing looks like s good bet for gold tonight.  Hockey and curling remain to be determined, though Canada's men's hockey team has disappointed to date.  Still, officials have conceded they are not going to be winning the medal count.
       It's also been a weak showing for Russia, which is hosting the next Winter Games.  Traditionally a Winter Olympic power, they have only seven medals to date, two of them gold.


The main reason Vancouver doesn't rate an A in atmosphere is the weather, which, when it hasn't been raining, has been springlike.  Trees are literally in full flower downtown, daffodils are blooming, and people are roaming the streets wearing shirtsleeves.  Doesn't feel like a Winter Games.
That has brought out the crowds, and that has led to a carnival atmosphere on the downtown streets.  It has also led to plenty of arrests for drunken revelry and a few barroom brawls.  Hockey crowds, especially, have an edge to them that is slightly worrisome.  (I spoke to a number of people who were worried about walking home last night after the U.S. beat Canada in hockey.)   Last night as I was leaving the press center a raccoon darted across a crowded street and into a hedge.  I was going its way, as it happened.  A young man in a funny hat, plenty well-oiled, took off after the raccoon.  "I'm a raccoon catcher," he bellowed.  Then, to me, "Where did he go?"  I shrugged, nodding toward the hedge.  Suddenly the raccoon appeared ahead of us, on a low wall, obviously wondering whether to make a break for it.  "There he is," the young guy said, slowing.
       "I wouldn't try to pick him up," I warned him.  "He'll bite you."
       "I'm not going to pick him up," the raccoon catcher said.  "I'm going to kick him."
        Of course you are, I thought.  Why wouldn't you?  Canada lost a hockey game, so you kick a raccoon.  Brilliant.  Fortunately, the raccoon disappeared.
       Bottom line is the people of B.C. are loving their day in the sun, donning their Canadian sweaters, painting their faces, and generally reveling till all hours of the night, every night.  So far the hosers have been mostly guilty of belting out some very bad renditions of Oh, Canada! at the top of their lungs on the street.  It's so much more festive than it was in Torino four years ago, where it was as
if the local populace was intent on showing itself too cool to embrace a sporting event like the Olympics.  Empty seats could be found at many events in Italy.  Not so, here.  Canada loves its winter sports, and it shows.  Even compulsory ice dance was a sellout.

  I'm the worst person to try to give a grade about the television coverage you're getting, since I'm watching the Games in Canada.  They're doing a great job.  From everything I hear, though, NBC is still delaying the coverage of too many of the marquis events, packaging them for prime time rather than showing them live, and--this I hear over and over--showing way too much of Bob Costas.  Someone asked me if he had it in his contract he had to be shown a certain number of minutes every hour.  His ego's that big, but I doubt his agent's that good.
      No, Dick Ebersol, the man who does NBC's Olympic programming, just doesn't trust the athletes to be enough.  To him, the Olympics is entertainment, not sports.  So he trots out Costas, Steven Colbert, Al Michaels...who else?  I don't watch.  Rather than show the athletes from all nations competing.  Here in Canada, as in most countries, the television host ushers the viewer from one sport to the next, briefly setting the scene, laying the backdrop, then introducing the announcers at the venue before disappearing for the next hour or two.  At NBC, the host (Costas) doesn't usher.  He is like the guest who won't leave after dinner, pontificating, carrying on, laughing too loud and staying too long.  Sports?  Why rush off to watch sports?  He knows the outcome, after all.  It's been taped.
     But I'm curious what you think.  Post a message below about NBC's coverage, and the grade you'd give them.  You may have to register to do so, but only once.  It won't take long.   Inquiring minds want to know. 

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Calling the Olympic Fig Fashion Police

      I call it The Johnny Weir effect.   No matter how weirdly, flamboyantly, or flamingly I dress when I skate, Johnny Weir will be pinker, prissier, and prettier.  So anything goes.

When I first started covering figure skating in 1983, there was a growing movement against sequins on men.  The sport was sensitive to the perception that it was not a place for manly men.  It was a big deal when Scott Hamilton won the 1984 Gold medal in Sarajevo without a rhinestone to be seen, skating in his little page boy haircut and Superman outfit, less the cape.  A lot of people thought he actually looked like an athlete...maybe a speedskater or gymnast something...instead of an action toy.

Fast forward to 2010, where taste has been thrown out the window, and skaters look more like preening peacocks of the stage than athletes.  Here's a snapshot I took of the three medalists from the men's competition.
     On the left, we have your silver medalist, Evgeni Plushenko, who is actually a married man.  He is wearing a red beaded vest as the centerpiece of his costume, I'm not sure why. 

The music he skated to had nothing to do with him being a croupier in a Russian gambling parlor.  To the far right, our bronze medalist, Japan's Daisuke Takahashi (yes, all nations are guilty of this trend) who was skating to La Strada.  Hence he is dressed like a gypsy.  Or--here's a concept--he could skate to the music of La Strada without actually pretending he's Anthony Quinn.  La Strada could just be music to skate to.  Do we really need another skating toreador every time Carmen is played at a figure skating event, which is about three times a night. Takahashi deserves extra credit for trying a quad while dressed like Fellini's fool.  A case can be made, however, that he might actually have landed it without a frock of rags flapping around his face.
       In the center, of course, stands our champion, Evan Lysacek, from Naperville, Illinois.  Here's a better picture of his costume, which, for some reason, involves two snakes encircling his neck.
His music is called Scheherazade, who was the wife of an Arabian king.  Scheherazade told the king a story every night for 1001 nights so he wouldn't behead her, as he'd done all his other wives.  (You see what watching compulsory ice dancing will do to you...that's what I'm doing now...when I'm not searching Wikapedia for the meaning of Scheherazade...and if I hear one more tango romantica I'm going behead someone with a toepick.)  In the synopsis of the story, I could find no mention of snakes, however.  So I don't know what they're doing there around Lysacek's neck.  I suppose Vera Wang does.  That's who designed Lysacek's outfits, and he's proud of it, too.
        Lysacek, it should be noted, is the macho skater on the U.S. team. 
       Can't we just skate without being characters in the Star Wars bar scene? These are only the medalists.  There were far worse.  Take that crazy Belgian, Kevin Van der Perran.  He skated as a skeleton in his short program, then topped that by skating as Robin Hood during his freeskate.  Of course Robin of Sherwood wears a see-through black mesh shirt covered with leaves.  Why wouldn't he?  He hangs with Friar Tuck, right?  I couldn't find a picture of that costume, but here was the outfit he chose for his short. 

    Nothing says Olympic athlete! like a trick or treater on Halloween.
               The most creative costume was worn by an albino Swede (if that's not redundant), called Adrian Schultheiss.  Adrian came to an Olympics and a Saturday Night Live skit broke out during his program, which was entitled Insane in the Brain.  He actually skated in a straight jacket.  Here he is getting into his Olympic uniform, which was not the same one that he marched in during Opening Ceremonies.  

    His music was as unusual as his costume, a medley of Teardrop, Insane in the Brain, and Smack My Bitch Up, which is what I'd like to do to Johnny Weir for leading us down this horrid path.  There actually is such a thing as a costume deduction in figure skating, though what on earth you have to do to incur one is beyond me.  And probably beyond the pale.
       It's enough to make a man want to scream.