Sport's News 02-25-10
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Editor, The Konformist
Christopher Hitchens: Sporting Fool
Nuance is the mortal enemy of essayist Christopher Hitchens. Whether it's his rapturous support for Bush's Iraq invasion or his best-selling dismissal (God is NOT Good) of religion, Hitchens will always eschew a surgical analysis for the rhetorical amputation. Beneath the Oxford education, he has become Thomas Friedman in an ascot, with all the subtlety of a blowtorch.
Now Hitchens has turned his attention to sports and the ensuing essay in Newsweek, called Fool's Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature, is everything you might fear. I'm no fan of the politics that surround the Olympic games but when Hitchens takes out his dull saw, nothing connected to sports is spared.
As he writes, "Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay `The Sporting Spirit' after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field, `sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will.'"
It's interesting that Hitchens doesn't quote Orwell's more known critique that sports is "war minus the shooting", possibly because Hitchens has been such a cheerleader for the "humanitarian" virtues of empire over the last decade.
This also isn't the first time Hitchens has sought shelter in Orwell's genius to cloak his own doggerel. But the Orwell who wrote Homage to Catalonia never detested ordinary working people the way Hitchens does. Orwell's sympathy for workers came from living, writing and even fighting fascists among them. For Hitchens, they are the people who serve him drinks in Georgetown. And he finds them odious.
As Hitchens writes,
"[Have you ever] seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned lookand talkas if they were suffering from a concussion."
Please spare us your disdain. Yes there is much to detest in the world of sports. But why then is it also such a source of solace, joy, and - heaven forefend fun? Hitchens doesn't care to explore this question. His contempt for the "rabble" triumphs any effort at reason. Just as with his ham-fisted analysis of religion, our love of sport is also proof-positive of our irredeemable idiocy.
Hitchens also shows no interest in the fact that sports also have a progressive political power. When racism, sexism, and homophobia have been challenged through struggle in the streets, it has ricocheted with electric results in the world of athletics. This is why we associate Jackie Robinson with the Civil Rights movement or Billie Jean King with the women's liberation struggles of the 1970s. And lest we forget, the most famous draft resister in world history is a boxer, Muhammad Ali. On a far more grass roots level, sports are where many people - particularly young people - find confidence, friendship, and a sense of self. For many it's where the deeply segregated dynamics of our society are broken down. This is not true in every case of course. For every story of sports-as-savior, there are 100 gym class horror stories. Yes, it is absolute truth that sports can bring out the worst in athletes, fans, parents, and coaches. But it can also bring out the best. In this case however, it has brought out the worst in the Artist Formally Known as Hitchens.
To use one of his despised sports analogies, Christopher Hitchens is like an aging pitcher whose fastball abandoned him years ago. But in sports, once the skills are gone, you are kicked to the curb. Writers clearly get to just keep on going.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love" (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@.... Contact him at edgeofsports@....
Officials try to dodge blame in luge death
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
Feb 14, 2010
Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel
WHISTLER, British Columbia Olympic officials continued to claim Saturday that the Whistler Sliding Centre always was a safe, appropriate track. They said this even though they moved the start line and reworked the ice surface to slow speeds, and they also put up a new safety wall at the end of the turn where Nodar Kumaritashvili died Friday after flying off the track and slamming into a metal pole.
The words don't match the actions. If there was nothing to worry about, then why change a thing? At this point, it hardly matters. At least there were actions, even if they didn't accompany admissions.
American Tony Benshoof was first down the track after the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.
Some of the thrill-seeking competitors complained about slower speeds, which was to be expected. Sometimes athletes need to be protected from themselves. Until forced, hockey goalies refused to wear masks, and NASCAR drivers balked at restrictor plates that kept their cars from hitting impossible-to-control speeds.
"The changes that they made were positive," American Tony Benshoof said on the first day of the men's singles event here. "It's significantly slower, significantly easier and significantly safer. Personally, I'd rather go from up top because that's kind of my personality and my driving style. But I think, generally speaking, it was a good decision."
This illustrates why there needs to be rules and why there needs to be responsible officials. Luge lacked those in the run-up to Friday's fatal crash and showed a pathetic bent when officials blamed Kumaritashvili's death wholly on Kumaritashvili just hours after the tragedy.
The Whistler track was built too fast and no one admitted that better than International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt. Back in 2008, he watched the track open and was stunned at the escalating speeds up to 92.47 mph.
"This is not in the interest of our International Luge Federation, and it makes me worry," Fendt said then. He declared that future tracks shouldn't exceed 87 mph.
The horror here is that Fendt didn't act as Olympians began hitting speeds of up to 96 mph in training sessions here. Kumaritashvili was clocked at just under 90 when a small mistake exiting Turn 15 turned wound up killing him. The promising 21-year-old didn't stand much of a chance.
"It's a serious business," Canadian coach Wolfgang Staudinger said. "It's not like sliding on the kids' hill on crazy carpet."
Par for their behavior, Olympic officials had trashed Kumaritashvili's experience level in the wake of the crash, piling on a guy who was unable to defend himself or his reputation. Once that got out on international broadcasts, it became the defining reason for the crash the Olympic and luge officials winning the most ugly of public relations narrative wars.
Even if it were the case, Kumaritashvili deserved better, deserved a day to rest in peace without being picked apart.
And who knows if inexperience really was the problem? The people that knew Kumaritashvili best, his Georgian coaches, have defended him. They noted he was ranked 44th in the world and came from a family of sliders.
"Insinuation and speculation about his experience is unfair," said Nikolos Rurua, minister of the Georgian team. "[Kumaritashvili] was well qualified, [a] very hard worker in training."
But that's how the Olympics work; it's never the fault of the IOC or its sub-groups. These guys make the NCAA look magnanimous and becoming.
In this case, it always goes back to the track. If it was a joke by Fendt's own previous calculations, what changed? At an awkward press conference Saturday morning, he tried to backtrack and shift his words, saying he was placing speed limits only on future tracks, such as the Sochi, Russia, course for the 2014 Winter Games. Why then but not now? Well, he wouldn't say. It was a lot of circular talk.
"We are not saying that [the track] is too fast, but the track is fast," Fendt said, before ordering it be slowed.
Look, no one wanted this young man to die. No one set out to build a track that would be so fast and so challenging that simply mistakes can prove fatal. It just happened.
And the reason is the course. It was the speed, the slope, the row of metal poles looming outside a turn exit without proper walling.
Luge officials knew they had pushed the envelope. They said as much. Then the athletes showed up and began sounding alarms. No one wanted Friday's nightmare scenario, yet no one displayed the courage to step up and prevent it, to say enough was enough too soon rather than too late. In some ways, that's understandable; it's a human facility we all have faced.
That no one was man enough to acknowledge they were wrong, to publicly declare they made a mistake, to even second guess their decisions garners less sympathy.
In the end, no one admitted a thing. They just put up a board, slowed the track down and moved on.
It's the best and only apology Nodar Kumaritashvili's family is going to get.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist.
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Biggest of the big waves
Bruce Jenkins, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010
The sport of surfing reached new heights at Mavericks on Saturday. In the end, it wasn't so much a contest as an elevated state of mind, a heady swirl of fear, respect and bravado among some of the best big-wave riders in the world. In the end, most everyone agreed, some history was made.
From the locals to the Hawaiians to seasoned men on the judges' stand, the talk of the after-party centered around a powerful statement: These were the biggest waves ever for a paddle-surfing contest. South Africa's Chris Bertish took home the $50,000 first-prize check, but as Bertish said, "It took all of us to make this happen. I cannot believe what we saw out there today, and how well it was surfed by everybody."
It was one of those magical days in which everything came together. There were fears of a morning south wind, but the day dawned calm with finely groomed seas. The swell was even bigger than expected, reaching a formidable 22 feet at 17 seconds (the period between waves) on the Half Moon Bay buoy, translating into wave faces of 50 feet and beyond. The weather was sunny and warm, and only late in the day, with the arrival of a northwest wind, did the ocean take on a slightly unfavorable texture.
Not a soul complained. What happened Saturday was the convergence of spectacular conditions, some money at stake, giant surf and 24 men who really wanted it. The wipeouts were brutal and frequent; at least a half-dozen surfers were either injured, dazed or rendered temporarily lifeless by interminable hold-downs. Rescue missions, via personal watercraft, were commonplace. Somehow, on one of the most challenging surf days ever seen anywhere, everyone escaped serious consequence.
"But I don't know if I want to surf for a while," fifth-place finisher Carlos Burle said with a smile. "I took three heavy wipeouts today. I hurt everywhere. My body's all twisted."
Over the 40-odd years in which big-wave surf contests have been held, the benchmarks were always set at Hawaii's Waimea Bay: the 1974 Smirnoff contest, the 1990 Eddie Aikau Invitational, and this winter's Aikau, held in December. In all cases, the surf was 25 to 30 feet on the so-called Hawaiian scale, similar to what arrived at Mavericks on Saturday.
In all of those cases, though, virtually every massive, scary-looking wave was ridden. For every wave tackled successfully on Saturday, another half-dozen saw surfers getting caught inside, sucked over the falls, taking a horrible mid-face wipeout, finding themselves out of position, or backing off because they wanted no part of the drop. In that sense, Mavericks truly set itself apart. Its vast and ominous playing field was truly awesome to behold.
Gary Linden, the contest's head judge and long known as one of the most respected men in the sport, thinks he may have seen some 60-foot faces on occasion. "I'll have to look at the images," he said, "but what happened today took surfing to another level. I used to think I'd surfed some pretty big waves in my life. But if this is big-wave surfing, what I did is something else."
Fourth-place finisher Dave Wassel, proud of his Hawaiian upbringing and the North Shore spots he's ridden for years, said Saturday's event "erased 50 years of surfing history in one day. We have some decent waves in Hawaii, but you guys have such a good wave here."
It was a humbling day for some very big names. Grant (Twiggy) Baker distinguished himself, as always, but after getting a perfect-10 ride in the first semifinal, he couldn't get another wave and wasn't able to advance. Defending champion Greg Long got just one wave in his heat, got buried by an avalanche of whitewater and hit the bottom - extremely rare on Mavericks wipeouts - before getting back to the surface.
For the 35-year-old Bertish, who comes from a surfing family in Cape Town, South Africa, the experience was almost overwhelming. Upon learning Thursday that the contest would happen, he boarded the first flight to Amsterdam, then on to Detroit and finally San Francisco. He arrived Saturday morning, a bit after midnight, and learned that both of his surfboards had been lost en route.
That's when Jeff Clark's name came back into the picture. Deposed as contest director, and having recently filed a lawsuit against Mavericks Surf Ventures, Clark had become a forgotten man in the days leading up to the event. But he has known Bertish for years, and put his travel-weary friend up for the night.
Unable to resist the spectacle of his cherished break, Clark watched the contest from the channel - and Bertish's choice of a replacement board seemed entirely fitting: a Jeff Clark special. The legend lives on.
(Top 3 advance)
1: Dave Wassel, Grant Baker, Flea Virostko, Tyler Smith, Evan Slater, Ion Banner
2: Peter Mel, Shane Desmond, Anthony Tashnick, Nathan Fletcher, Zach Wormhoudt, Matt Ambrose
3: Alex Martins, Carlos Burle, Kenny Collins, Josh Loya, Tim West, Greg Long
4: Ryan Seelbach, Grant Washburn, Chris Bertish, Jamie Sterling, Shawn Rhodes, Ben Andrews
1: Anthony Tashnick, Dave Wassel, Shane Desmond, Grant Baker, Flea Virostko, Peter Mel
2: Carlos Burle, Kenny Collins, Chris Bertish, Alex Martins, Ryan Seelbach, Grant Washburn
Chris Bertish, Shane Desmond, Anthony Tashnick, Dave Wassel, Carlos Burle, Kenny Collins
Jay Moriarity Award (to the surfer who best exemplifies the spirit of the late Mavericks surfer): Dave Wassel.
Gnarliest Drop Award: Anthony Tashnick
E-mail Bruce Jenkins at bjenkins@....
For America's Cup winner Ellison, whether it's software or sailing, competition is personal
By Brandon Bailey
Billionaire software mogul Larry Ellison won the America's Cup on Sunday by following the same aggressive rules he has perfected in business: Push the envelope on technology. Don't be afraid to spend money. And make the competition personal.
The pugnacious Oracle CEO and the crew of his 114-foot, high-tech trimaran became the first U.S.-sponsored team in 18 years to win the world's oldest sailing trophy, after trouncing the Swiss Team Alinghi in successive races the first was Friday making a third event unnecessary in the best-of-three competition off the coast of Spain.
"It's an absolutely awesome feeling. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of this team," Ellison, who was on board for the race, told a TV crew on the scene moments after the BMW Oracle boat, dubbed USA-17, finished the second race 5 minutes and 26 seconds ahead of its rival.
But the quick victory came after a years-long quest, into which Ellison, the world's fourth-richest man, poured hundreds of millions of dollars from a personal fortune estimated at $27 billion. In addition, he waged an extended legal battle against his bitter rival, billionaire Swiss yachtsman Ernesto Bertarelli, to make sure the race was staged on what Ellison considered fair terms.
During those years, Ellison also was spending billions of shareholder dollars to gobble up smaller companies and major competitors, including PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems and, most recently, Sun. Ellison, who cofounded Oracle as an upstart database vendor in 1977, has built the Redwood City business into one of the biggest commercial software companies on Earth with $23 billion in annual sales and $117 billion in total stock value.
"He is perhaps the most aggressive CEO in the tech industry today," said Jon Fisher, a former Oracle vice president who now teaches business at the University of San Francisco. Fisher added that Oracle, a company that vies with such giants as Microsoft and IBM, is both highly competitive and ruthlessly "engineering-centric," even compared with other tech firms.
The 65-year-old Ellison has long cultivated a swashbuckling reputation driving fast cars, piloting jet planes and even breaking a few bones while body surfing in Hawaii. In 1998, he won a 700-mile yacht race off the coast of Australia after sailing through a storm that killed six crewmen on other boats.
And he has not been shy about exploiting that image. In recent years, Ellison's keynote speeches at Oracle's Open World a convention that draws 40,000 programmers, customers and industry executives to San Francisco each year have been introduced with thundering music and dramatic video of Ellison and the BMW Oracle boat racing on the high seas.
Ellison also is known for publicly deriding his rivals, both in the tech industry and the sailing world. Last fall, he assured a dinner audience in San Jose: "We have the fastest boat, we have the best crew, and if it's a fair race, we'll win."
USA-17 was built with bleeding-edge technical features that helped it skim the ocean at speeds up to 40 knots (46 mph). It has an unusual three-hulled design, made from carbon fiber and topped with a towering 223-foot "wing sail," a rigid structure like an oversized airplane wing that is controlled by nine adjustable flaps.
Winning the America's Cup also took money. Ellison and Bertarelli each spent millions on boat design, construction and wages for a small navy of crew members and onshore support staff. While the exact numbers are undisclosed, Ellison has said he spent $200 million to enter the last America's Cup in 2007, when he failed to reach the finals.
And in keeping with Ellison's approach to competition, he told those attending a Silicon Valley Churchill Club dinner in September that his feud with Bertarelli had become "very personal."
To an interviewer in Spain last week, Ellison, a college dropout raised by adoptive parents, said of Bertarelli, the heir to a Swiss pharmaceutical fortune: "I don't like him."
During their two-year legal battle, Ellison frequently complained that Bertarelli, as the winner of the last America's
Cup, was trying to dictate terms for this year's race that would make it impossible for anyone else to win. But their rivalry dates back to 2003, when Bertarelli's Team Alinghi defeated Ellison in that year's finals.
Ellison later retaliated by hiring away Bertarelli's skipper, Russell Coutts.
Making things personal is how Ellison achieves his goals, according to Mike Wilson, author of a 1997 biography whose title, "The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison," plays off a joke that made the rounds in Silicon Valley. The punch line: "God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison."
Ellison made business personal in Oracle's early days by declaring war on rival database company Ingres, Wilson said. Later in the 1990s, Ellison took on Microsoft's Bill Gates by publicly calling PCs of that era "ridiculous" and arguing that they should be replaced with less expensive devices that would access software over the Internet. The concept is similar to cloud computing, a leading industry trend today, but Ellison was early in talking about the technology.
Wilson said Ellison believes "if he creates an enemy, he can vanquish it."
Now, with the recent $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Oracle is expanding into the hardware business. Ellison has loudly proclaimed his intention to beat industry leader IBM in the market for high-end corporate computer systems.
"I enjoy competition. I think life is a series of acts of discovery," Ellison told his Churchill Club audience.
But when asked if he would rather win the America's Cup or lure a customer away from SAP, a German software company that has been one of Oracle's major rivals, Ellison said he'd much rather beat the Swiss sailing team.
Explained Ellison: "We beat SAP all the time."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022.