ARE AMERICA’S BEST ATHLETES ACTUALLY IN ATHLETICS?

Messi messing with Team USA

Messi magic against Team USA

Last night’s 4–0 drubbing of USA by Argentina in the semi-finals of Copa America in Houston once again underscored in bold typeface how far U.S. Soccer has to go to be on par with the world’s best. It was literally no match. Not just four goals to nil, but 10 shots on goal to 0, four corner kicks to one, and 67% time of possession to 33%. You can’t get a much more dominant scorecard than that.  For most of the contest it looked like the college All-Stars versus the Super Bowl champs.

Still, the game was hugely hyped, and that is the one positive to take away.  But when Los Gauchos scored on a simple give-and-go in the third minute, well, the balloon pretty much popped right there. Then when the glorious Lionel Messi showcased his other-worldly talent in the 32nd minute by bending the ball like a light wave into the top right corner of the goal off a 28-meter penalty kick, lasering it mere centimeters out of the reach of the USA keeper, the deal was sealed.

Boys play football in Khulungira, Malawi

Boys play football in Khulungira, Malawi

Here’s the thing. You go anywhere in the developing world and you’ll see kids kicking around make shift soccer balls, even if that constitutes a wad of paper scrunched together and held in the round by tape. Just like kids in the U.S. used to hold old beat up baseballs together with tape just so they could keep playing.

American high school sports these days are mostly pay-to-play, and the expense of games like football and baseball are prohibitive. But soccer only requires a single ball in an open field or street, which makes it accessible to the vast majority of the world’s population.

But in America soccer is more a rich kids’ game with travel squads and the potential for college scholarships. And in the halls of the nations’ high schools it’s still football and basketball players who get dates with the prom queen not soccer players or track stars. In fact you don’t see much news about high school soccer at all, just AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization).

Certain sports are bootstrap sports, boxing, athletics, and soccer fall into that category. But individual sports develop talents quite differently in different parts of the world. Generations of players growing up with soccer develop foot-to-eye coordination while American games are primarily of the hand-to-eye variety.

Another thing, as I watched King LeBron James lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA title this past week I wondered: are America’s best sprinters, jumpers, throwers and vaulters really in the sport of track and field? Or are they scattered around in America’s pro sports teams? Same for soccer.  Can you imagine if guys like Kyrie Irving played soccer his whole life instead of basketball? Continue reading

STAR-SPANGLED CAVALIER FANS

Cavs fans sing anthem

Cavs fans sing anthem as one

I have had a long and meaningful relationship with the city of Cleveland via its annual Rite-Aid Cleveland Marathon & 10K, an event I first announced in 1978. During that time I have come to know and commiserate with the city’s championship sporting blight, and was rooting hard for LeBron and the Cavs last night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the defending champ Golden State Warriors.

What brought meaning to the “Land’s” first pro sport’s title in 52 years, though, wasn’t just LeBron’s triple/double excellence, or mid-year coach Ty Lue’s mid-game adjustments, like putting center Tristan Thompson on Steph Curry in the 4th quarter – he absolutely denied him the ball, ensuring that the two-time MVP couldn’t rise and rip away the game and title in a blur of late-game three-pointers. No, what I loved most, and what reflected the city best, was how the Cleveland Cavalier fans all sang the national anthem together before their home games rather than have somebody perform it for them.  Continue reading

FATHER’S DAY 2016

The Joys of Fatherhood

The Joys of Fatherhood

Father’s Day. Far as I know I never became one, but I sure had one to remember. 

The pictures I cherish of Pop aren’t ones of forced or phony smiles. He’d seen too much. Been down too many hard roads.  By the time I came along his days of posing  had passed. Instead you caught him as he was, take it or leave it, made no difference to him. If you got a smile or laugh, all the better, but you had to earn it. And though he laughed easily with a contagious wheeze, a glare was all it took to freeze you. 

Neither was he demonstrative in his affections when we were young. Yet never was there any doubt where his heart lie – hell, why else would he have gone off to work every day like clockwork without ever complaining or taking a day off?

One night when I was six or seven I stepped off my upper-deck bunk bed after dreaming that my sister was tickling my feet from below through a hole in my mattress.  When I couldn’t get her to stop, I decided to go tell Mom and Pop.

When he heard the dull thud coming from our room, Pop rushed in to find me unconscious on the floor. He called a doctor who lived up the block to come help. And when the guy refused, because “it’s the middle of the night”, Pop sped me to the hospital all the while devising a plan to kill the SOB.  And he’d killed a few in his time in war.

Maybe that’s the first thing to know about we Baby Boomers and our dads.  We grew up in a decidedly non-child-centric environment. We may have been the last of the “shut up, and sit down” generation, kids who were actually afraid of their parents, and with good cause. These were people who had grown up in a Great Depression, then fought in a World War. They had known hardship and made sacrifices. As such they had little interest in the prattling of a generation for whom much had been given and little asked, love us though they did.  Continue reading

RUSSIANS BARRED FROM RIO

Fix it!

Fix it!

Holy Cow, they did it!  The IAAF voted unanimously today to bar the Russian track and field team from the Rio Olympics.  It’s an extraordinary move, for sure, but one the Russian federation almost dared the governing body to make after it was caught in a cycle of state-supported doping, the most cynical violation of the letter and spirit of fair play imaginable.

Afterwards, the Russian federation said they would appeal the ruling to members of the IOC, the final arbiters of all things Olympic. Their argument, such as it is, says that keeping them out of the Games wouldn’t just have a negative effect on Russian athletes, but would do damage to the Olympics itself.  That’s the spirit we’re looking for. No contrition, mind you, just “we’ll take you down with us”.

This has been coming for quite some time. The Russians were suspended from international competition last November after a damning WADA report uncovered an elaborate state-run doping program. And now this, a real dagger to the heart, perhaps (unfortunately) even to some innocents. But maybe a necessary message, nonetheless.

The Russian federation made a last ditch attempt to persuade the IAAF to allow their athletes who hadn’t been sanctioned for drug use to compete.  But the level of doping skullduggery was so deeply imbedded, that failing to be caught was no guarantee of innocence at all. Sorry kids, a little too little too late. Besides, we’ve had Olympics without the Russians before  (LA ’84), and without the USA for that matter (Moscow ’80).  And no harm done — or, at least no changes made. So now we’ll just have more medals to go around. Continue reading

DRAYMOND & LEBRON: CHARACTER COUNTS

Draymond Green checking Lebron's inseam length

Draymond Green checking Lebron’s inseam length in Game 4

OK, more basketball. Game five NBA Finals. The defending champion Golden State Warriors up three games to one against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with an opportunity to close out the series at home at Oracle Arena where they had only lost two games all year. But with Draymond Green, the Warriors Mr. Everything, their heart and soul, suspended by the league office for a flagrant foul in game 4 against Lebron James — putting him over the flagrant foul limit in these playoffs — the Warriors fell to Lebron and Kyrie Irving 112 to 97 to move the series back to Cleveland for game six on Thursday night.

There are some who called BS on the league for their ex post facto ruling – “they got their thumb on the scale. They want a seven-game series” – considering that the game officials didn’t even call it a common foul in the game. But upon closer inspection – and it was easy to miss, which was Draymond’s intention – even though Lebron James initiated contact, it was Green who flicked his hand out in retaliation as he came off the floor, sending a ripple through Lebron’s private sector. That was the third such oopsy-doo to somebody’s ya-yas Green engaged in through these playoffs.  And three’s the charm, it seems.  Suspension administered.

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LITCHFIELD CELEBRATES 40th ANNIVERSARY

It had quickly become a June tradition, the drive down from Boston to Litchfield, Connecticut for the Litchfield Hills Road Race.  The seven-mile event was co-founded in 1977 by Boston Globe sportswriter Joe Concannon in his hometown as an early summer bookend to the famous seven-mile Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, which had been the brainchild of Joe’s pal Tommy Leonard, he of Eliot Lounge fame in Boston.

Bob Hodge (left) battles Bill Rodgers at inaugural Litchfield

Bob Hodge (left) battles Bill Rodgers at inaugural Litchfield Hills Race

In year one most of the big guns of the Greater Boston Track Club had accepted Joe’s invitation, and with the world’s number one marathoner Bill Rodgers leading the way, Litchfield quickly established its racing bona fides, marked by the brutal Gallows Lane hill in the final mile.

In that first year I tape recorded the start of the race on Main Street, later using the starter’s long drawn out intonation, “R-u-n-n-e-r-s  R-e-a-d-y…” followed by the BOOM! of the First Litchfield Artillery canon and crowd cheering as the opening of my weekly Runner’s Digest radio show.

What defined Litchfield wasn’t just the friendship with Joe Concannon, who covered the sport for the Boston Globe at a time when that coverage helped create the sport of road racing in the public consciousness.  It wasn’t the nose-scraping elevation of Gallows Lane or the quality of the race field. Instead, what made Litchfield special was the raucous party atmosphere that draped the weekend like the high humidity that always seemed to arrive with it.  Led by co-race founder Billy Neller and race director Rick Evangelisti the Litchfield weekend soon became a fixture on the racing/party calendar for runners from the north and south alike, dividing the town into Red Sox and Yankee fandoms in the process.

Even race directors and co-founders ran in the early days

Even race directors and co-founders ran in the early days

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THE OLYMPICS: SUPER BOWL OR PRO BOWL?

Steph Curry skips Olympics

NBA MVP Curry opts out of Olympic tourney

It’s not like USA Basketball will miss a beat without him, but when two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors announced that he was going to skip the Rio Olympics to rest a sore knee, it just reinforced the belief that for many professional athletes the Olympics are more like the Pro Bowl than the Super Bowl, a nice consolation for the guys who don’t make it to the Big Dance.  The only athletes who rely on the Olympics are the ones in track & field, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, etc.  And for track athletes, at least, the irony is that they have to cover up what little sponsorship they do have when the world is finally watching.

It is kind of crazy, right?  So how’s this for a counter-intuitive “do the opposite” consideration?

Because the Olympics only comes around once every four years, and then so completely dwarf the non-Olympic year competitions in running, rather than help build up the sport, the Games actually restrict interest to their very small window.  Thus, as long as the Olympics remain at the top of running’s mountain, the sport will never experience new growth, leaving athletes with no voice, much less a financial interest in the biggest competition that defines their careers.

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