Category: Commentary

TIGER ROARS AGAIN

Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Oh, the airtime and pixels that were dedicated to Tiger Woods’ second-place finish at the 100th PGA Championships in St. Louis last weekend. For those stuck in a cave somewhere, Tiger roared to a final round 64 at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis to place second to young stallion Brooks Koepka who won the third major of his career, while becoming only the fifth golfer to ever take the U.S. Open and PGA titles in the same year (Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen).  In the end, Koepka beat Tiger by two, and the field by three and more with his final round 66, 16-under total.

Still, it was the closest run Tiger  had made to a major win since Torrey Pines 2008, where he won the U.S. Open on a broken leg, the last of his 14 major titles. His run electrified the St. Louis faithful, and sparked a 69% increase in TV ratings over last year’s PGA.

But the greatest comeback ever, as some pundits were opining if he actually won? Don’t let Ben Hogan fans (or Tiger for that matter) hear you say that. Hogan almost died in a car crash driving home to Texas with his wife after the Phoenix Open in 1949. Docs said he might not ever play golf again, especially after a blood clot permanently closed the major vein to his lower extremities. And yet he came back to win the 1950 U.S. Open 16 months later. Now that is a legendary come back.  (more…)

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NEVER MIND THE MATCH RACE

Well, so much for sticking my head inside the lion’s mouth outside the Chicago Art Museum. 

I’m getting hammered pretty badly across different fora and websites for my last blog post suggesting that the Chicago Marathon ditch its deep elite men’s field for a match race between defending champion Galen Rupp of the United States and his former Nike Oregon Project teammate Mo Farah of England. 

OK, I get it, bad idea.  And I even understand why. Sorry. At least I spurred a little extra interest in the race. (more…)

CHICAGO 2018: TOO MANY CANDIDATES ON THE BALLOT

Though it was a Frenchman, Michel Bréal, who first suggested that a distance race be held in the 1896 Olympic Games and be called the Marathon, it may be that fate, too, had a hand in the formulation.  You see, Athenian democracy, described as the first known democracy in the world, developed around the same fifth century BC time frame as the myth of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger whose run from Marathon to Athens telling of a great military victory over an invading Persian force was the genesis of our modern sport. And what is the Marathon but the most democratic of all sporting events where all are welcome to participate and the winners are decided by open competition?  It is in the light of that history that I make the following observation.

The 2018 BofA Chicago Marathon has set up another great open field for October 7th.  Announced yesterday, it is loaded with past and current champions from around the racing world. 2018 Boston, Dubai, Prague, Paris, Rotterdam, and Tokyo champions have all signed on. But hidden deep within that collection of mostly anonymous talent is something this sport has longed for since the days when Bill Rodgers first challenged Frank Shorter in the short mid-1970s window when both were at the top of their game, a great mano a mano duel. 

Here we have defending Chicago champion Galen Rupp and his former Nike Oregon Project training partner Mo Farah signed and sealed. It’s something the sport (and track and field) has been starved for and lax in developing for years, a truly intriguing match race. The last such match race worth its spit was staged in 1996 when Olympic long sprint champion Michael Johnson of the USA took on short sprint champion Donovan Bailey of Canada over an intermediate 150-meter distance in Toronto following the Atlanta Games. And though the race itself fizzled with Johnson pulling up lame midway, the promotion itself was a big success.

Now, for the first time in memory, we have two well branded Olympic distance medalists, men who used to be teammates, going head-to-head for the first time in the marathon, both looking to bust a fast time on one of the fastest courses in the world. Accordingly, Chicago is reinstating pacers after discarding that crutch following the 2014 race. And it makes perfect sense because both Rupp and Farah are past track burners who have yet to break through in terms of marathon times on par with their 10,000 meters PRs.

Here, then, is a natural rivalry that people might actually want to see, one that can be marketed, Galen versus Mo,m. And then they go lard it up with all these admittedly fast but anonymous extras who do nothing but steal the spotlight from the one thing that might get average people to stop and pay attention. Why?  Cause we’ve always done it this way? (more…)

“IT’S GOTTA BE DA SHOES”

Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon

In his classic Nike ads from a generation ago, Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) asked Michael Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the universe. Was it the vicious dunks?  The long shorts? The short socks?  

“No Mars, “ replied MJ. 

“Money, it’s gotta be da shoes!”

I have never written a shoe review in my life, but how can shoes not be an issue in a sport where footwear is the only equipment used?  Like tires on a car, shoes are where rubber meets the road/track in foot racing.

If the kicks weren’t so important. why has every shoe company continued designing and experimenting for the last 50 years?  Obviously, marketing is one answer, but there is always more to learn, more performance to squeeze out. Not that a new pair of Air Jordans will make you approximate Mr. Jordan on the court, but in the realm of performance, the small difference is where the money gets divided. Which makes new strides in technology open to new rules in governing. Which, in turn, illustrates why a shoe company sponsorship of a governing organization eventually leads to conflicts of interest both unwanted and unneeded in a time when the integrity of the sport has been called into question over and over again.

So, say, someone goes out and breaks the women’s steeplechase world record by eight seconds, but does so like she were taking the pet terrier out for a walk in the park, and instead of unalloyed encomiums, inevitably some will say, “Whoa! That sure looked easy!”  That’s how you know a sport has a PR issue, when a great performance raises red flags rather than simply goosebumps, and the big, red carpet sports awards show (ESPYs) doesn’t even take note of two of the historic American marathon performances in 30+ years.   (more…)

MIND OVER MATTER

Foot racing is both a simple and complex proposition.  Simple in the sense of one foot in front of another from a set starting point to a fixed finish line, first in wins.  Yet it is also a complex set of physical, emotional, and psychological interactions, both within the individual athlete and externally among opponents, that produces the outcome.

When asked about a racing effort, Kenyan athletes will often say, “my body did not (or did) respond” in explaining their experience.  To some, this comes across as oddly detached.  What do you mean, “ my body didn’t respond?  Why not just say “I didn’t perform?”

Maybe it’s a simple as language, say, the way American English and British English differ in terms like bonnet (in the U.S. it’s a woman’s hat, for the Brits, the hood of a car).  But it’s more than that.

I have found that for Kenyan athletes, me, my body, and my performance are all quite distinctive, in the same sense that an opera singer sees his/her voice as a distinctive instrument rather than an extension of self. Though contained within, it is not one and the same as that which constitutes ME. 

This distinction mirrors Rene Descartes’ philosophy of “mind-body dualism” that argues that the nature of the mind is completely different from that of the body, and therefore it is possible for one to exist outside the context of the other. In racing terms, it is one thing to come up with a race strategy and quite another to successfully carry it out. Therefore, “my body did/did not respond” perfectly explains this duality.

This argument also gives rise to the famous problem of mind-body causal interaction which remains a hot topic of debate.  Since the mind is the cause agent for the body’s functions – right let, left leg, breathe in, breathe out – how can the body cause sensations in the mind when their natures are completely different?  To which runners might answer, ever hear of endorphins?

Yes, there are times when your legs actually tell you what to do, almost like they had a mind of their own.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does the feeling is that of riding on auto pilot, what athletes call being “in the zone”, or “flow state“. 

We bring all that we are – mind and body – to the race course, and what we produce on the day sometimes works in unanimity, and other times does not.  Meaning all we can manage is the effort and the response to competition. For the most part, the mind is the willful agency as we push our sorry ass forward despite the discomfort being experienced by the body.  It is a learned response, this willful act that makes the body to perform beyond its base intentions. This is how champions are decided and individual moments of grace are achieved on race day.

Here’s hoping everyone gets to experience being “in the zone” sometime this summer. 

END

HEY, USAIN

Usain’s team Stromsgodset lost 1-0 

In this year, with no Olympics or World Championships on the calendar, athletics is reshuffling its deck seeking the new face-of-the-sport to replace Usain Bolt who retired last year as the world record holder in both the 100 and 200 meters.

Retirement finds the Jamaican superstar sprinter continuing his long sought dream to play pro futbol, stating in 2016 that his dream was to play for Manchester United. Last month the 31 year-old Jamaican played 20 minutes for Norwegian team Stromsgodset in a friendly against Norway U19s.

But could there be something more that Usain Bolt could do for his old sport of athletics with his outsized persona and abundant free time after his futbol itch has even scratched? (more…)

CASTER SEMENYA TO CHALLENGE IAAF CLASSIFICATION RULE

Semenya has been making it look easy

There’s almost no way to address the issue of hyperandrogenism in sport today in a coldly clinical manner.  The politics of gender identification remain too sensitive, too complex.  Yet the issue is in the spotlight once again, as legal representatives of two-time Olympic and three-time World 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa prepare to challenge a female classification rule imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF)  before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland today.

The IAAF rule, established in April 2018, and scheduled to be enforced beginning this November, will require female runners with naturally high testosterone levels to either race against men, or change events unless they take medication to reduce their testosterone levels.  The ruling will involve athletes in events ranging from 400-meters to the mile.

In what amounts to an amicus brief, South African law professor Steve Cornelius resigned from the IAAF disciplinary tribunal on May 1st to protest the IAAF classification rule. Professor Cornelius, who was appointed to the IAAF tribunal late last year, wrote that he could not in good conscience continue to associate himself with “an organization that insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be.”

27-year-old Caster Semenya has been dogged by the gender controversy since she won her first of three 800-meter world titles in Berlin 2009 as a teenager while winning competitions with noticeable ease for the last several years.  She is currently on a 24-finals win streak in the 800, with her last loss in her specialty coming in Berlin in September 2015. She spoke out against the IAAF classification rule through her legal representatives at the Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, saying “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.” (more…)