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Monday, July 23, 2012

Bored of the Rings?

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Here it comes, starting Friday night: A quadrennial quest for gold by the world's top competitors—Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald's, GE, Procter & Gamble...

And then there are the Summer Olympic Games in London, offering some athletic drama between the commercials of those official sponsors. Thousands of hours will be shown on NBC's family of channels, to say nothing of online streams. But the Observers are having a little trouble catching Olympic Fever.


Artie:
I don't know what it is, but I have no interest in any of it right now. Maybe once I watch a little...

Frank:
Even with a zillion alternatives on cable, it'll be hard not to.

Artie:
One thing I like is... Do they still have boxing?

Frank:
Yup, and now there's women's boxing too.

Artie:
They can keep that, but boxing has always been my Olympic favorite.

Frank:
It's livelier than the pro version because the bouts are short and scoring is based on a precise definition of blows landed. So they have to whale away instead of dancing and grabbing.

Artie:
I like the sport regardless. I watch all the big fights on HBO—but no pay-per-views, of course.

Frank:
The London 2012 website lists 36 sports, although that includes two versions of canoeing...

Artie:
Forward and backward?

Frank:
Slalom and sprint. And cycling has four versions: BMX, mountain bike, road and track.

Artie:
If there was unicycling and they had to juggle at the same time, now that I'd watch!

Frank:
Anyway, I put the sports in three categories. There are the ones people follow between Olympics—basketball, tennis and, to some extent, soccer.

Artie:
"People" may care about those last two, but I don't.

Frank:
Second, there are sports that people—Americans, anyway—get really into, but only for two weeks every four years—track and field, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, maybe wrestling.

Artie:
Those things actually happen in other years?

Frank:
Which brings up Category 3—sports that we forget even exist, like badminton, fencing, field hockey, synchronized swimming, water polo, weightlifting...

Artie:
And my favorite thing to ignore, that gym dancing...

Frank:
Rhythmic gymnastics.

Artie:
Hey, it's dancing. When they have pole dancing I'll tune in, but not the stuff with ribbons and beach balls. And speaking of beaches, you know what I think about beach volleyball.

Frank:
I only like half of the sport, and it ain't the men's half. What really hooked me in '08 were those odd patches some of the women wore. They looked like ink blots.

Artie:
Some cult thing?

Frank:
Nope, "kinesio tape," which apparently helps support joints and muscles. It looks cool.

Artie:
Excellent reason to watch.

Frank:
Fencing, unfortunately, is nothing like in the movies. They duel for about two seconds, there's a "hit" no one can see, and they break off. Errol Flynn battled the bad guys for five minutes at a stretch.

Artie:
While swinging from chandeliers and jumping off balconies. Let 'em add that!

Frank:
My favorite Category 3 sport is team handball, a wild combo of basketball, soccer and even dodgeball. They run fast breaks and half-court plays, then fire a sphere a little smaller than a volleyball at a goal. And the goalie's only "padding" is long pants and sleeves. Tough stuff!

Artie:
Let's get back to sports I might actually watch.

Frank:
In track and field it'll be interesting to see whether Usain Bolt can repeat in the 100 and 200 meters. He lost to Yohan Blake in both events in the Jamaican qualifying.

Artie:
I guess it'll be fun to see Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte battle for the title of Aquaman. And I'll enjoy watching the NBA guys kick Euro-butt.

Frank:
Count me out. I've seen enough of LeBron and Kobe for a good long while. Same with tennis; I don't care if Roger Federer or Serena Williams adds a gold medal to the trophy case.

Artie:
I'm with you there.

Frank:
When I was at the Journal Sentinel I got to choose the wire-service stories for Olympic events that our staffers weren't covering. I'd look for the best human-interest stuff, like a swimmer from an African country with only one pool.

Artie:
For someone like that, it really is all about "the taking part."

Frank:
Or the archer who twitched at the wrong instant and saw four years of medal dreams vanish. And there was the great story of the Turkish weightlifter called "Pocket Hercules."

Artie:
A tiny guy, ain'a?

Frank:
Under 5 feet tall, but he took gold in 1988, '92 and '96, lifting like three times his body weight. In Turkey he was a god!

Artie:
Track and field should appeal to me, but the doping history curbs my enthusiasm.

Frank:
No one can forget Ben Johnson in '88 and Marion Jones in 2000, although it took her years to confess. But I'm fascinated that a sprinter's life comes down to a few split seconds. On TV, with all the replays and slo-mos, it seems like lingering drama. But it must be amazing to see it live, to realize that fates are sealed in the blink of an eye.

Artie:
My favorite Olympic moment is from track—Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the medal stand in '68.

Frank:
A comparable thing this time might be if someone from one of the "Arab Spring" countries takes a medal.

Artie:
I know NBC's athlete profiles will trot out the usual hearts and flowers with the schmaltzy music, telling how these folks had to walk 10 miles to practice every day, uphill both ways.

Frank:
And the opening and closing ceremonies will be ridiculously overdone. And the commercials even more so.

Artie:
Speaking of drugs at the Olympics, are the Stones part of opening night?

Frank:
They're going respectable with Sir Paul McCartney. It's better than scaring the world's children with the sight of Keith Richards.

A Devastating Hit Was Needed

Frank: We had planned to discuss the Brewers' weekend in Cincinnati...

Artie:
No point in reliving that disaster.

Frank:
Besides, something so much more important than games has happened. The NCAA didn't shut down Penn State's football program, but it severely punished the school for covering up Jerry Sandusky's years of sexual abuse of boys.

Artie:
Banned from bowls for four years, heavy scholarship cuts, a whopping $60 million fine—all of it richly deserved.

Frank:
And Joe Paterno's statue is out of sight now—an admission by the school that its deification of "JoePa" was part of a culture that put football, and the revenue it creates, above everything.

Artie
: Including morality.

Frank:
Paterno did a lot of good things, but emails that came out recently show he went way too far in protecting his friend Sandusky.

Artie:
Instead of the victims.

Frank:
NCAA President Mark Emmert got authorization from his executive board because his action was unprecedented, not prompted by the usual recruiting or spending violations the NCAA investigates. But Sandusky's behavior was so horrible that this scandal was unprecedented.

Artie:
The "death penalty" would be excessive because who'd be punished by banning the program? The athletes and new coaches and students and stadium workers who knew nothing about Sandusky because the school protected him. And it's only fair that any players who want out can transfer without penalty. But the university really needed to get kicked, and kicked hard!

Frank:
Penn State certainly got kicked where it really hurts—the cash box. That's what the administrators and Paterno were protecting instead of Sandusky's victims. As we said when the story surfaced, it's just like any scandal involving an organization—the Catholic Church, a corrupt bank, whatever. Preserving the organization came first.

Artie:
No matter how many people got hurt.

Frank:
But let's be clear. This won't change the fact that Division I football and basketball programs are big-money behemoths. As ESPN's Chris Fowler said Monday, "That ship has sailed."

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