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Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014

Putin Him in His Place

Shaun White
Shaun White fails to medal
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As always during an Olympics, American TV viewers raced through a wild course of thrilling highlights and devastating shortfalls by our athletes at the Sochi Games. But for the Observers the best outcome had no U.S. connection...

 

Artie: It was sweet enough for our hockey guys to beat the Russians on their home ice in a shootout...

Frank: Thanks partly to a goal that was disallowed because a net was slightly dislodged—something beyond even Vladimir Putin's power to overrule.

A: And then the Russkies got knocked out in the quarterfinals by the plucky Finns!

F: A little payback for that Soviet invasion in 1939.

A: Maybe the Russians didn't realize that "Suomi" on those blue jerseys meant Finland and not some rec-league nickname.

F: Russia wound up with the most medals but Vlady's master plan definitely included gold in hockey.

A: I read that he said it was Priority One for him.

F: He even suited up for a workout with some youth teams, part of his constant campaign to show what a tough guy he is.

A: And then his guys pull a big flop by a 3-1 score. Talk about the mighty falling!

F: I found it extra-appropriate because during the Olympics my favorite TV commercials were the ones for Reebok that used the theme song from “Underdog.”

A: The terrific cartoon series from the '60s starring the immortal Wally Cox...

F: As mild-mannered Shoeshine Boy, who, whenever Sweet Polly Purebred was in peril, became the superhero who'd announce, “The-e-re's no need to fear, Un-n-derdog is here!”

A: The Finns must have sent out the alert.

F: They didn't have to get carried away and clobber America, 5-0, in the bronze-medal game, but still... Speaking of dashed dreams, that also befell the three U.S. athletes we pictured in the Olympic rings a couple of weeks ago.

A: Misfortune by association, since our mugs were in the other two rings.

F: Lolo Jones wasn't really a favorite in the two-woman bobsled; it was the other former sprinter, Lauryn Williams, who took silver to become a winter and summer medalist. But speedskater Shani Davis and snowboarder Shaun White were aiming for gold-medal “three-peats.” Davis' denial was especially shocking.

A: And controversial.

F: None of our long-track speedskaters got a medal, and suspicion focused on the super-duper aerodynamic suits they were using for the first time in competition.

A: I read where the suits were made by Under Armour with design help from Lockheed Martin. What the hell was up with that? Lockheed makes military airplanes, for cryin' out loud! I could have told Under Armour who to consult—DC Comics!

F: Um, because...

A: They could have asked what the hell The Flash wears. He's the fastest guy in the Universe, ain'a?

F: But our skaters kept losing after switching back to their old suits. There's a lot of commentary that most of them trained at the wrong place, namely Salt Lake City, which has a much higher altitude than Sochi. Skating is different “at altitude” because the ice properties are different.

A: But Davis does most of his training right here at the Pettit Center, which is not at altitude.

F: To his credit, Davis didn't blame the suits or anything else. He simply said he tried his best but came up short.

A: Good for him! Hey, speedsters, leave the whining to the figure skaters. They're good at it!

F: It's amazing to see all those skating, skiing and sledding events where winners are determined by a few hundredths of a second. There was even one speedskating race where they went to thousandths of a second to break a gold-medal tie!

A: All sports are games of inches, but when you're splitting seconds how small a fraction of an inch is that?

F: I don't know why they didn't award double golds, which was done when there were matching hundredths in women's downhill skiing. And just ask Tina Maze of Slovenia about split-seconds; she won the giant slalom by .07 after finishing second at Vancouver by .04.

A: One extra bowl of Wheaties over four years?

F: And then, alas, there was Katie Uhlander, a U.S. skeleton rider, who wound up .04 from a bronze medal. TV showed her at the exact moment she realized it.

A: Can't escape NBC's gaze for even a split-second.

F: But she was totally gracious through her tears. At least with skeleton, bobsled and luge there are four runs to determine a total time. But in some events—long-track speedskating, downhill skiing— it's one run, one chance, and if it goes badly, “See you in four years.”

A: "Maybe."

F: Snowboard racer Nate Holland, who came up short in his third Olympics, said it well: "You know, there's something about these five rings that gives me a lot of drive and ambition and joy. But they cause a lot of heartbreak.”

A: I'd say Putin can relate, but he'd need a heart to break.

F: Let's hope the Ukrainian people keep messing up another of his master plans.

 

ONE FOR THE AGES

A: At least the American women brought home a hockey medal, even though it turned from gold to silver in the space of just a few minutes.

F: Up two goals on archrival Canada with 3 ½ minutes to go, but the gods of hockey had something else in mind. It annoyed me that I saw the outcome referred to in some places as a “choke.”

A: Gotta have a story line, just like when the speedskaters didn't succeed.

F: But why does there have to be some kind of extreme description of a loss? Yeah, it was unfortunate that everything came apart so quickly, but does that have to mean that the Americans panicked or eased up or lost their focus?

A: You saw the whole thing but I just saw highlights. So what would you say?

F: Hockey is a mighty fluky game. Of course there's all sorts of talent and strategy involved, but there's also a hell of a lot of strange things that can happen when this little puck is zipping around and everyone's on ice. For instance, the first Canadian goal bounced off one of our players.

A: And how about that U.S. shot toward an empty net that just missed going in?

F: Yup, that would have sealed the game. But if anything that was a double fluke!

A: I only saw the puck hit the post.

F: Well, it wasn't really a shot. The Canadians were swarming with the extra skater and the puck came up the boards toward the blue line. A Canadian player was all set to keep it in the offensive zone, but a lineswoman somehow skated into her, which left the puck free for an American to flip it out of the zone. I suppose she might have been aiming for the empty net but it wasn't like she had an open shot. So yes, when the puck hit the pipe it was a tough break for the U.S., but if it had gone in the Canadians would have been the victims of a huge stroke of bad luck.

A: And then they tied the score with less than a minute left. And won in overtime.

F: The tying shooter popped wide open right in front of the net, which some commentators really lambasted the U.S. defense for. And sure, it was unfortunate, a mistake, but does that really qualify as choking?

A: It's not like our team stopped skating or giving less than full effort. The other big cliché we always hear is that the winners “wanted it more.” How ridiculous is that? Everybody always wants to win equally as much.

F: As Meghan Duggan, one of our players and former UW star, said, “"A couple more bounces go our way and things could be different. But it was a great hockey game to be a part of." That took some class, especially since there's no love lost between those two teams.

 

CONTROVERSY? IT FIGURES

A: I didn't watch as much figure skating as I have in the past, but as always there was some controversy, ain'a?

F: In the women's final a Russian teenager came from behind to edge the defending gold medalist from Korea, after both skated flawlessly.

A: Hmm, sounds like a makeup call by Putin.

F: I doubt it, but since figure skating involves subjective judgments about technique and artistry, there's bound to be hurt feelings.

A: Yeah, you can't tell the winners from the losers because they're all crying.

F: But there's no denying the athleticism they all show. Or the drama they face! Everything—years of training and fighting through injuries and whatever else— depends on how a blade that's not even a quarter of an inch thick lands on ice. That's one reason I don't watch very much of it; it's too sad to see someone fall, then get up and try to smile bravely.

A: But if the Korean was ahead and she didn't fall, why was the Russian able to pass her?

F: There's a degree of difficulty involved in every one of these routines. Scott Hamilton, the former gold medalist and NBC analyst, called it “GOE,” or Grade of Execution points. The Korean's program, the jumps she had planned, were a little less difficult than the Russian's program.

A: How can the jumps be different? I know there are different names but I swear they're all the same. They talk about this one or that one being a lutz, a toe loop, a salchow, but there's no difference! They skate backward, gather themselves, leap up, spin around a few times and land on either their skates or their kiester.

F: It's always looked that way to me, but the experts insist that there are variations in the jumps. Anyway, as I heard it the Korean's routine included one fewer “triple”—jump with three spins—than the Russian's. The judges are told about the routines ahead of time so they can know what to look for.

A: So which judge or judges boosted the Russian to the top?

F: They don't identify individual scores, the way they used to do in the old days when we could hiss at the marks from Soviet Bloc judges. Now the points are added up and posted anonymously, and there was some criticism that the system should be changed back to make individual judges accountable.

A: Hey, no matter what system they use if there's subjectivity there'll be outrage over something.

F: As the Canadian man in the ice dancing said after finishing second to the Americans, “That's the way the cookies crumbled.”

A: Anyway, I used to like watching because I was interested in the skaters' choices for music, but this time I got bored with their middle-brow tastes.

F: How about Ravel's Bolero, which the third-place Italian used?

A: That was the best of what I heard, but the rest of 'em I thought, “Classical? No, this is like K-Mart classical.” No one took a chance. How about some Metallica?

F: Now that would get people talking.

A: But I wish more baseball players would use more of those classical selections.

F: Bolero would be perfect if you were sure the count would go to 3-and-2. It would be perfect music to build up to a payoff pitch.

 

A SHOWBOAT ALMOST SINKS

F: A lot of the cross country skiing and biathlon events were shown in the early morning, which enabled this retiree to see a lot of them.

A: Between all those curling games, of course.

F: You want to see total exhaustion after total effort, watch those sports! Collapsed bodies are strewn right past the finish line. In fact, I was worried that the NBC analyst, Chad Salmela, might not survive the Games because he also put everything he had into describing the close finishes.

A: As we said, it's a long time between shots at Olympic glory.

F: One finish was an absolute epic, and it was because someone's effort eased up for a second. It was in the 15-kilometer “mass start” biathlon.

A: The ski and shoot thing.

F: Yup. Down the stretch a Norwegian, Emil Hegle Svendsen, was leading by a couple of strides over a Frenchman, Martin Fourcade. In the final couple of meters Svendsen—whom the analysts described as something of a showboat, straightened up and raised his arms in triumph—just as Fourcade darted to his inside and lunged hard for the line.

A: Photo finish!

F: Just about. Svendsen won by maybe a foot because their times were listed as identical. Svendsen was mighty fortunate.

A: Shades of Leon Lett!

F: I'm with you! Lett was the Dallas defensive tackle who scooped up a Buffalo fumble in Super Bowl XXVII and rumbled toward the goal line. But in the last 10 yards he slowed up and “showed” the ball, which enabled the Bills' Don Beebe to run him down and swat the ball through the end zone for a touchback.

A: It didn't really cost Lett much because the Cowboys were ahead by five touchdowns.

F: But it sure would have cost Svendsen something. I wonder if any of the Oslo media invoked Lett's name?

A: What's Norwegian for “not bloody likely”?

 

OUT OF BOUNDS?

F: Did you see the interview with skier Bode Miller that stirred up a brouhaha?

A: No, I just heard about it, and to me it seemed like just another one of those manufactured controversies that media gasbags stir up to fill air time.

F: I didn't see it either. The interviewer in question was Christin Cooper, a former Olympic ski medalist herself and someone who's known Miller for a long time. After Miller took bronze in the super-G event—for his sixth Olympic medal, an American record—he apparently was very emotional. And Cooper began the interview by saying, “Bode, you're showing so much emotion down here; what's going through your mind?”

A: Among other things, he was thinking of a brother he'd lost.

F: Right, his brother, a snowboarder, died last year at 29. So Miller told Cooper, “A long struggle coming in here. Just a tough year.”

A: Nothing wrong with that, I'd say.

F: Right, but Cooper posed several more questions that got Miller crying. She and NBC drew some flak for pushing the thing too far.

A: Well, that's always been part of the “up close and personal” stuff we've seen at the Olympics for decades. But one person who didn't rip Cooper was Miller himself, right?

F: Yes, he defended her, telling Matt Lauer, “I've known Christin a long time. She's a sweetheart of a person. I know she didn't mean to push. I don't blame her at all.”

A: If it's OK with him it's OK with me. But some of the gasbags have to work the topic over, like a chew toy.

 

ROCKIN' RESULTS

F: I'm guessing you may not have followed the curling competition to the end, but I'm sure you want to know how it came out.

A: If you insist.

F: My favorite team, the Scottish women representing Britain, took the bronze! The skip, Eve Muirhead, deftly put her last shot “on the button” in the center of the rings to defeat the Swiss. It was great to see the lasses' tears of joy!

A: Robbie Burns would be proud.

F: Canada won both gold medals, with the women completing an unprecedented 11-0 run. The British men took silver.

A: And what about those flashy Norwegians?

F: They lost to the Brits in a tie-breaker game for a spot in the medal round. The British skip, David Murdoch, had an easy shot for one point that would have sent the game to overtime, but instead he went for two points and pulled it off with a combination shot that knocked two Norwegian rocks away. Murdoch, another Scot, said, “No point in playing it safe.”

A: No guts, no glory, even in curling.

 

ALL TOGETHER NOW...

F: Hey, I thought our readers who remember “Underdog” would like to see the lyrics for the entire theme song.

A: Public service. It's what we do.

F: So here they are:

 

When criminals in this world appear

and break the laws that they should fear

and frighten all who see or hear

the cry goes up both far and near

for Underdog! (Underdog!) Underdog! (Underdog!)

 

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder

fighting all who rob or plunder

Underdog. Underdog!

 

When in this world the headlines read

of those whose hearts are filled with greed

who rob and steal from those who need

to right this wrong with blinding speed

goes Underdog! (Underdog!) Underdog! (Underdog!)

 

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder

fighting all who rob or plunder

Underdog. Underdog!

 

WHO CAN YOU TRUST?

F: Another set of Olympic commercials I enjoyed came from TD Ameritrade, in which several American athletes were shown going back through time from their current stardom to when they first got on skis or snowboards or whatever as children.

A: Getting back to where they once belonged.

F: The spots were very well done and quite touching. Except that I happened to read something that tarnished them a little for me.

A: What was that?

F: The childhood stuff presumably was from family videos, and I guess some of it was. But in doing a little research on the Web I found this by Andrew Newman, writing for The New York Times:

 

“Some moments in the commercials... are staged, shot recently using actors in a grainy, home-movie style. The commercials, some of which use several clips with younger actors pretending to be the athletes, contain no disclosure about doing so.”

 

A: Another little bit of trust falls victim to corporate needs.

 

FAMOUS LAST WORDS

F: To finish up our Olympic efforts I gathered a few of the best quotes I heard from NBC's interviews of athletes—medalists and otherwise. Here they are:

 

Ted Ligety, U.S. skier, after a disappointing super-combined event: “It's definitely a bummer. But that's ski racing at times.”

 

Ligety, after winning gold for a second time in the giant slalom: “To be up with some of the greats is really an honor."

 

Shaun White, after failing to medal in the snowboard halfpipe under trying conditions: “It was the same for everyone, so I'm happy for the guys that did well... Next time.”

 

Florence Schelling, Swiss hockey goaltender, after facing 69 shots in a 5-0 loss to Canada: "I planned on this so I was fine, but when the clock hit zeroes I became very tired."

 

Lauryn Williams, silver-medal bobsledder and former Olympic sprinter, who became the second American to medal in both Summer and Winter Games, asked what she'll pursue next: "Probably financial planning. I've been working on that for quite a while, and I'm ready to transition into being a grown-up."

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is often many hundredths of a second slow.