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Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

Reserving the Right to Resist the Hype

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Besides the Super Bowl, February brings three super-mega-hyper sports spectacles aimed at stirring fans' passions and gluing their eyeballs to TV screens—the Winter Olympics, Daytona 500 and NBA All-Star Weekend. Being fairly detached, however, the Observers can be underwhelmed by certain events, though not always unanimously.

Frank: You told me months ago to remind you, so here it is. The Olympics are coming!

Artie: Didn't we just have those a couple of years ago?

Frank: Those were the summer kind. The Winter Olympics will be Feb. 12-28 in Vancouver.

Artie: Oh yeah. Didn't I hear Vancouver's a little short of something important, like snow?

Frank: For some venues, it appears they'll have to haul it in from farther north. The same thing happened four years ago in Turin. And I daresay it'll keep happening as the world keeps defying Rush Limbaugh by warming up.

Artie: As far as I'm concerned, the closing ceremonies are the best part of the Winter Games.

Frank: They don't have a lot of sports that command a huge audience—in America, at least—between Olympics. And this time, I think, American fans don't have a lot of super-duper story lines to follow.

Artie: None, if you ask me. But then I didn't even know they were starting.

Frank: Four years ago we had this swashbuckling skier, Bode Miller, who was supposed to be Superman. But he flopped completely and acted like a jerk to boot. This year a U.S. woman, Lindsey Vonn, is one of the world's best skiers, but the hype is toned down. Plus we don't have a riveting story in figure skating—no Michelle Kwan comeback or Harding-Kerrigan melodrama. For a while it seemed Sasha Cohen might skate in Vancouver…

Artie: Sacha Baron Cohen? You mean Borat was gonna skate for Kazakhstan? That, I'd watch!

Frank: No, Sasha Cohen, the 2006 women's silver medalist who tried to come back after a long layoff. But she didn't make the U.S. team.

Artie: Not that it matters. People will always watch the figure skating, especially the women, ain’a?

Frank: With good reason. There's no other sport where the top-level participants have fewer competitions, which makes the Olympics even more important. The top skaters probably compete fewer than half a dozen times each season. In the Olympics entire careers can be made or wrecked in one instant, one meeting of ice and a thin metal edge. The atmosphere can be comically stagy, but the drama is super-real.

Artie: Figure skaters should have a category where they wear 40-pound Snoopy heads or a Big Bird costume. It would build a TV audience of youngsters and help the skaters, because after the Olympics that's what they'll be doing for a living.

Frank: The "Disney on Ice" event, huh? There are few other individual stars whom Americans really know going into these Games. There's the African-American speedskater Shani Davis, who won two medals at Turin amid some intra-team squabbling, and of course the short-track skater Apolo Ohno, who pops up every four years for a few of those roller-derby races.

Artie: I'm sure Norway is going nuts for Ole-something-sen, the next great cross-country skier or ski jumper or whatever.

Frank: But the big team sport in Vancouver, hockey, should be terrific. It looks like NBC and its partners, MSNBC, CNBC and USA, will show every game, men's and women's.

Artie: Are NHL players in this for their various countries?

Frank: You betcha. Every time around, the NHL whines about shutting itself down, but there's hardly anything less meaningful than an NHL game in February.

Artie: OK, so that's something to watch.

Frank: Best of all, NBC's No. 1 play-by-play announcer, Mike Emrick, is superb. I think he's the best broadcaster for his sport of anyone—knowledgeable, exciting, somehow keeps track of everyone on the ice, explains the flow of the game. If you're into hockey even a little bit, it's a delight.

Artie: Anything else besides hockey?

Frank: The skiing is fun to watch, the ski jumping is cool, and nothing's crazier than the luge except for skeleton, where they shoot down the ice face-first. And for me there's the guilty pleasure of...

Artie: Can't be women's beach volleyball in the winter. Is there ice volleyball?

Frank: Nope, it's something that couldn't be further from beach volleyball, in action or attire. Women's curling!

Artie: Don't men do it, too?

Frank: Yes, but I seem to have interest in only one version. It's fun to watch the strategy as the "rocks" slide down the ice, with the broomers sweeping frantically to make them do something or other.

Artie: I'll hold out for ice volleyball.

Frank: But talk about young people—most of what they follow is what we geezers think of as novelty stuff. Snowboarding, half-pipe stunt jumping, aerial skiing.

Artie: Like ultimate fighting, this stuff is a big subculture.

Frank: Maybe not "sub" in the future. In 50 years the "goofy” stuff might be the main attraction of the Winter Games.

Artie: Assuming there's any place with enough snow.

More Speed Bumping

Frank: Two days after the Olympics open, there's the "Great American Race," the Daytona 500. I see NASCAR advertising this as a return to "racing like it's meant to be." So I ask the gearhead in this partnership, what's that mean?

Artie: To make things more competitive for the drivers, they're making design changes in what was the "Car of Tomorrow"…

Frank: Which is now the Car of Yesterday?

Artie: Maybe the Day After Tomorrow. They're also changing the size of the restrictor plate, something used mainly at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, to give cars more horsepower and drivers more control. And the bump-drafting policy is changing.

Frank: Better explain that to this non-gearhead.

Artie: Because of the amazing speeds, cars can lock right on each other's rear ends and "draft," or tag along. In the past there were certain no-drafting zones on a track.

Frank: Because the speeds would be so high with cars just inches apart?

Artie: You got it. Now there'll be none of those no-drafting zones. It'll be wide-open racing—at least I hope so. The last couple of years the racing's been terrible, very little passing and boring as hell.

Frank: It's always boring as hell to me.

Artie: The TV ads are like the latest Domino's Pizza campaign—"We admit the product was lousy, but it'll taste better now."

Frank: NASCAR President Mike Helton invoked the adage, "If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin'." Sounds like they want more crashes and flying cars. And that they're trying to find another Dale Earnhardt.

Artie: Yeah, when you don't have heroes and villains and fisticuffs in the infield, something's gotta change—and their TV ratings reflected that. So hopefully, along with these new rules, they'll hire Vince McMahon to orchestrate some of the mayhem.

Mad Hot NBA

Frank: A few hours after Daytona ends, there'll be one of those must-miss all-star games, this one in the NBA.

Artie: Must miss? Not for me, pal. I love All-Star Weekend!

Frank: Really? The dunk contest, the three-point contest...

Artie: The rookie-sophomore game, the skills challenge, everything. And especially the game itself, because you get to see more of the Globetrotter-type stuff, the outlandish skills of the players. The behind-the-backs, the no-looks, the thunder dunks. It's so much better than most of the regular-season snooze-fests.

Frank: So the game's inherent triviality allows the players to let 'er rip. As opposed to, say, last weekend's NFL Pro Bowl, where the main goal is to not get hurt.

Artie: Which many accomplish by not even showing up.

Frank: But at least the Pro Bowl choices really prove themselves during the season. In the NBA, Allen Iverson, who got dumped by Memphis and has played fewer than half the 76ers' games, was voted an East starter by the fans.

Artie: And Tracy McGrady, who hasn't played in months because of injury, almost was voted a West starter. If that's how in-touch the fan-voters are, it's time to change the system.