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July 17, 2008

Olympic Lessons

A few quick notes before today’s post …

* First, an update on the fires marching toward Carmel Valley: Firefighters have made significant progress in controlling them. The fire is something like 70% contained – but unfortunately, the active portion is creeping ever closer to a populated area about 4 miles from my street. The immediate vicinity of my house is considered well protected, but the nearby evacuations that were initiated this week are still in place. I guess “cautiously optimistic” is an accurate, if very understated, way to describe the situation.

* On a lighter note - a few days ago my wife was at an outdoor store, and came home with this announcement: “Apparently, Sport Beans are on their way out. I can’t find them anywhere. The guy said they won’t carry them anymore.”

Can anyone else confirm this? Needless to say, this is a disheartening development. I guess this would explain why they never responded to my plea for free samples a few months ago. What a bummer. However, I have been on the receiving end of a couple of other swag items, which I’m very delinquent on reporting about. I’ll rectify this in the near future, I hope.

* Last evening, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were guests on HBO’s Bob Costas Now - a sports version of a political town-hall meeting - on the topic of baseball in America. There was a retrospective look at their careers, and a half-hour interview segment with the two men who are widely regarded as the best to ever play. It was a wonderful segment, and the final exchange struck me as particularly profound.

The men were asked if, during their long rivalry and friendship during their playing days, they concerned themselves with who had the better statistics from one season to the next, or who would hold what records when they retired. I don’t remember the exact wording of their response – and to my eternal shame, I wasn’t watching with TiVo – but Aaron replied with something like this: We didn’t care about the numbers. We wanted to have fun. We both knew we were fortunate to be playing this game. We encouraged each other, because we recognized that our talent and opportunities were a gift, and we wanted to honor that gift by performing as well as possible.

(I looked for a video clip of this online, but I haven’t seen one posted yet. You’ll just have to trust me.)

Read those last four sentences again. Shouldn’t those rules apply to any of us? Running is a gift. Triathlon is a gift. If only we could all recognize and honor that fact. And I’m not usually one to get nostalgic … but I couldn’t help but think that many of today’s professional athletes could certainly take a little advice from Hammerin’ Hank.

OK, enough intro. On with the post …


At long last, it’s time for the topic that was twice postponed over the past week. It’s on the subject of the Olympics, and it’s equal parts flashback and followup.

The flashback element is that this is an old article - one I originally wrote for my former website shortly after the Athens Olympics in 2004. The followup is in response to my recent speculation about Dara Torres, and the possibility that her story might not be entirely legitimate.

I truly want to believe in Torres. I also want to believe in Tyson Gay, Deena Drossin, Ryan Hall, and in the American triathletes competing in Beijing next month (by the way – is there any more complicated and confusing selection procedure than the one used by the US Olympic triathlon team? I actually tried to follow the process for a while, and it made my head spin. I’m just going to tune in this August and cheer for whoever is wearing the Stars and Stripes.)

The problem is that I also believed in Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, and many others. I’ve been disappointed too many times, and I have enough awareness of the scope of the drug problem to know that nothing can be trusted with absolute certainty anymore – and it simply breaks my heart.

Because ever since I was a small child, I’ve been enamored with the Olympics. I remember – even as a 9-year-old - being distraught at the US boycott in 1980, and I fondly recall the euphoria of America’s gold medal avalanche (thanks in no small part to the Soviet boycott) at Los Angeles in 1984. And with the recent blessings of videotape and TiVo, I watched almost every event of the track and field competitions from Atlanta and Sydney and Athens. If I had to rank my top 20 sports memories, it’s quite likely that more than half of them would be from a summer Olympiad (actually, that’s not a bad idea for a post someday - I’ll file it away for later).

Unfortunately, I don’t watch with the eyes of a child anymore – and that’s why I’ve become so emotionally conflicted with the specter of the upcoming games. Four years ago, I thought it might help to watch some events with my kids – and the result is the post that follows.


“Olympic Lessons”

Sometimes, a race is just a race. Other times, it can reveal something of a person’s character – and not just for the athletes, but for those watching them as well. Last month’s Olympic track meet provided one such instance of the latter category.

I figured that watching the meet would be a fantastic opportunity to expose my two older kids to the events, and gauge their respective interest level. My son had just been to a track meet where he raced (well, sort of) in two sprints, and he liked watching the runners race the same distance - 100m - that he ran a couple of weeks earlier. My daughter hasn’t ever really paid attention to any sports, but she sat on my lap to watch a few races, and understood that her Daddy does the same thing (well, sort of) as the runners on TV.

Despite their generally comparable upbringing, my son and daughter are very dissimilar creatures, and view the world quite differently in many ways. Watching the Athens Games together made some of these disparities even more evident.

My 6-year-old son is a pure logician, curious to know how things work, constantly analyzing the structure and mechanics of any item or event. He thinks like a scientist, and occasionally misses the forest for the biochemical composition and root structure of each individual tree.

Watching the 100m race from the elevated camera angle, he spotted the trackside camera moving along the railing beside the runners, and recognized the shots that came from this particular camera as they were interspersed in the broadcast. He wanted to know how they started the camera rolling down the track, and if they adjusted the speed of it to account for faster or slower runners. He also asked if the aerial shots of the stadium came from a blimp or a helicopter. He wondered how the runners know where to place the starting blocks before the start. (I felt bad for not knowing the answers. These are good questions, aren’t they? I really should know these things.)

Later, he asked if anyone had tried banking the curves of the track to make it easier for runners to turn when they are going fast (actually, I knew this one. The answer is yes…indoor tracks are built this way). Basically, he was turning the Olympic track meet into an episode of “Modern Marvels”.

Having just recently discovered the concept of competition, his typical pattern during races was first to ask, “Is that guy winning?” and if the answer was yes, then say, “That’s the one I’m cheering for.” Always a winner, this kid.

By contrast, my 3-year-old daughter is naturally considerate, compassionate, and nurturing - at such a level that it frequently eclipses that of her own parents. She has the same powers of observation as her brother, only for different things.

As she sat in my lap while watching various races, she noticed the many different colors of the runners’ skin, which led to a nice discussion about diversity of cultures and ethnicities. (Incidentally, she seemed more in tune to this than NBC- who somehow didn’t notice that Jeremy Wariner was the first white American to win a sprint medal since 1964. Are we so politically sensitive that we aren’t allowed to mention this? It seems like a great talking point for breaking down racial stereotypes. Sorry, I’m ranting.).

When the runners were introduced before each race, my daughter wanted to learn their names. In a couple of women’s races, she asked if a particularly muscular female was a boy or a girl (and stunningly, she was accurate- one of the women she questioned was later stripped of a medal for steroid use). She asked if any the women who were running were also mommies. She probably didn’t even realize that the runners were racing, but after they finished she often commented, “They look tired.”

Of course, I’m just as susceptible to natural bias as my children are. As the women’s 400m hurdles race unfolded, the TV commentators marveled at the inspirational performance of Greek champion (Fani Halkia), who was carried to victory by a delirious home crowd, and stood atop the podium for one of the most emotional medal ceremonies of the Games. Watching the same race at home, I was thinking to myself, hmmm…here is a woman who currently runs the 400m hurdles faster than she ran the open (no hurdles) 400m one year ago, who has become dramatically faster in her event in an extremely short period of time, and is a teammate of two other Greek runners who had been banned from the competition for steroid use. Are we just supposed to believe that these facts are entirely coincidental?

My cynical mind just couldn’t submit to the apparent splendor of the scene – but to my credit, I kept such thoughts to myself while my daughter admired Halkia’s long blond hair, “Like I have. And like Cinderella has.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this particular Cinderella probably had a higher testosterone level than most princes she knows.

It’s always interesting to discover how different people can view the same event at the same time, and make completely different observations and conclusions about it. Such instances reveal a great deal about the viewer, and the inherent filters through which they see the world. Maybe it’s a bit unusual that these inner discrepancies would bubble to the surface during a track meet; then again, in my house, a track meet could be the backdrop for just about anything.

Besides, the Olympics are clearly a special occasion. I mean … how many other shows can a compulsively analytical boy, a romantic touchy-feely girl, and their overly jaded father all watch together with equal enjoyment? I guess that’s one of the things that makes the Olympic track meet special: it has something for everybody.


Anne 7/18/08, 6:25 AM  

I agree that the rash of drug convictions has us now immediately questioning just what's behind each amazing feat -- at least if performed by an American or European. Notice the doping stuff never seems to be an issue with third-world and developing nations?

And may the fires stay away from you and yours. 70% containment is a very good sign.

stronger 7/18/08, 7:38 AM  

I say let 'em all use drugs and then the person on the best drugs with the best performance wins more fair and square...and the viewers don't have to sit at home wondering who is or who isn't on drugs.

Makita 7/18/08, 7:49 AM  

"Despite their generally comparable upbringing, my son and daughter are very dissimilar creatures, and view the world quite differently in many ways."

The same is true in our home. Amazing, isn't it? I look forward to watching this years Olympics games and hope that we can have similar conversations. Everything in life provides for learning opportunities, we just have to be open to them.

I, too, am saddened by the growing issue of steroid use. I don't have a solution - but perhaps, just talking with our kids, being involved with them in the everyday, and discussing these issues will help assure that future generations don't make these same choices.


70% is hopeful. I'll keep you in our thoughts and prayers.

Deene 7/18/08, 8:48 AM  

kids are something else arent they. we have my niece with us this summer, same age as my girl, they are so different, i learn something new everyday.
great post!

21stCenturyMom 7/18/08, 9:33 AM  

I was deeply relieved when I figured out that my 3 kids were all quite different from each other. I was instantly absolved of any responsibility for who they were - I just had to teach them how to act so they are all good citizens of the world. It seems to have worked out.

As for the Olympics - I wish there were a scanning machine like you go throug at the airport that could instantly detect any unnatural substance in the body. Unlike Stronger I'd like these competitions to be about who trains the hardest, has the most natural talent and wants it the most. Such an old fashioned girl, non?

David Ray 7/18/08, 1:48 PM  

Whaddyamean no more Sport Beans? I'm getting mine at REI. No problems last time I was in there.

Oh and, uh, I'm against that doping stuff too.

a.maria 7/18/08, 3:54 PM  

i didn't even read the post.

say it ain't so.

I LOVE SPORTS BEANS!! the lime green yellow ones.

dammit. i'm gunna go stock up now!

David 7/19/08, 9:37 AM  

As much as I hate the steroids I am convinced they will not go away. Maybe we should look at sports in the way cars are raced. There are stock cars (non-steroids) and there are NASCARs and Formula 1 cars (stoked on steroids). Just have everybody declare for what league they want to compete in (clean or dirty). If you win in clean you must be tested and if found dirty, banned from all sports.

Annette 7/19/08, 12:26 PM  

Your 6 year old is a smart kid! He really asked about the track being banked? Dude - you've got a little prodigy on your hands. :) Funny how siblings can be so different, isn't it?

mindy 7/19/08, 7:29 PM  

Glad to hear the fires are not threatening you - have been thinking about you guys out there! It's tough to watch your heroes fall - especially as I watch the Tour this summer.

p.s. If I could have kids like your kids, I'd have kids.

robtherunner 7/20/08, 4:00 PM  

I hope the fires stay at bay and away from all the homes in the area, but especially yours. I like to think that most sporting events are drug free, but in my mind I know that that is not usually the case.

triguyjt 7/20/08, 7:23 PM  

I tend to be pollyannish...that everything is pure....but I know that certainly is not true....

I celebrate the moments for what they are...the small victories within the greater effort..the sight of seeing a fellow competitor break through and go well, even if its at my expense...

I would say, I am eternally, those two softball players who carried their opposing player around the bases. I am always gonna be the one who says "yeah, I stepped out of bounds, that basket should not count. thats my approach to sports. its nice to win, but its the content of ones character that trumps the syringes, and the video cameras on opposing coaches....

great post.

Rainmaker 7/21/08, 4:55 AM  

Bummer about the Sports Beans. My fondest memory of them is during the Marine Corps Marathon last year they handed out the sports beans directly after the sticks of vaseline. Made for a rather hilarious scene as vaseline mixed with sports beans and grown men (and women) expressed extreme displeasure at the inability to eat the beans now covered with vaseline.

Gretchen 7/21/08, 11:35 AM  

Wow-your children make some incredibly astute observations! Are you sure they're only 6 and 3?? It's funny-I've been marinating a post on a similar topic about the Olympics and drugs. I was heartbroken over the Marion Jones thing, I really believed in her. Now I'm in love with Deena Drossin and totally believe in her. It's like a real love affair though, once you've been burned you want to protect yourself from getting your heart broken again. Still, I believe in Deena! Beeing totally cynical is just too depressing. (Although I do hate that "Proud to be an American" song)

Speed Racer 7/21/08, 12:03 PM  

I don't have anything nearly as insightful, interesting, thought-provoking, or well-stated as what you just said. I want to, but I just don't. I DO have a question though: If I were doping, would I look as good as those girls look in a bikini? Cuz if I would, it would all be worth it.

Thanks for such a great post!

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