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Friday, March 5, 2010

The Medal Game

According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Olympics is a measure of many enduring characteristics -- even masculinity:

"The people responsible, or some of those responsible for the preparations, should do the manly thing and make the appropriate announcement. If they're lacking in decisiveness, we'll help them."

Medvedev is referring to Russia's Olympic officials following what the Russian government considered to be a weak showing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (Russia finished with 15 medals, it's lowest output since 1956). The head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachev, resigned two days later, citing the team's "unexpectedly" lackluster showing in Vancouver.

Ah, there's the Olympic spirit.

There's no shame in tracking the medal count in the inset of your morning paper and beaming in pride at your country's latest bronze medal in underwater basketweaving, but at what point did the collective hardware haul of each nation become the barometer of success?

The Olympics should be defined by moments -- Dan Jansen's victory lap with his daughter, Kerri Strug's one legged vault, or my personal favorite, four limping Jamaicans carrying their rickety bobseld to the finishline.

The idea that the number of medals a nation wins has any correlation to the greatness of a nation (or genetic superiority) is backwards -- Olympic success has and always will be the direct result of the amount of time and money a nation puts into developing athletes and building top notch facilities. The best example of this is the evolution of the Chinese Olympic program over the past couple decades: the government took proactive measures to start investing in events outside of its traditional strengths (diving, table tennis, gymnastics) in anticipation of hosting the 2008 summer games. They targeted niche events (rowing, beach volleyball, shooting) by outsourcing the best coaches and plucking prospects from each respective sport at an early age. What the Chinese Olympic program did was akin to creating a AAA farm system to nurture and develop their athletes and in the end, they were rewarded: 51 gold medals, including their first medals of any color in obscure sports such as windsurfing (how is this an Olympic event?).

So what's wrong with these so-called medal factories (by the way, you're delusional if you think the United States doesn't run its own). The real danger lies in how they shift the focus of the Olympics from celebrating sportsmanship and the lifetime achievement of selfless athletes to a rogue 'me against the world' mentality.

We've seen the Olympics used as a pedestal for bigotry (Hitler's '36 games) and terrorism ('72 Munich). It's been used as a political chess piece (The USA's boycott of the 1980 Moscow games) and as a platform for social justice (Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the '68 Mexico City games). The international stage the Olympics provide have always left the games vulnerable to extracurricular agendas. This will never change.

While history assures us that there will always be turmoil in the world, there's no reason why the Olympics have to reflect reality. As Russia scrambles to engineer the ultimate medal machine program for the 2014 games in Sochi, their driving motivation for the games needs to lie beyond repairing a bruised ego.

Don't be surprised if the Russians dominate everything from the iditarod to curling in four years. The best thing Americans can do is focus on genuine moments of Olympic joy, regardless of nationality. If you get too wrapped up in the medal counting game you might just miss four Jamaicans in a bobsled.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The United State(s) of Hockey

The results are in: 27.6 million redblooded Americans watched Sunday's USA-Canada gold medal hockey game. The overtime classic pummeled the 2002 Salt Lake City USA-Canada gold medal match ratings by over 10 million viewers. This number surpasses both the highest rated individual game of the '09 World Series (22.8) and the '09 NBA Finals (16.0). Still not impressed? It's overnight rating tops any Final Four basketball game since 1998, any NBA finals game since '98, or any World Series game since 2004.

Move over, Lebron. It's time to make way for Leclaire. Forget Yankees-Red Sox, have you heard about the heated Caps-Senators rivalry?

OK, so we're getting a little carried away. Before puck purists prematurely crown hockey as the next great American past time, the sport must first overcome the following obstacles:

1. Olympic and NHL hockey are two entirely different brands. Yes, both can market the supreme talents of Ovechkin and Crosby but the similarities end there. The Vancouver Olympics provided the perfect storm for Americans to watch the finale: they were fresh off the most prolific medal count in Winter games history, the game was broadcasted live mid-day on a weekend preventing word of mouth or internet spoilers, and it was the last medal event of the games (which is not always the case). Finally, let's be honest -- a lot of Uncle Sam backers were licking their chops at the prospect of beating Canada at it's own game. Americans had more incentive to tune in for this game than they ever will for a domestic NHL Stanley Cup playoff game. One more thing -- the game was actually on regular TV. Which brings us to the NHL...

2. It's not on TV. In the age of HD television and network sponsored internet broadcasts, an overwhelming majority of fans are enjoying games from their armchairs. The NHL has had several stints on major networks (does anyone remember the flaming puck on FOX?), each ending without a contract renewal due to abysmal ratings. At it's lowest point, Americans were more likely to watch re-runs of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than a budding regular season rivalry such as Red Wings-Avalanche. Ouch.

It's no coincidence that the NFL was the sole professional sports league that the gold medal game could not surpass in viewership. The $20 some billion dollar TV contract the league boasts is the result of savvy marketing campaigns promoting couch potato services such as real time fantasy stat trackers, the Redzone Channel, and NFL Sunday Ticket. Meanwhile, the NHL toils in obscurity on second tier cable networks such as the Versus channel or the Outdoor Life Network (anyone up for some curling?). The fact that the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't broadcasted on a major network immensley hurts the league. Unforunately, the ugly ratings precedent has networks unwilling to make a leap of faith that the Olympic finale will carry over even a minute fraction of it's audience over to the NHL.

3. Accessibility. Hockey is an specialized sport -- from ice rental time to expensive equipment, it's an activity that requires planning and deep pockets. Outside of the occasional frozen lake in Duluth, pick up hockey in the States simply cannot exist because it's a logistical nightmare for penny pinching parents. Kids in warm weather climates can't be expected to pass up the outdoors on a sunny day for the chilly confines of a local ice rink they share with other ice-related sports. Poor attendance for franchises residing in cities absent of sub-zero winters reflect this disconnect.

I'll give the NHL credit for countering this with its annual outdoor game: it's a unique idea that appeals to both diehard and casual fans. Having the stones to place franchises in the south was an admirable attempt to widen the NHL's fan base, but four of the five teams on the brink of collapsing reside in sweet tea country (Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville). Again, this is no coincidence. An unnamed executive hypothesized that as many as 15 NHL teams would bite the dust in the next two years. This is likely an exaggerated prediction, NHL commish Gary Bettman would sooner slash payrolls by 50% before he allowed half of the league's teams to contract. Still, the fact that the NHL has to even consider such a scenario doesn't bode well for the league's future.

Finally, we have to wonder what kind of boost a United States victory would have provided for the sport. There's no doubt the David and Goliath storyline would have inspired feel good Disney remakes for years to come but beyond that there's little evidence to suggest such an improbable triumph would have solved hockey's long term problems. While the Olympics creates a new wave of Wheaties Box heroes every two years, the NHL struggles to find sponsorship on the side of your local ice cream truck.

Sidney Crosby erased any potential speculation American hockey had surpassed their northern neighbors with a quick overtime goal. The universe was restored -- hockey was still Canada's game. You can't help but feel it's better off in their hands.


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