Friday, August 29, 2008

Can You Paddle a Canoe? Your Country Needs You

Over the past two weeks, I watched the TV with disdain as the USA lost the Olympics. For the first time since 1992, when the CIS still competed together, we came home with fewer gold medals than another country. This time around the culprit was the new Red Menace, China. Sure, NBC can spin it any way they want:

However, it's clear that if you go to the official source we Americans came up short in the standings:

What can we do about this to ensure that we're not embarrassed as a nation again in London 4 years from now? I encourage all of us to go from being couch potatoes to being Olympic-caliber athletes. We need to be selective in the sports that we focus on, though. It won't be to our advantage if we're all inspired by Michael Phelps to become world-class swimmers, as the USA already has Michael Phelps. In order to determine where our Olympic program needs the most help, I compared the results from all 302 medal events to see where the US was lagging behind China. I came up with these 6 focus areas.

1. Diving

The only thing that kept China from winning all 8 gold medals offered in this discipline was the horrible choke job performed by Zhou Luxin in his final dive off the platform (coupled with a fantastic last dive by Australia's Matthew Mitcham). The best the US could manage was a pair of 4th place finishes in the men's and women's synchronized springboard events. What happened to the days of hardcore Americans like Greg Louganis? He hit his head (not for the squeamish) on the board in 1988 and still managed to claim the gold. In fact, it's Louganis himself that inspired the Chinese to become so good at diving. From the New York Sun:
The greatest diver in American history, Greg Louganis, played
a small part in the rise of Chinese diving. Louganis won both the
springboard and platform gold medals in both 1984 and 1988,
and Chinese divers took the silver in three of those four events.
The inability to beat Louganis motivated China to reshape its
diving program, with national coaches obsessively studying film
of Louganis to determine how to match his technical precision.
I think it's about time that we Americans do the same. Scour YouTube for footage and study it obsessively. I know what you're thinking. Diving? You want me to put on a Speedo then bounce and twist around in public? In short, yes. Don't do it for me, do it for your country. If you have a friend who's interested, too, bring them along and you can compete together.

2. Canoe/Kayak

There are two disciplines of canoe/kayak in the Olympics: whitewater and flatwater. It's not so much that China is particularly good at these events (they only won a single gold out of 16 possible), it's instead the case that the US doesn't have much of a presence here at all. We only competed in 3 of the 12 flatwater events and didn't make the finals of any of them.

It's easy to see why Americans wouldn't think to participate in this. Rowing (or crew as it's often known) is a pretty big sport at some of our better universities. Due to this, there's an established pipeline to feed athletes into the Olympic program. Case in point, we won three rowing medals in the Beijing games. On the other hand, canoeing is something we only do if we've packed a picnic lunch and a six-pack... hardly an athletic endeavor.

If we're going to improve here we'll need to change our mindset: no more leisurely early morning kayaking or lazy afternoon canoeing. The next time you're out on the lake or stream remember to dig deep and move that water. We won't improve as a nation unless we all improve.

3. Gymnastics

Why is this on the list? Didn't our own Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson take home gold and silver in the all-around? Yes, they did, but while that was going on (and while they were apparently busy keeping their snazzy websites up to date) the Chinese men and women took home a ridiculous 9 gold medals. You could blame some of the lackluster performance on the injuries that crippled the American men's team, who still managed to eke out a bronze medal in the team competition, or the too young members of the Chinese women's team, but that would be taking the easy way out.

The real problem is our apparent lack of physical and mental toughness. There's no reason that American teenagers should be breaking down on the international stage like this. The solution is to attack the competition on two fronts. First, we need to raise our kids a little tougher. It's inexcusable to let things like broken hands, bone spurs, and lapses of concentration negatively impact our national pride. If we have to ship our kids off to gymnastic boot camps run by Army drill sergeants, so be it. Second, the program needs to cater to older generations of gymnasts. Our current philosophy is to chew up and spit out these young men and women while they're in their 20s, but there's no reason that we can't keep people in the program longer as well as catering to late bloomers. Sign up now!

4. Judo

This is another discipline where the US hardly has a presence despite the high number (14) of available medals, especially on the women's side where we only had competitors in 3 out of the 7 weight classes. The Chinese team, led by this monster, racked up 3 golds in Beijing. In America, it seems that most of the time and energy we put into hand to hand combat goes toward either wrestling (both real and fake) or modern bloodsports like the UFC.

To me this seems like poor allocation of our national assets. Is there more glory in nearly bludgeoning someone to death on pay-per-view TV or in literally wrestling a gold medal away from those that seek to diminish our country's prestige in the Olympics? I think the choice is clear. Judo is all about gaining leverage to trip or throw your opponent to the ground. While that may not sound as exciting as pummeling someone in the face repeatedly, you have to admit that there's a little more class involved. And hey, you still get to choke people into submission.

If you're the strong, stocky type that likes to throw people around, don't delay in signing up now. For those of us without the proper build or level of aggression we need to start a grassroots campaign to bankrupt the UFC and other organizations like it. Boycott their events and paid programming (I know you watch it), and encourage our brave, young athletes to take up judo instead.

5. Weightlifting

I don't know what they're feeding those guys, but China won 8 of the 9 weightlifting competitions they entered (they only got silver in the 9th). Most of those victories came by ludicrous margins. Meanwhile, the USA only fielded lifters in 5 of the 15 available weight classes. Perhaps the Chinese are cheating... goodness knows there's a history of that in the sport. If that's the case, we need to figure out what drugs they're using and get some ourselves as they're apparently discreet enough to not be detected.

Regardless, we need to come up with a way to get muscleheads out of the gym and on to the world stage. I'm not talking about posing either. You can't earn any glory for your country from doing that. I'm not going to sugar coat this. There are hazards (again, not for the squeamish) above and beyond just lifting heavy stuff, as a certain amount of balance and coordination is required to execute lifts.

China also has one weakness that we can exploit: they're typically smaller than people from the West. They didn't field any competitors at all in the top three men's weight classes and the top women's weight class. Let's take advantage of our natural girth by turning our weight problem into a positive. If you like to pump iron, it's time to pump with a purpose.

6. Badminton

In Beijing, China won its goal of 3 golds while snagging 8 of the 15 available medals in total. In contrast, Americans only managed a 1-4 record in the 5 different events combined. This is another example of competitive sport that is viewed almost strictly as a leisure activity in the United States. How many people have childhood memories of whacking a birdie back and forth over a volleyball net? It's okay... I'm guilty of this, too.

It turns out that you were really supposed to be pounding it back and forth over a lower net at speeds of up to 200 mph. It's not surprising that this would be a weakness of the US Olympic team given the decline of racket sports in this country. (Quick... name the top-ranked US tennis player. No peeking.) If tennis isn't popular, goodness knows things like badminton probably won't be.

The strategy for this one is simple. I'll win the gold medal in 2012. I actually took a PE class in badminton while at Iowa State; I even still have the book for whatever reason. I'll get to reading... I'm sure I'll be a master before too long.

Feel free to browse around NBC's site to view footage of these and other sports. Click on a sport and a particular day of the competition. Most things will have the word "Rewind" next to it. This will replay the full coverage. Other fun things can be found in the Video section of each discipline.

Study hard, our chance for redemption is only four years away.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mini Golf

It's easy to forget that there are things to do downtown in this city. When Meaghan and I leave the house for fun, we often find ourselves walking around the lake in our neighborhood park or hitting the May Day Cafe on its far side for a spot of coffee and some baked goods. When we range farther afield, we gravitate towards the Mall of America (of all places) or Uptown and its art theater, bookstores, and restaurants.

Last weekend, we took the bus downtown for the first time since seeing the New Pornographers (among others) at "Rock the Garden" back in June. Our destination was again the Walker Art Center, but this time we wanted to play their green-themed mini golf courses. It's only open for another week and a half, but if you happen to be in the area I highly recommend checking it out. Each hole has a unique concept that's somehow related to the environment.

One is constructed completely of found objects. Its centerpiece is an old bike that you pedal to launch your ball off the tee into a pinball machine whose flippers are controlled by the bike's hand brakes. Your skill at this rudimentary game determines how close to the hole your ball is for the second shot. Another hole is crafted 100% from copper. The idea being that once the exhibit has run its course the hole can be melted back into slag and turned into something else... 100% recyclable. It turns out that golf balls roll kind of strangely on copper.

We also spent a couple hours wandering through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. If we'd been thinking straight, we would have packed a picnic lunch to enjoy in the greenspace near the giant cherry. I'd never actually been to see it in person before; I didn't know it was a fountain. There's another neat exhibit in the garden that's also only open for another week and a half. It's a showcase of different technologies (often simple ones) that help to improve the standard of living in the world's poorer places -- a truly eye-opening and inspiring collection of ideas.

Oh, and because I know you were wondering... I managed to eke out a one stroke victory over Meaghan on each of the 7-hole mini golf courses.

Kickoff 2008

College football is upon us again! As I write this, my Iowa State Cyclones lead recent I-AA addition South Dakota State 10-0 at the end of the 1st quarter. The Jackrabbits are the #19 team in the Championship Subdivision. Sadly, I'm not able to attend games in person this year or watch them online as I don't have enough cash in my personal budget to afford such things. Such is life.

Although tonight is the first night of I-A action (20 schools in total are playing), the season actually kicked off Saturday evening. In D-II, last year's national champion #1 Valdosta State put the hammer down on the Fort Valley State Wildcats 56-3. Meanwhile at the NAIA level, tiny Concordia College of Selma, Alabama (just 2-9 last year) shocked at least a small portion of the football world by knocking off #6 Bethel College of Tennessee 23-18.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Let the Madness Begin

I don't know if anyone else is the same way, but every 2 years when the Olympics roll around I find myself trying to watch as much of it as is humanly possible. Of course, I usually only make it through the first weekend before I realize there's no way I'm going to be able to watch as much as I want. So I'm going to try to be selective this year to prevent the burnout. Forget the "gripping" human interest stories, the pageantry of the opening ceremonies, or watching the "Redeem Team" punish some hapless African nation. I'm just going to take the opportunity to enjoy some of the world's lesser known sports that only get this chance to shine on the international stage.

NBC isn't helping my cause any, though. On a combined 5 channels (more if you count HD & Telemundo), they're going to be offering an eye-popping 3600+ hours of coverage. That's apparently more than all of the Summer Games from 1960-2004 combined, which frankly is ridiculous. A large portion of that is available online, too. Please help me avoid the temptation to become an Olympics zombie.

Oh, if anyone was wondering, competition began already today with opening games in the women's football competition. The US team was upset 2-0 by Norway behind the strength of two goals in the first 5 minutes. How do I know all this? I was up at 6:45 this morning to watch it, of course.