Women and Girls First

She's amazing, but in this post she's the "other Simone".

She’s amazing, but in this post she’s the “other Simone”.

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It had been All About the Women up ‘til Sunday night.

And that’s mostly fine by me, lover of women that I am and aspire to be.

What about the guys?

Yessir, I think about that all the time, and not just when it comes to the Olympics and Canada’s medal count. For only one of hundreds of examples: Boys Adrift is a good book, and its subtitle (“The Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men” is part of it), though long, crystallized my worry and confirmed my observations. There are others like it, and plenty of other worry-warts besides me. However, this space has been crowded with masculine worries and wonderings and Superhero Action Calls to Young Men, fragile shouts that are no doubt still echoing down the cold, dark emptiness of deep space.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

Yes, the Rio Olympics. That’s where we’re headed.

I am no longer as avid about matters Olympian as I had been for most of my life, but I still pay attention. I still get jolts of home-boy joy when a Canadian is two one hundredths of a second faster than a guy from another country and therefore wins the title of World’s Third-Fastest Human. (Yay, Andre!) There’s an even purer, less patriotic delight in watching Usain Bolt surge into that long-limbed, powerfully fluid overdrive for SprintGoldSeven, or that incredibly smooth stride of the South African Wayde van Niekerk as he ran away from TWO Olympic 400-metre champions. That was astounding, and world records usually are. (And since van Niekerk is slender, and maybe since he’s coached by a white-haired, Afrikaans-speaking white granny, there’s not even a whisper of a suggestion of a muted accusation of him being a drug cheat. Hoping his cleanliness is as real as his jaw-dropping talent and training.)

But I’m a Canuck. The other moment of televisual awe, for me, came in the second half of the women’s 100-metre freestyle swim.

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Hockey Night in Dalian. Sidney Scores! (Update)

This piece has been updated to include a footnote I forgot, some photos, and miscellaneous textual massaging. Don’t miss a single revision!

Hey, last night I saw my first hockey game in, what, four years? Five? It was another gold-medal match involving the Canadian men. (I used to be a Canadian man¹: player of hockey, dropper of final –g’s, flinger of ehs.² I didn’t ever see the 2010 final with the Americans in Vancouver, Chinese TV being what it is, though of course I’ve watched numerous replays of the famous Sidney Crosby overtime game-winner. (It’s hard to avoid that sanctified bit of video in Canada, even in our summers back home.)

¹ For the sake of perfect academic propriety and of respect for scratchy vinyl comedy, I tip my keys to the great Bill Cosby, and an early ‘70s routine questioning the motives of young men towards his daughters: I know what men are like! I used to be a man before I got married! Ba-da-boom.

² I noticed recently that in five years in China, though my grasp of Hanyu remains pretty shaky and small, my Canuck eh? has changed to a more Chinese ah in my questions and explanations. My North American right? has become a more international yeah, as in “We’ll each pay for our own meal, yeah?”

My gal is no Sports Gal, but it was her who knew the timing and suggested we try CCTV 5, the Chinese ESPN (or TSN in Canada), in case the final game with Sweden was on. I mocked her naivete – are you kidding? There’ll be nothing but short-track speedskating on repeat, or maybe a montage of great moments in Chinese curling – but that didn’t stop me from turning it on or from finding out she was right. (Again!)

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Sports Fix (Lite) in Bangkok

The sporting sun, it was (perhaps) humblingly clear from here, does not rise and set on the tubby arse of North American interests! Now, I’ve been living in China for five years, so I knew this already, but on our annual escape southward – this year, Macau, Thailand and Cambodia – I welcomed the greater availability of some of the comforts of my Canadian home. This sometimes means good English bookstores (salute to Chiangmai, Thailand!), and it too often means affordable ice cream and choco-treats whenever I want them (sheepish salute to 7-11 stores, frequent beacons of tawdry hope and sugar lust in all three places). It has also meant limited access to the Winter Olympics; go figure, Thailand and Cambodia don’t much care!

Other evidence of my lingering athletic biases came in a Bangkok waiting room, where, pulse quickening, I noticed an English-language newspaper, that very day’s edition. Yum!

I love Gothic lettering. I love newspapers that have paper, though I’m reluctantly ready for their demise.

It was my second time running across The Bangkok Post, awakening my old jones for newsprint and crinkling pages folded just so.

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The Lithuanians Are Coming! The Lithuanians Are Coming!

26 Sept. 2013: a different version of this piece (and its sequel) runs today at, a fine English-language site for all things to do with Chinese basketball. The name roughly means “hoops is cool”. Check it out.

Ignas Vycas isn’t somebody you should know, particularly. He’s a son of Lithuania, that tiny Baltic state, a former ward of the Soviet Union that is geo-politically insignificant but fascinating in one respect. Though a struggling nation of fewer than three million, sending migrant labourers all over Europe,

A hoops hotbed. I’d like to know why; many blame Sabonis.

it has one resource that is a prized export: astounding levels and amounts of basketball talent. Ignas isn’t a pro-level talent, but he is young and Lithuanian and left-handed and a major upgrade in my middle-aged hoops adventures. He’s too young for the job, but he’s my new best friend and temptor.

Even if you don’t follow basketball much, you may remember the Lithuania national side playing in the 1992 Olympics. Four of their stars, including the magnificent Arvydas Sabonis, had played for the Soviet Union when they won gold in ’88 in Seoul, the last straw for the American habit of winning with a college all-star team. The U.S.A. “Dream Team” of NBA pros dominated in ’92 in Barcelona, winning their preliminary games by an average of over 40 points. The Dreamers were a huge story (and marketing campaign), but even occasional basketball fans fell in love with Lithuania that summer.

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Who Owns the Podium?

I haven’t been happier to be wrong than in this Olympic assessment: I was convinced that Canada’s “Own the Podium” predictions were unrealistic. But now, hear this. Third place? Check. 25 medals? Are you nuts? Well, how ’bout 24? (And 16 of those from our women! If the guys in red can rise to the gold standard of Klassen, Hughes, Wickenheiser and her mates, Canada will rock the snowbound world.) Only one medal behind the Yanks, and there were an amazing number of top ten finishes by young Canadian athletes that you and I and everybody we know had never heard of. So when the Canadian Olympic Committee sets the Vancouver 2010 bar at nothing less than the top of the hill, well, they have my attention now. Shoot, maybe we’ll even watch some skiing and skating between now and then.

Hockey Fright in Canada

Let me be the 7,758,901st to join the national hand wringing in Canada over the desperate fate of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team. Let’s say, first, what it’s NOT about.

It’s not about Wayne Gretzky’s choice of wives or assistant coaches. The possible existence of a betting ring involving an NHL coach (Rick Tocchet, not the Wayner) is a serious matter for the integrity of league play, but it has nothing to do with Canada’s performance in Turin. And now for a few suggestions about what is going on.

Europeans play great hockey, and it is a generally more highly skilled brand than Canadian kids are encouraged, coached or, I daresay, even allowed to play. (So long as Don Cherry’s anti-finesse opinions are taken as gospel in Canadian hockey circles, a genuine commitment to skill development has serious obstacles. The kind of Canuck chauvinism that he quivers with makes learning from what the European system does well more difficult than it ought to be. They have not hesitated, it seems to me, to learn from the best of Canadian hockey – and there’s a lot to love. And emulate.)

If having the best team win is your object, the Olympic “lose and go home” system after the round robin is not a good system. The nature of the hockey beast – especially that dominating presence, the Hot (or horseshoes-up-his-hind-end) Goaltender – does not lend itself to one-game eliminations, although it does allow for vastly inferior teams to ice the occasional miracle, which makes for sappy but popular movies. (See: Lake Placid, men’s hockey. The United States got to have its cake and eat it, too, being the sympathetic underdog and still getting the golden glory. Perfect! Sweden’s defeat of the American women, despite being outshot by more than 2 to 1, is the karmic companion for the Americans. Sweden’s turn to make the movie.) Hockey is best played in elimination series, but I’m flaying a dead giraffe. That’s the Olympics. Deal with it.

It’s too early to tell if the Gretzky Gang, though, have chosen the right players. Our two most mobile defenders are hurt, it’s true. With four years between Olympics, we may have favoured experience too much; it downplays the experience gained by the youngsters in between Games, not to mention the eroding skills of vets who were on top in ’02. It seems certain that we would have been loyal to Lemieux and Yzerman had they not had the grace to bow out. On that big surface, with all that youth and speed, Canada would have been hobbled by them, I’m sorry to have to say about such wonderful players. Like a lot of people, I wish that Staal and Crosby were there; watching the young Russians, with their furious speed and skill, is breathtaking when they’re going well.

I repeat: it’s too early to tell.

Bobsleigh Silver

Well, now I’m compromised. I hate it when Canadians win at sports I don’t respect much. (See: Sydney Olympics, synchronized diving. Sheesh.) The bobsled competition reminds me of what Larry Walker said when the Rockies outfielder wasn’t Canada’s top male athlete after a National League MVP season: “I got beat by a car.” (The nominal winner was Jacques Villeneuve, whose career went south when he no longer drove that car.) It’s not quite the same situation, except that when the equipment is as important as the athletes, I just can’t get too excited. I’m irritated, too, when success looks far less interesting to the TV audience than failure does. (Take a memo, snowboard cross.) The morbid allure of catastrophe can’t be a criterion for a good and worthy sports event.

Unless they’re Canadians named Pierre Lueders and Lascelles Brown and they’re winning a silver medal. (And refusing to talk, afterwards, and to their credit, about their suspicions on the mysterious but widely alleged modifications to the gold medal German sled. Digression complete. Well, except for noting the ironic timing of the similar grumbling after the Daytona 500 was won by a car – yes, I said a car, and not Rusty or Jimmy or whoever it was at the wheel – whose chief mechanic was suspended for illegal monkeying. But I digressed again.) Lueders is a tough and competitive guy. Brown seems a pleasant fellow, too, and his story of getting his Canuck citizenship in the nick so that he could compete was a sweet one. So was Lueders’s reaction to it as he hearkened back to understand why his own immigrant parents had come to Canada and how lucky he felt as a result. Go, Canada! Go, Citizenship and Immigration Canada!

But come on. The sport is fast, it has deep roots, but when the brakeperson can make the Olympics a few months after their first run, as was the case with a couple of Canadian sleds and presumably some others, it’s somewhat discredited in my mind. Find a not-quite-good-enough track athlete or football player, and teach him or her how to push a souped-up toboggan for 5 seconds, jump in and pray. Olympia! Sorry, Pierre, and you, too, Lascelles, but bobsled doesn’t make the Howdy Olympics. If pressed to pick a sliding sport for the Big Owe, I’m surprised to be leaning toward skeleton, the crazy, X-games-ish, new kid on the adrenalin-rush block. Tradition isn’t my only criterion, apparently.

Competitive Greatness. Or Not.

First candidate for Howdy’s Handy Olympic Hitlist: snowboard halfpipe. Reason One: see “made for TV” comments from a few days ago. Two: “Look. Another guy did a 720. Wow.” They all look the same to me. Three: the athletes themselves don’t even care that much. With all their rebel, streetcore, skateboard-north cool, the Olympics are no big deal, and they’re determined to demonstrate it. Groovy. Go back to the X-games, then.


Damn! It happened to our man Jeremy again. Wotherspoon seemed to self-destruct in an Olympic race in which he was favoured, the long-track speedskating 500 metre sprint. It wasn’t quite a reprise of the Salt Lake Two-Step, but he must be bitterly disappointed. If he was a baseball player, we’d say he was gripping the bat so tightly it was turning to sawdust. In the great basketball wizard John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, the top block of the triangle is titled “Competitive Greatness”. It has changed a little to reflect more peaceful themes, but I like the original contents of the “CG” block: “Be at your best when your best is needed. Real love of a hard battle.” But beyond a certain level, you can’t coach this. I have no doubt that Wotherspoon wants this more than most elite athletes do. “Try easier,” I would have liked to tell him. (Yes, if Coach Howdy had been there, gold medals all ’round!)

Jerk that I am, I’m on my couch doing psychological assessments of this gifted and dedicated athlete, one of the great skaters in the sport’s history. This brings me perilously close to that most immature tendency of the sports fanatic: to resentfully criticize a homegrown athlete or my favourite team for their failure to make me feel better about myself. That can’t be good.

Skaters and Skiers and Flair, Oh My!

Well, the Mighty Winter Olympics began yesterday with the usual herd of underemployed dancers getting their Big Gig in the Sun (along with 5000 of their closest colleagues), and despite my being not that into it, it was pretty and occasionally spectacular. I always get most jazzed, oddly enough, by the parade of the athletes. What a tremendous thing it was when the athletes from the two Koreas entered as one body in Sydney in 2000! Naturally, I loved to watch the Canadians enter, to hear the Italians get the roars of their people as they closed the deal. But I find it wonder FULL to see, for example, the lone Kenyan, a cross-country skier, enter to a warm and supportive cheer.

Canada may not “Own the Podium”, but our girl Jennifer Heil bumped and shimmied and flipped her way to gold, straight off. 30 seconds to gold. Like a lot of the new sports, it seems too contrived, too made-for-television, and too brief. It was just a sight bite. All the same, I am a jockhead Canuck and I enjoyed the view. And what a smile on Ms. Heil!