Monday, February 15, 2010


The Winter Olympics are on and I am watching them, at least when there’s nothing better on TV. That’s worth saying, I think, because I have no affinity for ice or snow, or the games played thereon. I like the cold so little that, a dozen years ago, dear wife Susie and I picked up stakes and moved to the Phoenix area, where it’s always warm. For us, winter now is something that happens elsewhere, and a frequent subject for gloating over our wise choice. That we will watch sports we otherwise wouldn’t cross the street to see—especially an icy street—is testimony to the power of the five-ring Olympic symbol.

As a sports writer I sometimes needed to cover winter sports, and did so at three Olympics—at Calgary in 1988, Albertville, France, in 1992, and Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. My strongest memories of those stints have nothing to do with the things I was paid to watch and write about.

My main recollection of Calgary is of sitting on the balcony of my apartment basking in sunshine and temperatures in the 60s while officials scrambled to stage skiing events amid melting snow and blowing dust. In Albertville I discovered a quiet little restaurant just outside the perimeter of the press center that featured the local Savoyard cuisine, which is delightfully heavy on cheeses and cream sauces.

The Lillehammer Games prided itself on being “green,” which in practical terms meant that the city didn’t salt its streets or sidewalks after the almost-nightly snowfalls. This led to crashes of various kinds and degrees of severity. I took a flop one evening on an icy sidewalk outside the hockey arena, to the vast amusement of a group that had gathered to witness such mishaps. After I brushed myself off I joined the throng to laugh at the misfortunes of others. Great fun.

While no one doubts that many winter-sport competitors fully embody the athletic virtues, the question of whether the Winter Games are necessary has been raised by many. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, didn’t like them because they lacked universality, which is to say that most of the world’s 200 or so nations don’t have the frosty regions needed to foster participation.

Events also are lacking. Television’s desires dictate that the Winter Games span the same 17-day, three-weekend period as the summer ones, but while the Summer Games burst at the seams, winter schedules are sparse. Thus, organizers have been forced to pad them with Evel Knievel stuff like snowboarding and freestyle skiing, which belong more in a circus than in a sports fest, and the slo-mo game of curling, a sort of animated shuffleboard.

The best example of the cobbled-together nature of some Winter O events is biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting that resembles nothing so much as the Russo-Finnish war. An apt way to turn it into a “tri” would be to add the destruction of an armored car with a hand grenade.

Even perfectly good winter sports turn weird when passed through the Olympic sausage grinder. Speed skating is a favorite pastime of rosy-cheeked types of many lands, but instead of lining up these guys and gals on a big frozen lake, shooting off a gun and declaring the first one across the finish line a winner, Olympic honchos have decreed a pairs-against-the-clock format with lane-changing rules that defy explanation, and put it in giant indoor facilities that cost many millions of dollars to build and sit idle once the Games are over. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, “metric” speed skating is a sport designed by a committee of camels.

All the downhill ski races, and many others on the O card, are run in an individuals-against-the-clock format in which the drama isn’t on the course but in the seconds ticking away in a corner of your TV screen. Too many events involve judges, most of whom are prejudiced against our fine, wholesome American athletes. The main question in the ice-chute events of bobsled and luge isn’t who’ll win but who’ll survive.

There are a few good things about the Winter Games. Every four years they prove that hockey can be played without punches being traded, and it’s fascinating watching the icicles form on competitors’ noses and mustaches during the cross-country skiing races.

And who can resist the figure skating? Sequined costumes! Radical makeup and hairdos! Dazzling smiles!

And that’s just the men!

Monday, February 1, 2010


My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been much in the news lately in my new home state, Arizona. For six decades they’ve been a baseball spring-training fixture in the Phoenix area, but as their contract with their home base of Mesa neared an end they began making eyes at upscale Naples, Florida, about a possible move there.

Creating competition is a common bargaining ploy but an effective one, especially when the alternative is credible. In the old Jack Benny skit, the robber poked a gun at Jack and demanded “Your money or your life!” The joke was that it took Jack a while to make up his mind. This was no joke, though; similarly confronted, Mesa promised to fork over and, this week, the Cubs promised to stay.

A happy ending, right? Not really. Times are tough everywhere but especially here in the Valley of the Sun, where growth is the No. 1 industry and the housing collapse has knocked the props out from under the economy. Governments in the area, including Mesa’s, have been hard hit, reducing or eliminating services and laying off employees by the hundreds. The state of Arizona is in such bad shape that its doofus legislature has taken time off from its usual priorities of extending gun rights and promoting school prayer to close parks and sell office buildings in a so-far-vain attempt to make ends meet.

Still, although several steps remain, the betting is that somewhere, somehow—probably through new taxes on tickets and tourists— these entities will find the $84 million it’s supposed to cost to build the new stadium and up-to-date practice facility the team demanded.

It’s tempting to cast a pox on all the actors in this only-in-America drama—on the Cubs for their rapacity and on the Arizonans for their spinelessness— but it ain’t that simple. Those who’ve followed my writings know that while I generally disapprove of public spending for new stadiums on grounds they aid only the team, not the local economy as a whole, I make an exception for Sunbelt spring-training facilities. Not only do most short-term revenues they produce come from out of towners, but there’s also the more-profound effect of encouraging visitors to buy first or second homes in an area, thus stimulating further important spending (on furniture, appliances and the like) and supporting local property values. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, big time.

Arizona woke up to this in 1993, when the Cleveland Indians abandoned Tucson for Florida, reducing the Cactus League to eight (of the then-28) Major League teams and threatening the critical mass of clubs needed for the league to exist at all. Countywide tax funds were created in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, the two main spring-training focuses, to help communities build or improve baseball facilities, and local boosters also got into the act. The upshot has been that 15 (of the now-30) teams currently make Arizona their spring home, and no one would be surprised if the number rose further in the next few years.

Of those 15, none are more important than the Cubs; no matter how woeful they may be once the games begin for real, their legion of lunatic fans make them the Kings of Spring. March baseball elsewhere might be a casual affair, but at the Cubs’ base of HoHoKam Park (named for an ancient Indian tribe) it’s all crowds, traffic jams and ticket scalpers. The team annually leads the Cactus League in home attendance and Cubby lovers spread their largess to the other Arizona ballparks when their darlings visit. The circuit is a horse-and-rabbit stew, and the Cubs are the horse.

Such economic power makes it too much to expect the team to exercise restraint when it comes to making a spring-training deal. The nice-guy thing for the Cubs to have done would have been to put up with their current, not-so-bad digs without complaint for another couple of years, waiting until long-faithful Mesa got back on its feet before holding them to the fire. But—hey—in sports you know where nice guys finish.

There’s a joke in there someplace.

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