Wednesday, January 15, 2014


                The International Olympic Committee, the snooty gang that stages summer and winter world-sports extravaganzas at four-year intervals, is nothing if not predictable. Those guys never have met a dictatorship they didn’t not only like but also trip over themselves to support. To the Olympic motto of citius, altius, fortius (“faster, higher, stronger” for those who don’t speak Latin) should be added a forth word, for whatever the old Romans called despotism. Nero, Caligula, Commodus—the IOC would have jumped into bed with any of them.
              The 2014 Winter Os begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, under the auspices of that put-upon land’s latest political strong man, Vladimir Putin. Yes, the gulags are gone and political dissidents no longer are dispatched with bullets to the brain in the basement of the Lubyanka Building, but anyone disputing pale-browed Vlad had better keep his or her bag packed for a prison trip, sometimes after being beaten on the street by thugs who never are caught. The ex-KGB operative learned his lessons well enough to be able to run things in the old way without the old, collectivist rhetoric.

                Olympia’s dictators’ waltz began with the award of both the 1936 winter and summer Games to Nazi Germany. The other members of the original Axis of Evil were similarly blessed, Imperial Japan with the summer and winter Games of 1940 and Fascist Italy with the 1944 winter fest, although those events were cancelled by the war those nations helped start. Closer to present times, the Soviet Union got to host the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow and the dour committee that runs China welcomed the world to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Idi Amin’s Uganda might have gotten a nod had he stuck around long enough.

                The IOC’s real motto is politics shmolitics, as long as the trains run on time. It’s easier for it to deal with a guy—or small handful of guys—than with the messy cast of characters any democracy presents. Build venues lickety split? Sweep the Olympic area of people who might make tourists uncomfortable?  Clean the air, if only for a couple of weeks? Put a dozen cops on every street for 100 miles around? Poof, it’s done, and let the Games begin.

                Putin has gone all out for the production aimed at showcasing his “new” Russia and himself, spending a reported $50 billion on stadiums and infrastructure. That’s a record for any Olympics and an impressive sum even if many of those dollars did wind up in the pockets of his cronies.  Lately he’s tried to get on the world’s good side by having his ministers say soothing words about easing enforcement of Russia’s anti-gay laws for the duration, and he’s opened his dungeons a crack, releasing the ex-billionaire critic Mikhail Khodorkovsy and the all-girl band Pussy Riot, which in 2012 scandalized Moscovites with an impromptu punk-rock show in a cathedral.  But hey, with a name like Pussy Riot it’s a miracle the police let them off the Metro.

                What Putin’s billions will buy remains to be seen as O-day approaches. Sochi was an odd Winter Games choice because the Black Sea city is best known as a subtropical summer resort with average day-time February high temperature of around 50, so keeping the snow and ice cold might be a bigger problem than keeping spectators warm.   

                The main run-up to the Games, the traditional Olympic torch relay, was more comic than epic, casting doubt on the efficacy of Russian technology (surprise!). Manufactured in Siberia by a company called KrasMash, which ordinarily makes ballistic missiles, the torches went out a dozen times by confirmed count and 50 or so times reportedly, one having to be relit by a guard’s cigarette lighter. Three times torch fuel spilled onto carriers’ clothing and caught fire. One poor torch bearer—a 73-year-old coach—staggered away and died of a heart attack moments after his brief stint.

                As always, the quality of sport in the Winter Games also shouldn’t be taken for granted. These WOs will consist of 98 events in 15 sports—many with small constituencies-- against more than 300 events in 26 sports in the Summer Games. Television dictates that each span 17 days and three weekends, so the dirty little secret of the WOs is that on many days not much is on the card.

                The O bosses have padded the schedule in their usual way, by adding events that really are variations of existing ones, like the three-legged and sack races of company picnics. Letting women do dumb things men do, such as ski jumping, put one more event on the tube, and pirating various daredevil stunts from ESPN’s X-Games added several more. The main suspense in these centers not on who’ll win but on whether contestants will land feet or head first.

                There will be “team” figure skating, which doesn’t involve teams but the usual individual and pairs performances with the scores added together. The question of whether figure skating is a sport goes undebated at O time. If it is, so is ballet.

                Races mostly are singles or pairs against the clock, with the real drama being in the tick tick ticking in (usually) the lower right-hand corner of your TV screen. Hans Brinker would have been dismayed. Then there’s bobsledding, a 90-mph carnival ride in a $50,000 sled with a gold medal (not a brass ring) as the prize, or luge, which is bobsledding with no protective chassis.

                Look out below, but as they say, sometimes you win and sometimes you luge. 


Wednesday, January 1, 2014


                In late October, just before the start of the National Basketball Association season, the Phoenix Suns traded their best big man, Marcin Gortat, and three other players to the Washington Wizards for a conditional No. 1 draft choice and Emeka Okafor, a once-good center whose herniated neck disk meant he probably wouldn’t play this season and might not again. The Suns theretofore had been reckoned as laggards with a potential of maybe 20 victories in their 82-game card. Afterward that estimate seemed optimistic.
                Instead of anguished wails the move engendered popular and journalistic approval in the desert metropolis. That’s because the team had accumulated four possible first-round picks in the supposed-to-be-loaded 2014 draft, and its anticipated worst or near-worst regular-season record would give it a good shot at Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, the projected cream of that crop.  Ryan McDonough, the Suns’ young general manager, was hailed as a genius for his act of roster destruction.

                Funny thing, though, some of the young and/or miscellaneous players the Suns collected to mind the store this season turned out to be pretty good, and at year’s end their 19-11 won-lost mark was sixth-best in the league’s western half, well above draft-lottery status. If they continue that way they’ll have to grind out further improvement laboriously rather than through a single-draft splash.

                The situation highlights a paradox that usually goes unremarked in sports. While intentionally losing any single game is deemed disgraceful if not illegal, it’s quite all right—even praiseworthy—for an organization to set itself up to lose a season of games, or more. The practice is called “tanking” and it’s as much a part of big-time pro scene as bloated salaries and ear-splitting game-break entertainments. It makes sense because of the “worst goes first” amateur-player drafts that all our professional leagues employ to give bottom teams a leg up toward redemption.

                Except when an Andrew Luck is available, worst-goes-first works better in small-roster basketball than in big-roster football. It worked so well in basketball that in 1985 the NBA acted to counter blatant tanking by abolishing the top-pick coin flip between its two conference cellar dwellers in favor of a 14-team lottery that’s so complicated actuaries have trouble understanding it.

 The NBA lottery sometimes yields odd results-- in 2008 the Chicago Bulls, with only the ninth-worst record and a 1.7% chance, drew the long straw and Derrick Rose. Further, top picks turn into busts often enough (Kwame Brown, Greg Oden and, apparently, last year’s prize Anthony Bennett) to give pause to the most cocksure general managers.  But the 25% shot that goes to the team with the worst mark is nonetheless worth trying for, and, annually, several always do.

With the Suns out of the running, the NBA’s race to the bottom now is being led by the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz. Both were decent last year (the Bucks went 38-44, the Jazz 43-39), but each cleared its roster of useful players in off-season preparation for a dive.

 Interestingly, though, they may face competition from a couple of teams that started the campaign with title aspirations. The above-mentioned Bulls, again faced with the season-long injury loss of the above-mentioned Rose, are being urged to dump other veteran stars Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer in order to jockey for a better draft position, and the Brooklyn (nee New Jersey) Nets, who impatiently added old Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to vie for supremacy in the East, now find themselves old all around and wondering where their next fix will come from.  A clamorous press in each of those clubs’ home cities does not shy from use of the “t” word.

More interesting, I think, is the fact that big-time sports’ shining recent examples of, uh, creative losing come not from basketball but from baseball, the sport in which futurecasting is the most iffy. That’s because it typically does not get its best young prospects primed by the feedlots of academe but must develop them themselves, with little certainty of reward.

The baseball model was established in 2006 by the Washington Nationals under the veteran executive Stan Kasten. To put it baldly, Kasten’s plan (he even called it “The Plan”) was for his historically ailing franchise to be really lousy for as many years as it was required to build a farm system that could sustain title contention. It took five seasons of between 89 and 103 losses (2006-2010), but the team eventually accumulated enough high-draft-pick standouts such as Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasberg and Bryce Harper to enable it to compete in better company.

Kasten’s present-day disciple is the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein. Hired in 2011 to accomplish the Herculean task of reviving a team whose record of futility impresses even Buddhist monks, Epstein, the one-time Boston boy wonder, has eschewed half measures, remorselessly purging his roster of any veteran who might be worth a prospect in return. The upshot has been two terrible seasons and a third at hand, with who knows how many more looming beyond that.

  True to his Hebraic roots, Epstein is like Moses, determined to have his minions wander through the desert until no one with the old, slavish mentality remains to enter the Promised Land.

 That sounds better than tanking it, don’t you think?