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Games and Rings

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  1. As the 2020-21 Squash World Championships get underway today, I'm struck by the absence of the sport on the Olympic program. One wonders what sin squash must have committed to result not being included ever. It's not like the sport hasn't recently tried. The World Squash Federation (WSF)'s bids for inclusion were unsuccessful for the Games in 2012, 2016, 2020, and now 2024. It certainly is a head-scratcher, as there are so many boxes checked for what fits as an Olympic sport. So, here's my pitch: History Similar to its racket sport cousin badminton, squash has its origins in the British mid-1800s. The first national association for squash, now U.S. Squash, was formed in 1904, and the oldest squash tournament, the British Open Squash Championships, were first held in 1929. The Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Championships separated from the British Open as a stand-alone event in 1976, and is now considered the crowning event to the seasonal PSA World Tour. Diversity It's truly a global sport. The WSF counts 50,000 courts worldwide, and a membership of almost 150 nations. The top 10 seeds for the World Championships across both men's and women's fields represent eight different nations and all six continental regions: Africa (Egypt), Asia (India), Europe (France, Great Britain), North America (United States), Oceania (New Zealand), and South America (Colombia, Peru). Players from Switzerland, Latvia, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands, South Africa, Czech Republic, and Belgium are also in the fields. Legendary players in squash history have also come from Malaysia (Nicol David), Pakistan (Jansher Khan) - both eight-time world champions - and Australia (five-time winner Sarah Fitzgerald). Athletic Stars These are serious, professional athletes. The World Championship total pot is $1 million U.S., while the prize for World Tour events can reach $175,000 U.S. for both men and women. Nicol David, widely recently voted as the World Games Greatest Athlete of All Time, has an estimated net worth over $1 million U.S. from career earnings and endorsements. Nicol David was world champion a record eight times Urban Squash can be played right within urban centers. New York's J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions is played inside Grand Central Station. San Francisco's Oracle NetSuite Open is played alongside the Embarcadero's Ferry Building. The World Championships this year will be inside Chicago's University Club. Wherever one might put, say, a breakdancing or 3x3 basketball court, or a beach volleyball sandpit, one could put a squash court. Sustainability The PSA uses an all-glass, portable court ringed by temporary grandstand seating that is easily transported, set up, and broken down. There's no need to build new infrastructure. Fan Accessibility And, that glass court allows for spectator intimacy with the action. Similar to tennis, squash tournaments are straightforward single elimination events, so competition is fast-paced and athletic - and can be easily consumed by fans. A tournament with fields of 32 for both men and women can easily be finished in less than a week. The next Olympic opportunity for squash won't be until Los Angeles 2028. But that may be a longshot, too, as baseball and softball are likely to make a comeback. Lacrosse and cricket are making inroads, too. Karate, in for Tokyo 2020 but out for Paris 2024, would also be in the mix. And, it's unlikely a different spot would open up from the existing core sports. Here's French star Gregory Gaultier probably pondering what an Olympic medal would look like around his neck It's a shame, as the global, engaging nature of the sport fits well within the Olympics. I'm not sure what the reluctance has been - too elite? (more so than golf?), too exclusive? (more than artistic swimming?) not practical? (um, the portable glass court...) not hip enough? (refer back to Nicol David's popularity, for one) - but the diversity, ease of engagement, and history of the sport deserve a spotlight. It's well past time. This opinion piece originally appeared at gamesandrings.com.
  2. Cuba has a storied history of success in the Olympic Games. Since its Games debut at Paris 1900, its much-vaunted boxers have won 73 medals (second only to the United States), and its fabled baseball program has won three of five golds (and won silver the other two times). Outside of those two signature sports, Cuba has made its mark in other sports, notably track & field, judo, wrestling, and even fencing. The women's volleyball team won three straight golds between 1992 and 2000, with a bronze in 2004. At Barcelona 1992, Cuba hit its high point in the medal count - 31 total, and fifth place in the medal count. Those were the Games of high jumper Javier Sotomayor, boxer Felix Savon, and middle-distance runner Ana Quirot. Boxers, including Savon, won nine of 12 possible medals (including seven gold). Women's volleyball started their three-gold streak. Judo and wrestling saw gold medal wins, too. Cuba won the inaugural baseball tournament. For the next four Games, the island nation experienced a consistent level of high performance: 25 medals at Atlanta 1996, 29 at Sydney 2000, 27 at Athens 2004, and 30 at Beijing 2008. Those years, there was an admirable sense of Cuba being able to 'punch above its weight' in its success. Despite increasing isolation as a lone socialist state burdened by economic sanctions, its athletic programs remained a vibrant, vital area of showcase pride for the nation. But the last two Olympics has seen its star power ebb. Cuba managed only 15 medals at London 2012 and 11 at Rio 2016. As well, after reaching second in the Pan American Games medal table in 2011, Cuba dropped to fourth in 2015 and sixth in 2019. And now, and despite its legendary aura in the sport, Cuba will not qualify for Tokyo 2020's baseball tournament. Given its recent slide - in the WBSC Premier12 event in 2019, Cuba ranked tenth and last alongside Netherlands and Puerto Rico - the result in qualifying isn't too surprising. But the Cuban absence will be noticed given the team's legacy in the sport. For sentiment's sake, one hopes Cuban baseball doesn't follow that lead and can make a comeback in time for Los Angeles 2028. But history is not a promising guide. That women's volleyball team of the mid-to-late 1990s suffered a similar fall. After just missing the podium in fourth place at Beijing 2008, the team has failed to make an Olympics since. They placed 21st and 22nd in the last two World Championships, and came nowhere near Tokyo 2020 qualification after finishing sixth in the 2019 NORCECA Championship, with the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico ahead and taking bragging rights for current Caribbean power. As far as the nation's boxers, they will again be standard bearers, with Tokyo 2020 qualification in each of the eight men's weight classes (but note, no women's). Collectively, the Tokyo-bound team already has six Olympic medals dating from as far back as Beijing 2008 - a sign of longevity, but also of a lack of younger athletes breaking through. Judo, wrestling, and track & Field again promise the best chance for medal support to boxing this summer, but the nation will probably be hard-pressed to significantly improve its results from Rio 2016. Cuba's sport prowess has certainly diminished. Has the difficulty in maintaining a consistently strong sports development feeder system in its closed society finally taken a toll? There's a good opportunity for a socio-economic study in the question. In the meantime, this summer's Games quickly approach. Can Cuba again rise to consistent sporting heights? This opinion was originally published on gamesandrings.com on June 2, 2021.
  3. Major League Baseball's 2021 season gets underway tomorrow, and its top stars are likely fully embracing the return to playing. In an alternate universe, though, they'd also be excited this year at the opportunity to showcase their sport and represent their home nations at the Olympic Games this summer. In reality, the vast majority of MLB players will not be in Tokyo. While its "second-tier" players could be available, MLB's elite players will not. And from Barcelona 1992 through Beijing 2008, the last Olympic stretch for baseball before its Tokyo return, they did not, either. Simply put, MLB's team owners and players' union don't like the idea of shutting down the league's summer season for two weeks to accommodate the Games. (Meanwhile, the Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization have committed to the Olympic break.) South Korea won the last gold medal in the Olympics, at Beijing 2008 (IOC) For Olympic and baseball (not necessarily MLB) fans, it's incredibly frustrating. The Olympics are the ultimate stage for a worldwide sports audience, and a validation of a sport as globally relevant. Sure, MLB has had the World Baseball Classic - notably, revenue from which it controls - but it hardly compares to the Summer Games. Outspoken MLB star Bryce Harper puts it frankly, "You want to grow the game as much as possible and you're not going to let us play in the Olympics because you don't want to (lose) out on money for a two-week period? OK, that's dumb". (Um... yes, baseball team owners are more interested to grow their immediate revenue than to "grow the game".) Baseball may not get the chance again. The sport was not included in the program for Paris 2024, taking women's softball (despite embracing the Olympics) down with it. Very likely, the fact that the sport's biggest power brokers don't have an interest is a key to why baseball isn't a core sport for the Olympics. A return for Los Angeles 2028 is possible, helped by a United States-based Games, but MLB availability may very well again be an issue. The vast majority of sports do see the Olympics as a unique, elite goal for its players. But MLB is not alone in some recalcitrance. Here is a look at how some other high-revenue professional sports approach the Games. Ice Hockey As the only traditional team sport in the Winter Olympics* since Chamonix 1924, ice hockey has a special position of interest from the International Olympic Committee in ensuring elite players participate. Aside from that background, men's ice hockey's relationship with the Games is similar to baseball's. The sport's top professional league, the National Hockey League, has a team ownership structure reluctant to stop a season's play and risk revenue and player injury. And, similar to MLB's World Baseball Classic, the NHL has its own contrived international tournament, the World Cup of Hockey. And also similar, other top leagues make the Olympics a priority. But every four years, there is another round of negotiations, with the NHL's business interests pitched against the IOC's and the International Hockey Federation's interest in presenting a top quality tournament to expand the game. NHL players appeared for the first time in Nagano 1998, and did so through Sochi 2014, but skipped Pyeongchang 2018. Current expectation is that the NHL will return for Beijing 2022. That's due in large part to the players themselves wanting to go. NHLer Sidney Crosby celebrates a 'golden goal' at Vancouver 2010 I'm also of the mind that Olympic site location has a lot to do with NHL acquiescence. Since Nagano, Salt Lake City (2002), Vancouver (2010), and Sochi (2014) in particular represent nations with significant importance to the NHL. Pyeongchang (2018)? Not so much. That, plus seeing China holding great potential for NHL fans, combined with its beleaguered World Cup stalling, might have made Beijing 2022 more palatable. *(I'm not counting curling as a 'traditional' team sport. But let's get bandy into the Olympics!) Basketball The National Basketball Association is the ultimate team sport role model for embracing the Olympics. Prior to Barcelona 1992, men's basketball teams from the world's powerhouse, the United States, were purely amateur and from the college ranks. With the IOC loosening restrictions on professionals, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) pushed for NBA players be allowed to participate. No doubt eager to re-establish its basketball dominance after its Seoul 1988 bronze medal disappointment, the United States was enthusiastic - as were other countries' teams looking to play against the best. The U.S. 'Dream Team' was born: a selection of the absolute best NBA players together to dominate the world. It was a sporting event of legend, the team not only winning gold in commanding fashion, but winning over countless new NBA fans across the globe. The NBA's recognition of the power of a global stage to spur growth was born. The 'Dream Team' embraced its Olympic opportunity Since, NBA players have represented various national teams at each Olympics, with each successive U.S. team featuring a strong roster of top players, with visions of legacy at stake. Despite overblown concerns over the zika virus, Rio 2016 still attracted a record number of NBA players. And the U.S. has shortlisted 57 - 57! - finalists for Tokyo 2020's team. Dissimilar to MLB and the NHL, the NBA's season does not cover the two weeks of the Olympics. That's a big positive for NBA players to participate, as essentially an offseason tournament doesn't immediately affect team owners' pockets. Even when the current Covid-19 pandemic caused concern for this year's Games, the NBA found a way to allow its schedule to accommodate its players. It's not clear how long the love affair will last. If and when the U.S. doesn't win gold again, favor for Olympic participation by some players may fall. There is also a World Cup, run by FIBA, but so far that hasn't dampened Olympic allure. It should be noted that on the women's side, the WNBA similarly embraces the Olympics. In fact, the league owes its existence to the Olympic tournament at Atlanta 1996. Rio 2016 featured a record 26 WNBA players. Soccer Soccer (football) first appeared as an Olympic sport at Paris 1900, and has consistently been a top audience draw each Games, buoyed by its deep global popularity. But soccer has had its growing pains, too, with the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) prioritizing its men's World Cup since 1932. Today, that means that the men's tournament is only open to players aged 23 and under, which means most top-flight players cannot participate (unless chosen as allowed three-per-team over 23). The restriction hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for Olympic soccer in some key aspects. The sport holds the largest field of of any of the men's team sports (16). And, it is widely seen as a stepping stone to the senior ranks, with numerous budding stars featured on past rosters. Lionel Messi won gold at Beijing 2008 alongside Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero. Neymar won silver at London 2012 and gold at Rio 2016. Cristiano Ronaldo competed at Athens 2004. The Mexican gold medalists in London featured Hector Herrera and Giovani dos Santos. Carlos Tevez has gold from Athens 2004 (as does Mascherano). Samuel Eto'o played at Sydney 2000, as did Ivan Zamorano (who bronze with Chile). Barcelona 1992's iconic Spanish team featured Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Santiago Canizares. Spain celebrates the gold medal as the home team at Barcelona 1992 On the other hand, as the United States' recent loss in qualifying shows, professional teams are - similar to baseball - loathe to release players, affecting quality of play certainly at that stage. Similar to women's basketball, women's soccer powers have no compunction about the Games, or restriction. Despite a growing World Cup and multiple professional leagues, the top stars of women's soccer still very much view the Olympics as a singular goal. Golf The International Golf Federation may find Tokyo 2020 a crossroads for its growth ambitions through the Olympics. When the sport was re-added to the Olympic schedule in 2009 after more than a 100-year absence, for Rio 2016, organizers surely had dreams of Tiger Woods - by far the sports' biggest star in 2009 - adorning the Olympic Village while wearing a gold medal as the biggest advocate for the Games. Woods pledged his commitment. Fellow superstars Padraig Harrington and Michelle Wie spoke in person about their Olympic dreams. The PGA Tour worked collaboratively to revamp its schedule. Cut to a few months ahead of the Rio Games. Diverse and prominent men's players Vijay Singh, Louis Oosthuizen, and Charl Schwartzel announced they would not play, followed by even larger names Adam Scott and Jason Day. Then Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. Only four of the world's top 10 remained in the men's draw. Credit to the women, though...all of their top 10 players committed, and only one professional woman declined. In any case, Rio 2016 went forward, with an arguably mid-level podium result for the men with Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, and Matt Kuchar. The women, though, had a star-studded medal stand, with Inbee Park, Lydia Ko, and Shanshan Feng. The LPGA's elite took the podium at Rio 2016 Why weren't the men as enthusiastic as the women? Between the usual complaint of over-scheduling and the aforementioned easy-excuse zika virus, once one prominent player stepped down, others found it easy to follow suit. Why should the #20-ranked player care about the tournament if the #1-ranked one (Day, at the time) doesn't? U.S. star Stacey Lewis puts in bluntly...money. At least they have something in common with baseball and hockey team owners. So, now Tokyo 2020...and Johnson, currently the #1-ranked man, has announced he'll again skip the Games. While no others - yet - have followed suit, using an overworked schedule or another virus risk as an excuse, the IGF should be working the phones to ensure an elite men's field's commitment. As for the women, Park remains excited. If the defending champion is in, surely the rest will follow. Tennis Although there is always talk about the Olympics adding pressure to a packed schedule every four years, and there is inconsistency on ranking points awarded, both the WTA and ATP tours accommodate the break. Players often see the tournament as a 'fifth Grand Slam event' and consistently are invested. Witness Novak Djokovic's emotions at his first round loss at Rio 2016. Lisa Raymond took the U.S. Tennis Association to arbitration to fight for a place on the Sydney 2000 team. Venus Williams is pushing her body for another Olympic run. Roger Federer was "crying and crying" as his Sydney 2000 dreams fizzled. Dominic Thiem now claims "a medal is my dream" at Tokyo 2020. Novak Djokovic's surprising first round loss at Rio 2016 produced tears At Beijing 2008, Rafael Nadal reveled in the impact beyond tennis. "For tennis, the slams are more important. For sportsmen, the Olympics are more important. I win here for a lot of people, not just for me." Nadal gets it. Why can't more top athletes and their officials? A version of this opinion was originally published on GamesandRings.com.
  4. As the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing approach, scrutiny on China as a host is back in focus. Its on-going record of human rights abuses - most recently, between the treatment of its Muslim minority to the subjugation of Hong Kong - is depressing. And, it's a legitimate question on whether such a regime should be showcased as host of a "sportswashing" event like the Olympics. That this conversation is happening shouldn't come as a surprise. It was certainly previewed in the contest to host these Games. As more palatable candidates dropped out of the bidding race, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was left with two options in 2015: Beijing and Almaty. Despite experiencing similar concerns ahead of its hosting of the 2008 Summer Games, China really was seen as the lesser of two evils...Kazakhstan was and is no humanitarian state, either. July, 2015: Thomas Bach announces Beijing as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics. So, Beijing it is, unless the IOC inconceivably decides to move the event. So, the calls for an Olympic boycott have happened. Some of it is political grandstanding - in the United States, at least, an easy way to pressure the current administration while preaching righteousness. But athletes are chattering, too, while China remains defiant. For now, the U.S. Olympic Committee has reiterated its stance against a boycott. Which begs the question...do Olympic boycotts even work? Let's look at history. 1956 Melbourne Multiple nations stayed away from Australia's first Summer Games, for a variety of reasons. In response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary just before the start of the Games, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands pulled out. Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq boycotted as a result of the Suez Crisis with Israel. And, China (the Peoples Republic) officially boycotted since China (Taiwan) was allowed entry. At that time, probably only the Netherlands' absence affected general competition quality. And, decades later, it's viewed by the Dutch as "the black page in the Olympic history for the Netherlands". It's hard to argue that the boycott influenced outside events, as the trajectories of the Cold War, Middle East crisis, and Chinese territorial fights continued well past 1956. 1964 Tokyo Due to political discrimination at the separate Games of New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963, those participating athletes were barred from the 1964 Games. Thus, Indonesia and North Korea pulled all their athletes from the Olympics. The resulting legacy of the 1964 boycott is simply a missed opportunity to see North Korean Sin Kim-Dan, then the world record-holder, compete in the women's track 800 meters. That had promised to be one of the more intriguing events on the track. As for GANEFO? Built as a direct competition to the Olympics by Indonesia, it was officially dead by 1970. Cartoonist Eric Heath pondered a separatist future of the Games in 1976 1976 Montreal In 1976, New Zealand's rugby team toured South Africa despite an international sporting embargo on the apartheid-led nation. In response to New Zealand not being expelled from the 1976 Games later in the year - and despite rugby not being an Olympic sport - more than 20 African nations led a boycott. By far the most prolific multinational political effort at the Games, the success of the effort is nuanced. Some argue that the massive boycott did help repeal apartheid in the longer end, as it shined a wider light on South Africa's racist policies (and Black African unity against it), as well as spearheading immediate resistance to rugby's friendliness with South Africa within New Zealand itself. On the other hand, by far the lasting commentary of a Montreal 1976 retrospective is the massive debt incurred in staging the Games, not the boycott. And, track fans (again) were deprived of potentially stirring matchups, particularly from East African runners. Note, Taiwan also boycotted these Games, as a result of not being able to use the moniker Republic of China, in IOC deference to the People's Republic of China (who again didn't even enter). 1980 Moscow In by far the biggest Olympic boycott effort, the United States led more than 60 other nations, including Canada, Japan, and West Germany, to skip the Games in order to voice opposition to the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and to not use Games participation as "implicit approval" of Soviet aggression. With many leading nations absent, and many individual athletes from participating nations similarly staying home, competition was hit hard and the host nation was seemingly chagrined. But not chagrined enough to change its Afghanistan policy: the Soviet Union remained in the country until 1989. In the U.S., the boycott is very much seen as ineffectual, and devastating for the more than 400 American athletes prevented from competition. Even the U.S. Olympic Committee weighed in last year against boycotts after continued remembrance of 1980. 1984 Los Angeles Announcing a distrust of security for its athletes, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles-hosted Games in 1984. rather acknowledged as a tit-for-tat move for 1980, it is also widely seen as having failed. While 13 other Soviet-tied nations also stayed home, the Games most certainly persevered. Buoyed by excited media coverage, Los Angeles 1984 is as well-known for who did compete as much as who didn't. Romania and Yugoslavia bucked the Soviet block and thrived. P.R. China appeared for the first time since 1952. The Games were also a financial hit, providing a funding model that is today's top sports sponsorship property. The Soviets and friends didn't come? The hit to competition didn't seem to matter to the massive audiences in the end, as Los Angeles brought the party back to life. 1988 Seoul Despite not having official diplomatic relationships with the communist bloc at the time, South Korea managed to avoid a significant boycott effort. North Korea, after being denied an unlikely request to co-host in a significant manner, stayed home, along with their ally Cuba. Otherwise, Seoul 1988 set a record for participating nations (159) and, with all sporting world powers (sans Cuban baseball players and boxers) present, full competitive action was restored One take on whether this boycott was a success is looking at when South Korea again hosted a Games with Pyeongchang 2018. Then, in order to ensure North Korean participation, a series of "unity" measures were integrated. Some might argue that a line might be drawn back to the lessons of 1988's failed negotiations, but the Olympic concessions proved only a temporary respite, as any goodwill generated in 2018 is certainly forgotten now. Plan on another round of North Korean angst if and when South Korea hosts again. Beijing is hoping it's hard to boycott mascot Bing Dwen Dwen So, where will today's boycott talk go? There are a lot of beginning similarities to the U.S. approach with Moscow 1980. A call to move the Games, then to boycott by determined politicians. A president increasingly scrutinized for how hard-line he is with a geopolitical enemy. A legitimate humanitarian transgression by the host, deserving of significant and perhaps symbolic international reaction. Too often, though, those championing a boycott overlook those directly affected, the athletes. And athletes remain the heart of the Games; despite any fanfare and ceremony, it's about the ultimate camaraderie of competition. If 1980 is a guide, one should expect the significant public relations risk of a litany of athlete disappointment stories. And, times have changed. The Games are bigger, and athletes and sport federations have much more at stake commercially. Although there are a myriad of world championships, world cups, and grand prix events in any given sport, the Olympics remain the ultimate opportunity for an athlete to showcase their hard work and career. What to do? Though some individuals may be at peace with making a personal choice to not compete, it would be a tough call today to to ask an entire delegation to step down. Athletes deserve to be the priority, and not victims of political retributions. Perhaps the focus should be to pressure the IOC to not award the Games to questionable spots in the first place. That certainly may be one purpose behind the IOC's targeting a single "preferred" future host for the next few summer editions. While Beijing 2022 will probably proceed as planned, at least there's a blueprint to better avoid a problem in the future. A version of this opinion originally appeared on gamesandrings.com.
  5. Four-time Olympic Gold Medalist Serena Williams as the Greatest Of All Time? Olympic tennis great Serena Williams' Australian Open run earlier this month certainly inspired talk on her status as a Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) contender. While I generally don't pay much attention to such discussions - too many variables in such different eras to be fair - the chatter inspired me to revisit the HBO Sports documentary mini-series Being Serena from 2018. Produced in part with Williams' business partner IMG Entertainment, Being Serena was never going to be an in-depth, impartial look at one of history's greatest athletes. But it is a revealing reminder of her unique position today and drive. Too often, we see a star athlete or celebrity as one dimensional, as just the person on the court or on stage. Williams has surely been subject to this - having seen her win 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles (out of 14 finals!), 7 WTA Tour Championship titles, and 4 Olympic gold medals, we had been lulled into a sense of her invincibility. But Being Serena shows that Williams is human, after all, perhaps even setting us up to temper expectations going forward.Being Serena shows us Williams facing real world, outside of tennis, moments from a roughly 15-month period starting with her early 2017 pregnancy announcement to child birth, to subsequent grave medical concerns, and her wedding. There is a refreshing quality seeing her face these life events. She has legitimate concerns aside from the playing court, and she faces them with as any of us would - at times emotional and vulnerable. No matter that the documentary comes across as too polished for some critics. What we do see is earnest and sincere.Seeing her in this human light actually does support Williams as the G.O.A.T. Coming back to elite competition, in serious contention to build upon her 23 Grand Slam titles...who else has been that strong to come back from such a complicated birth and perilous recovery so well? It's a unique, daunting challenge fit for a fierce competitor. Note when her husband Alexis jokingly suggests their daughter's potential as a Grand Slam winner years in the future, Williams is whip-quick with a "not if I'm still playing" retort. Brash, sure...but it should not be unexpected from someone as career-determined as she is.Between her return in May 2018 and today, she's made four Grand Slam finals. Four! Never mind that she hasn't won one of them, just having the tenacity to make it through to four finals - and this last Australian semifinals - would be a beyond outstanding record for anyone. And she's largely done it on her terms, juggling motherhood and marriage while on the road. It's a unique challenge, it should noted, to female athletes.She doesn't need a 24th title to justify her legacy (though I am rooting for it). The fact that she's still sharing her tennis with us should a joy. In retrospective, Being Serena helps us to appreciate just how special a competitor Williams is. Here's hoping she provides us more highlights still. A version of this opinion piece appears on gamnesandrings.com. Follow GamesandRings.com for more on Olympic sports athletes.
  6. Along with millions of Olympic and sports fans, I'm wishing for a successful, smooth, and healthy Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. After this year's postponement, there are still serious lingering concerns on participant and spectator Covid-19 protocol, which likely won't be answered until 2021's springtime at the earliest. But we do need a "beacon of hope" to help frame a pandemic recovery. And, today, I choose to look at the glass half-full to start off the year. I certainly am an Olympics fan. I have been since first falling in awe with the spectacle at Los Angeles 1984. From tradition of ceremony, to compelling competition, and from unsung heroes to the camaraderie of various athletes coming together, I am all in.That said, my fandom doesn't mean that I don't have some recommendations. So, in honor of the new year, here are Games and Rings' top ten wishes for the Olympics in 2021.Chime in with your own wishes for Tokyo 2020 in the comments. And, follow Games and Rings here for roundups on Olympic sports athletes. Run, Caster, RunMiddle-distance runner Caster Semenya has one more appeal up her sleeve, to the European Court of Human Rights. Double Olympic champion in the 800 meters, Semenya is currently blocked from defending her title unless she takes testosterone-inhibiting measures, under somewhat arbitrary and selectively exclusionary new World Athletics rules.As argued a few months ago, World Athletics is on the wrong side of history's trajectory toward human rights in this case. Semenya was born female and is female. She - like some others - is just a female with elevated - but natural - testosterone, and who happened to win the genetics lottery suited for a career in athletics. Why should she be punished for that? Let her run.Protest for ChangeTeam USA recently announced not only that "It is a human right to peacefully call upon racial and social injustices during the...Games" but also that "denying the right of respectful demonstrations...runs counter to the Olympic...values."This doesn't just run counter to Team USA's own recent actions - just ask fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry for their thoughts - it runs against the International Olympic Committee's own Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans any political protest, including kneeling or even wearing an armband. The IOC even issued its Rule 50 guidelines at the start of the year.But a year filled with Black Lives Matter activism and increased racial awareness sure can change perspective. World Athletics, representing track & field, issued a President's Award to Mexico City 1968 protestors Tommie Smith and John Carlos (and fellow medalist Peter Norman), a surprising indication that maybe the organization will support its own athletes' Olympic protests. For its part, the IOC did give a tepid "we'll look into it" response to Team USA's recommendations. Of course, determining "appropriate" allowable protest and over what issue would be problematic on a global stage like the Olympics, with the wide variety of national interests and backgrounds. But isn't the Olympic stage built on inspiration and striving for better-ness? Will we see a meaningful gesture that spurs conversation toward greater social good? Will the IOC act supportively? Yes, I'm anxious to see it.A Russian ComeuppanceIn its bid to dominate its home Games of Sochi 2014, Russia undertook a doping system that provided its athletes with performance-enhancement and an elaborate coverup. That this was a state-level scheme is no longer in dispute.What has been the punishment? Four years later, at Pyeongchang 2018, "Russia" was banned but Russian athletes were allowed to compete under an "Olympic Athletes from Russia" moniker. Huh? Essentially, Russian officials were absent, as was the Russian flag and anthem, but otherwise, the team carried on. Really, "Russia" still participated...their flag was honored and their anthem sung.In 2016, the IOC declined to ban Russia outright despite recommendations by the World Anti-Doping Agency to do just that and following confirmation of deeper state-level manipulation. World Athletics took matters into its own hands and heavily restricted Russian presence in track & field, but elsewhere across the Games, Russia flourished.Now, after an appeal of a stronger WADA ban, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has reduced penalties and restored possible Russian participation at the Games. This will likely again come under a "neutral" banner. The upcoming World Men's Handball Championship next month offers a template, with Team Russia becoming Team "Russian Handball Federation", while still wearing team colors. To paraphrase, if it looks like Russia and carries the name "Russian", it is Russia.Not much of a punishment for carrying out the largest doping affront against the Olympics, state-sponsored no less. Russia's actions in Sochi disrespected the Games, and its role as host, to say the least. And, so far, Russia has, as U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head Travis Tygart said in response to the recent CAS reduction, "once again escape(d) a meaningful consequence proportional to the crimes...".What can be done? A repeat of 2018's "Olympic Athletes from Russia" team seems on the way, which has shown to not be much of a deterrence. Although they didn't in 2016, perhaps individual federations should take World Athletics' lead in restricting participation within their own sports. In the meantime, I'm wishing for a subdued Russian presence...maybe somehow there's a team-wide demoralization that affects performance. That's unlikely, but something needs to shake Russia into sincere compliance. Fair, and trusted Olympic-spirit competition needs it.A Full-Strength Basketball TournamentThe Covid-19 pandemic has upended the sporting calendar in 2020, with ripple effects across next year and beyond as all sports negotiate the Olympic behemoth planted now in 2021. At this stage, many rescheduled dates have been set, and one potential high-profile conflict has emerged over the last few weeks.The National Basketball Association's modified 2019-20 season, which should have ended in June 2020, finished in October. This pushed their 2020-21 season to start later than normal, in December, which then pushed the potential NBA Finals end to July 22. That's one day ahead of the Opening Ceremony for Tokyo 2020. This means a significant number of potential Olympians would not be available, or interested, in Tokyo participation given the tight turnaround between the NBA season and the Games, particularly for those that will be making deep post-season runs.U.S. stars are not the only ones affected. Spain's team usually features NBA-ers Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Nikola Mirotic. Rudy Gobert plays for France, while Patty Mills, Ben Simmons, and Matthew Dellavedova feature for Australia.Olympic qualification is massively affected, too. Usually, the final Olympic Qualifying Tournaments are held in the NBA off-season. But now in 2021, the qualifiers are set for late June, which would mean in the middle of the NBA post-season play. Would-be stars for the teams trying to qualify in these tournaments include Slovenia's Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic, Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Serbia's Nikola Jokic...not having them available would carry serious implications for their national teams' Olympic dreams.Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich is well aware of the timing conundrum, and he's in a tight turnaround, too, as an active NBA coach. Having an NBA-star-studded Olympic tournament has been a highlight of the Games since Barcelona 1992, and I'm hoping that Tokyo's version will also feature the world's best. I'm not sure how this will happen...it's unlikely a significant number of star players will miss the NBA playoffs and not be too tired to play on, but we'll see how it plays out. I also fear that, if NBA-ers pass on the Games en masse, it will set a precedent on not appearing at the Games, allowing the NBA to further push their World Cup at the expense of the Olympics.A Boxing ComebackBoxing is a classic Olympic sport, with global appeal and participation. Unfortunately, the sport is on the wrong side of competent governance and trusted integrity.Except for Stockholm 1912, boxing has been on the official Olympic program since St. Louis 1904. Boxing attracts a wide swath of nations at the Games - entrants from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Mauritius, and Brazil have won medals across the last three Games, for example. And, supporting the IOC's goal of gender equality, women's events have been included since London 2012, with a targeted increase of equality at Paris 2024.But trusting boxing to be a fair sport has been an on-going, frustrating issue. Just some of the outrageous decisions include Evander Holyfield's loss to Kevin Barry in 1984, Park Si-Hum's victory over Roy Jones, Jr. at Seoul 1988, Eric Griffin's loss to Rafael Lozano at Barcelona 1992, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.'s loss to Serafim Todorov at Atlanta 1996, Satoshi Shimizu's loss to Magomed Abdulhamidov at London 2012, and Michael Conlan's loss to Vladimir Nikitin at Rio 2016.These aren't just examples of contested upset losses / wins - they're egregious examples of, at best questionable or, at worst, rigged judging. It seems there is more of a story when there isn't a controversy at an Olympics.Boxing's governing body hasn't done the sport any favors, either. Its governance and financial problems have forced the extraordinary step of the IOC taking over Olympic qualifiers. The recent election of a new International Boxing Federation president didn't stop the IOC from restricting boxing at Paris 2024 to fewer athletes than at 2020 and not allowing a full program of weight classes. That is a move that many see as punishment for the sport's continued mess.Can boxing have a smooth, non-controversial program in Tokyo? It'll have to in order to secure confidence and relevance beyond 2024. A Clean Weightlifting Competition?Speaking of trust, weightlifting is another sport on the precipice. It was on the original agenda at Athens 1896, and except for three early Games editions, it's been on the Olympic program ever since. Like boxing, it's a truly global sport, and with a bounty of spectator appeal. Unfortunately, it's an Olympic sport dogged by doping. 16 medalists and four would-be medalists from Beijing 2008 have been stripped of their placements due to retroactive drug testing. Worse, London 2012 has disqualified 32 (!) weightlifters (and counting!), decimating the original medal table. Multiple recent infractions by specific nations means that many are facing total or partial restrictions at Tokyo 2020, including Russia, Egypt, Thailand, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, India, amongst others.Worse, the International Weightlifting Federation has been beset by misgovernment and corruption, causing a complete lack of confidence by the IOC, which put a humiliating reduction on the sport in place for 2024.If the sport is to get its act together, it needs to showcase itself well - and cleanly - in Tokyo. Weightlifting has given us fans so many favorite moments - let's hope there are more.Success for Modern PentathlonI have a soft spot for the quirky sport of modern pentathlon. Despite its rather contrived origins ahead of Stockholm 1912, the sport nevertheless is a lasting testament to the modern Games' founder Baron de Coubertin and his respect for the ancient Olympic pentathlon event. It has grown into a sport enjoyed across the world, with a World Championship held annually since 1949.It's also a sport perpetually subject to IOC scrutiny and questioning when looking to reduce or alter the Games' agenda. It traditionally has struggled for visibility, as its not a television-friendly event, and had usually required multiple venues, neither of which helps when the IOC increasingly preaches downsizing and feasibility.But the sport's been flexible: moving from a five-day event to a single day at Atlanta 1996, combining the running and shooting portions at London 2012, and narrowing to a single venue for next year's event. And, in a bid to remain IOC-relevant, will be even further condensed to a 90-minute format at Paris 2024.I, for one, am looking for the sport to put on a show at Tokyo 2020. Enough to finally secure more respect and confidence from the IOC, and perhaps even expand the sport to include a mixed relay event, which has been at the World Championships since 2010 and at three Youth Olympics to success.Traditionally, the best decathlete in track & field has been dubbed the "world's greatest athlete", but perhaps we should look at modern pentathletes for that moniker. After all, with excellence across five very different sports - fencing, equestrian, swimming, running, and shooting - these competitors must deserve applause for perseverance. New Stars in SwimmingMichael Phelps has been the dominant name in Olympic swimming for the last four Games, from Athens 2004 through Rio 2016, winning a total of 28 medals along the way. and becoming the focal point in the pool coverage. With his retirement after Rio, the air is clear for new swimming names to take center stage. Who will be the swimming standard-bearer? Caeleb Dressel is the obvious Phelps-in-waiting, already a star in swimming circles. Maybe Adam Peaty, or Katie Ledecky, or even an Olympic newcomer -and feel-good story - like Rikako Ikee can make enough of an impact to take center stage. My wish? It's that we find multiple stars and multiple swimmers to champion. Let's spread the attention around and get to know the many, many athletes worthy of attention.It's good to have new names to cycle in. Not all past heroes need to stick around.A U.S. Gymnastics Team of MeritWhen Bela and Martha Karolyi were in charge of Team USA's women's gymnastics, they implemented a very subjective - and rather secretive - process to select the Olympic team. The Karolyis' Olympic trials were a marketing spectacle. A made-for-tv event separate from the annual national championships, the team makeup always seemed to carry a sense of marketing - a selection of not just who are the best athletes, but of who would be a good marketing mix. The fact that selection decisions were made behind closed doors only exacerbated the sense of potential unfairness at the expense of potentially deserving athletes. The men's team was similarly selected, and similarly drew skeptical concerns of unfairness.Cut to 2019, when USA Gymnastics (USAG) reckons with a Larry Nasser scandal that upends the governing body's structure and the destruction of public trust. In June last year, USAG announced a revamp of its team selection, promising "more transparency, defined discretionary criteria", in addition to other measures. With the smaller team sizes - now four members only - for Tokyo 2020, team selection will be even more precious and scrutinized than before.So...let's hope that the four women and four men selected for the U.S. will be the strongest and most deserving out of the trials. It's time.The Last Gymnastics Gala?Speaking of gymnastics, there is traditionally a gala that takes place after the artistic competition that features medal-winning and/or popular gymnasts in a non-judged showcase. Rumor is, this will return at Tokyo 2020. I hope it will be the last. It's a shameless outreach to television audiences and extra fan attendance, and the only non-competitive "official" event on the sports calendar of the Summer Games. Certainly, dropping this exhibition wouldn't hinder the athletic spectacle of the sport, and would help clear the calendar for more (real) gymnastics competition. Rhythmic gymnasts currently lack apparatus-specific medal competition at the Games, and acrobatics has long been an official International Gymnastics Federation discipline, yet to appear at a Games. What do you want to see happen at Tokyo 2020?
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