Friday, August 17, 2012

Dazz's 2012 Olympic Power Rankings--Part II

10. Dong Dong
   Aside from being a totally appropriate start to Part II of our Power Rankings, Dong Dong definitely earns his spot in the front half of these rankings. Aside from having the greatest . . . I mean, aside from the obvious, he won the gold for men’s trampoline. Have you seen men’s trampoline? They go fifty feet in the air on that thing! It is totally legit, it—you know what? I do not need to justify this pick anymore. Dong Dong is top tier.

9. Team handball
   The scoring is crazy fast, it is equally exciting to watch both men and women, you do not need to understand it to think it is awesome. All of this comes together to make a sport that is absolutely built for the short attention spans of today’s home viewers. It is an absolute blast to watch—the men score at will, and the slightly slower play of the ladies makes it tactical and strategic with almost as much scoring. Bill Simmons, a sports writer and editor-in-chief of (he is excellent, and probably my biggest writing influence—sorry, felt obligated to share), has wondered openly why this is not more popular in America. I totally agree. Plus, all the women folks involved are tremendously athletic. There are jumping shots, bouncing shots, long-range shots. The sport is YouTube gold.

8. Lebron James’ Reputation
   Sticking Lebron’s rep at this spot means that while it still is not top-notch, it is improving. From London you heard nothing of Lebron being a fantastic teammate and an overall enjoyable guy to be around. He seemed more mature, more relaxed, and less intense. It was nice. People like fantastic teammates, people like enjoyable guys, and people especially like it when guys are not intense. It seems like a new Lebron—and I know that this can be a whole different article—but it is nice to see this new version, at least. His rep is on the rise.

7. London
   As in the city. London was absolutely rocking for these Games. The Brits showed up to play both in the competition and out (from what I understand they absolutely flocked to handball and beach volleyball—coincidentally two of the most revealing sports at the Olympics). They were an excellent, enthusiastic host city, and while the ceremonies were a little lackluster, they brought the excitement for sure. Not to mention they absolutely overachieved in the medal count—they were third in gold count.
   On the other hand, they carried a reputation of being slightly perverted, slightly drunk, and slightly polarized toward certain sports over others (did you see the empty seats ay gymnastics?). They were adequate hosts to be sure, however, so they earn a top-tier spot.

6. Paul McCartney
   He was the best part of the opening ceremonies, and especially after all that cornball crap with the texting couple, we sure needed him. He was replete with all of his na-na-nas and jude-juday-judays that we could ever ask for. He put on an absolute performance. He was vintage Paul. It was the highlight of the opening ceremonies (I did not bother with the closing—it is always music, I was not interested), and even as I was sitting on the couch in a rage about the stupid torch-lighting (Kids?! Really?! People wait four years to see who lights the torch! I am still mad about it!), Paul made me feel better. London was here, and it was loud and proud. Paul brought the whole thing home, and he brought it home for the whole world. It was awesome. He still has it, and I am sticking to that opinion no matter what you say (And really, what could you possibly say? He’s Paul McCartney, for the love of Christ.)

5. Gabby Douglas
   Top 5 material. Here is why, plain and simple.
   1) She is yoked.
   2) She commanded the gym whenever she performed.
   3) She is an immensely successful African-American athlete in a dominantly white sport.
   4) She has the most genuineness of the Fab Five.
   5) She carried the Americans to gold almost singlehandedly.
   6) She is yoked.
   These numbered things are way easier than writing paragraphs, I tell you. It is almost midnight here, I am more than a little done with this blog. Not for real . . . I will probably feel better in the morning. Can you tell I am dgaf-ing this right now?

4. Usain Bolt. The athlete.
   He takes a high spot because the man is a presence. I throw that word around a lot on this blog, but I do not think it applies to anyone on this list more than it does Bolt. Everywhere he competes, all eyes are on him. He may be cocky and he may be brash, but at the end of the day he backs up the talk by being the fastest man who ever lived.
   Some of these events at the Olympics see venues that do not fill up to capacity (like gymnastics and swimming), but the track was absolutely jammed. People showed up hours and hours before his races just to see him run 100 meters. Hundreds of minutes of waiting for ten seconds of entertainment. That indicates someone who commands a space. That indicates someone who is one of the greatest athletes of our time. That indicates someone who competes in an event valued by everyone in the world—and as a result, the whole world sits on the edge of their seats when Bolt steps into the starting blocks.
   A great personality can make an athlete very easy to root for, but in Bolt’s case, he does not need a great personality for people to back him. He does something that is recognizable by every country in the world, and he does it better than anyone else who has ever lived. Credit where credit is due.

3. Bob Costas
   We seem long overdue for a lame movie reference, so here we go. Remember that scene in Return of the King when Aragorn (stationed at Rohan) runs out of his house and sees the burning column and runs over to the throne room hollering, “The beacon is lit! The beacon is lit!”? That is what I pictured in my head every time we saw Bob Costas come onto the television. I shall explain.
   As the land of Middle Earth was in dark times, so was NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (although dark may be an understatement, more like times of hopeless, free-falling despair). During these dark times, an army against the forces of Mordor forms at Minas Tirith, and in order to spread news of the coming battle, a beacon must be lit to begin a chain of hope across the land (of course, it comes only after Denethor is convinced rather forcefully by Gandalf, but we can talk about that total tool later). The beacon symbolizes hope in the valley of darkness, just as Bob Costas is the beacon of hope in the valley of darkness that is NBC.
   It works, admit it.
   As this beacon, Bob offered intelligent reporting in a sea of clich├ęd questions, predictable interviews, and Andrea Kremers. He asked smart questions. He offered clear, classy transitions from sport to sport. He provided outstanding fun facts. Bob Costas saved these Olympics; he saved these Olympics for all of us. The day was won. The ring was destroyed.
   Thanks Bob.

2. Michael Phelps
   I understand that Phelps or Bolt was a huge debate in these Games. Those who side with Phelps typically site the medals and the three-peat and the oh-yeah-I-only-have-more-Olympic-medals-than-anyone-ever. Those who side with Bolt site the universal appeal of his sport, and the two repeats in both the 100 and 200 meter dash. Both of these athletes are incredibly talented, incredibly dedicated, and incredibly memorable. They will both go down in history as two of the greatest athletes in the history of professional sports.
   So the Dazz team chose Phelps. Why? It is difficult to compare track accomplishments to swimming accomplishments. Longevity is measured differently in each sport, there have been more technological advancements in swimming than track, and there are more medal opportunities in swimming as well. So the solution we drew up is to discard athletic feats. Both of these guys are outstanding in what they do, that is clear, but we cannot compare them athletically.
   Phelps wins because we have seen him grow over his career. When we first saw him he was a scared skinny freakish 15 year-old. Now, he is a man who wants to golf the world and make a definitive mark on the sport he has changed forever. We saw him evolve from a prodigy (Sydney) to a force (Athens) to a titan (Beijing) to a mature, reflective man (London). Bolt came onto the scene just before the Beijing Games. He was bold and cocky and confident to the point where you hoped the guy would win just so he did not embarrass himself. Then he absolutely crushed everyone, shattered the world record, and declared it all part of his routine. He came to London the same way. There was no maturity, there was no evolution, there was no change. The biggest difference between the London Bolt and the Beijing Bolt was the quantity of Puma gear that he wore. Phelps realigned his way of thinking and looked to make an impact that was more than “I’m the best, end of story”.
   These Olympics, we saw Phelps change, and that is why he wins the battle over Bolt.
   It also just occurred to me I wrote an entire article on this not even two weeks ago.

1. Oscar Pistorius
   He may not have medaled, but Oscar Pistorius takes the top spot for arguably being the most important person at these entire Olympics. He was more important than Bolt, and more important than Phelps. Inside or outside of competition, Pistorius, who has no legs, carried the most significance by being the first man with prosthetic limbs to compete in the Olympic Games.
   Athletes with prosthetics have long been striving for equality in terms of the opportunities that they have in the world of sports. For years now, the thing holding them back is this so-called “advantage” that they are assumed to have over athletes without disabilities. Through extensive tests and studies, Pistorius was able to show that he in fact did not have an advantage, and that he was able to fairly compete against other “regular” Olympians.
   Doubters exist, as they always do, and some will still say that Pistorius’ prosthetic legs give him an edge over athletes without the mobility aids. What these folks do not understand is that the Olympics take themselves extremely seriously. Pistorius did not sneak his way into the Games. The guys and gals at London but him through test after test after test looking for any possible way his legs would give him an unfair boost. It was like the Catholic church trying to disprove a miracle. If he made it to the Games, that means he has no advantage. If he made it to the Games, that means he passed the test. If he made it to the Games, that means he is on an even field with the rest of the athletes.
   Pistorius, with luck, will be the first of many prosthetic-using athletes in professional competition. He takes the top spot in Dazz’s Power Rankings because while the other folks in this top tier may be looking to make a difference, he already has. He has left his mark on his sport. He has changed the rules. He is what the Olympics are all about. He is what sports are all about. The saga of Pistorius is set to inspire, teach, and shape the world of track and field for years and years to come. It does not get much better than that. Number one, very well deserved.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dazz's 2012 Olympic Power Rankings--Part I

   Watching the Olympics at my house sees two kinds of talk. We either collectively moan and groan about how much we do not like this thing or that thing or one person (totally justifiably) thinks differently and then it is Cut the Comments, Smartass and a certain individual spends the rest of the evening in subdued silence.
   Hence these Grand Finale Olympic Power Rankings.
   There were some really great things in these Olympics. There were also some things that made you me scream aloud. Some things kept me glued for hours on end, and other things made me storm off and boycott the evening. To put it all in perspective, According to Dazz put together the conclusive Power Rankings of these 2012 Games. Keep in mind that a low ranking does not make one thing better than something that is not in the rankings at all. Rather, a low ranking indicates that something sucks. Not a tough system here, folks.

20. Andrea Kremer
   A huge pet peeve of mine is stupid questions. You know who asks a lot of stupid questions? Andrea Kremer. Case in point (and this is a paraphrased example), “Michael Phelps, you just won more Olympic medals than any athlete in the history of the world. How do you feel?”
   Answer me this, Andrea. How do you think he feels? You know what, no, he probably feels tired. Oh wait, he is saying he feels great? No way. Thank you for that in-depth, bare-bones, absolutely raw piece of reporting. Sheesh. Bet he feels like punching you in the mouth. Sorry, I had to vent a little.

19. The Dream Team “debate”
   I refuse to sit here and break down the hypothetical time-machine game between the ’92 team and the ’12 team. This is no debate. Sure, the modern “dream” team has two of the best players ever in Lebron and Kobe, and they have two of the best modern players in Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. After that, is there really a stand-out against the likes of MJ, Magic, Bird, David Robinson, Ewing, Stockton and Malone, and Barkley? What do you say there? Russell Westbrook? Melo? Shut up before you look stupid. Let the grown-ups talk in peace.

18. Missy Franklin’s Personality
   I never really bought the whole “I’m smiling all the time! My life is full of rainbows and flowers and it never rains and sun has a face on it and when I walk out my front door to go to swim practice little blue birds follow me!” act. My sister Alexis is a competitive swimmer as well (she is at the junior national meet right now, by the way, if you know her wish her luck), and cannot emphasize enough how fake that whole schpeel is. As someone who goes to swim practice twice a day now, here is what I will tell you: swim practice sucks. You stare at the same line for at least an hour and you do the same motion thousands of times in a row. Nothing changes. You do not race. You look down and breathe when you need to breathe. And it hurts the whole time. And you feel horrible afterward. She seems fake to me, I cannot really explain it. No one likes swimming that much, except for someone who has a really good PR rep, and I promise you her parents would pay for that.
   And did you see her gold medal interview? When things lulled after a question, she held it up for blue-collar America to see and giggled out, “Look at how preeeety it is.” What are you five?

17. Tim Bennett
    He is the gymnastics announcer for NBC, the really eccentric-sounding guy. This is not a total rap on him; he knows a great deal about gymnastics, to be sure, but the problem is he does not communicate any of his knowledge to the home viewer. I do not know about you but I know very little about gymnastics. Tim Bennett could write books about it, so when he is in the background of the broadcast going Ooh! and Eep!, I want to know why. He did improve as the Games went on, particularly with how the judges score landings, so we will cut him some slack. He actually climbed a few rungs on the Power Rankings ladder over the course of the Games.
   Then he totally jinxed McKayla Maroney by overblowing how dominant she would be on the vault. She was not impressed. Neither was the Dazz team.

16. Nastia Liuken
   Not so much her as it is the image NBC painted of her. Did you see the way they totally made her off to be this total prophetic saint of wisdom during the gymnastics competition? It was one of the most blatantly cornball things I have ever seen come out of the Olympics. They kept putting some quotes of her on as voiceovers. It sounded like she wrote them down and recited them. It was really old really fast. It washed her up faster than Leo washed up in limbo during Inception (wondering if that metaphor was a stretch . . . wondering . . . persuading myself . . . nah, no way). All they did was remind me how much more interesting the 2008 team was than this year’s team (save Gabby Douglas, but we will talk about her later). It was like NBC needed someone from the good ol’ days to come and lend credit to this team so that people would care about them. It was not pretty. Speaking of this group of gals . . .

15. The “Fab Five” Nickname
   There needs to be a rule in sports about nicknames. For those who are unfamiliar with the original Fab Five, the nickname comes from a group of freshman on the ’91-‘92 University of Michigan men’s basketball team who took the unimaginably-young team all the way to the NCAA Championship Game. I know I was not around for their primes, but I understand that they were a craze. They brought the swag. They brought the game. They were the cool kids on the block, so to speak.
   The women’s gymnastics squad did not have that same vibe it seemed. The OG Fab Five were actual buddies who goofed around together. Admit it, during these Games you wondered at least once if this whole hug-fest thing was just a big act. The Fab Five did not jive (. . . keep it) with me.
   Anyway, there needs to be an unwritten rule that teams cannot steal nicknames from other teams. Exceptions exist, of course, and one could borrow a nickname if a) the original team was crappy, or b) if 35 years have gone by since the original team. While we are on this topic, there is a nickname Hall of Fame, and if a name is inducted, it is never to be used again. Hint: The Dream Team is in the Nickname Hall of Fame.

14. Ryan Lochte
   Not to say that he did not have a fine Olympics, of course. He had a great Olympics, by most people’s standards. The problem is he had a crap-shoot Olympics by his standards. This was supposed to be his time. He was supposed to take the swimming crown from Michael Phelps and establish his reign as the face of American swimming. Instead, he took home one fewer gold than Phelps, and while he dominated the 400 IM, his comments afterward about being the better swimmer than Phelps failed to hold water after he choked away the last stretch of the 4x100 free relay, and then came second to his rival in the 200 IM.
   Aside from that, he sounds like a caveman, wears a grill, rides a scooter without mirrors (because I guess that’s cool or whatever), and has his own customized designer tennis shoes. He also apparently only has time for one-night stands, and this behavior was further evidenced by his comment that having a girlfriend during the last Olympics was a “big mistake” because he missed out on the Olympic Village . . . shall we say, proceedings.
   Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner for the World’s Biggest Tool Award.

13. Kobe Bryant’s Reputation
   This Olympics he looked to change his ways by pretending to be a good teammate, bombing more shots on London than the whole year of 1940 (bad taste . . . yeah), and making silly accusations about his (team’s) place in history.
   Hey, wait a second . . .
12. Usain Bolt’s Trash-talking
   I will give him this: he backs it up. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest sprinters of all time. He has the hardware, he has the records, and he has his place in history. I do not mind someone declaring that they are looking to go out onto the track and crush everyone—that is a competitor. What I do mind is someone declaring that the other runners in his heat are “running in [his] service” or talking about how honored everyone should be to be in the same race as he is. It is wearing on me a little. He can back up all of his trash, of course, but I just wish he did not have to be a total jerkwad (Man, I cannot wait until I can use profanity on this blog. I feel like I am in third grade here) while he did it.

11. Track Cycling
   Ok, I like the last two-thirds of the deal. It is exciting, it is strategic, it is tactical, breakneck, and seemingly dangerous. But the first lap . . . what the hell is that all about?! They just mope around for a whole lap “working on their positioning” and staring at each other like they are trying to burn holes in each other’s tires. It is the stupidest thing you have ever seen. The announcers tell you that they are trying to take an advantageous position on the track, but it just does not explain why one biker will not just suddenly start sprinting off and catch the other by surprise. I do not understand. At all. They have to have the stamina. I should be a coach of that sport. My biker and I would be undefeated. All that tactical streamlining stuff cannot be that complicated anyway. You can do all that while going fast. Easy.

Look for Part II--coming soon!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From Silver Medal to Silver Lining: Dealing with the Phelps Loss

   When we have nights like Tuesday night, I think about how much I can sure hate sports.
   Michael Phelps stood on the blocks before the start of the 200-meter butterfly, and for the thousands of people in attendance and the millions watching at home, the outcome seemed certain. Phelps would win. Not even a discussion.
   He would not win because he was the best swimmer. He would not win because he had the drive, or the determination, or the out-of-my-way edge that he has shown us over the years. Phelps would win because, plain and simple, he was supposed to win.
   With a chance to tie Larisa Latynina for the most Olympic medals in history, Phelps was swimming his signature event, which he has taken gold in for the past two Olympics. Another gold would not only give him the coveted 18th medal, but it was also make him the first Olympian to ever win gold in the same event three Olympics in a row.
   He was supposed to win.
   Sitting there on my couch at home, I did something that always manages to screw me over. I caught Sports Movie Syndrome. It is not the hardest affliction to diagnose. One just has to watch sports, and upon sensing the impending history or upset or headline story in the morning, they have to fully buy in to what is supposed to happen. After all, in 95% of sports movies, the people who are supposed to come out on top do exactly that. The star player makes the last shot. The surprisingly-athletic white guy catches the game-winning pass. The girl with the mysteriously-unnamed knee injury hobbles back onto the field and boots the final goal. Everything that is supposed to happen, happens.
   Except for Tuesday night. Phelps lost that race by five one-hundredths of a second.
   We never saw it coming, he never saw it coming. Even after the touch, I for one still thought he had won. Then, the top three finishers flashed onscreen. I saw the first flash for the gold medalist appear, but Phelps’ lane was empty. Then there it was. 2—Phelps, and Sports Movie Syndrome passed right through me.
   For the next five minutes NBC broke down how it happened. My father and I claimed that he came up between strokes, pure dumb luck. If he had taken another stroke he would have been too far into the wall; his finish would not be a full extension, and therefore slower, not as efficient. His other option was to prolong the glide, which he did. It allows him full extension, but it also kills his momentum. Either way, le Clos, the gold medalist for that event, finishes first. Somehow le Clos’ tempo left him with the perfect finish. Full momentum, full extension. Perfect. I was stunned. My father was disappointed. It had come down to the smallest of details, down to where each swimmer just happened to be positioned in the water with 2 meters to go in a 200-meter race.
   Phelps would say later that he was admittedly lazy on that finish. Maybe he had a small case of Sports Movie Syndrome too. Maybe during the course of the race, he felt his lead, felt the history, and knew that he was supposed to win. Maybe that is why an old practice habit came back to nip at him one last time. Maybe his mind was caught up in the moment, like we all were.
   After the race, as I was sitting there with my father talking about what happened, I realized I was angry. The ultimate dream of every sports fan is the ability to say I was there. I saw this happen. And you know what? I will never forget it. On Tuesday night, I was denied that moment. We all were denied that moment. History was supposed to play out perfectly before our eyes, and things were not perfect. It was not supposed to be this way. It never was supposed to be this way. It was unfair. It was unfair to the fans, it was unfair to the broadcasters, and most of all, it was unfair to Michael Phelps. He deserved that moment, and history had shut the door.
   I was in too crappy of a mood to watch much else, so I opened up to see what the writers were saying. Mr. Wayne Drehs had a story out. It covered the aftermath of the event, and talked about Phelps’ reaction. I looked.
   Chad le Clos, the South African who edged out Phelps, is supposed to be the bad guy. The Apollo Creed to our Rocky. After he won, I hated him. What an asshole. Then I read how he had watched Phelps swim at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and decided he wanted to be a swimmer too. I read how he admits himself to be the Human Fish’s biggest fan. I read how his excitement at the podium caused the best swimmer of all time to smile, take pictures with him afterward, even show him how to properly display the gold medal that, only a few minutes earlier, he had demanded as his own. Chad le Clos was just a kid celebrating “the greatest moment of my life.” Maybe he is not the bad guy after all.  
   Something else can be found in that story too. Phelps is alright. He is laughing and talking with the man who had denied him one of the pinnacle achievements of his career. He has accepted what happens. He knows the touch could have been better, but “I’m okay with that. It’s the decision I made.” His coach, Bob Bowman, said it happened somewhere in the warm-down pool. “He got in . . . and started swimming and really within about five minutes he gathered his composure and was ready to go.”
   That speaks of a champion. That speaks of someone who has matured and grown and come into his own over the course of four Olympics. That speaks of someone who knows that even when things do not end up the way they are supposed to, life can go on. Never has silver been so bright.
   Later that night Phelps would anchor the men’s 800 free relay, and he would coast in to his record-setting 19th medal of his Olympic career. This time, it was gold. Whooping and cheering with his teammates, you could not find even a trace of the prior event on Phelps’ face. He was happy. He was having fun. He had moved on, and he was signaling us to do the same.
   For a long time, we were used to Phelps winning gold. Anything else was a huge disappointment, a failure, even. But maybe, as Drehs points out in his article, the recent shortcomings are a testament to the achievement. The silvers and bronzes just show how tough it is to win the golds, and Phelps has fifteen of those.
   I logged off of ESPN. I felt better. I decided to write this article because I think that a lot of people felt the same way I did. They felt cheated out of a sports-movie ending. But if you think about it, it seems that we found one after all. Our hero in Phelps was still a hero. He was still a champion. It showed in his character that Tuesday night. As for the real champion? Maybe we forget that Chad le Clos had his sports-movie ending. Maybe we forget that a lot of people were hoping he would hit the wall first. You can picture them now, jumping and down and hugging and crying. It was a miracle.
   Standing there next to the swimmer whom he calls his hero, holding up his gold medal, le Clos probably could not help but think one thing: this is the way it was supposed to be.

When we have nights like Tuesday night, I think about how much I love sports.