Sunday, August 30, 2015

Serena vs. History

Going into the US Open, there's only one storyline that matters.  Serena Williams completed her second "Serena Slam" at Wimbledon and heads to New York, where she's the three-time defending champion, looking to finish off the first calendar-year Grand Slam in 27 years.  Serena's already on the short list for greatest player of all-time, and if she can pull this off, it would further cement her claim for that title.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if Serena does win seven matches here, we would've been witness to one of the most historic years in sports history.  American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought, and now Serena Williams has a chance to end the 27-year Grand Slam drought.  There were many people that had doubts we'd ever see either one again.  Now we might see both in the same year.  And the feats might be completed 11 miles apart.

As Serena chases history, the pressure's only going to mount with each match.  She obviously knows that.  But I doubt it'll have any effect.  In fact, in a weird way, she had more pressure going to the US Open last year.  She hadn't won a Slam all year, having been upset early in each of the other three, and was still sitting on 17, one shy of tying Chrissy and Martina's career total.  What a difference a year makes!  Now she's at 21, one away from tying Steffi Graf.  And it was Graf, of course, who had that last Grand Slam in 1988 (when she added an Olympic gold medal, too, which is obviously something Serena can't do this year).

Serena's such a heavy favorite, that it will be considered an upset if anybody else wins the tournament.  When she's on her game, she's unbeatable.  She's been unbeatable for the better part of the last two years.  And on the off chance she does actually lose, it'll be early.  At Wimbledon it was the third round where she played the British girl, had the crowd against her and came back to win 7-5 in the third.  Then she played Venus in the fourth round and it wasn't close.  Neither was the quarter, semi or final.

The whole tennis world is rooting for her to do it.  Every match she plays will be a must-watch.  And that Thursday night semifinal against Sharapova will be the ticket of the tournament, even if we all know what the result of that one will be.  As for who she might play in the finals, I kinda like Caroline Wozniacki to set up a rematch and be the only thing between Serena and history.

They definitely didn't do Serena any favors with the draw.  The top half is definitely tougher.  She could have to play, in succession, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Venus and Maria just to have her date with history.  But when you're trying to do something that hasn't been done in a generation, it's not supposed to be easy.  I said before Wimbledon that winning there would be the hard one.  If she won Wimbledon, there was no way she was losing here I said two months ago.  Now that she has, I really believe that.

And you don't have to be a Serena Williams fan to want to see it.  How many chances will we have to witness a Grand Slam?  Steffi was the last one to even attempt one when she did it in 1988.  As a fan of the sport, it's something I've never seen and may never see again.  Of course I'm hoping she does it.

Just imagine for a second if Novak Djokovic hadn't been upset by Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final.  Then we'd be going into the US Open with a chance at not just one calendar-year Grand Slam, but two.  Djokovic can still make history of his own here, though.  He's looking to become the first man to reach the finals at all four Slams since Roger's incredible run of 10 straight Grand Slam finals.

Speaking of Federer, he hasn't been to a US Open final since Juan Martin Del Potro ended his five-year winning streak in 2009 (that was the first of the six consecutive Monday finals).  Last year was his chance to add another US Open title to his resume.  He played that second semi after Djokovic lost to Nishikori, only to get upset himself by eventual champion Marin Cilic.  Federer enters this year's US Open in almost the exact same situation.  He lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and looked great during the summer hardcourt series, capped by a win over Djokovic in Cincinnati last week.  But he, of course, has Tomas Berdych, his own personal foil, in his quarter of the draw.  Roger can't get away from that guy.

Federer and Nadal have never played at the US Open, and they can't this year until the finals.  Clay Boy is seeded eighth, so he was likely going to have to play one of the other three in the quarters.  It ended up being Djokovic, the man he's played in three of the last five finals here.  They also met in the quarters in Paris, where Nadal finally lost a French Open match.  Will the result be the same at Flushing Meadows?

I think so.  Novak Djokovic is the best hardcourt player on the planet, and it's hard to believe he's only won the US Open.  His record in US Open finals is somehow 1-4, and he had that semifinal loss to Nishikori last year.  An interesting sidebar about last year's out-of-left-field final between Nishikori and Cilic is that Nishikori has used those points to jump up to No. 4 in the rankings (but it also means he's got a lot of points to defend), while Cilic has been battling injuries all year.  Cilic is seeded ninth, and they could actually meet in the other quarterfinal on the top half of the draw.

On the bottom half you've got Wawrinka and Murray, as well as Federer.  Andy Murray finally got that first Grand Slam title here three years ago, and he's always around late at the US Open.  Wawrinka, meanwhile, used a semifinal appearance here in 2013 to really start his ascendance to the top of the rankings.  That would be a very fun quarterfinal matchup.  With Federer-Berdych, I wonder if it's something that's in Roger's head.  Because if it is, that's not good.

If Federer didn't have to play Berdych, I'd have him penciled right on through to a rematch of the Wimbledon final against Djokovic.  But with so much uncertainty surrounding that match, I can't do that.  Instead, I'll say it's Murray.  Although, if Federer plays someone else or beats Berdych in the quarter, I like him to win the semi, too.  Either way, it's not going to matter.  Novak Djokovic will remind us all that he's also having a pretty good year (although not quite as good as Serena's) with his third Grand Slam title of 2015.

Even though this US Open is really all about Serena, I'd be amiss not to mention the changes to the tournament this year.  No more Connors-Krickstein at rain delays.  After 47 years on CBS, ESPN is the exclusive broadcaster this year.  That also means the schedule changes the USTA promised the players will take effect.  Both genders now get a day off between the semis and finals.  They added a Thursday night women's semifinals session, with the men's semis now during the day on Friday, and the finals moved back to Saturday/Sunday.  So, hopefully, the tournament will actually end on Sunday for the first time since 2008.  Provided the rain cooperates.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Let Her Do the Double In Rio

Allyson Felix just won her first World Championship in the 400 meters.  Already the best women's 200-meter runner on the planet, she decided not to run that event in Beijing because she'd never won the 400 at Worlds (she was second on the lean to Amantle Montsho, who's currently serving a doping ban) and, with the way the schedule was set up, she had to pick one or the other.

The 200 semifinals were also held on Thursday night, little more than an hour before the 400 final.  For all intents and purposes, it was impossible to do both.  Which is utterly ridiculous!  If the World Championships are supposed to be a showcase for the world's best athletes (especially with less than a year until the Olympics), then why are they being forced to choose an event instead of doing two, especially if winning a medal in both is possible?  Imagine if they'd made it so that Usain Bolt couldn't win three gold medals by scheduling the 200 and 4x100 on the same day!

Felix wasn't the only athlete affected by this scheduling.  The men had the same 200-400 situation.  And on the first day of the Championships, there were three finals.  Two of them were the men's marathon and men's 10,000 meters.  While it's becoming rarer, it's not unheard of for a long distance runner to enter both events...which is only possible when they're roughly a week apart!  Obviously anybody who might've been thinking about doing both couldn't.  Same thing with the 1500-5000 double on the men's side.

Am I the only one who finds this scheduling counterproductive?  Yes, more and more track & field athletes are specializing in a single event these days.  But not all of them.  The sprinters and multi-eventers aren't the only ones capable of doing two different events.  Jasmine Todd made the U.S. team in both the 100 and long jump, and Marquis Dendy made it in both the long and triple jumps.  Queen Harrison has been on the U.S. Worlds team in both the 100 and 400 hurdles, which is incredibly difficult.  And how many events did Jenna Prandini do at the NCAA Championships?  I don't even remember anymore.

One of the reasons for this problem is that the schedule doesn't allow them to focus on more than one event.  All of the invitational meets in Europe are one day, so you're obviously not going to do multiple events there.  But at the World Championships and Olympics, which both take place over a nine-day period, there's no reason not to stagger the similar events.  And not just for the stars.  In fact, maybe there'd be more stars if somebody other than Usain Bolt was able to win multiple gold medals at a championship meet.

Staggering the schedule wouldn't really be that difficult, either.  The 100 is always at the beginning of the meet and the 4x100 relay is always at the end, which means the 200 is sandwiched in the middle.  That's fine.  But it's not hard to set it up to do the 200 and 400, as well.  Three rounds of the 400 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  A day off on Monday.  The heats of the 200 on Tuesday morning, the semis on Tuesday night, and the final on Wednesday.  Thursday off and the relay over the final weekend.

Using that logic, it's not hard to stagger the distance events in the same way.  If you want to have some variety and have the men's 800 with the women's 1500, then vice versa, that's not a problem.  In fact, you'd have to do it that way.  With the men's marathon always on that final Sunday of the Games, the men's 10,000 would have to be early, which also means the 5000 would have to be after the 10,000.  Which means the 1500 would have to be early so that it's before the 5000.  And the 800 would have to be later in the meet for the 800-1500 double.  The steeplechase can really be whenever, since steeplechasers generally don't do another event.  Same thing with the two sprint hurdles, but just in case a hurdler is ambitious enough to try it, don't have any round of the 100/110 and 400 hurdles of the same gender on the same day.

Since the women's marathon is a week before the men's, the women's schedule would almost have to be reversed.  Marathon, 800, 5000 early in the week, 1500 and 10,000 later in the week.  With the field events, it's less of an issue.  You just have to make sure the long and triple jumps aren't on the same day, and the same thing with the shot put and discus.

Sure, athletes that want to enter multiple events might have to sacrifice some recovery time to go right from one to the other, but that would be their choice.  Point is, they should at least have the option of making that decision themselves instead of having it made for them.

For a sport in need of transcendent stars (Bolt's planning on retiring after either the Rio Olympics or the 2017 World Championships), they're not helping themselves.  Swimming and track & field aren't the same sport, so it's not an apples to apples comparison, but the reason Michael Phelps was able to win eight gold medals at the Olympics seven years ago was because the schedule allowed it.  And his successful quest of 8 for 8 in '08 helped Phelps become a household name.

But the IAAF has shot itself in the foot by not allowing for a similar storyline.  Sure, Bolt's won three golds at each of the last two Olympics, but only the sprinters (and the occasional distance runner like Mo Farah that does the 5000-10,000 double) have the ability of winning multiple medals.  I'm not saying things would change that drastically if the schedule allowed it.  But it's stupid not to let other athletes try and see if they can become the next Bolt by winning multiple Olympic gold medals.

Track's biggest stars have always been sprinters, mainly because they're the ones who win multiple medals.  Before Bolt there was Carl Lewis, and you can even go all the way back to Jesse Owens.  But the other name that immediately comes to mind is Michael Johnson, who pulled off the 200-400 double in Atlanta, setting an incredible world record in the 200 that looked like it would stand for a long time until Bolt decided otherwise.

Johnson made it known that he wanted to go for the 200-400 double in Atlanta and, since the Games were in the U.S., the schedule was adjusted so that he could.  But what everyone forgets is that France's Marie-Jose Perec pulled off the same double on the women's side.

IOC President Thomas Bach said earlier in the week that the schedule can be adjusted if Allyson Felix wants to go for the double in Rio.  (Personally, I think the pre-Olympic Worlds should have the same schedule as the Olympics will, but that's a whole different can of worms.)  But they shouldn't have to adjust the schedule.  It should just be like that already.  I'm glad they're willing to do the right thing and give Allyson Felix a shot at double (or triple, or quadruple) gold in Rio, but they shouldn't need to.  The original schedule should be set up so that it's possible for everybody.  And not just the sprinters.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Core Four Weekend

Over the weekend, the Yankees retired a pair of numbers, their second and third this year and the 20th and 21st in franchise history.  The 22nd will obviously be Derek Jeter's No. 2 within the next year or two.

A lot of Yankee haters out there like to complain that the Yankees have too many retired numbers and joke that they'll eventually have to start using triple-digits.  (In fact, one of my theories for not having names on the jerseys is so that when they get a new player, they can just give him the number of the guy who just left.)  Yes, they have retired a lot of numbers.  The most of any team in professional sports.  But if you consider the fact that they've won 27 World Series, have had numerous dynastic eras featuring multiple championships in a row, and some of the biggest names in the history of the sport have worn Yankee Pinstripes, it's really not a lot at all.  I'd actually argue that there could be a few more.

When people make their comments about the number of digits on the wall (there are so many that they ran out of room and had to put the three from this year on the back of the center field wall, facing away from the field), I generally respond with a question.  Who would you take off?  Sure, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are on a different level than, say, Elston Howard, but that's why only four Yankee players have monuments.

Even the biggest Yankee Haters in the world would have no argument about Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Casey Stengel or Mariano Rivera.  They're obviously all-time greats.  That's 10 of the 22.  But there's a valid reason why each of the other 12 is on the wall.  Teams establish their own criteria for retiring numbers (the Nets retired Drazen Petrovic's No. 3 after he was killed in a car crash, for example).  So who are we to arbitrarily assign our own standard and say someone "doesn't deserve it" when the team itself and their fans clearly think otherwise?

The reason I'm bringing this up is because the two numbers the Yankees retired this weekend are vastly different.  The second Andy Pettitte retired for the final time, everyone knew No. 46 was going on the wall.  There's no debate about his place in Yankees history.  Pettitte's a borderline Hall of Fame candidate based on his postseason resume alone.  He probably won't make it to Cooperstown, so having his number retired by the Yankees is probably the greatest baseball honor he'll ever receive.

Some people were quick to point out that Pettitte is the first "drug cheat" to have his number retired by a team (which is not true, because the Diamondbacks retired Luis Gonzalez's number earlier this year).  All that tells me, though, is that haters gonna hate.  Yes, Pettitte was named in the Mitchell Report.  But he was also one of the few to be upfront about it.  He admitted it, said he took HGH only one time so that he'd recover from an injury more quickly, and apologized.  His explanation was plausible and believable, which is why I think nobody questioned him about it further.  Pettitte then resumed his career and his performance was no different.  Obviously some will never forgive and always label him a "cheat," but one transgression shouldn't (and didn't) cloud his career.

Andy Pettitte wasn't just one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history, he was the ace of a dynasty.  During his first nine-year stint with the Yankees from 1995-2003, they went to six World Series and won four.  Most importantly, he was a part of the "Core Four," the quartet that defined that era for so many Yankees fans.

Now, the Yankee retired numbers can really be broken up into three categories.  There are the all-time greats (Ruth, Gehrig) and the all-time Yankee greats.  That's where Pettitte falls.  Pettitte's catcher, Jorge Posada, in the third group, the borderline players that those who complain about "too many" retired numbers like to question.

Most of us only remember the Jorge Posada from the end of his career, when he was relegated to DHing and got grumpy about it during his final season.  But in his prime, he was a phenomenal offensive catcher.  The numbers Posada put up were ridiculous.  And the fact that he was still the primary catcher on that 2009 championship team when he was 37 years old (two years after having a career year at 35 in 2007) speaks to Posada's consistency and longevity.

Posada was also a member of the "Core Four," which is probably what put him over the top in the number retirement discussion.  If he wasn't a part of that group, his number retirement ceremony likely never would've happened.  But the other three (Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte) were all definitely getting their numbers put on the wall.  And it's not the Core Three.  It's the Core Four.  Posada was just as important a part of that quartet as the others.  They weren't going to retire three numbers and not the fourth.

As for the "overabundance" of retired numbers recently (three this season, five in the last three years, plus five Monument Park plaques), there are several reasons behind it.  First and foremost, it's an obvious ploy to sell tickets.  But it's also because all of those guys are from the same era.  With the exception of Goose Gossage, everybody the Yankees have honored over the past three seasons was a part of that 90s dynasty that won four championships in five years.  It's just the way things have cycled.  Could they have staggered them a little more so that it didn't seem like they were doing them all at once?  Sure.  But if they were going to do it all anyway, what difference does when make?

If it seems like a lot in a short period, it is.  But after Derek Jeter Day, whether it's next year or 2017 or whenever, the Yankees aren't going to have one of these in a while.  Maybe they'll decide that a 21 would look nice on the wall next to all the others from that team, but other than Paul O'Neill, is there really any viable candidates on the horizon?

It's also worth noting that until the recent surge, the Yankees had only retired a total of two numbers in the 20 years between Reggie Jackson (1993) and Mariano Rivera (2013), Don Mattingly in 1997 and Ron Guidry in 2003 (which was exactly 12 years to the day before Pettitte).  And Mattingly, of course, played almost his entire career during that famous playoff lull from 1981-95.  So, no, the Yankees aren't overdoing it with the retired numbers.  And if you think they are, do you think the same thing about the Montreal Canadiens or Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers?

Having a permanent place in the history of any team is a special thing.  Now just imagine if that team is the most famous franchise in all of sports.  The Core Four's place in Yankees history was already secure.  They're not going to be all together in Cooperstown.  Putting all four of them together in Monument Park for eternity isn't a bad alternative, though.  So, do Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada belong on the wall?  Yeah, they do.

Friday, August 21, 2015

World Championships Picks (Women)

Yesterday I took a look at what I think will happen during the World Championships on the men's side, and today it's time for the women.  Just like the men's meet, there's going to be plenty of great head-to-head matchups in the women's events.  I also think this could be a record haul for the United States.  The American team is loaded, and there are medal chances in a number of events that you wouldn't normally expect.  From Emma Coburn in the steeplechase to Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury in the 1500

We've also got Allyson Felix running the 400 instead of the 200, where Oregon senior Jenna Prandini is the U.S. champ.  Prandini's one of many new faces that's invading Beijing for Worlds, but we'd better get used to them.  Because we'll probably see at least some of them next year in Rio.  And and Worlds for years to come.

Now for the projections...

100: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (JAM), Blessing Okagbare (NGR), Tori Bowie (USA)
SAFP is the defending champ in both the 100 and 200, but she's decided to only run the 100 here.  She also won the 100 at the last major meet to be held in Beijing.  It should be a golden return to the Bird's Nest for the 2008 Olympic champion.

200: Dafne Schippers (NED), Shaunae Miller (BAH), Murielle Ahoure (CIV)
With Fraser-Pryce and Felix both deciding not to run the event, the 200 is going to be wide open.  And I think the person who'll go bursting through that door is Dafne Schippers, the former heptathlete turned top sprinter in Europe.  She's the best in the field, so she should add a World Championship to her European title.

400: Allyson Felix (USA), Christine Day (JAM), Christine Ohurougu (GBR)
One of the reasons Felix decided to run the 400 is because she's never won it at Worlds.  The only other time she ran the 400 was in 2011, when she was edged at the line by Botswana's Amantle Montsho (who's currently serving a doping ban).  Felix made the U.S. team at the expense of Francena McCorory, who has the fastest time in the world this year, knocking out the likely winner.  As a result, I think Felix adds another World title, and first in the 400, adding to the speculation about whether or not she'll try to double in Rio.

800: Eunice Sum (KEN), Selina Buchel (SUI), Alysia Montano (USA)
There are so many women that have run sub-2:00 this season, that this is going to be a wide open race.  Since Sum is the only one in that group under 1:57, I guess that makes her the nominal "favorite."  Alysia Montano has come close to medaling at the last two Worlds, and this time I think she will get bronze.  If Ajee Wilson was healthy, gold would've been possible for her.

1500: Genzebe Dibaba (ETH), Jenny Simpson (USA), Shannon Rowbury (USA)
Genzebe Dibaba set the world record a few weeks ago, so it's really a question of if anyone will be anywhere close to her.  Simpson has gone gold-silver at the last two World Championships, Rowbury won bronze in 2009, and which one will be the top American is another intriguing question.

5000: Almaz Ayana (ETH), Viola Kibiwot (KEN), Mimi Belete (BRN)
It's possible that Dibaba will double, and if she does, it's not a stretch to say she'll win double gold.  But I'm not sure she's actually going to run both, so I'm going with her countrywoman Almaz Ayana.

10,000: Geleta Burka (ETH), Vivian Cheruiyot (KEN), Alemitu Heroye (ETH)
The top four seeds are all Ethiopian, and I can definitely see a sweep as possible.  American Shalane Flanagan is the top-seeded non-Ethiopian, and she won bronze (soon to be upgraded to silver) in this event at the Beijing Olympics.

Marathon: Sairi Maeda (JPN), Mare Dibaba (ETH), Mariya Konovalova (RUS)
Mare Dibaba has the fastest time in the world by more than two seconds, but, like I said with the men, marathons are unpredictable, so I don't think a victory is by any means guaranteed.

Steeplechase: Hiwot Ayalew (ETH), Habiba Ghribi (TUN), Emma Coburn (USA)
If the World Championships had been last year, there's no doubt Coburn would've won the first-ever American medal in the women's steeplechase.  It's not a lock this year, but I still think it's likely she'll end up on the podium.  She probably won't challenge for gold, though.

100 Hurdles: Dawn Harper Nelson (USA), Sharika Nelvis (USA), Tiffany Porter (GBR)
Sally McLellan broke her wrist on a nasty fall at a Diamond League meet in June and is out for the season.  That means the 100 hurdles will likely be won by an American.  Which one is anybody's guess.  Tiffany Porter, whose husband Jeff, won silver in the men's 110 hurdles at the 2013 Worlds, could crack the podium.  So could her sister, Cindy Ofili, the NCAA champion at Michigan.

400 Hurdles: Zuzana Hejnova (CZE), Shamier Little (USA), Kori Carter (USA)
Shamier Little is one of the up-and-coming stars in track & field.  She's already won the NCAA, U.S. and Pan Am titles this year, and a World Championships medal seems likely.  I think defending champ Zuzana Hejnova will take the gold here, but the Olympic gold next year will be Little's to lose.

High Jump: Anna Chicherova (RUS), Ruth Beitia (ESP), Maria Kuchina (RUS)
Oh man, am I looking forward to the women's high jump!  This is gonna be a great competition.  We've finally got all of the world's best healthy and in one place.  You could really put the top 8-10 names in a hat, pull out three, and they could easily be your medalists.  The women's high jump is that deep.

Pole Vault: Yarisley Silva (CUB), Nikoleta Kyriakapolou (GRE), Jenn Suhr (USA)
Two years ago, Yelena Isinbayeva's win in the women's pole vault was probably the defining moment of the Moscow Worlds.  She isn't competing this year, but the event isn't lacking anything without her.  After Silva, the rest of the top five are separated by two centimeters, so the battle for silver and bronze will be intense.

Long Jump: Tianna Bartoletta (USA), Brittney Reese (USA), Christabel Netty (CAN)
Brittney Reese seemingly wins every major championship in the women's long jump, but I think that streak's about to end.  Bartoletta's been the world's best all year, and by a wide margin.  Since Reese is a massive big meet performer, I'll give her the silver.

Triple Jump: Ekaterina Koneva (RUS), Caterine Ibarguen (COL), Olga Saladukha (UKR)
Koneva has won silver at the last two major championships (2013 Worlds, 2014 Euros).  This time I see her finally climbing to the top step of the podium.

Shot Put: Gong Lijiao (CHN), Cleopatra Borel (TTO), Christina Schwanitz (GER)
Valerie Adams has dominated the women's shot put for longer than I can remember.  But she's out injured, so somebody else gets to win a World Championship this year.  And Gong might be China's best hope for a gold medal on the women's side.

Discus: Sandra Perkovic (CRO), Denia Caballero (CUB), Dani Samuels (AUS)
In the discus, it'll probably be two different competitions.  Perkovic vs. Caballero for the gold, and everyone else battling each other for bronze.

Hammer Throw: Anita Wlodarczyk (POL), Betty Heidler (GER), Wang Zheng (CHN)
Wlodarczyk is one of the biggest favorites of the meet.  She set a world record that wasn't ratified this year, then went out a couple weeks later and officially broke the mark.  That throw was 81.08 meters.  Heidler has the second-best mark in the world this year--75.73.

Javelin: Kim Mickle (AUS), Sunette Viljonen (RSA), Barbora Spotakova (CZE)
Little did I know, American Kara Winger actually has a real shot at a medal here.  She enters Worlds with the third-best mark in the world this year.

Heptathlon: Brianne Thiesen-Eaton (CAN), Jessica Ennis-Hill (GBR), Katarina Johnson-Thompson (GBR)
One of the most anticipated events will take place over the first two days of the meet--the battle of the hypens in the heptathlon.  The Eatons are looking for an unprecedented husband-wife multi-event double, and they could easily do it.  Because Brianne's chances of winning are just as good as Ashton's.

20 Kilometer Walk: Liu Hong (CHN), Lu Xiuzhi (CHN), Svetlana Vasilyeva (RUS)
Just like the men's walk, a 1-2 Chinese sweep is definitely a possibility here.  Especially with the Russians, who are typically very strong, embroiled in the doping controversy.

4x100 Relay: Jamaica, United States, Russia
On the men's side, the U.S. has finally figured out a way to beat Jamaica in the 4x100.  But in the women's relay, I just think the quartet the Jamaicans throw out there will be better than the American foursome.  And Jamaica will have the stronger anchor leg in Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

4x400 Relay: United States, Jamaica, Great Britain
McCorory didn't qualify for the open 400, but she's in Beijing to run on the relay, which she'll likely anchor.  Russia won this event in Moscow, but won't have a home crowd behind them this time.  As a result, I think we go back to normal, with McCorory or Allyson Felix or whoever bringing home an American victory.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

World Championships Picks (Men)

It's almost that time!  A time that comes around once every other year.  The Track & Field World Championships are about to start.  The world's finest return to Beijing for the first time since the 2008 Olympics, which are best remembered as Usain Bolt's coming-out party.  This time Bolt returns to Beijing hoping to strike lightning again, but he'll face some stiff competition from Justin Gatlin.  The two haven't squared off over 100 meters in two years.  That's entirely too long.  And their battle in Beijing should be one of the highlights of the meet.

We've also got the report of those failed drug tests from 2005 and 2007 lingering over the World Championships, with the worry that they'll name names and it'll be names of those competing in Beijing.  Hopefully the competition is so good that we're talking about doping for only the first couple days before the stories of the Championships take over.

Since track & field is my favorite Olympic sport, I always have an interest in the World Championships, and the intensity is amped up that much more in the pre-Olympic Worlds.  With less than a year to go until the Olympics, what happens in Beijing could be a great indicator of what we'll see next year in Rio.

With 47 events spread over nine days, there's a lot of track & field on the horizon.  My preview will be split up into two parts.  Today, picks for the men's events, with a breakdown of some of the key ones (or the ones I'm looking forward to the most).  Tomorrow, I'll do the same thing with the women.

100: Justin Gatlin (USA), Usain Bolt (JAM), Keston Bledman (TTO)
The long-anticipated Bolt-Gatlin showdown comes at the scene of Bolt's greatest triumph.  I think the reason they haven't raced each other is because Bolt has been ducking Gatlin.  He knows he'll beat him.

200: Usain Bolt (JAM), Alonso Edward (PAN), Justin Gatlin (USA)
In the 200, it's a different story.  It's Bolt's baby, and he's still the best in the world over the distance.

400: LaShawn Merritt (USA), Kirani James (GRN), Wayde Van Niekerk (RSA)
Isaac Makwala of Botswana has the best time in the world this year, but Merritt and James are the battle-tested veterans.  One of them will come out on top.

800: David Rudisha (KEN), Nijel Amos (BOT), Mohammed Aman (ETH)
No, Nick Symmonds won't be running.  There was no chance he's gonna medal anyway.  Everybody's here this time, which wasn't the case when Symmonds won silver two years ago in Moscow.

1500: Asbel Kiprop (KEN), Taoufik Makhloufi (ALG), Nick Willis (NZL)
Really a toss-up here.  Kiprop's the favorite and has the top time in the world this year, but there's really like five or six guys in the mix for the medals.

5000: Dejen Gebremeskel (ETH), Yomif Kejelcha (ETH), Hagos Gebrhiwet (ETH)
Four of the top five seeds are Ethiopian, so I can definitely see a sweep here.  The real question is whether American Ben True can medal.

10,000: Mo Farah (GBR), Paul Tanui (KEN), Geoffrey Kamworor (KEN)
Farah has evidently been cleared of any wrongdoing, but I think it's a mistake to let Alberto Salazar coach him in Beijing.  Nevertheless, the top three in this event are a cut above the rest of the field.

Marathon: Wilson Kipsang (KEN), Ghirmany Ghebreselassie (ETH), Stephen Kiprotich (UGA)
As usual, what's going to happen in the marathon is anybody's guess.  Way too many variables at play to make a pick with any certainty, but I'll take 2014 New York City Marathon winner Wilson Kipsang.

Steeplechase: Brimin Kiprop Kipruto (KEN), Ezekiel Kemboi (KEN), Evan Jager (USA)
American distance running is the best its ever been.  As evidence by the fact that Evan Jager is the No. 2 seed and favored to win a medal in this typically Kenyan-dominated event.

110 Hurdles: David Oliver (USA), Omar McLeod (JAM), Aleec Harris (USA)
Defending champion David Oliver is the best in the world.  It's not even close.  I'll be shocked if he doesn't win again.

400 Hurdles: Bershawn Jackson (USA), Michael Tinsley (USA), Javier Culson (PUR)
Can the Americans sweep?  And which one will win the gold?  This is one of the strongest events for the American team, but I like Pan Am silver medalist Culson to break through for bronze.

High Jump: Muttaz Essa Barshim (QAT), Bohdan Bondarenko (UKR), Zhang Guowei (CHN)
Barshim and Bondarenko had one of the great duels at the 2013 World Championships.  While the men's high jump hasn't been anywhere near as hot this year as it was then, I'm looking forward to the two of them going at it again...with Zhang also thrown into the mix.

Pole Vault: Renaud Lavillenie (FRA), Raphael Holzdeppe (GER), Shawn Barber (CAN)
Yelena Isinbayeva set a world record in the women's pole vault in Moscow.  Will Lavillenie set one on the men's side in Beijing?  Amazingly, he's never won a World Championship.  That should change here.

Long Jump: Jeff Henderson (USA), Marquis Dendy (USA), Greg Rutherford (GBR)
Henderson won at Pan Ams and has the best jump in the world this year.  He's the best of a not-spectacular field.

Triple Jump: Pedro Pablo Pichardo (CUB), Christian Taylor (USA), Will Claye (USA)
This has taken over from the high jump as the hottest men's field event.  Triple P against a quartet of Florida Gators.  It's probably between Pichardo and Taylor for gold, with the other three Americans fighting for bronze.

Shot Put: David Storl (GER), Joe Kovacs (USA), Asmir Kolasinac (SRB)
For some reason, David Storl always seems to come up big at the World Championships.  This is an event traditionally dominated by the Americans, but Storl somehow manages to win every time.

Discus: Piotr Malachowski (POL), Jason Morgan (JAM), Christoph Harting (GER)
Robert Harting is injured and not here, but his brother Christoph will have a chance at upholding the family name.  Problem is Piotr Malachowski has been the best in the world this year by a wide margin.

Hammer: Pawel Fajdek (POL), Krisztian Pars (HUN), Dilshod Nazarov (TJK)
If there's a bigger favorite on the men's side than Pawel Fajdek, I don't know who it is.  This guy has dominated the hammer throw for so long now, I don't even remember the last time somebody else won something,

Javelin: Keshorn Walcott (TTO), Julius Yego (KEN), Tero Pitkamaki (FIN)
Oh, how the times have changed.  Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago are the top two seeds in the javelin.  The best shot the Europeans, the event's traditional powers, have is for bronze.

Decathlon: Ashton Eaton (USA), Trey Hardee (USA), Damian Warner (CAN)
Ashton Eaton hasn't completed a decathlon since Moscow.  That doesn't really matter, though.  He's head and shoulders above everyone else.  And that includes Trey Hardee and Damian Warner.

20 km Walk: Wang Zhen (CHN), Yusuke Suzuki (JPN), Chen Ding (CHN)
China's best chance at winning a gold medal on the men's side is probably in the 20 km walk.  Wang, Chen and Cai Zelin all have a shot at the gold, and a medal sweep is possible.

50 km Walk: Matej Toth (SVK), Hirooki Arai (JPN), Aleksandr Yargunkin (RUS)
Toth has the best time in the world this year by almost six seconds.  Think about how long that is in the race walk!  With most of the Russians who could've challenged him involved in the doping controversy, he should have a 50 km leisurely stroll through the streets of Beijing.

4x100 Relay: United States, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago
I don't want to sound overly optimistic, but I think the U.S. has finally found the secret to beating Jamaica in the 4x100.  They beat them at the World Relays in the Bahamas in May, and if they follow the same formula, a World Championships victory won't be too far behind.

4x400 Relay: United States, Bahamas, Jamaica
To say that the United States has dominated this event over the years would be an understatement.  With all four Americans likely to make the final of the individual 400, as well as 400-hurdlers who are just as capable in the relay, it shouldn't be any different in Beijing.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Everyone Gets a Trophy

Steelers linebacker James Harrison caused a bit of a stir on social media when he posted a picture of his kids' participation trophies on his Instagram account and said he was sending them back.  This, of course, drew the inevitable mixed reaction.  Some people were outraged that he would do such a thing.  But, for the most part, people tended to agree with Harrison and show their support.

The participation trophy is unique to American youth sports, and it has a long history.  They're designed to make the kids feel good.  A "reward" for good effort.  Not everyone can be the MVP, but even the worst player on the team is just as important.  The important part is just to do your best.  At least that's the rationale behind the existence of the participation trophy.

But the problem with them is that you don't need to do anything to get one.  You don't even need to be good.  All you need to do is show up.  So what exactly did you do to "earn" it?  The heart is obviously in the right place.  Youth sports aren't about winning and losing.  They're about having fun, making friends and learning things like teamwork.  But at what point does it become about winning and losing?

I'm not a parent and I respect the parenting styles of those who don't share my opinion, but I definitely agree with James Harrison on this one.  The participation trophy sends the wrong message and devalues other awards.  Imagine being on a youth sports team and being named MVP...and you get the same trophy as the last kid on the bench.  Winning the MVP is obviously an achievement.  But how is a 9-year-old supposed to know that?  All he sees is everybody getting the same thing.

Harrison himself might've said it best.  This is what he wrote on Instagram underneath the picture: "I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!  While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do, and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.  I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best...cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy."

His point is exactly right.  As you grow up, you don't automatically get an award for trying.  You have to work for it.  Sometimes you're going to try your best and somebody else's best will be better.  And if that happens, they deserve to get a trophy over you.  Just like if you do better than them, you wouldn't want them getting the same award you got.  Learning how to lose graciously is part of life, too.  So is dealing with disappointment.  Participation trophies don't do that.  They send the wrong message by telling everyone they're good enough.

I don't remember the age at which I stopped receiving participation trophies, but I do know I definitely got some throughout my Little League baseball and basketball careers (and I wasn't good at either sport).  I don't remember how I felt when I got those meaningless trophies, either.  At the time, I probably thought it was so cool that I got a trophy.

But now that I'm an adult and work in sports, I know what it takes to actually "win" a trophy.  I see it everyday.  And the thrill of winning a championship is something that can't be described.  You were the best.  The trophy or ring or banner is tangible proof of that.  I've been involved with championship teams, but I've never received a championship ring myself.  And I can't wait until I get one!

Second place is often the worst feeling in sports.  In team sports at the Olympics, the silver medal goes to the loser of the gold medal game.  It's a consolation prize that no one wants.  And it's motivation.  That silver medal is often used as fuel to go out, work hard, and move up to the gold the next time.  How many of those athlete features does NBC run during each Olympics where that's the exact storyline?

There's an episode of the sitcom Yes, Dear where this debate is the whole plot.  A kid gets a trophy for finishing last in the school Olympics and his dad, not knowing the kid is standing behind him, makes fun of the trophy.  "Outstanding?  Yeah, he was out standing there as the fast kids went by."  The next week, the kid finishes third and gets another trophy.  After he brings it home, he tells his dad that he heard him and he was right.  He wanted to win a trophy that he earned.

That's the entire point.  Participation trophies aren't a bad thing.  They're completely well-intentioned.  But they're also counterproductive.  There's a big difference between getting a trophy just because and getting a trophy because you won something.  Want proof?  Look at the winning team during a trophy presentation.  Then look at the losing team.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Brady vs. The NFL Getting Dirty

Am I the only one who absolutely loves the judge in the Brady vs. Goodell case?  This guy's awesome.  He, in not so many words, told them how stupid this entire thing is and how ridiculous it is that it's gotten to this point.  And, by encouraging them to settle (which seems unlikely), he also indirectly told them that if he has to actually issue a ruling, neither side is going to like it.

Unfortunately, neither Brady or Goodell is budging, so the settlement ain't happening.  Brady refuses to accept a suspension of any length and won't admit any guilt.  That doesn't work for Goddell, who would probably agree to a reduced suspension if Brady wasn't so stubborn in his defiance.  Of course, by settling, Goodell would be acknowledging that he overreached, which would be an incredible blow to his absolute authority and open the door to any player that doesn't like his NFL discipline challenging it in court.  Still, compared to the alternative of the suspension being completely nullified, I think he'd probably take that.

Even though the judge told both sides to tone down the rhetoric, that hasn't stopped Brady's lawyers from taking shots at the NFL.  They've called the whole thing a "smear campaign" and called Goodell's original written ruling a "propaganda piece" and said it showed "a clearly biased agenda, not an effort at fairness and consistency."  How exactly is that toning down the rhetoric?

The Patriots' nonchalant, care-free attitude to the whole thing isn't helping either.  They said that Brady wouldn't play in the first preseason game against the Packers, which was played in Foxboro the day after Brady was in New York for the first round with the judge.  Yet there he was on the field, playing the entire first quarter.  Was this Brady and Kraft saying a big "F.U." to Goodell?  The Patriots to Goodell: "He's gonna play now, and he's gonna play in the first regular season game, too.  And there's nothing you can do about it."

Now, even without a possible suspension looming, what's the point of Tom Brady playing the entire first quarter in the first preseason game (unless they were trying to stick it to the NFL)?  Under normal conditions, we probably wouldn't have seen Brady at all in that game.  And putting him in there really seemed counterproductive.  Assuming the suspension sticks, whether it's reduced or upheld doesn't really matter.  Either way, Brady will miss the first game.  So, wouldn't you want Jimmy Garoppolo to start the game and play with the first team offense against Green Bay's first team defense, neither of which was going to be in there very long?

Neither side looks very good here.  Brady's trying to salvage whatever's left of his Golden Boy image, but unless you live in New England, that's already long gone.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, "the gentleman doth protest too much methinks."  He reminds me of Roger Clemens with his continued defiance and cockiness about it.  Clemens was found not guilty in federal court, but there isn't a person out there who doesn't think he took something during his playing career.  Same thing with Brady.  We don't know what he did, but we're pretty sure he's guilty of something.

Meanwhile, Goodell needs the suspension to stick to maintain any sense of credibility he has in these cases.  He already had Bountygate voided and Adrian Peterson's suspension overturned.  And after initially screwing up so badly on Ray Rice, a judge told him he couldn't suspend Rice again for the same thing.  Goodell needs the judge to say he's right on this one.  Otherwise, he can expect to do this again anytime he tries to levy discipline that the player being suspended doesn't like.

No matter what, there aren't any winners here.  Brady's no longer the Golden Boy.  And he's not going to get the complete vindication he's looking for.  Sure, if he doesn't like the judge's ultimate ruling, he can appeal again, but when will it finally be enough?  The public is already sick of this entire thing.  No one wants it dragged into 2016.  Except for maybe Brady's lawyers.  Keep those billable hours piling up.

Both sides want this over with by September 4, which is a week before the Patriots play the Steelers in the NFL's opening game.  By strongly encouraging the sides to settle, the judge is not-so-subtly telling them that he doesn't want to make a decision.  I do give him credit for taking it seriously, though.  Because if I was a judge and this case was brought into my courtroom, I'm not sure I'd be able to.  It's so stupid.

Brady and Goodell will both be back in court on Wednesday.  This time there might be witnesses, too.  So who knows what new details are going to emerge?  Either way, I think this will ultimately be decided by the judge, and it will likely resemble the settlement he's been urging the sides to make all along.  The fine stays and the suspension is cut from four games to two.  Hopefully that'll be enough to appease Goodell and Brady will be smart enough to waive the white flag.  But we all know that's unlikely to happen.  Get ready for Tom Brady to play the entire 2015 season only to miss the first four games of 2016.  Because, unfortunately, it looks like that's where we're headed.