Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Athletics World Cup: A Poorly Executed Good Idea

Last weekend was jam-packed with sports.  With the World Cup final and the Wimbledon finals, it was easy for the Athletics World Cup to get lost in the mix.  Not surprisingly, the United States won the inaugural event, which featured eight national teams at London's Olympic Stadium.  I have no idea if and when the Athletics World Cup will continue, but if it does several improvements need to be made.

Originally, this was supposed to be a dual meet between the United States and Great Britain at the London Olympic Stadium, but six other countries were invited and the event was expanded into a full-fledged World Cup.  It wasn't a terrible idea (although, I liked the USA-Great Britain head-to-head a little better).  The execution left a lot to be desired, though.

For starters, there was the schedule.  They shoehorned it into an already-busy weekend, not just in world sports, but on the track & field calendar, too.  There was a Diamond League meet in Morocco the day before, and two more next week, including the two-day London meet.  The World U20 Championships were also going on simultaneously in Finland.  The European Championships are also coming up at the beginning of August, too, and that's the focus for most of the European athletes in this non-Olympic/non-Worlds year.

I understand they were limited on when they could hold the World Cup because of stadium availability, but I think the timing was one of the biggest issues they faced.  Diamond League meets offer appearance fees.  The World Cup didn't (only prize money per team based on finish).  There was also the issue of certain athletes being sponsored by shoe companies that are different than their national team, which led to some uncomfortable conflicts and kept some athletes away.

As a result of all these issues, the Athletics World Cup was considerably lacking in star power.  Some big stars did show up.  But not enough.  Especially since the most notable names, the ones that they used in all of their promotion, were absent.  That included several of the top British stars.  The American team had some national champions, but there were also some fourth-place finishers at Nationals.  (And let's not forget the lack of star power at U.S. Nationals this year to begin with.)  

Germany didn't even send its B team.  They were represented by younger athletes that are too old for World U20s, but aren't at the same level as their top athletes, who are getting ready for Euros.  Great experience for them, but certainly didn't do anything to enhance the quality of the meet.  And they clearly didn't care about winning the team title.  At the European Team Championships, Germany usually finishes first or second.  In London, they were the fourth-best European team and seventh overall.

That's more than I can say for China, though.  Why was China even there?  The whole idea was one athlete from each team in every event.  Wanna know how many of the 34 events China entered?  Just 21!  They didn't have a competitor in nearly half the events, including some of the relays!  One or two events is one thing (Jamaica doesn't have any female pole vaulters, for example), but not entering half the events when you're supposedly one of the eight "best" track & field nations in the world?

They determined the participating nations based on their finish in the World Cup events at the 2017 World Championships, but I'm still not sure how they got China.  Maybe it was because they wanted an Asian representative.  But, if there is another Athletics World Cup and it's not in London, they should replace China with Australia.  Australia wouldn't only enter every event, they're a stronger nation than China overall and it's kinda silly they weren't among the eight nations to begin with.  Rumor has it China wants to host the next edition, though, so this whole thing becomes moot in that case.  (Speaking of that, once Russia and the IAAF are back on speaking terms, Russia should obviously be one of the World Cup teams, as well.)

Back to the schedule.  They promised a "fast-paced" meet where everything would be completed in three hours.  Except it wasn't.  The relays, which were supposed to be the last event, finished and the field events were still going.  This despite the first hour on each day being just field events.

My problem with the schedule has nothing to do with that, though.  That's easy enough to fix by adjusting the start time of the field events.  But, despite the fact that they promised "fast-paced" action, it still dragged.  There were 17 events each day, but eight of them were field events.  And it doesn't take two hours to do nine track races, especially since none of them were longer than 1500 meters!

There was more than one instance where NBCSN went to commercial, came back to show a handful of jumps in the long/triple jump, then went right back to commercial.  Six minutes of commercials in an eight-minute span is not fast-paced!

It makes sense that they didn't want to include the longer distance races, which weren't really conducive to the type of meet they wanted to have.  But, how about doing a 3K instead of a 5K?  A 3K takes only about eight minutes.  Or, even better, include the steeplechase.  That would also balance it out with five running events per gender each day.

This would also be the perfect opportunity to try something different.  I'm not talking about the crazy events at that Nitro Athletics thing they tried in Australia last year.  But, the IAAF has added a mixed 4x400 relay to the World Championships and Olympics.  How cool would it be to close the meet with a mixed 4x4, especially if the team standings come down to that final event?  They could also do a mixed 4x1 to end the first day.  If it's a combined men's & women's team, have them be teammates!

The future of the Athletics World Cup is very much up in the air.  Where does another international event fit into a sport that already has either an Olympics or World Championships three years in a row before taking a year off and starting that cycle again?  Not to mention the European Championships in the non-World Championship years.  Yet there are also the European Team Championships, which have firmly established their place.

So, yes, I think there can be a place for the Athletics World Cup.  But improvements definitely need to be made first.  This meet has potential if it's done right.  But unless everybody buys in, we'll get the same thing we saw this year--a second-rate meet that was an afterthought on an already crowded calendar (which is even more crowded in other years).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Best World Cup Ever

Everyone else has said it, so I might as well join that group.  Over the last month, we were witness to the greatest World Cup ever (a claim that I guarantee no one will make after the 2022 edition).  There were exciting games, spectacular goals, shocking upsets, new stars, and even a little bit of controversy.

Thinking about this post, there were a number of ways I could've gone.  I could've done a countdown of the best games and/or best goals.  Even rating the top players and best moments crossed my mind.  Then I decided to combine them all into a "best/worst..." breakdown of all the soccer over the past month, knowing full well that the "worst" list will be fairly short.

Thumbs Up
Russia: They did a tremendous job as hosts.  For all the concerns people had, they delivered and then some.  The first World Cup in Eastern Europe was an overwhelming success!  Full stadiums, an incredible atmosphere, and a tremendous run by the home team.  Russia getting all the way to the quarterfinals (and taking eventual finalist Croatia to penalty kicks) only added to the excitement.  They were the lowest-ranked team in the tournament coming in.  But they gained believers with each win, and that upset of Spain at a packed Luzhniki Stadium was one of the highlights of the tournament.

Thumbs Down
Big Names: For all the promos that included Pretty Boy and Messi, you would've thought that Portugal and Argentina were the only teams in the tournament!  But, alas, neither of the biggest names in the sport could deliver on the biggest stage.  Pretty Boy did nothing after that hat trick against Spain in the opening game, while Argentina was lucky to get out of the group stage.  Instead, it was Paul Pogba and Luka Modric and Harry Kane and Romelo Lukaku playing on the final weekend.

Thumbs Up
FOX: Was their first World Cup as the U.S. broadcaster perfect?  No.  Were they a little too obsessed with certain Portuguese players and a certain national team?  Yes.  But, overall, I think they did a good job.  It was a nice change to have American announcers (it turns out you don't need a British accent to know something about soccer), and I don't know why such a big deal was made about the fact that they had announcers doing the games from LA (NBC does the same thing for the Olympics, BTW).  Most importantly, though, they showed a good number of the games on the broadcast network, with the rest of FS1.  When the U.S. didn't qualify, they could've just said screw it and done the bare minimum, but they did exactly the opposite instead.  And I think their coverage is only going to get better for the next two World Cups (and, don't worry, in 2026, they'll have all the announcers on site).

Thumbs Down
Jorge Perez Navarro:
The only real problem I had with FOX's coverage was Jorge Perez Navarro.  I couldn't understand a word the guy said!  If I wanted to watch the game while having no idea what the announcer was saying, I would've watched Telemundo.  And he was openly cheering for Mexico, the team FOX was trying to force down our throats, which further turned me off.  I saw some reviews early in the tournament that actually praised him.  How?  Were those writers watching the same games I was?  Or were they watching it on Telemundo and just got confused?

Thumbs Up
In 64 games, there was a grand total of one that finished 0-0.  And that one, which came in the 37th game of the tournament, doesn't even really count, since neither France nor Denmark had any interest in actually scoring in that game.  Overall, there were 169 goals in 64 games.  We had goals come early, we had goals come late (some of which were game- and group-changing).  We had a record for own goals (12, double the previous record) and goals off set pieces (I have no way of confirming this, but it seemed like every goal was off a set piece).  All the scoring certainly added to the excitement of the tournament.

Thumbs Down
Alexi Lalas: Sorry FOX, but Mexico is not America's "Other Team," and asking fans of the USMNT to root for Mexico is like asking Yankees fans to root for the Red Sox.  Lalas, no doubt inspired by his buddy Landon Donovan, was the biggest culprit.  Then, as soon as El Tri was eliminated, he jumped off the Mexican bandwagon nearly as quickly as he jumped on it.

Thumbs Up
Fair Play: Do you know how many red cards there were in the entire tournament?  Three!  One was for a deliberate hand ball in the box, the other two were second yellows.  That's it!  Sure, there were at least two that should've been called and weren't (the Mexican guy stepping on Neymar, Pretty Boy elbowing the Iranian guy in the face nowhere near the ball in the open field), but the official total was only three red cards.  Whether it was VAR or the style of play or a combination of the two, it was nice to see pretty much every game end 11-on-11.

Thumbs Down
Fair Play Points: It was new for this World Cup, and it was a brutal way for Senegal to be eliminated from the tournament.  In FIFA's defense, they needed some way to separate teams that were tied, and I doubt they anticipated it would determine which team would advance and who wouldn't.  But it did.  And it nearly did in two other groups, as well.  There has to be something better than total number of yellow cards, though.  Because the "fair play points" didn't seem fair at all.  In fact, it was kinda cruel.

Thumbs Up
VAR: Say what you want about the World Cup's other new innovation, but VAR worked.  And it's not going anywhere.  The reviews weren't disruptive, didn't take very long, and served their purpose.  VAR was designed to correct obvious errors, some of which were simply things that happened too quickly for the referee to see.  For the most part, it achieved that purpose, even if they still got some calls wrong even after going to VAR.  But it's much better than before, when there was nothing you could do about it if the ref missed a call.

Thumbs Down
Traditional Powers: At least they made it here, which is more than I can say about Italy, the Netherlands, the USA, Chile, etc.  But none of the pre-tournament favorites did anything worth writing home about.  Defending champion Germany fizzled out in group play for the first time ever, losing to both Mexico and South Korea.  Argentina barely got out of its group, only advancing on a late goal against Nigeria in its last game before losing to France in the round of 16.  Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, after both coming out of a weak Group B, both lost in the round of 16.

Thumbs Up
Croatia: While the traditional powers struggled, Croatia showed it belonged in the conversation after dominating Argentina and finishing group play 3-0.  Then they became the first team ever to win consecutive penalty kick shootouts against Denmark in the round of 16 and Russia in the quarterfinals.  They went to extra time for the third straight game against England in the semis...and won again, becoming the second-smallest nation ever to reach a World Cup Final (and the smallest since 1950).  The fact that they lost the Final to France is irrelevant.  Because they took us on an incredible ride and gained a lot of supporters along the way.

Thumbs Down
Diego Maradona: He was there as a guest of FIFA, yet acted like a jerk the entire tournament.  From being caught on camera flipping off the Nigerian fans to going off on the officials after Colombia lost to England (apparently Colombia is Argentina's "Other Team"), all he did was draw attention to himself...and not for the right reasons.  He's one of the greatest players ever, but his skills as an ambassador leave something to be desired.  The Colombia-England thing was probably the last straw for an embarrassed FIFA.  Because somebody was conspicuously absent from the VIP box after that.

Two Thumbs Up
France: Finally, we have the champions.  Les Bleues were the most consistent team throughout the tournament, and they're deserving champions.  Their round of 16 victory over Argentina was one of the most entertaining World Cup games I've seen in quite some time, and that's when they really established themselves as the team to beat.  They're not going anywhere for a while, either.  Kylian Mbappe, who wasn't even alive the other time France won the World Cup 20 years ago, is going to be the next global superstar.  And he's already got something the three biggest names in the sport don't.  A World Cup gold medal.

Friday, July 13, 2018

With the Olympic Spirit

It's fitting that the World Under-20 Track & Field Championships are currently going on in Finland.  Because it was in Finland that one of the most unlikely Olympic men's 100-meter finals took place.  Lindy Remigino, who won the gold in those Helsinki Games by the closest margin in Olympic history (watch it here), passed away the other day at the age of 87.

Only 25 men have ever won the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters, and I'm proud to say that I had a personal connection to one of them.  That connection is Manhattan College, the school where I used to work and from which Remigino graduated.  In fact, it was the summer between his junior and senior years when he won the Olympics.

I had only met Lindy a few times, so I didn't know him well.  But I did know him well enough for him to know who I was and say hello when I saw him at an event.  And he was one of the most gracious people I've ever met.

My first extended conversation with him was just before the 60th anniversary of his victory in 2012 (the 66th anniversary is next weekend).  I was working on an article to celebrate the anniversary, and he gave me about 20 minutes on the phone (then called me back a few minutes after we hung up because he forgot a detail he wanted me to include!).  That article is actually linked on NBC's Olympic site right now, and they pulled quotes from it.

A few weeks later, he sent me a letter thanking me for writing the story.  A letter that I have kept ever since.  In it, he told me how in 2002, he went back to Helsinki for the 50th anniversary of those Games and served as the U.S. flag bearer at the ceremony in their Olympic Stadium before sitting with then-IOC President Jacques Rogge for the remainder of it.  Just the fact that he took the time to do that says all you need to know about the man!

He obviously ranks pretty highly on the list of Manhattan's most famous alumni, and his love for his alma mater was very strong.  He frequently returned to campus for track & field reunions and other events.  As a two-time Olympic gold medalist (he also ran the third leg on the victorious 4x100 relay), that topic naturally came up pretty often.  Yet every time he would tell the story, it seemed new.  And he remembered every detail like it was yesterday!

Lindy was also a tremendous ambassador for the sport of track & field as a whole.  It wasn't just at Manhattan where he retold his Olympic stories over and over again (in front of captive audiences).    Track & field was truly his lifelong passion.  Lindy Remigino lived and breathed the sport, and he wanted others to love it just as much as he did.  After his running career ended, he became a high school coach for over 40 years, and his teams won more than 30 state championships.

When Manhattan's Athletic Hall of Fame was founded in 1979, Lindy was an obvious selection for the inaugural class.  That's just one of the many Halls of Fame into which he's been inducted.  The most recent of which was the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame, Class of 2017.  While this one's unofficial, he's absolutely in the Hall of Fame of Life, as well.

In that letter, he signed off "With the Olympic Spirit."  What a beautiful sentiment!  Because while his name will forever be in the history books (and in photographs and on YouTube), that spirit is what will live on the most.

Godspeed, Lindy.  With the Olympic Spirit...

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Hosting Solution

When Graz, Austria, withdrew from the race to host the 2026 Winter Olympics last week, I did a post about it.  Then yesterday I saw an article pretty much confirming something that has been generally understood for several months.  While not official yet, the 2023 IAAF World Championships are all but guaranteed to be held in Budapest, with an African city likely to be chosen for the 2025 edition.

After the criticism the IAAF received when it decided to award the 2021 Worlds to Eugene without going through a formal bid process, they changed the bid process moving forward.  Now, instead of cities submitting bids to host IAAF events, they're doing it the other way around.  The IAAF identifies a particular area and invites cities to apply.  And if the city's interested, the IAAF chooses a host and works with that city throughout the process.  It's an informal collaboration, not a competition.

The rationale for doing this actually makes a lot of sense.  First and foremost, it makes the whole process much cheaper.  No more months of wining and dining the voters and endless deadlines for submitting bid documents, etc.  It also makes things a lot more transparent.  The next two editions in Doha and Eugene mark the first time in the event's history that the IAAF World Championships will be held outside Europe twice in a row.  They wanted to get back to their European base in 2023, so others need not apply. 

Likewise, the senior World Championships have never been in Africa.  And, after a successful World U-18 Championships last year in Nairobi, they know that an African city can handle an event of this magnitude.  So, they want the 2025 Championships in Africa.  If a city on another continent was considering a bid, now they know to wait until 2027.  (BTW, one of the reasons they went to Eugene without the formal bid was because the World Championships have never been in the United States and they wanted to make sure they changed that.)

Budapest did a tremendous job hosting the Swimming World Championships last year, and I'm sure they'll do a tremendous job hosting the 2023 Track & Field World Championships.  Just as I have no doubt that when Budapest finally does host an Olympics, it'll be an amazing Games.

It was Budapest, of course, that indirectly did the IOC a huge favor by dropping out of the race for the 2024 Games, leaving them the opportunity to do the Paris/LA dual-awarding last September.  And it was Budapest that gave me an idea for what could solve the IOC's current predicament...mainly, the fact that no one wants to host the Winter Olympics!

IOC President Thomas Bach hoped his "Olympic Agenda 2020" reforms would put cities at ease about the costs and encourage more bidders.  It hasn't worked.  So maybe it's time to try something new.  Maybe it's worth taking a page out of the IAAF's book and reach out to cities/countries/regions instead of the other way around.  I'm not saying it'll work.  But it's a way to avoid being stuck having three straight Games in the same part of Asia.

With the next Summer Olympics not being awarded until 2025, this is the perfect time to implement such a system.  The four Olympics from 2016-28 will have been on four different continents (South America, Asia, Europe, North America).  Maybe for 2032, you shoot for Australia before coming back to Europe in 2036, then Asia and the Americas again in 2040 and 2044, with the next Olympics in Europe following in 2048.  And Africa could also cycle in their at some point, which it should.

In the Winter, things are tougher, but the rotation starting in 2026 could go Europe-North America-Europe-Asia-Europe, etc.  That wouldn't entirely alleviate the problem of cities not wanting to host.  But it would make for a much simpler, much more transparent system.  And it would give cities (especially those in Europe) plenty of time to drum up the money and necessary support to pursue a bid.

Of course, there's one element of this plan that wouldn't work.  You can't take the vote away from IOC members.  For many of them, choosing the host city is the one significant contribution they make.  They enjoy all the perks that come with IOC membership, and that host city vote is the best perk of all. 

I'm not suggesting they don't vote on a host city, though.  I'm simply suggesting that you narrow the field of candidates to those from a specific region.  That's easier said than done when getting cities to bid period has been a tough task.  But concentrating the bids on a certain area could actually go a long way in taking some of the politics out of it, too.

This isn't that crazy an idea, either.  After Germany edged South Africa by one vote for the rights to host the 2006 World Cup, FIFA implemented a similar system for future World Cups.  Only African countries were able to bid for the 2010 World Cup, which obviously went to South Africa, and the 2014 World Cup was limited to South American bidders.  Although, when Brazil ended up being the only candidate, they changed it to the current system where the last two continents to host can't bid (for the 2030 World Cup, Asia and CONCACAF aren't eligible).

So maybe that's actually the solution.  The IOC has always tried to rotate between continents until they were left with no choice for 2022.  There's nothing in writing, though.  If something was in writing, however, then they could potentially avoid the embarrassment of the last two Winter Olympic bid cycles. 

Although, "guaranteeing" the Olympics will be in Europe in a given year doesn't guarantee there will be bidders.  But, like I said the other day, make it a collaboration, not a competition.  Make cities (and their residents) see the benefit.  And one way to do that is eliminating the costly bid process that doesn't even ensure your success.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

2018 Joe Brackets All*Star Teams

Ever since MLB moved All*Star voting exclusively online a few years ago, the fans have done a really good job.  I think it's probably because they include the stats on the ballot, a feature I really like.  But whatever the reason is, people are definitely taking a harder look and voting for guys who actually deserve to be there as opposed to stuffing the ballot box with players from their favorite team (I'm looking at you, Royals fans).

With that being said, I have no problem with the fact that Bryce Harper is going to start the All*Star Game with a .211 batting average.  The game is in Washington, and he's the face of the Nationals' franchise.  It's the All*Star Game, and the biggest star on the home team always has a place there.  Do his numbers warrant a selection?  Probably not.  But you're not gonna find many people complaining that the All*Star hosts will be represented in the starting lineup by their most popular player.  And if Harper's the only one of the 17 fan-elected starters who's even remotely questionable, I'd say the fans did a great job.

It's a near certainty that the starting lineups have changed since the polls closed on Thursday.  But, since we have no idea who was caught and by whom, I'm going with the vote leaders as of the last update as my starters.

You'll also notice that my AL roster is very top heavy.  That's because the five playoff teams are that much better than everybody else.  In fact, I've got at least three All*Stars from all five playoff teams and only one from each of the other 10.  That will probably change due to Gleyber Torres' injury, but he's eligible to come off the DL on Sunday, so he doesn't technically have to be replaced on the All*Star roster yet (although he likely will be).  And, yes, I had to get a little creative with the team reps in the AL.  But I was able to do it while still following the 12 pitcher rule (and somehow still managed to get all three Astros starters in there!).

The National League, meanwhile, is far less top heavy.  In fact, I've got more members of the last-place Cincinnati Reds making the squad than the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.  I also watch the NL far less than I watch the AL, so I have a much larger margin for error there.  And, since they have two extra spots to fill because of no DH, the team reps are much easier to put in there.

As for the starting pitchers, I think they're both pretty easy.  Max Scherzer started for the NL last year, and he should again.  Not only is he the ace of the team hosting the game, he's arguably the best pitcher in the National League.

In the American League, it's a much tougher choice.  Mainly because there are so many good options.  But I was able to narrow it down to two--Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the AL for the first six weeks of the season, and Luis Severino, the best pitcher in the AL over the last six weeks.  I can easily see A.J. Hinch going with his own guy, but I think Severino is the clear choice.

And with that, here we go...

C: *-Wilson Ramos, Rays; Salvador Perez, Royals
1B: *-Jose Abreu, White Sox; Mitch Moreland, Red Sox
2B: *-Jose Altuve, Astros; Gleyber Torres, Yankees (injured, will likely be replaced)
SS: *-Manny Machado, Orioles; Jean Segura, Mariners
3B: *-Jose Ramirez, Indians; Miguel Andujar, Yankees
OF: *-Mookie Betts, Red Sox; *-Mike Trout, Angels; *-Aaron Judge, Yankees; Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox; Michael Brantley, Indians; Nicholas Castellanos, Tigers; Eddie Rosario, Twins
DH: *-J.D. Martinez, Red Sox; Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers
SP: Chris Sale, Red Sox; Corey Kluber, Indians; Gerrit Cole, Astros; Charlie Morton, Astros; Justin Verlander, Astros; Luis Severino, Yankees; James Paxton, Mariners; J.A. Happ, Blue Jays
RP: Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox; Aroldis Chapman, Yankees; Blake Treinen, Athletics; Edwin Diaz, Mariners

C: *-Buster Posey, Giants; J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
1B: *-Freddie Freeman, Braves; Jose Martinez, Cardinals
2B: *-Ozzie Albies, Braves; Javier Baez, Cubs; Scooter Gennett, Reds
SS: *-Brandon Crawford, Giants; Trevor Story, Rockies
3B: *-Nolan Arenado, Rockies; Eugenio Suarez, Reds; Max Muncy, Dodgers
OF: *-Nick Markakis, Braves; *-Matt Kemp, Dodgers; *-Bryce Harper, Nationals; Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; Lorenzo Cain, Brewers; Odubel Herrera, Phillies; Corey Dickerson, Pirates
SP: Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Sean Newcomb, Braves; Jon Lester, Cubs; Jacob de Grom, Mets; Aaron Nola, Phillies; Miles Mikolas, Cardinals; Michael Wacha, Cardinals; Max Scherzer, Nationals
RP: Brandon Morrow, Cubs; Josh Hader, Brewers; Brad Hand, Padres; Sean Doolittle, Nationals

AL Final Vote: Francisco Lindor, Indians (SS); George Springer, Astros (OF); Andrelton Simmons, Angels (SS); Eduardo Escobar, Twins (SS); Dee Gordon, Mariners (2B)
NL Final Vote: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (1B); Kris Bryant, Cubs (3B); Brian Anderson, Marlins (3B); Christian Yelich, Brewers (OF); Andrew McCutchen, Giants (OF)

My AL lineup is: Betts-LF, Altuve-2B, Trout-CF, Martinez-DH, Judge-RF, Ramirez-3B, Machado-SS, Abreu-1B, Ramos-C, Severino-P.  My NL lineup is: Blackmon-DH, Harper-CF, Arenado-3B, Freeman-1B, Kemp-LF, Markakis-RF, Posey-C, Crawford-SS, Albies-2B, Scherzer-P.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Winter Games Deja Vu

Here we go again.  Graz, Austria announced today that it has withdrawn from the race to be the host city of the 2026 Winter Olympics, bringing the initial list of seven candidate cities down to five.  Like Sion, Switzerland, Graz backed out because they couldn't get the government support.  And of the remaining five, we may end up losing a few more because of the dreaded referendum.

Of the remaining options, Sapporo, which would be a third straight Winter Olympics in Asia, has said they would rather host in 2030; Calgary may get shuttered because Edmonton's one of the World Cup host cities; and Stockholm's bid, which I think is still considered the favorite, may also end up facing a referendum.  So, for a second straight Winter Games, we could end up with a two-horse race between whichever Italian city ends up getting chosen and Erzurum, Turkey.  We could end up seeing them go to Turkey by default.  Not exactly what the IOC had in mind when they said they wanted a "more traditional" host.

After the debacle of the 2022 bid and, to a lesser extent, the Paris/LA joint-awarding situation, the IOC tried to change the perception of hosting the Olympics.  All cities (and, more importantly, the taxpayers in those cities) were seeing were the price tags for Sochi and Tokyo and the empty venues in Rio and PyeongChang.  Cities don't see the benefit, especially when the Olympics are seven years after the host-city vote, so they're taking a hard pass.

The Winter Olympics have become that party you want to be invited to, but you hope is at somebody else's house.  You don't mind going.  You just don't want to do all the setup and cleanup.  And you'd rather not pay for it yourself.

It's imperative that the IOC figures out a way to change that.  The need to make the idea of hosting the Olympics (especially the Winter Games, where there's a limited number of places you can hold them to begin with) attractive again.  Otherwise, they're gonna keep running into this same problem over and over again.  You'll have three straight Games in Asia and Winter Olympics in cities that don't have any snow with the closest mountains 100 miles away (whoever thought Beijing 2.0 was a good idea was incredibly wrong).

They revamped the bid process, making it shorter and less expensive.  It hasn't worked.  They revised the Host City Contract, changing the requirements and lessening the financial burden on the host city and country.  It hasn't worked.  They pretty much flat out begged cities to focus on existing venues and only build stuff that's needed.  That hasn't worked either.  Nothing has worked!

Western Europe and North America are extremely important to the Olympic Movement.  Most of the top sporting countries are in Western Europe, and most of the IOC's money comes from NBC.  They know that they don't want to make these biannual trips to the Far East, and that no one likes the awkward start times that result from the time difference (the athletes don't like morning finals, TV doesn't like events taking place overnight).  But, when that's the only option, they have no choice.

I give the IOC credit for trying with their reforms.  They're trying to get the message across that hosting the Olympics can be a good thing.  Look at Barcelona.  Look at London.  Look at Salt Lake City.  But those positives are drowned out by the anti-Olympic groups that pop up in every potential bid city and every failed referendum.  To put it bluntly, that message isn't getting across.  So it's on them to change it.  Otherwise, they'll continue having this same problem.

For a long time, the IOC has been viewed by most of the general public as an elitist Boys Club.  There's a good reason for that.  The IOC has a ridiculous list of VIP perks for its members, some of which are completely unnecessary, that host cities are expected to fulfill.  Once someone who's opposed to the idea gets their hands on one of those documents, it's pretty easy to get other people on their side.  And the politicians, even if they personally see the benefit, can't offer their support if the voters don't offer theirs.

Instead of focusing on how cities can help the Olympics, they should emphasize how the Olympics can help the city.  Because the Olympics can be the ultimate help me help you.  The money doesn't need to be spent on venues that will only be used for two weeks and then either torn down or sit there unused.  But it can be used to improve the roads or the subway or the airport.  Or it can be used to build hotels.  That benefits everybody.  (Not to mention the amount of jobs that would be created and the amount of visitors that'll come into the city at Games-time.)

Unfortunately, no one has that perception of the Olympics.  The only message that gets across is the negative one.  It's the "anywhere but here" mindset from people who'd rather see their tax dollars spent on something else.  (Even Olympics that have a good amount of private funding run into opposition!)  And that's why the IOC repeatedly finds itself in this predicament.  Because even the people who see the benefit and support an Olympic bid are drowned out by the protesters.

Or maybe we just need to come to terms with the fact that this is the new reality.  Maybe getting governmental support for an Olympic bid in a Western democracy is going to be an uphill battle no matter what.  Maybe the anti-Olympic groups will gain enough traction to force a referendum (or get the city to pull out before it can fail one).  Although, who knows?, maybe one day one of those referendums might actually pass.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

No Place For This In Sports

While we've all been wrapped up in the World Cup, qualifying for next year's Basketball World Cup is well underway.  This is the first time FIBA is using a qualifying system similar to the one FIFA uses where certain dates are blocked out each national team gets to play home games during qualifying.  Well, anyway, there was an Asian qualifier between Australia and the Philippines yesterday that descended into pure chaos.

If you haven't heard about it, there was an all-out brawl in the third quarter that left the Philippines with just three players.  The video is disturbing.  Mainly because what happened is completely disgusting.  Regardless of the reason for the fight and how/why it escalated, the behavior of the Filipino players during and especially afterwards is completely reprehensible.  See for yourself below:

Like I said, disturbing.  And I think the Australian TV commentators summed up the feelings we all had.  There's absolutely no place for any of that in sports.

For their part, the Australians acknowledged their role and expressed regret.  And, frankly, I don't think Australia was out of control at all.  Sure No. 7 (who happens to play for the Milwaukee Bucks) went over-the-top.  But all of their actions were in the heat of the moment.  And they showed a certain degree of restraint, too.

I wish I could say the Filipino team showed the same restraint.  But you can plainly see about four guys jumping over those boards in front of the bench just so they could join in, and they promptly threw haymakers.  Then it continued off the court.  Somebody threw a chair at one of the Aussies.  A freakin' chair!  That's assault!  Thank God he wasn't injured.

The game was in Manila, which only made matters worse.  Because the fans were loving every minute of it.  They were egging the players on and cheering this absolutely grotesque display.  They high-fived the ejected players as they went to the locker room.  That's not even the worst part, though.  Want to know how badly the Filipino players just ignored the ideas of sportsmanship and decorum?  They were laughing and smiling while posing for selfies with fans on the court as the officials tried to sort out this mess.

But did the Philippines show any sense of remorse for their behavior?  Of course not!  The head coach and the country's president released statements apologizing for the incident, but somebody from their basketball federation didn't think they had done anything wrong at all.  In his statement, he actually said he was "proud of the way our boys stood their ground."  Is he serious?!  That's nearly as embarrassing as the brawl itself.

When FIBA moved the date of the World Cup (which until this year was always in the same year as soccer's) and changed the qualifying process, one of the reasons they gave was because teams didn't get to play home games and have a true home court advantage.  Well, FIBA, you got what you wanted.  And this ugly incident was the result.

FIBA has already started the disciplinary process, and they've got their work cut out for them.  Because simply suspending players isn't enough.  There needs to be a clear message sent that this is completely unacceptable.  And that message needs to be a strong one.

Australia isn't blameless.  The four players involved should be suspended, with the guy from the Bucks receiving several games.  And I'm sure the federation will be fined, too.  But that should be the extent of the punishment for the Aussies.  They were embarrassed by their role in the fight and showed genuine regret about it.

There needs to be severe penalties for the Philippines, though.  And not just for the nine players who thought they were Manny Pacquiao.  The federation needs to be held accountable for the incident and its behavior afterwards.  Because, ultimately, the Filipino Basketball Federation is responsible for the reprehensible conduct of both its players and its fans.

Here's what I would do.  The Philippines is disqualified from the tournament.  They'd already advanced to the next round (as had Australia), but they must forfeit their remaining games.  With the number of lengthy suspensions their players are going to receive, they wouldn't have anybody left to play those games anyway.  There's more though.  I'd also disqualify them from Olympic qualifying.  If you think that doesn't sound like that big a deal, keep in mind the Philippines hosted one of the three final qualifying tournaments for the Rio Games.

Speaking of hosting games, they're not allowed to do that for a while, either.  This doesn't get anywhere near as out of hand if not for the fans, whose behavior was just as deplorable (the chair wasn't thrown by a player).  So, the Philippines also has to play a certain number of home games, whatever number that is, at a neutral site.  That's something FIFA does all the time, so there's a precedent for it.  And it's the only appropriate thing to do.  Because simply fining the federation isn't nearly enough.

What happened in Manila between Australia and the Philippines was regrettable in every sense of the word.  FIBA needs to make it clear that scenes like this are unacceptable.  And coming down hard on the Philippines is the only way to do that.