The calendar turns yet again into August, a month stacked with events galore for sports fans around the globe. We’re gearing up for the start of club seasons throughout European soccer, with teams already vying for spots in the UEFA Champions League main draw with just one qualifying round left now to decide the field. Tennis gears up for the last Grand Slam of the 2010 season, the hard courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows awaiting the stars of the WTA and ATP Tours as well as a packed field of juniors and wheelchair players. Riders who either missed out on July’s Tour de France or simply want to keep their good form going are now ramping up preparations for the last grand tour of the season as the Vuelta a España kicks off in mere weeks. And the IAAF Diamond League is about to witness a showcase of stars in track and field’s signature test of speed.
All things told, a packed summer of sporting spectacles is showing no signs of letting up its jam-packed schedule. With fall edging ever closer, the time soon looms for looking back inward to the start of the college and NFL football seasons and to the start of the NHL season. After all, there’s more to this Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America than merely the quest for the most obscure events possible. First and foremost amongst those titles is “Sports Fan”, and when you’re located in the United States it is hard not to find some joy in the domestic athletic landscape.
There are plenty of hours in the day to cram in time for another sport. The non-traditional amongst us are ready to stack up our tray like John Belushi in Animal House. The well-balanced diet of the spectator has plenty of room for both the sports with which he can converse with even the most casual of fans and the less-heralded pastimes that afford a more cosmopolitan view of athletic achievement around the world. So grab your tray and follow behind, because they’ve just replenished the line and it’s time to start piling on.
THE JEKYLL AND HYDE OF FIFA SANCTIONS…
Tuesday I sat down, home from work, and was flabbergasted as I sat down to read this story from Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter. Apparently, while FIFA is all too happy to hem and haw about the actions being taken by the French and Nigerian governments, we’re left to hear about much more nefarious deeds going on in North Korea. Long an insular, secretive enclave, North Korea was handed over deferential treatment by FIFA all throughout the tournament — for instance, reporters couldn’t even ask the players whether or not their matches were being televised in Pyongyang and throughout their home nation due to even that being viewed as too political in nature.
This would prove to be the only happy moment for North Korea at the World Cup... but even the lows in South Africa were better than what awaited after returning home...
Yet the reports coming out of the nation show the country flipping out over their three losses in World Cup play. The players were brought before a large session of party functionaries and higher-ups in the Korean hierarchy and subsequently berated for losing and losing and losing — never mind that these losses came to three of the most stacked teams in the tournament, Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. Their head coach has presumably, if reports are to be believed, been exiled to spend his time not coaching football but stooping to the level of forced laborer.
While much of FIFA’s time has been occupied by France and Nigeria and the need to issue fines to the Spanish and Dutch national teams in the wake of their abysmal performances in the World Cup final, this is a matter that is much more pressing. FIFA needs to open up a full investigation as to what’s been happening north of the DMZ. And if it proves true that they’ve been punishing players for losing to the likes of Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast (all heavily favored in their matches against the Koreans), there can be no other course of action than to sanction the North Koreans indefinitely. If they are on the brink of taking this action against France and Nigeria for their government interference into the national FA in those countries, this deserves and demands a far more drastic response. When the simple suggestion by a government that it intends to look into the actions of its high-profile citizens and their actions abroad yields a swift threat of retribution from FIFA, something as drastic as the public tearing down of a roster and the issuance of punitive damages against a coach who was simply outcoached by guys who had far more firepower on their squads demands action.
POST-TOUR HANGOVER YIELDS RACING AND TRANSFERS GALORE…
In North America, most sports build up to one feverish frenzy at the end of their seasons as battles emerge to crown a champion. After the Vince Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup or the Commissioner’s Trophy are awarded, the sport closes up shop until the next season. Sure, the ubiquitous 24/7 news cycle allows for us to devour news about football or baseball or hockey in the heart of their dead times of the year, but the reality is that the leagues are effectively shut down for a preordained offseason. One could be forgiven for thinking that, as Alberto Contador hoisted his bowl of Sevres porcelain and donned the final maillot jaune awarded on the Champs-Elysees, the Tour de France serves that Super Bowl role as the culmination of the cycling calendar.
The reality, though, is something else entirely. After the Tour de France, the cycling season still has three solid months of racing left to contest. The big names of the peloton got back on their bikes this weekend, converging in Spain for the Classica San Sebastian one-day classic on Saturday. Among the heavy hitters were top-ten Tour finishers Andy Schleck, Samuel Sanchez, Carlos Sastre and Ryder Hesjedal. The race set off on an enhanced 234km route through Basque country, the Jaizkibel as usual set up to play a major role in determining the champion — doubly so this year as the climb featured twice into the newly-redesigned route.
Carlos Sastre and Alexander Vinokourov can only look on as their breakaway companion, Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne), wins the 2010 Classica San Sebastian...
Fans who watched day after day during the Tour saw breakaways get up the road day after day, and this race was no exception. Xavier Florencio (Cervelo TestTeam), Pierre Cazaux (Française des Jeux) and Jorge Martín Montenegro (Andalucía) were the fortunate trio who got the face time at the front of the field this time, building up an eight-minute lead during the first half of the classic. The first climb over the Jaizkibel, though, left the leaders wilting in the Spanish heat and allowed a new breakaway trio to emerge in the form of current and former Spanish national champions Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne) and Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) along with local veteran Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
This group, too, would only last so long. Ultimately it came down to a group of even bigger names — Sastre and Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov and 2009 Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez. This triumvirate used the second run up the Jaizkibel as their springboard to victory. At the summit Sanchez burst clear, with only the Cervelo and Astana team leaders able to stay on his wheel. The fractured groups behind would vainly attempt to chase back on but to no avail. With Sastre looking cooked heading into San Sebastian for the finish, it all came down to a two-up sprint between Vino and Sanchez. The Kazakh led out the sprint, trying to stay clear up the center of the road with 200m left to the line. But skirting the crowd barriers, Sanchez ramped up his sprint as well and pulled clear by a bike length to score the biggest single victory of his seven-year career.
But not every big name was there to battle Sanchez for the spoils. Schleck had to pull out of the race after 120km; the details remain fuzzy, five days later, as to whether he crashed (as Saxo Bank’s director Bjarne Riis has stated) or not (as Schleck insists). And then there was the case of the only man to beat Schleck this July. When Alberto Contador was a late withdrawal from the Classica San Sebastian, the rumor mill kicked into high gear. The post-Tour lull affords riders the opportunity to sign new contracts for the upcoming season, and the fact that Contador had already said he was leaving Astana opened the door for speculation and conjecture.
With the Schleck brothers leaving the familiar environs of a Riis-led team — both Andy and older brother Frank have raced for Riis at first CSC and then Saxo Bank for their entire careers — to form the nucleus of a new Luxembourg-based squad all eyes were now on the three-time Tour champ as to what his next move would be. Tuesday, all the questions were answered. Riis landed himself a new GC contender to head up his revamped squad, and Contador latched on to the strongest possible team framework he’s seen since Johan Bruyneel decided to cast his lot with Lance Armstrong at the end of last season. Things might seem a little funny at first next year, as Contador battles Schleck in the latter’s former colors — but ultimately both riders made shrewd moves that should keep this rivalry at a rolling boil for years to come.
A NEW LEADER EMERGES ON THE TRACK IN HUNGARY…
The past few weeks have seen teams jockeying for points positions. Yet the man who now sits atop the leaderboard in the Formula 1 driver standings was, just two races ago, treated by his team as their second-choice racer. This is exactly why the FIA instituted a ban on team orders earlier this decade — because, after all, when two teammates are driving spectacularly-matched cars against a field with slightly-inferior technology, it all comes down to driver skill in determining the finish on the track. This year the team that has clearly had a leg up in the technological department has been Red Bull. Driving Adrian Newey’s latest creation, Australian Mark Webber and German Sebastian Vettel have been engaging in battles on tracks around the globe this year.
At Silverstone last month for the British Grand Prix, Vettel was the higher-ranked of the two drivers in the standings. It was the points which were used as the rationale for taking the newest-generation front wing off Webber’s car and placing it on Vettel’s rig, despite the fact that Vettel’s driving was the cause for his own wing to become unusable. Webber promptly went out and defeated McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton to inch ahead of his teammate in the points. It was that victory that prompted the Aussie’s defiant cry over the team radio, “Not bad for a number-two driver!”
Webber, though, has been anything but second fiddle this season even if the Red Bull management has seemingly played favorites at times. The fact remains that the Austrian-based outfit has allowed its drivers to do as much racing as possible, even when it can be to their overall detriment in the constructor standings — look no further than the crash instigated by Vettel at the Turkish Grand Prix earlier this year, where both drivers were in position to finish 1-2 on the podium but had to settle for just a 3rd-place finish by Webber. With all the discussion recently about team orders (read more about this later in the column) being used covertly by teams to favor one racer or another, though, at least Red Bull is unleashing both its drivers to do what they do best and in the purest sense.
And the Australian proved his preeminence once again at the Hungaroring, holding off Fernando Alonso easily for the sound victory. It would be Webber’s fourth win already this year, confirming his position even further as the best driver in the grid in 2010. With Hamilton unable to finish the event, Webber vaulted right to the top of the points standings in a race that just keeps getting tighter and tighter with seven races left to go to the end of the season. Red Bull now sits atop the team standings, Webber and Vettel are 1-3 in the driver points and it finally appears that the team has found its rhythm after so much sputtering around the globe.
The biggest story out of Hungary, though, was not Webber or Vettel but a couple of former teammates battling one another on the track. There was no love lost between Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher — former teammates at Ferrari, where the repeated directives to Barrichello to allow the German through to take higher positions in races led to the 2004 rule against team orders in the first place — as they battled for position on the track. Barrichello went in to pass Schumacher with five laps remaining in the race. He very nearly found himself out of the race as Schumi leaned closer and closer. A weathered page of the thinnest Bible paper could’ve fit between their tires at one point.
Schumacher, who first decided to make his comeback from retirement here in Hungary last year when he tried to step into the car left vacant by Felipe Massa (the Brazilian was hospitalized here in 2009 after being hit in the head by flying debris in a practice run), was very nearly black-flagged for the dangerous and petulant move. No longer enjoying a wide technological advantage like he did at Ferrari, and finding that a new crop of drivers is far less deferential, the seven-time F1 champion has had a rough go of it this season. In Spain and Turkey he was a step away from the podium, finishing fourth both times. But as he sits 123 points adrift in the standings, languishing in ninth place and over fifty points from just the next rung in the ladder, this has been anything but a resplendent return for the champ. Sadly, another legend seems to have overstayed his welcome — Schumacher in 2010 looks just like Lance Armstrong did in the 2010 Tour this year.
TOOLING AROUND THE NET…
I’ve been engrossed in some non-sports reading lately, plowing through several histories of the subcontinent in the past week. Last Friday I found myself with a little time before work and decided to go wandering around Knight Library on the University of Oregon campus. Being a UO employee has its perks, as I have access to one of the best libraries in the state. Sometimes I love just wandering the aisles and picking a few books that catch my eye. And thus I found myself reading Blood Against the Snows, a history of the Nepalese royal dynasty and the tragic end of its lineage when the Crown Prince went mental in 2001 and killed his entire family before turning the gun on himself. I also just finished a book about the Great Partition that ended imperial rule in India and led to the formation of the separate states of India and Pakistan. Why do I mention this? Because sometimes being a Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America means taking time to diversify your knowledge base. After all, I might never have known as much about the story of legendary Pakistani cricketer Fazal Mahmood had I not picked up the latter book… and that homicidal Crown Prince, it turns out, was in charge of Nepalese sport. You never know what you might learn when you go tooling around, whether in the library or in cyberspace:
- Can F1 work the team orders game? (Will Gray/Eurosport/29 July 2010) – It’s always interesting watching the dynamic of racing, whether it is on a bicycle or in Formula 1. The machinery doesn’t matter; that dynamic, whereby drivers are racing as part of a team yet are effectively individual entities at the same time, is similar regardless of the vessel. In cycling, though, an alpha dog is established and the team sets out to protect that leader. In F1, the rules have been skewed to prevent two cars under the same team auspices from working together. After Fernando Alonso passed Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa in Germany, the outcry resounded. Should F1 allow for teamwork between multimillion-dollar teams? Should paramount importance be placed on the drivers’ title or the constructor championship? Do preordained passes really cheapen the sport? Gray offers up a hybrid concept that just might work… if Ecclestone is willing to expand his mind and allow new ways of thinking to permeate through.
While we hand millions to football and basketball and baseball stars, athletes elsewhere (such as Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni) also have the opportunity to bank major dough...
Some obscure sports (borderline hobbies) that pay millions (Brian Guerra/Sports Nickel/30 July 2010) – When we think of high-paid athletes here in the United States, it is names of baseball players (A-Rod) and football players (Julius Peppers) and basketball stars (LeBron) who usually top that list. Throw in guys who can generate crossover appeal (or could, in Tiger Woods’ case) and eat up endorsements and you’re looking at some of the richest men in sports. But as SN editor Guerra points out, the ability to generate millions of dollars a year from sports is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to America. Whether it is cricket or darts (or any other myriad number of sports/pastimes), the ability to generate income from one’s passion is apparently possible somewhere on the globe if you’re willing to search for your target audience.
- No way to sugarcoat this: Mayweather fears Pacquiao (Mike Freeman/CBS Sports/30 July 2010) – Over the past six months or so we’ve watched the saga unfold as the boxing match of the year was on, then off, then on again and now on the back burner once more. At first it looked like Pacquiao was the one stonewalling, using the discussion of how stringent pre-fight drug testing should be to delay the fight. But after Manny capitulated after negotiations to the terms for testing desired by Floyd’s camp, we’re still waiting. As Freeman shows in this article, the impetus to get this fight off the ground is now squarely in Mayweather’s hands… and he doesn’t look like he actually desires to do anything with it.
- Record a flash of brothers’ determination (Greg Garber/ESPN.com/02 August 2010) – When we think of tennis, more often than not it is the individual greats who capture our imagination. Guys like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and ladies like the Williams sisters are always going to generate the lion’s share of the press. But ESPN this week saved a little virtual ink for one of the most formidable doubles teams in the history of men’s tennis. Garber got the chance to speak with Mike and Bob Bryan shortly after the Farmers Classic on the UCLA campus, where the American twins set the ATP record for tournament victories in doubles. With the U.S. Open looming on the horizon, they have a big opportunity to inch closer to the next record on the horizon — 11 men’s doubles Grand Slam titles, held by the Australian pairing of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge (who formerly held the record of tournament victories as well).
- A tale of two city teams (Tim Vickery/BBC Sport/02 August 2010) – Rivalries are one of the greatest parts of following sports, whether it is a college football showdown in late November or the annual clashes between the Yankees and Red Sox or the bad blood between Colorado and Detroit in the NHL back in the 1990s. Nowhere does this hold more sway, though, than in soccer, where clubs from the same city regularly engage in “derby” matches that are as much a litmus test for the various classes of a particular society as they are athletic exhibitions. Vickery, writing from South America, talks in this BBC article about how local clashes have shaped soccer throughout the continent throughout history and to this day…
ON THE DOCKET…
With all the channels available to a sports fan in the United States these days, it’s simply astounding when you actually find an event these days that can’t be found easily in one’s local cable or satellite listings. But with the internet, all those gaps in the coverage are easy enough to fill. My personal favorite site for such live streaming video does such an amazing job consolidating this coverage that it’s almost harder to name an obscure event that a person has absolutely no way of watching than to find the events to watch. Chances are, if it is a competition, you’ll be able to find the feed somewhere. So what will you be watching throughout the next week, as baseball continues to wind its way slowly toward its postseason and with football still a month away?
- Tour de Pologne (through Sunday/08 August 2010) – Today’s Stage 5, a 149km route from Astrzebie Zdrój to Ustron along the Czech-Polish border in the southwestern part of the country, officially kicks off the second half of the UCI ProTour event. So far we’ve seen a battle of sprinters, with the top ten places in the general classification separated by just nine seconds. Currently Allan Davis holds a slim three-second advantageover Andre Greipel… and thus the final weekend of competition should see some intense battling among the peloton as everyone dreams of their chance at victory.
We'll get to see this scene once again tomorrow in Stockholm, when Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and world-record holder Usain Bolt battle in the Diamond League 100m event...
IAAF Diamond League/Stockholm (Friday/06 August 2010) – Finally, the showdown we’ve all been waiting to see for years! No longer are we left this season to wonder if Asafa Powell’s lead in the IAAF Diamond League 100m standings is legitimate. No longer must we wonder whether or not Tyson Gay is back to his top form after fighting injuries the past few years. And no longer do we have to wonder where Usain Bolt stands against his closest rivals. While the sprint world has been abuzz lately following the European championship of 20-year-old Christophe Lemaitre, the triumvirate at the top of the sport is undoubtedly the two Jamaicans and the American. They will be amongst the contestants when Universal Sports broadcasts the eleventh of fourteen stops in the inaugural season of the Diamond calendar.
- Copa Libertadores final (first leg on Wednesday/11 August 2010) — We will find out today which Brazilian team gets to face off against Chivas Guadalajara for the chance to emerge as the champion of South and Central American club soccer. In a rematch of the 2006 Copa Libertadores final, Internacional has the lead over São Paulo following their 1-0 victory at home in the first leg. After watching Guadalajara emerge victorious following their second-leg encounter on the road in Santiago on Tuesday, we are sure to see one hell of a battle regardless of which Brazilian side earns the spot opposite them. Unfortunately no US feed will be available, but you’ll certainly be able to find it online via the aforementioned link.
- ATP Toronto/WTA Cincinnati (starting Monday/09 August 2010) – After wandering around the globe since Wimbledon, we are down to the final few preparatory tournaments before the start of the year’s final Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. Last year in Cincinnati we saw the return of Kim Clijsters, who reached the quarterfinals on a wild card entry en route to taking the major title at Flushing Meadows a month later. The men will play up in Canada, with the two tours switching venues a week later before the final pre-Open test in New Haven. You can catch action from the men’s tour on the Tennis Channel; to find the ladies, follow the link above.
Full yet? Don’t get all gluttonous and gorge yourself too quickly, because there’s still a lot on tap in the month (and months) to come. You wouldn’t want to be too stuffed when the big wave comes crashing in again.
Hopefully this week yields more than more rehashing by ESPN about A-Rod hitting his 600th home run, the neverending Brett Favre retirement carousel — it seems like yesterday that I was penning this farewell which now looks horribly dated and completely out of whack with my current feelings about the man — spinning round and round, and the weary wait for the summer heat to yield to meaningful football games for you out there in fan land.
Remember that there is always somewhere else to turn. Just let your fingers go wandering on the remote or throughout cyberspace, and the potential to really be dazzled rather than merely placated will surely present itself. Reacquaint yourself with an old favorite or be daring and find a new pastime to captivate your fanaticism… whatever you need to do, just don’t let yourself get sucked into whatever three-ring circus the flapping heads of the mainstream sports media present just because they’ve lost the ingenuity to fit a little bit more on their trays.