Other Sports

Bullfight Bans, Copa Libertadores and Other Sports Updates

| by Sports Nickel
I am a Non-Traditional Sports Fan by instinct, a writer by trade… and a cook to pay the bills. Unfortunately, working a job in catering has a tendency to throw off my cadence. The summer doldrums — you know, the ones that fans who remain attuned solely to the rhythms of American sport often decry this time of year — are most acutely felt in the way my work schedule lines up. See, this is the golden time of year for a guy like me. With another high-tide mark for the cycling and tennis seasons right on the horizon as we near the Vuelta a España and the U.S. Open, the inaugural IAAF Diamond League providing one dramatic meet after another and the club soccer season about to start in Europe, there is almost too much to absorb at this point.

Unfortunately slow times at work also mean that I’m usually spending my mornings and early afternoons at work instead of at home watching all these great sporting events from around the globe. As they happen in real time, in prime time a third of the way around this orb on which we all float along through the miasma, I have spent my days trying to stay busy on the clock in the summer mornings on the University of Oregon campus — a wage slave doing what he must rather than what he desires. We all succumb to the necessities of adult life sooner or later (though it would’ve been nice to get more of a warning through those formative years that it would indeed suck a good deal of the time), but it is particularly hard on guys like me.

You see, part of the reason I’ve become so enamored with sports across the Atlantic and beyond is that they were always the sports I could watch in the wee hours of the night and the early morning. Sure, these days you can find football or baseball 24/7 with the advent and explosion of satellites and cable and high-speed internet connections. But it already feels like in some ways I’m a relic, that generation that rode the cusp of the technological era and straddled the fence between the way things were and the way they now stand in constant flux. Calculators were a novelty, not a necessity — statistics on the back of cards and, later in adolescence, through the nascent rumblings of the internet provided the opportunity to apply all that knowledge to something that was interesting and translated what I could see during a live broadcast into a means of recording for posterity.

And a lot of those adolescent statistics culled from the internet involved things like Serie A and English football league standings for the past century; or winners of the prestigious downhill ski race held annually on the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria and other famous World Cup courses; or old open-wheel racing history on both sides of the Atlantic in both Formula 1 and at the Indy 500. Why? Because those were the things I could see for the first time, once we’d acquired a satellite dish for the house as I headed from the local elementary to the middle school in town 40 miles away. As I got ready for school in the early mornings, or sat up late in the clutches of insomnia, I was now watching soccer and rugby and skiing and cycling and all these other sports that had seemed to be the exclusive domain of Jim McKay and the Wide World of Sports for the longest time. I’d read about these in the library and dreamed of seeing a glimpse of them. Now they were all there for the offering. As the years have gone on, the field of interest has only continued to widen.

So to have those mornings taken away — especially in this period of unparalleled access in real time to anything you could possibly desire to watch from halfway around the world — is quite vexing at times. But the beauty of this age is that you can also find highlights and replays with a few simple keystrokes and staying updated is as simple as the ubiquitous phone in every pocket. That technology can be a toy, or it can be a valuable tool… it all depends on how you desire to utilize what you’ve got. I know what I’ve chosen, and not even a long string of shifts beginning no later than 7 am are going to keep me down. A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America always finds a way to find out whatever it is he or she has been itching to follow…

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BOLT’S LOSS ANYTHING BUT A SHOCK & OTHER TRACK NOTES…

Initially it was a jaw-dropper: Usain Bolt had lost his first 100m race in over two years when Tyson Gay beat him last weekend at the IAAF Diamond League meet in Stockholm. It surprised even the most ardent sports fans who usually focus on sports other than track and field — just take the post Sports Nickel editor Brian Guerra put on the site soon after the result was final in Sweden. In the moment I responded:

It looks like Bolt was fighting problems in his Achilles tendon as well during this race. But whether 100% or not, the fact remains that even the best athletes in the world are prone to have an off day here and there. This was a surprising result, but not necessarily shocking to me. The way Gay has returned from the past two years of himself being at less than optimal physical strength is impressive. And Bolt, who seems to almost be getting bored with the track and recently stated his desire to compete in field events as well, was given the shot in the arm to get his motivation back up…

Frankly, I can’t wait for the final Diamond League event of the year on August 27 in Brussels. Hopefully Powell’s lower back is fit enough to allow him to race against Bolt and Gay, and that Bolt’s tendon and calf problems are healed enough to compete at his normal high level. If all three are present in the final in Belgium… watch out!

Bolt finally beaten at 100m, but still better than all but Tyson Gay in Stockholm despite lower back problems...

Of course, we are now guaranteed to miss out on the Belgian showdown. It turns out more than merely that Achilles tendon has been aggravating Bolt. While tests have revealed the tendon injury to be healed, the Jamaican sprinter has seen his recidivist back problems reemerge once again. I don’t know why it didn’t register with me before, but it was a dead giveaway that his back was bothering him when he said after the race, “I need to work on my shape. I got a good start but there was no power [my emphasis]. I was ready, I was focused.”

The problem is obviously not mental; Bolt, one of the most joy-filled and unflappable athletes in all of sports, might have recently voiced his wish to compete in field as well as track (probably in the long jump and/or triple jump, though that might need to be nixed if he continues to have these back problems) but that hardly means he came to Stockholm unprepared for the competition. With the way the 23-year-old has encountered one physical problem after another this season and the lack of any major international tournament (IAAF World Championships or Olympics) on the schedule, there is no reason why he should be expected to continue pushing himself. Apparently his advisers felt the same way, as he has pulled out of the rest of the races this season.

But that hardly means there’s nothing to get interested about in the world of track and field. Just take the recent resurrection of one man’s career. The summer after I moved to Eugene — Track Town USA — one American sprinter found himself getting popped in a big way. The career of Justin Gatlin, once the most promising male sprinter in the United States, has featured more peaks and troughs in its charting than most will live through in an entire lifetime. As a 19-year-old in 2001, he was nailed for amphetamines in his system… a result of the Adderol he had taken for years to combat medically-diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That suspension was dropped upon appeal to 12 months from two years by the IAAF. Then, July 2006 rolled around…

It was a summer that would see testosterone in the news for all the wrong reasons. In a matter of days we were bombarded with the news that both Gatlin and his compatriot, Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, had each tested positive in his respective sport for exogenous readings of the omnipresent naturally-occurring steroidal compound. Gatlin received an eight-year suspension, later reduced to four. (I had originally called for his testosterone positive to be viewed as his first offense; while the appeals courts didn’t go that far, the sentence was still reduced nonetheless.)

Justin Gatlin returns to his sport... will he get another opportunity in the future to celebrate a broken record as he did in Doha, Qatar in May 2006?

So now Gatlin is back — and he’s back to winning form. Running in two different meets in Estonia this month, the 28-year-old is still a ways away from his personal best (and former world record) 9.76 seconds at 100m but winning nonetheless. First, on August 3, he took the top honors with a 10.24 in the final; then, bettering his time from the previous meet, he clocked 10.17 to win again in Tallinn at the Ergo World challenge meeting. The 2004 champion in the 100m was once expected to have a hell of a feud brewing with Asafa Powell, who prior to the suspension looked like the next Jamaican poised to sweep the sport.

Of course, both men have regressed and handed the stage to their respective countrymen Bolt and Gay at this point. But a lot can happen in two years before the Olympics journey to England and the site of the main stadium in the Lea River Valley in east London. The shadows might just be good for these two men, Powell and Gatlin. No longer locked in the hubris that saw them throw away a chance at head-to-head confrontation in 2006 at the Prefontaine Classic here in Eugene, they have every incentive to buckle down and reclaim their position as the top representative of their countries. Of course, the way Gay is running (and the way we know Bolt is capable of running despite last Friday’s result), that’s bound to be a tall task. But in track and field, anything is possible once the starting gun fires…

THINK CHAMPIONS LEAGUE OF THE AMERICAS…

The Copa Libertadores is one of the most prestigious club tournaments in the world. It’s funny to think about how relatively new tournaments like the Libertadores (annually since 1960) and UEFA Champions League (since 1955 as European Cup; began Champions League format in 1992) are compared to the history of international football in the Olympics (1900) and World Cup (1930) as well as the domestic club leagues which have thrived even longer. Now in the first year of its sixth decade of existence, the Copa Libertadores is broadcast into 135 countries and available over the internet through countless portals in multiple languages.

Home side Chivas got the first reason to celebrate in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final... but will they be celebrating next week when it wraps up?

Yet, unless you frequent the Spanish-language sports networks on television (and the increasing shift in America’s demographics means that it is becoming less and less “non-traditional” for sports fans in America to be watching soccer en Español) or are a loyal reader of this column, you may not have heard that the two-leg home-and-away final was last night. It may have been controversial, but Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico were given passage to the second round this year due to their 2009 ouster not on the field but due to H1N1 flu outbreak in their home country. They reached the final by plowing through Argentina’s 2009 Clausura champion Velez Sarsfield, Libertad of Paraguay (qualified as best aggregate finisher in Clausura and Apertura in 2009), and Universidad de Chile (2009 Apertura champion). They were host for the opening leg to Internacional, Brazil’s 2009 Serie A runner-up, picking up right where they left off when their 2009 campaign was abbreviated.

The winner of this tournament would be headed to the next FIFA Club World Cup, and things got off to a quick start. After the match began fifteen minutes late to work the kinks out of the floodlights in the Estadio Chivas, the new $150 million stadium with the synthetic turf located in the northwestern Guadalajara suburb of Zapopan, it was the visitors who were getting the better run of offensive opportunities in what proved to be a chippy first half. But despite all the chances, nothing was developing on the scoreboard to consummate their efforts. Kleber hit the crossbar in the fifth minute, botching a marvelous chance to go ahead early and deflate the home crowd. Alecsandro put the crossbar to work yet again in the 29th minute, another opportunity squandered.

The misses left the door open for Chivas to take the lead in the first half. After getting his team’s first shot of the game, an off-target attempt in stoppage time, Marco Fabian De la Mora fully redeemed himself right before World Cup referee Hector Baldassi blew his whistle for halftime.

TO RELEGATE OR NOT TO RELEGATE

This next article was quite the feat of mine. So I recently came into possession of a BlackBerry and have discovered that with a simple free application I have the potential to post straight to the website here from my phone. It isn’t revolutionary or anything in terms of technology, but it is revolutionary in the way I will be able to get things done in bringing all the latest writing to you in real time as it hits the cerebral vortex inside my skull.

 

Promotion and relegation can be fun, sure... but always remember when your time finally comes to celebrate -- one man’s thrill of victory is inevitably another man’s agony of defeat...

So what follows is the first article I wrote completely on my phone and uploaded straight to the site. I was sitting at work and zipping around the internet when I came across an article. I wish I could remember where it was from… maybe Joe Posnanski at SI. The actual author, though, is inconsequential — I was idly reading a few things on my phone as I smoked a cigarette at work. And as I read, the author started blathering on about how there needs to be promotion and relegation in Major League Baseball to make the end of the season more exciting at the bottom as well as at the top.

Honestly, I’m finding more and more that there is no wrong way to run a sports league. Don’t get me wrong, there are many intelligent proposals out there that are radical in concept and would really shake things up. Take this one from fellow Sports Nickel writer Rich Stowe:

I’ve always suggested a “European Football style” of relegation for MLB, however, you don’t have to drop the Pirates to AAA and get rid of the minor league affiliations, you could simply keep the minors but divide MLB into 3 divisions where the perennial contenders are in 1, the middle of the pack teams in 1, and the bototm feeders in another, with the bottom 2 or 3 dropping down the next season, with the top 2 or 3 moving up.

You could have teams like the Yanks, Red Sox, Phillies, Rays, Cards in the top tier.

Then teams like the Brewers, Giants in the middle and teams like Pitt, Baltimore and KC in the bottom

(just examples of how it could be done and not specifically these teams)

On paper it really sounds viable. But what I’m finding more and more is that while a system of promotion and relegation allows more municipalities to be represented in the top flight when you look at European soccer leagues, at the same time it reduces the pool of viable championship candidates. Ultimately only the perennial haves at the top of the uppermost echelon will be able to contend annually for the top prizes. And the ultimate question with this scenario presented by Stowe is twofold: Would there be a system of promotion and relegation from the bottom of the “major” leagues into the top part of Triple-A ball? And if not, why would you want to sacrifice the parity that comes with eight different world champions in the past decade of MLB play?

Sure, a team like the Royals or the Pirates or the Orioles might be down now. And a system of promotion and relegation might look really nice for fans in locales that might desire major-league franchises but are simply never going to see their city crack the old-boy network of ownership as it presently stands. (I certainly wouldn’t argue if the Portland Beavers, just a hundred miles north of where I currently sit typing, were to suddenly become an MLB franchise through promotion — it’s a hell of a lot closer than going to Seattle or San Francisco/Oakland to watch a game!)

But as I ask in the following piece:

What would this mean long term for the average team’s title hopes? Just look at the English Premier League, the richest soccer league in the world. Over the past decade eight different teams have won the World Series; only New York and Boston have won two titles in the past ten years. In contrast, just three clubs — Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal — have dominated English soccer in the past decade. Including fellow powerhouse Liverpool, no other team has even cracked the top three of the year-end standings since Newcastle United pulled it off in the 2002-03 season.

So what do baseball and soccer have in common? Their respective systems seem to be working quite well for them economically; but the fairness of one system as compared to the other might not immediately be what it seems. CAVEAT EMPTOR — be careful what you wish for…   READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

WHAT CATALAN BULLFIGHT BAN MEANS FOR OTHER SPORTS…

 

Run annually since 1656, the Palio di Siena could potentially be the next event on the chopping block in the wake of the Catalan bullfight ban...

Now this was a move that initially left me stunned in my tracks — one of Spain’s most historic regions voted to put the kibbosh on bullfights within its zone. But as I dug deeper beyond the surface, threethings really came to light:

  1. Catalonia has never been to big on bullfights compared to the rest of Spain;
  2. The Catalan legislature was polarized, illustrating this as a political move more than an animal-cruelty issue; and
  3. While politically driven, the passing of this measure could have far wider ramifications for the wider world of sports that in any way utilize animal athletes in competition.

What could this mean for other sports? Here’s an excerpt from the article I penned last weekend, just as these revelations were coming into greater focus:

In the wake of the Catalan legislature’s ruling, Italy’s tourism minister Michela Vittoria Brambilla called for a ban to races like the Palio di Siena. The twice-annual race around the Piazza del Campo in Siena, in which ten horses are run as representatives of various city wards on the sand-covered cobblestones of the medieval town square, has been held without fail in the city since 1656. Attached to the Corteo Storico pageant, the race in the old Tuscan city attracts crowds in the tens of thousands annually. A tradition rooted in far more than merely the running of the horses, the Palio di Siena serves as a release for the inter-ward feuds between the contrade, those long-standing local feuds that run deep through the various cities throughout Italy….

The need to keep events as safe as possible — for the athletes (both human and animal) as well as the spectators — is certainly important when we consider whether to ban or retain a particular sporting event. But when it comes to legislating sport, things rarely come down to simple calculations of safety. As we saw in Catalonia, the ban was as much a political ploy as it was a genuine call for the security of bulls in the region. Brambilla is also taking a bold stand against something even more deeply rooted within the society in question. Where do we draw the line between safety and tradition?…

If the Palio di Siena is too brutal, what of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races in the wake of the recent deaths of horses such as Barbaro and Eight Belles? People were quick to rally against dog fighting in the wake of Michael Vick’s conviction several years ago; but when you really get down to it pushing a dog in the quest of obtaining Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is ultimately less fatal than a dog pit… but is it any less exploitative? And it is a short step from banning bullfights to banning rodeos. A noble desire to protect an animal is one thing, but when we’re likely going to take an animal that has been bred solely for the purpose of fighting over the years out of its natural element what is to become of its life?

We are left to wait and see what if any wider repercussions will stem from the Catalan ruling this week — whether this is an isolated incident which can be chalked up to a political play or the start of the landslide toward the slow abolition of sport involving animals.

TOOLING AROUND THE NET…

This time of year my mind seems to go into a tailspin. With the summer slowing down on campus, there is plenty of time to read books and articles and pretty much anything I can get my hands upon. Every break offers a little time to devour some more information both historical and current. Right now I’m bouncing between Christopher S. Thompson’s The Tour de France: A Cultural History and a critical analysis of various forms of professional sport titled Transatlantic Sport: The Comparative Economics of North American and European Sports in terms of what I have out of the library in book form. As for the internet, having this new phone helps immensely in allowing me to read more across a broad spectrum of publications. What follow are the five articles of the week, the ones that for one reason or another grabbed my attention amongst all the cerebral vortex has to offer:

  • Pretty in pink: Cancer survivors form top dragonboat racing team (Jon Wertheim/SI.com/06 August 2010) When we think of cancer-surviving sports stars, we tend to think of the all-time greats: cyclist Lance Armstrong, the NHL’s Mario Lemieux, figure skater Scott Hamilton. But with cancer indiscriminate in who it inflicts, there are countless others who have beaten their affliction and gone on to find happiness and health in the realm of athletics. Take the crew that Wertheim profiles in this article, a group of breast-cancer survivors who has gone on to become one of the most feared teams in the niche sport of dragonboat racing. Their myriad stories attest to the power that sports can have in all our lives in overcoming the worst possible obstacles and provide inspiration from which we can all draw power in our down moments.
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    Before the black quarterback became a common sight in the NFL, the only opportunity came in Canada for guys like Chuck Ealey (here earning MVP honors in the 1972 Grey Cup)...

    Black like me: The CFL’s ’70s legacy (Malcolm Kelly/CBC Sports/07 August 2010) With football season on the horizon, even a Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America can’t help but gear up for the new season about to start in both the NFL and college. But the autumn also signals the beginning of the CFL season north of the border, which starts tonight with the regular season kickoff between the BC Lions and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. After all, it was north of the border where African-American quarterbacks first showed their true potential. In this retrospective, Kelly of the CBC shows how groundbreakers like Chuck Ealey paved the way for future generations of QBs on both sides of the border — showing that just because someone is black, there’s no need to convert him from his natural position to a defensive back or a receiver just because of the color of his skin. (I think I just heard Rush Limbaugh shriek off in the distance…)

  • Cue Beethoven (Peter Bodo/Tennis.com/09 August 2010) It’s hard to imagine, but for the first time in the 37-year history of the ATP world rankings no American male is in the top ten of the standings. The dubious feat occurred after Andy Roddick dropped from 9th to 11th, continuing his slide from elite status after it appeared his career was in a renaissance during his marathon 2009 Wimbledon final with Roger Federer. In this offering from legendary tennis writer Peter Bodo, he breaks down the ramifications of Roddick’s plunge and more news from Toronto and Cincinnati as the ATP and WTA Tours gear up to converge at Flushing Meadows later this month.
  • Moneygolf: Will new statistics unlock the secrets of golf? (Michael Agger/Slate.com/10 August 2010) Now I’ve never been a good golfer. I don’t even pretend to be an able linksman. The few times my dad and I would go out every year at the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club, we would automatically double what stood as par on our scorecards and go from there. My best rounds would touch into the low 60s — on just the front nine. Agger, writing for the online magazine Slate, takes an approach that would make Michael Lewis proud. In this multi-part series for Slate, Agger offers statistical analysis that could very well revolutionize the ancient individual test of skill and will.
  • Floyd Mayweather Jr. disappoints (Scoop Jackson/ESPN.com/11 August 2010)We’ve long been clamoring for a battle between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. No longer tied up in a debate over the scope of drug testing for the fight, we still await this duel. Why? As Jackson points out for ESPN, the blame rests squarely in the Mayweather corner. Showing how the boxer’s reticence to even offer tangible reasons as to why he’s delaying this showdown, Jackson even brings light to the viable excuses Mayweather could’ve offered about his desire to delay. But instead of offering one of these reasons, Mayweather only stands to distance himself from the very fans who have supported him through this endeavor — Scoop included.

ON THE DOCKET…

WRITING

  • TENNIS: Toronto & Montreal & Cincinnati (throughout the week) Three cities on either side of the Canada-U.S. divide are the triangular epicenter for both men’s and women’s tennis at the moment, as we are coming up on the first weekend of a fortnight spent in these two cities. At the moment the men are heading into the third round on Canadian soil in Toronto, with all the players who received first-round byes save Paul-Henri Mathieu on course to meet one another in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati the women have seen both French Open winner Francesca Schiavone bounced by Elena Vesnina and Elena Dementieva knocked off by compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. After the finals this weekend, they swap sides of the border: the men take on Cincinnati while the women storm Montreal. Catch the U.S. Open series on the Tennis Channel
  • Pre-Vuelta cycling on the UCI ProTour – Yeah, the ProTour has been neutered from what it once represented. The vision of Hein Verbruggen has given way to a protracted, more worldly schedule devoid of the truly big events of cycling. But that doesn’t mean the big guns of cycling don’t frequent these events — they serve as useful preparation for those big events and always provide a reason to watch (a great place to find the races is Steephill.TV). Take the next two on the docket… they both provide a last chance to test fitness ahead of the Vuelta a España:
    • Vattenfall Cyclassics (Sunday/15 August) The one-day race around the city of Hamburg in Germany favors the sprinters of the pro peloton, one last chance to see how fast a rider is against his competitors as the sprints near in Spain and later into September at the world championships. The past two years, Robbie McEwen and Tyler Farrar have taken the victory. Who will emerge victorious this year? Find out Sunday…
    • ENECO Tour (starting Tuesday/17 August) The eight-day stage race through Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg begins on Tuesday with a prologue in Steenwijk in the Netherlands. The tour stays in that country until we meet again next Thursday, when Stage 2 takes the riders into Belgium. The six-year race continues to establish itself in the annual rhythm of the racing calendar and provides the last chance to warm up to Vuelta form…
  • IAAF Diamond League – So Bolt won’t be racing, Powell probably won’t be racing… but there’ s a lot more to track and field than merely the 100m sprint. There are just three events left in the inaugural IAAF Diamond League calendar, and two fall in the next week. Be sure to catch them both either online or at Universal Sports on television:
    • London (Friday & Saturday/13-14 August)
    • Zurich (Thursday/19 August)
  • Copa Libertadores final (second leg on Wednesday/18 August) After last night’s thrilling first leg of the final between Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico and Internacional of Brazil, at the brand-new Estadio Chivas in the suburbs of Guadalajara, the Mexicans find themselves in a rut. Will they be able to climb out of their 2-1 deficit? As one of the most deadly away sides in the entire tournament, Internacional have to be wary. With the title on hand in Porto Alegre, both teams are still well within reach of the title. Will Chivas become the first Mexican side ever to win the trophy, or will Inter bring it back to Brazil? Find out next Wednesday online or at Fox Sports en Español…

And as I drag myself in for another day at work I take solace, for it is the last day before I head on a ten-day vacation from the job. A little camping, a little house-cleaning, a little writing and time to relax should do just the trick to recharge for the big events coming up in our near future. Burning the candle at both ends is great, but it sure will be nice to get back out under the stars and into the rhythms of nature — if only for a few days.

Enjoy the week to come, and be sure to expand those horizons. There’s plenty of things to see and feats to be witnessed if you just refuse to stay locked into the anticipation of preseason football. Hell, if you need to get that jones out of your system, at least look toward the Great White North before turning to those glorified exhibitions the NFL feels within its rights to charge fans full price to witness. At least the CFL is in the midst of games that matter.

But remember that there is another kind of football out there to watch. And sports such as rugby are just as hard-hitting. And watching people hit tennis balls can be just as satisfying as seeing them hit dingers out of the ballpark.  Keep yourself open to something you might have shunned — you never know when you might get sucked in and find a new pastime to while away the hours you might otherwise have sat glued to the same flapping heads regurgitating the same sad story over and over and over again.

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