Wednesday, 26 February 2014

CLAY AND LISTON: THE PUNCHES ECHO FIFTY YEARS ON

Is it really fifty years since Cassius Clay stopped Sonny Liston, shocking the boxing world and inaugurating a new era in sports? The fight's anniversary has attracted lots of attention, and you could argue that it probably has not attracted enough.

As a boxing phenomenon, Clay-Liston ranks as one of the great upsets in history. The challenger was a 7-1 underdog, coming off a string of less than impressive wins over less than impressive opponents—remember he'd barely survived Henry Cooper; indeed many still argue that Angelo Dundee did indeed slice Clay's glove open, buying him extra time to recover.I worked with Angelo a few times, and never got a straight answer to that one.

Remember too that Sonny Liston was regarded as the baddest man alive, and merely finding someone willing to get in the ring and endure the punishment his fists provided was close to impossible. He'd beaten the former champ, Floyd Patterson, twice, in the first round both times. Since 1961, he'd spent barely six rounds in the ring. Yet Clay would taunt him, insult him, and brashly proclaim victory—even having a poem read on the TV show I've Got A Secret in which he promised 'a total eclipse of Sonny'. It was the beginning of a new era in sports in the same way the Kennedy triumph over Nixon in the televised debates began a new era in politics.
Even during the fight itself, there was a moment after the fourth when Ali, blinded, didn't want to continue, and Dundee had to push him back into the ring. Some say he'd got liniment from Liston's shoulder in his eyes, others that Liston's corner had put whatever coagulant they were putting on Sonny's cuts onto his gloves.

Ali exploded out after his eyes cleared in the fifth, and after taking punishment in the sixth Liston simply sat in his corner, refusing to come out. He seemed at the time like a confused wounded animal, resigned to his ultimate fate. Now we wonder if the fix was in. Seven to one is pretty long odds for a heavyweight championship (Jim Braddock won his title at 10-1) and that's hard for the wise guys to resist. There is a problem, though, and if we jump forward to the rematch in Lewiston, Maine, and the so-called 'phantom punch' it becomes clear. If that were indeed a dive, as so many have claimed, it was done the way dives are supposed to be done, literally by diving. You don't sit on your stool in your corner saying 'No Mas'. Doctors after the fight confirmed Liston had a torn tendon, and Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule said Liston had been unable to lift his arm.

But Clay had done the unthinkable. He'd humbled the baddest man in the world. More importantly, he'd said before the match that he would. He ran to the edge of the ring, pointed at the reporters, and yelled 'eat your words!'

This was something unprecedented in the ethos of sport. Sportsmen didn't brag, they didn't call untoward attention to themselves, and they never challenged authority, at least not with impunity. Like soccer players well into the late part of the past century, American sportsmen were supposed to be loyal, quiet servants (note that NFL players and coaches still call the owners 'Mr.' and the league gives the Super Bowl trophy to the guy who signs the checks). Clay changed all that. Joe Namath would soon follow in his footsteps, unafraid to state brag as fact, as would Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, promoting himself relentlessly (only to be knocked cold by Donnie Anderson in the first Super Bowl).

It went beyond the undeniable flair Ali brought, the heavyweight who moved quick as a middleweight, the handsome fighter whose face stayed unmarked. Looking at footage of Joe Louis being interviewed after the first Liston fight, you think they're not just from different generations, they're from different planets. So too when Clay went crazy at the weigh-in, taunting the scariest man in the world. All those stare-downs you see before fights nowadays are a direct response to the first Clay-Liston fight.

You'll often read about Ali modelling his public persona after Gorgeous George; the young Ali was a big wrestling fan, and the adoption of wrestling promotion was a conscious choice by Clay. But if you watch his style, if you consider where he grew up and when, and who he was most likely to see, you would find it easy to conclude that much of his bombast and braggadoccio actually came not from George but from 'Classy' Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed 'King of Men'. I never thought it was coincidence that when Ali 'fought' the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, it was Blassie whom he chose to be his 'manager', and Blassie did much of the talking in what people assumed was an imitation of Ali's style.

This meant Clay had a huge appeal to kids around my age, who'd probably just gone through their own 'golden age' of wrestling, and recognised and enjoyed Ali's public bombast. I still have my 45rpm record Cassius Clay recorded, 'this is the story of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal and brags indeedy, of a powerful punch that's incredibly speedy....This kid has power, speed and endurance; if you sign to fight him, INCREASE YOUR INSURANCE!...If Cassius says a cow can lay an egg, don't ask how...GREASE THAT SKILLET!' I was mesmerised.

The adult (white) world was torn. Sonny Liston had destroyed Floyd Patterson, a 'credit to his race', and was a scowling ex-con you would run across the street to avoid if you saw him coming. But Clay was 'uppity'; an odd way to describe someone so clever, articulate, handsome, energetic, and so much fun. Who could they root for? For me, and many of my peers, the choice was easy. We may not have been convinced that the cow could lay eggs, or that the big ugly bear would indeed be beaten, but it was an idea that spoke to us.

It's no coincidence that the Beatles visited Clay's training camp in Miami. Or that Clay and Liston were both in the audience in Miami when the Beatles played there on the Ed Sullivan Show. You could look at them the same way you looked at Clay. It wasn't just that they were different; the Beatles were quite as scrubbed clean as the Bobby Rydells and Paul Ankas of the white pop world, but like Clay they were livelier, a breath of fresh air in a stale business. And like Clay, they didn't seem in thrall to the business itself. I still remember a Time magazine profile of the Beatles, marveling that they weren't slaves to the profits of the music industry—that they spent their money on simple things, like beer and fags, or something like that. I remember how it struck me as just as odd as Time intended it to sound, as if there were something wrong with not chasing the lifestyle of showbiz. Of course all that would change pretty quickly, but I think you can also argue that both the Beatles and Clay saw the sudden celebrity they received as something less important than they were supposed to.

And you can argue that Clay used that celebrity in a way that made the most of it, something unmatched even by the most famous pop group in the world (George's Bangladesh and Lennon's sleep ins for peace notwithstanding).

After the fight, Ali was with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke. You can watch him pull Cooke over to an interviewer at ringside, and say, 'talk to him he's a famous pop star'. This was a veritable black Mount Rushmore gathered just at the time Clay would make probably the most momentous off-field decision made by any sportsman of the century.

The next day Clay announced he was a Moslem, a member of the Nation of Islam (aka the Black Muslims) and that he was renouncing his 'slave name' and had taken the name Cassius X. A week later, Elijah Muhammad would rename him Muhammad Ali.

Asked about his conversion, sometimes with respect but more often with at best an assumption he had been somehow led astray, and at worst outright hostility, Ali's personality changed from pro wrestler to someone thoughtful and sincere. He argued with authority the positive tenants of his new religion,  echoing Malcom X's refusal to accept debate on someone else's terms. He demonstrated some of Jim Brown's massive inner strength and drive to self-determination. What this said to the black community has been explained by people better qualified than me to do that, but it had a wider resonance too. It came at just the right time, after Kennedy's assassination, when many verities seemed to be challenged. Lyndon Johnson was pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress, and it cleared its first hurdle at the same time as the fight.

I'd been lured in by Ali's showmanship, now I was convinced by his seriousness and his sincerity. The same attitudes my own minister had instilled in me by riding freedom buses in the south, the same consistency of religious belief with moral action, was being demonstrated in front of me by a trash-talking (the phrase hadn't been invented yet) 22 year old. Within a few years Ali would refuse induction into the Army, be stripped of his heavyweight title, spend years in exile speaking to college audiences of kids just like me, and eventually win in the courts, and embark on his second career, with all its epic moments, the true stuff of classic heroism and tragedy.

When I applied for my conscientious objector status, I don't think I used Muhammad Ali as an example, or a reference, though Lord knows I used about every other public thinker I could find. I wasn't anywhere near as glib then as I am now, and there was more at stake too. But I'm sure I wished I could find the articulateness of Ali as I wrote my statement, the articulateness that belied the persona who could trump Joe Frazier or Howard Cosell with equal ease and precision.

The echoes of Cassius Clay remain even in the now sadly limited Ali. The courage of his public transformation would echo far more vibrantly today, but the impact it had on society is undeniable. You can argue it changed some history directly. You could argue it was a major factor in the split in the Black Muslims that saw Malcolm X assassinated. You could argue many people bought into Ali's pride and defiance without buying the rest of the moral package. You could argue he was among the most visible and successful opponents of the Vietnam War. And you can argue that he changed sport in America forever and for the better. Just as Jackie Robinson's entry to Major League Baseball pushed the issue of segregation in the wider world, so Clay's conversion to Ali pushed it further. Jim Brown and Bill Russell taught us about dignity, but they had none of the impact of Ali. He said it himself, at ringside after the fight, 'I shook up the world!...I talk to God every day... I must be the greatest!'

Monday, 24 February 2014

NATIONAL CHAUVINISM AND MEDALS TABLES: WINTER OLYMPIC NOTES IV

I've written before about Olympic medal tables, and one of the best things about the Winter Olympics is that they are so balanced, especially in light of the event-inflation (35 to 98 medal events from 1980 to 2014) which helps some of the less winter-centric sports nations. So it's interesting to see how various nations report the overall medals, which, remember, is never an official IOC statistic--the Olympic Committee says it would encourage nationalism, something the raising of flags and playing of anthems, or indeed the grouping of athletes by national teams of course doesn't do.

Russia 'won' the games by any measure, and in fact, IOC president Thomas Bach was quite candid in his closing speech, attributing part of the 'success' of the Games to the success of the host nation's team. Just as happened in London 2012, the triumphs of the host nation--a feat repeated regularly at Olympic Games--helped get that nation's viewers wrapped up in the competition, and the 'feel-good' factor pushed many wider issues, including those of costs of the games, financial needs elsewhere, persecution of gays, and growing crisis in Ukraine, out of sight and mind.

As well as making everyone forget the horror stories filling the world's press before the games started about hotels, transport, communications and the like, which as I pointed out at the time are also de rigeur for a bored, hyper-critical, and often unfamiliar press corps to the build up of an Olympics.

So Russia, to Bach's, Putin's, and millions of Russians' delight, 'won' the medals table. They won it no matter how you stacked it. And how you stack it is important.

In 2012, the British press inevitably ranked the table by gold medals--putting team GB & NI in third place, ahead of Russia. Here's the breakdown of the top five nations in order of golds: USA 46 China 38 GB&NI 29 Russia 24 Germany/France 11.

But if you saw a Russian paper, you might have seen the table listed by total medals, or by a simple points system; the most common being 3 for a gold, 2 for a silver, 1 for a bronze. Here's the top five nations again, listed by points (medals in parenthesis). USA (46-29-29) 225 China (38-27-23) 191 Russia (24-26-32) 156 GB&NI (29-17-19) 140 Germany (11-19-14) 85. If you weight the gold and silvers higher, using a 5-3-1 system, Russia still tops GB&NI 230-215.

Obviously, a points system favours bigger nations, with more depth of talent. There are so many anomalies already: team sports like basketball or ice hockey which produce only a single medal for the top three, sports like swimming whose gradations encourage multiple medalists, sports that have tight limits for each country's entrants and those that don't, and many many more. But if you're talking about who 'won' an Olympics, surely you need to consider all the medals? Why not consider 4th place? Or 4th through 10th?

The thing that jumps out at the 2012 games is the distance between first and second, between second and third/fourth, and between fourth and everyone else. But when you look at the Winter Games, stacked with more esoteric sports fiercely dependent on access to facilities (like mountains, snow and ice), the picture is wonderfully balanced.

Here's the gold medal table: Russia 13, Norway 11, Canada 10, USA 9, Netherlands/Germany 8, Belarus 5, Austria/France/Poland 4.

But if you're in the USA, you're more likely to see a total medals table, which looks like this: Russia 33, USA 28, Norway 26, Canada 25, Netherlands 24, Germany 19.

And if you're in Canada, I defy you to find a paper listing the medals in anything other than a points format, in which the Russians run away with the title, but Canada comes second by a nose over the arch-enemy USA. Here's how it looks in 3-2-1: Russia (13-11-9) 70 Canada (10-10-5) 55 USA (9-7-12) 53 Norway (4-5-10) 48 Netherlands (8-7-9) 24

It doesn't really matter, though, because the Olympics is all about encouraging us to get beyond national chauvinism and compete for the sake of competition, right? And if you believe that, I've got copies of the protest letters over the years about things like seams in the lycra bondage costumes speedskaters wear.

On the topic of rising above chauvinsim, recall the wonderful Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema (he ought to have his own sports talk show in America, Sports Anema) who accused the USA of 'failing' at the Winter Olympics because they concentrate only on their own sports which the rest of the world doesn't play. It appeared that Anema's definition of failing was 'failing at speedskating' not least because of the 24 Dutch medals, 23 came in speedskating, which has a rather limited reach in most of the world without specialist speedskating rinks, in other words, most of the world. That doesn't say much for the breadth of Dutch winter sports success.

Remember too that speedskating success is not unknown in the US (Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Shanti Davis etc) though it is concentrated on one track in West Allis, Wisconsin. And Jillert was also wrong when he said the US wasn't ranked in the top 30 in the world in football (soccer), which is the (only?) other big Dutch sport (apart from korfball and fierljeppen). The US is ranked 13th in the world. Holland is ranked 10th. And we've won exactly the same number of World Cups as the Dutch.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

ALEX GIBNEY'S THE ARMSTRONG LIE

Last month I discussed Alex Gibney's documentary The Armstrong Lie on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, and because I never did get to make my main point, I meant to write in more detail then. As is common with documentaries, the film doesn't seem to have spent a lot of time on a lot of cinema screens, which is a shame, because its an entertaining and involving story, with a compelling protagonist who can bend the audience just as surely as he bent the truth.

The important thing about The Armstrong Lie is its title, which was borrowed from the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, long-time sponsors of the Tour De France. It is not The Armstrong Cheat, because the 'lie' isn't the fact that Armstrong was cheating. The lie is rather the persona Lance Armstrong built up and sold to the world—the cancer survivor who won seven consecutive Tours, who used his success to fuel a huge enterprise centered on his Livestrong cancer charity. He was the ultimate underdog, an American dominating an event only one other American had ever won, racing for a team, US Postal Service, with minimal funding and facilities. It was a lie the world not only believed, but wanted to believe.

Gibney came to the story in 2009, given access to film a documentary about Armstrong's ill-fated 2009 comeback. He seems to have thought of his story, at least partially, in terms of sporting economics. Early on in the film he mentions that most racers come from modest, working class backgrounds, and later in the film he details the financial bonanza Armstong generated, and pointedly shows him on a private jet reading the marketing section of the Wall Street Journal, wearing a silly hat the may remind you how you can't ever totally lose your roots. But it's an observation that doesn't really go anywhere—echoes of the old Olympian amateur ideal are very faint indeed.

That's because the history of cycling in general, and the Tour in particular, is impossible to tell without reference to performance-enhancing drugs. Going back to the early days, where cyclists took strychnine, nitroglycerine, and cocaine; drank wine or beer to help kill the pain. It's an event that tests human endurance beyond its normal limits, and each time a 'scandal' arises, it is pushed under the carpet until the next bio-chemical advance comes along.

What's fascinating about Armstrong, and his association with the notorious Italian Dr. Michele Ferrari is the way the cyclist's cancer opened the door to his use of PEDs. Because his muscles had been broken down completely during his illness, Ferrari was able to bio-engineer a new Armstrong—and on a level playing field he might well have been just as unbeatable as he was anyway. This is not to justify his elaborate cheating, merely to point out that his feeling, which appears quite honest when he answers Oprah Winfrey's question, that he didn't 'cheat', in the sense of gain an 'unfair advantage' over his competitors, is true. Look at the men who stood on the podium with Armstrong in his seven tour wins and you'll find only one who hasn't either been caught or confessed to cheating.

As Gibney details Armstrong's history, and as he ruthlessly fights to protect his lie, you get a convincing picture of a sociopath, a bully, someone who is aware of his prowress and his appeal, and uses it against his critics. The pathos of his teammate George Hincapie, who can't help but protect Armstrong even after he's confessed, pointed fingers, and been cast into the metaphorical wilderness, is sad. Indeed, by the time of his comeback it appeared as if everyone on the tour, and everyone on his teams, had been cheating, except Armstrong

Which makes his decision to come back even more incomprehensible. And the wonder of Gibney's film is that, as he tracks Armstrong on that comeback Tour, he seems to believe Armstrong is racing clean,  and as a result we actually find ourselves rooting for him to succeed. Even having seen everything, knowing in retrospect the lies are lies, understanding the unpalatable nature of his personality, we cannot resist hoping Armstrong reaches the podium—it's as much against the odds as his first Tour win. Thus, when he's found to have blood-doped (removed blood before the race, and transfused it back into his body before the final stage) and the elaborate facade of lie starts to fall apart, we find ourselves doubly disappointed.

As is Gibey. In one sense, the Armstrong Lie is the one he fed Gibney, the one an experienced documentary maker found himself believing, and it's Gibney's talent that passes that sense of disappointment on to us. That, in the end, is the enthralling point of this film. Armstrong's attempt to come back, to win a Tour at nearly 40, and win it 'clean' is the most incredible act of hubris, one almost unmatched in sport, and hardly matched outside it. Armstrong alone among the major racers was still publicly clean. He could have stayed retired and kept his seven titles, and every time someone testified they'd helped him or seen him use drugs, he could have continued to beat them down.

It is the stuff of classic tragedy—whom the Gods would destroy they make stronger with Epo, or HGH, or steroids. Believing he could get away with it was the greatest Armstrong lie of all.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

COMMENTARY AS EMOTIONAL INQUISITION: WINTER OLYMPIC NOTES III

In America, Olympic broadcasting faces a slightly different problem of pitching winter sport than the BBC's, because the Olympic format of building soap-opera 'up close and personal' storylines for every event is a tradition more than half a century old. NBC also has the advantage/problem of doing much of the games on tape delay. This allows them to hold a good story as long as they'd like, up to the very end of their prime-time broadcast, but it also tempts them into playing with the narrative.

In 1992 NBC had come up with the phrase 'plausibly live' to describe their tape delayed coverage from Barcelona, and fair enough, if you keep away from the news and the net you can watch as live. But in Atlanta in 1996 they famously redid their gymnastics commentary to re-order the competitors, thus increasing the tension. They provided new commentary, which I watched them record in the now-empty Georgia Dome (I was in charge of the basketball coverage in the other half of the Dome). I also talked to one of the commentators, Elfie Schlegel, as she and John Tesh walked in to do their voice-over. I wrote about this for the Herald-Tribune after the games, and NBC's Dick Ebersol wrote an indignant letter of protest denying what was obvious to anyone who watched the show. Apart from the order, you could hear the basketball horn go off. Ebersol claimed disingenuously that the horn was being tested, which was true; what he didn't say was that we were not allowed to test it until after the gymnastics was finished! Our half of the Dome was required to be both dark and silent throughout actual gymnastics competition.

Anyway, this time NBC gave into temptation on the men's figure skating. With no American left in the running, the story was Russian veteran Evgeni Plushenko, but he unfortunately had tweaked an injury during warmups, and withdrawn from the event. But when, many hours later, NBC went on air in prime time, they not only teased Plushenko's performance throughout the night, but when it came to the moment they actually feigned surprise at his withdrawal. Obviously it's not like re-editing events' it's just a cynical exercise in manipulating the audience to sit through more commercials; eminently cynical. Though probably not as cynical as the bits that were cut from the Opening Ceremony speeches, in particular IOC President Thomas Bach's call for the games to be held 'with tolerance and without discrimination for any reason,' NBC probably feared tolerance and non-discrimination might have offended much of their audience.

But the biggest controversy reflected NBC's overweaning determination to cast this sporting event into the template of human-interest. Bode Miller, who's now 36 and nearing the end of a magnificient, if sometimes controversial career, had just taken a bronze in the Super Giant Slalom, salvaging a medal after a disappointing downhill. He had told NBC, in an interview with news anchor Tom Brokaw, that he was racing at this Olympics for his brother Chalone, a snowboarder, who had died last year, aged 29. During the race, NBC even had Miller's wife miked up, and after the finish he was interviewed by Christin Cooper (left), a former US skier whom I'd met a few times in the 80s.

Miller's answer to Cooper's first question said he had a 'lot of emotion riding on it', and she then followed up with a question that was classic action news at 8 stick the microphone into the crying victim's face and ask: 'Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?' I don't think Christin, who was friendly, articulate and smart as a skier, was wrong to ask that question—she commented on his emotion. But the question itself is far too lax—what's going through your mind?—to necessarily get a good answer. Bode's answer was general, so Cooper had to press on, trying to get him to mention his brother. And as tears began to appear, Miller produced an amazing response: he didn't know if the emotion was for his brother or for himself.

Done, brilliant, he's given you gold, he's crying, now move on, or out. Instead, Cooper started fishing for an angelic moment—Miller had been looking into the sky before his run. She was asking him to become part of a daytime TV movie. Miller was unable to answer, but the camera zoomed in on him, and his tears, holding him in extreme close up as if trying to focus on each individual droplet. They then followed Miller as he went off to be by himself, and Dan Hicks picked up and tried to explain the situation. Hicks did his best not to pander, but having built up a soap-opera scenario, there was no way NBC were going to desert the soap opera money shot: tears are the currency of voyeurism, the ultimate proof of 'real' emotion on the screen, and they need to be seen up extremely up close and personal.

I'm not criticising Christin Cooper for what was Oprah-esque overkill—and neither did Miller, who defended her afterwards and spoke of being caught up in the emotion of the moment. NBC, of course, immediately used that as a justification, saying that they supported 'the line of questioning' (no mention of sticking with his reaction) and claiming Miller had been 'supportive of ...the overall interview', which he wasn't.

The producer in the truck could have left the scene gracefully, dissolved to Miller's run perhaps, or simply moved on to the next story.  Cooper got a human reaction from Miller, but no one was content with that. There had to be more, so the audience could get their vicarious pleasure. It was great TV for an instant, and it became embarrassing for a lot longer.

Monday, 17 February 2014

COMMENTARY AND CHEERLEADING: WINTER OLYMPIC NOTES II

The Winter Olympics is a good way for us to test the quality of commentators, because in both the UK and USA most of the sports are not things television covers regularly, and they are not sports with which the audiences are familiar. Figure skating has a wide appeal; when I worked for ABC and we were programming the Calgary games, we aimed for figure skating and the US hockey team for our prime times every night. The skating would rate about 50% higher—remember hockey is basically a regional thing in the US, while skating has the broad, cross-gender appeal that made gymnastics such a big thing in the post-Korbut, Comaneci era.

Figure skating is basically bowling alley ballet, a sport with the dual drawbacks of first requiring make-up, sequinned costumes, music and choreographers to perform and second being subject to judging, with all its attendant history of corruption and fraud. Yet if anything, skating is more popular now than ever, thanks to 'talent' shows like Dancing On Ice. When you think about it, the Olympic format is almost as close to Ted Mack's Amateur Hour as Dancing, or Strictly, or X Factor. The biggest difference being the figure skating judges are locked into a 1950s aesthetic, and susceptible to bribes, but are not fed clever lines by the producers for the audience's entertainment. If anything though, the 'kiss and cry' area at the Olympics is even more OTT than X Factor.

When I covered Lake Placid, there were 35 medal events; in Sochi there are 98. Sports have been expanded, not often for the better (cf: classic vs freestyle cross country skiing; 'team' figure skating) and new sports have been added, including more judged sports, like freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Of course there are also a couple of events that excite me the way roller derby did when I was 11 years old: short track speedskating and snowboard cross, which are basically the same kind of Ben Hur races, one on ice and the other on snow. But with new sports has come a new, younger audience and a problem for commentators, as I've been discovering watching the BBC coverage.


Snowboarding is analogous to surfing, and the lingo seems to have been built on a gnarly surf base. But surfing has never been in danger of reaching the Olympics. Snowboarding is one of the few sports at the Winter Olympics where the competitors don't dress in lycra bondage gear, and the only one where a competitor (in Vancouver) was barred from the games after testing positive for marijuana, which would imply that it is the only sport where pot is a performance enhancing drug. So it's a young, groovy thing, which means BBC commentators appear to be determined to do the verbal equivalent of a 1440 Yolo flip on every routine. This Jonathan Pearce approach might work on radio, and attract a lot of attention, but it doesn't do much to enlighten the audience. On the other hand, I once asked a snowboarder, while I was doing commentary at the 2005 Winter University Games, what 'huge air' meant, and he said, 'well, like, the air, it was huge'. So now we knew.

On the other hand, you'd think curling would be a natural fit, partly because the Scottish (whoops, I mean British) teams are quite good, and partly because it has the same sort of appeal as snooker, lawn bowls, or even darts. Which means the BBC commentators approach each end with a sort of genteel calm, regardless of how tight the competition is, and even in celebration of a British win have all the reserve of Phil Drabble commiserating with the second place finisher at a sheepdog trial. What would be instructive would be to swap the snowboarding and curling commentary teams around, if only for a day.

Meanwhile, Great Britain & Northern Ireland picked up its first gold medal Friday, in skeleton, and I watched Lizzy Yarnold's impressive win to prepare myself for chat on Saturday morning's World Service Weekend programme. Skeleton bob is basically going down a bobsled run on a sled, head first the way you would on your own Flexible Flyer as a kid. It's been in the Olympics before, on the Cresta run in St. Moritz, and it's probably the most accessible and human of the bob run events: the bobsled itself being conducted inside a bumper car, while the luge, in Tony Kornhesier's great phrase, resembling Dracula going downhill in his coffin.

I caught the last of the four skeleton runs, and it was gripping stuff—with the difference of third and fourth places coming down to .04 seconds (four one-hundreths of one second) over the combined FOUR runs. But when it got to Yarnold and the final run, there was little grip left. She had built up a huge (0.78 seconds!) lead over the first three runs: all she really needed to do was get to the bottom without crashing to win.

This was pointed out, hesitantly by Amy Williams, the skeleton expert commentator, which then set Colin Bryce off into a mad effort to rebuild the tension. Fair enough, because the pair had been pretty good in explaining how the event worked, and the way in which Britain, just like East Germany thirty years ago, had identified athletes to draft into the sport and concentrated on sled technology, so despite not having a track of their own to practice on they had achieved remarkable success. They also drifted into those areas that make you wonder what 'experts' are for. Yes, the racers will enjoy the podium, they will be happy, and yes, they'd really like to win. You do not have to have raced at Olympic level to provide such insights. But once the race started, all explanation was off anyway. 'Speed will be crucial here,' said Bryce, which was self-evident enough, but actually wasn't the most crucial thing. Then he pulled out the commentator's greatest enemy, the cliché's cliché, just before the start. 'Lizzie GOES FOR GOLD FOR BRITAIN' he said, a verbal tabloid headline simple enough for any audience to understand.

The rest of the run was basically Amy Williams cheering Lizzy down the course. This raises the interesting point of why you need an expert commentator to cheer. Why not have Lizzie's husband, or grandmother, or next-door-neighbor, or Brian Blessed instead? At one point Bryce interjected 'she's flying now', which was daring in the sense that he didn't have David Vine's Ski Sunday tape delay to prove him hundreths of a second right, but basically anyone going down a bob run on a skeleton is figuratively flying. It is a difficult thing: momentum means some bumps will slow you down less than you might think, and there's no way for the naked eye to calculate how many hundreths of a second may have been gained or lost. Yarnold won by almost a full second (0.96) but remember that's a full second after FOUR runs. And as she celebrated, Amy Williams was 'crying for her, crying for everyone' which maybe Brian Blessed could not have done better, and I appreciated her tears for me.

Yarnold herself seems completely likeable, a great person for a great story, and I suppose we can expect the Seoul Hockey Syndrome to mean she will appear on a lot more BBC in the future than she has in the past. But I was amused by her nickname, which is 'The Yarnold'. I have written before about the remarkable flatness of British nicknames. If Mean Joe Green had been British, his nickname would have been 'Greeners'. Cool Papa Bell would have been 'Bellsy'. And Broadway Joe Namath would have been lucky to be 'Joe'. Or maybe 'The Namath'.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

SOCHI AND SOCHI: SELLING THE WINTER OLYMPICS

I was on BBC World Service Weekend yesterday, (one can find it with great difficulty at the new look IPlayer for the rest of this week) and one of the topics we discussed was the Winter Olympics--the focus was on the language of snowboarding and freestyle skiing, and I was able to describe my experience working with a barely articulate snowboarder as my analyst at the 2005 Winter University Games (this is the only Olympic sport where a competitor has been banned for testing positive for marijuana as a performance enchancing drug) and I also mentioned how many changes to the programme there have been since I first covered the games, shooting on 16mm film, at Lake Placid. To prepare for the show, I'd also made sure to watch Britain's Lizzy Yarnold win the skeleton bob.

Then I managed to get home, despite the best efforts of South West Trains, in time to watch the last period, overtime, and shootout of the Russia-USA hockey game, which was the kind of brilliance that reminded me why I've loved hockey, which my dad played, for most of my life. A friend who was watching her first-ever game was texting me with questions (and score updates) on the train, and the sport picked up at least one more fan.

So for the next few days I'll post a few thoughts on the Winter Olympics,starting with an overview now....

THE WINTER OLYMPICS:

The ten Olympics I've covered include three winter games (Placid, Sarajevo, and Calgary). I also did hockey commentary on a fourth Olympics from a studio in Paris, as well as virtually all the sports at those University Games in Austria. I worked on the 1980s full spectrum of winter sports for ABC, everything from the downhill at Kitzbuehl to ice speedway to a Brian Boitano/Katarina Witt version of Ice Capades (ah, the stories I could tell...)

Before every Olympics the media's stories are always the same, especially because the huge press corps descending (or ascending, in the case of skiing) on the games is made up of people who aren't necessarily used to covering such events. Hence the usual pre-Olympic make-news stories, like accommodation (none for the public, substandard for the press), weather (too hot in summer, either too hot or too cold but never just right in winter), snow (too much/not enough/artificial), security (the increase in Sochi reminds me of the steps 'forward' in Sarajevo, and ties in nicely with the NSA/GCHQ trend of modern life) and of course transport (traffic nightmares that didn't happen in LA and Seoul, malfunctioning press buses most memorably in Placid and Atlanta) are intensified. That a giant bus system has teething problems its first day, especially in winter conditions, is never an excuse. Dick Young of the New York Daily News was so incensed by having to wait half an hour in frozen Lake Placid the day before the games opened he was still writing about it when the Miracle On Ice happened!

Winter sports have a limited universe, and winter games often took place in small ski resort areas used to providing skiers with a good time (cf Lillehammer). But when I covered Lake Placid, there were 35 medal events; in Sochi there are 98. This proliferation demands more facilities and more infrastructure, and insures more journalists venturing into territory like biathalon or luge for the very first time. There are sports like speed skating or bobsled where competitors in bondage costumes race against the clock, there are others where awards for best make-up, choreography, or costumes, if not congeniality, ought to be worth separate medals.

Sometimes, before a games, there is political coverage of the host nation--though it has to be said that historically the IOC has always welcomed what Jeanne Kirkpatrick would call 'authoritarian governments' to host games--allocation of resources is so much easier, specially when they're being allocated to various IOC dignitaries with their hands out and pockets open. Although Russia's repressive anti-gay laws have been a focus of coverage, though rarely with reference to figure skating, the actual presentation of Putinesque politics has been very lean, and in America they've been heavily tinged with Cold War overtones. Maybe they were trying to make the Russia-USA hockey match seem more interesting.

But the odd thing is how quickly that coverage disappears once the sport actually begins. Horrible hotels, bumbling buses, civil rights for gays, Chechen terrorists, all get buried under an avalanche of frenzy as each nation's athletes compete (or 'go for gold' as you are required to say in Britain), and everyone falls in love briefly with slope style, or in the case of Britain, skeleton, which, if Seoul Hockey Syndrome is any guideline, will now slide into BBC TV schedules for the next four years, until disappointment at the next winter games drives it out. After the usual stories about transport, weather, hotels and so on repeat themselves.

Friday, 14 February 2014

ROBERT B PARKER'S IRONHORSE BY ROBERT KNOTT

Ironhorse is the first of the continuations of Robert B Parker's Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch series of westerns, and as with the Jesse Stone novels, the Parker estate chose someone connected with the on-screen adaptations of the books to continue the series. Robert Knott is an actor who appeared with Ed Harris in Pollock, and co-wrote (with Harris) and co-produced the movie Appaloosa. Unlike TV producer Michael Brandman's version of Jesse Stone (see my review here), which reflects the Tom Selleck films as much as Parker's, Knott sticks much closer to the characters of Cole and Hitch. But he has a harder time than Brandman of matching both Parker's tone and his narrative drive. This is not to put down either of the screen adaptations, which work fine on their own terms. But it's no coincidence that the best of the post-Parker Parkers has been done by Ace Atkins, charged with continuing Spenser (see my review here), not just because he's a novelist, but because he brings no previous adaptation to the table.

Ironhorse begins on a train, with Cole and Hitch returning from transporting two Mexican conmen back to their own country. As they pass through the Indian Territory, the train is held up, by a well-organised gang who are unaware of what a deadly mistake they have made in their choice. After being driven back, they uncouple Cole & Hitch from both the engine and the rear carriages, making a temporary getaway. With them are the governor, and his two daughters, one of whom has already thrown up sparks with Hitch.

So far so good, but from this point the story complicates greatly, moving back down the line to a corrupt mining town with a cat house on every corner, then back up the line, with sidetracks for shooting various varmints as they appear or re-appear. The problem is not so much the prolix detail about trains and engines, or indeed about Virgil and his cigars---at times it feels like he's posing for a 19th century version of Esquire—but more Knott's inability to draw in these many characters with the same broad but telling strokes that characterise Parker. Although many of them appear fascinating—not just the villains but two women and an Indian working on the railroad, a seemingly corrupt sheriff, a particularly adept whore named Rose, and of course the governor's daughters, a pair that matches perfectly Col. Munro's offspring in Last Of The Mohicans.

Instead of giving the villains, or these characters, the space they need to interact, the story bogs down in the middle, as our heroes plan, and get everything explained to them when one of the villains turns out to carry his press-cuttings with him. When the confrontations come, all of them, with the exception of the ultimate, become matter of fact—whereas Parker's shootouts are generally tests of personality.

Knott is good with Cole and Hitch, but once they get into analysis of Cole's relationship with Allie, who may or may not have taken up with a deputy while Cole has been away on marshal's business, there's something a bit too sensitive: Parker's Cole is another of the antitheses to Spenser; he's much closer to Stone, but without the ability to express whatever self-awareness he might have in regard to the opposite sex. There is no reason behind his love for Allie, yet he accepts its reality and thus acts as if there were, which for him is natural in the basic sense of the word. I'm not sure Knott gets that, or can follow the precision of Parker's portraits. But if he could maintain the tone and focus of his first third, he could produce a more fitting adaptation.


Robert B Parker's Ironhorse by Robert Knott

Berkeley Books, $9.99, ISBN 9780425267707

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

MAX ALLAN COLLINS' TARGET LANCER

The blurb on the front cover, for once, says it all. 'November 1963, and they're going to kill JFK...in Chicago'

It's been thirty years since the first Nate Heller novel, but in an afterword Max Allan Collins says he'd always intended to have Heller 'delve into' the JFK assassination. But before he can deal with Dallas, Collins first realised that the abortive attempt on Kennedy, who was supposed to attend the Army-Air Force football game at Soldier Field in Chicago, gave a natural point of entry for Heller—whose long time connection to the mob was established in his early days as a PI in Chicago. As was his relationship to Jake Rubenstein (aka Jack Ruby).

Collins had set the scene neatly in some of the 13 earlier Heller novels, establishing his connections with the Kennedys, Jimmy Hoffa, and mobsters like Johnny Roselli—making Heller the perfect go-between for Operation Mongoose, the CIA/Mafia plot to kill Fidel Castro, which for better or worse is tied into the JFK killing. And in Target Lancer, Collins blends in real characters with fictional stand-ins and composites. The result is a very believable fictionalisation of a story told by a black Secret Service agent, Abraham Bolden, who spent years in jail as a result. If you've followed Irresistible Targets you'll know the Chicago plot was an important part of James Douglass' JFK: And The Unspeakable (see the review here), and it was one of Max's sources. The Chicago plot is instructive, and chilling, in that it was a virtual carbon-copy of the shooting in Dallas.

But he's turned it into a good story, full of confrontations that seem to ask repeatedly exactly on which side of the street Heller wants to stand. This has always been the most interesting part of his character, the ambiguity which Collins has built into him, which has enabled him to move in and out of so many key crimes in the past century. Many key beds as well, and Sally Rand, another of Nate's old Chicago friends, makes another welcome appearance here. It's a different kind of confrontation—but I really like the way this story moves through a series of scenes which speak of controlled violence, and then a couple of set pieces which bring real violence to the fore. This Heller would make an easy transition to the screen and I'd love to see that, not just because it appears Max and I are on the same page in terms of the JFK killing.

Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins
Forge $7.99 ISBN 9780765361479

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)