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William Bradley

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London's Grand Olympics, On and Off the Track

Posted: 08/13/2012 1:25 pm

What a fantastic Olympics we've just had. I miss the Games already.

The spectacle was grand, but what I hope really last are the spirits of internationalism and participation in sport. Both in pursuit of excellence and in pursuit of overall, lifelong fitness, something which is now sorely lacking in the U.S.

London put on a grand show, Mitt Romney's stunningly boorish and buffoonish comments on Olympics eve notwithstanding, which made this Englishman a few centuries removed quite happy. This was the third Olympics that London has hosted, more than any other city -- Los Angeles, with two Olympics under its belt, has hosted the most for an American city -- and it showed again why it is such an enduringly international and cosmopolitan city.

The opening ceremony was wonderful. Conceived and coordinated by Britain's Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) I watched much of it in real time and loved it. Entitled "The Isles of Wonder," the ceremony was quintessentially British, humorous, quirky, provocative, and magnificent by turns -- a skydiving Queen and James Bond?! -- a fabulous reminder to the world of just how much of global culture has come from the sceptred isle.

Reviews were generally outstanding, and the show won a record audience in the U.S., eclipsing that of the somewhat overbearing but nonetheless spectacular show from Beijing -- geared to announcing the emergence of a rather regimented superpower -- four years ago.

Only Olympics staged in America have ever won a bigger audience for an Olympics opening ceremony, and those not by much. And not at all in absolute terms, as the audience is larger now.

London's closing ceremony was a celebration of British music, a reminder of how essential its presence has been in the global soundtrack for many decades now.

There are so many great stories in sport. For me, they stand out especially at a time in which politics is marked by endless repetitiveness, frequently of misinformation/disinformation, usually stuck in the shallows, set to a soundtrack of hyena shrieks.

In the Olympics we have internationalism with political posturing on a much lower setting, the promise of a cosmopolitan present and future without the divisiveness of the United Nations but with the excitement of diversity and competition.


The spectacular Olympic Games of London closed out with big closing ceremony parties celebrating the global influence of British music and culture. Next up for 2016: Rio. A town which knows about parties.

There are the many great sports, especially soccer (football to the rest of the world), basketball, swimming, gymnastics, and, of course, my favorite, track and field (known as athletics in most of the world, a tell as to its centrality).

If there are some sports that perhaps don't belong in the Olympics, well... Really, badminton is an Olympic sport?! I hadn't realized till the cheating scandal, which I never focused on.

And some questionable calls, including in the martial arts. Judo, yes, an obvious choice. But taekwondo instead of karate? It's a great success of South Korean national marketing, and of what has become an elaborate sort of day care for many Americans, replete with 8-year old "black belts" learning showy Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style kicks that would almost certainly lead to disaster in a real fight.

And there is cheating and some drug-taking and various other messy facts of human life, including some misplaced ultra-nationalism. Yes, I'm happy that Team USA did very well, winning the medals competition against China, which has really amped up its sports efforts in its bid for global superpower status. And I'm nearly as happy that host Britain did so well, edging Russia for third place in the medal standings, not that I was unhappy for the Russians, either. The truth is that I'm happy to root for Americans, Brits, Jamaicans, and pretty much any athlete who shows spirit and excellence.

It was all a grand festival of international sport, but my focus was on track. Which has slipped in the U.S., even though this team did extremely well. Like soccer, it's big around the world, but not so big here, though it was once very big, which soccer never has been. (Yet.) The 2013 World Championships in track are in Moscow, followed by Beijing, then back to London's just cleared Olympic Stadium in 2017. These are not small venues on the global stage. But in America, at least outside Eugene, Oregon, track is not so hot.

Swimming has become bigger, at least in the eyes of NBC, which won no particular plaudits for its rather plodding coverage. There was Michael Phelps to anoint anew, though some of the media started off calling him a loser when he lost his first race -- gotta love our instant analysis and get it wrong media culture! -- only to recoup in grand fashion with a record career total of 22 Olympic medals. And of course, there is basketball.

I think track (or athletics, as most of the world calls it) is a better sport all around, for many reasons.

Let's face it, you won't be an NBA superstar, and most are automatically far too short to even try, whereas in track, excellence comes in many physical packages. Of course, you also won't be the astounding Usain Bolt, now the Muhammad Ali of world athletics, or British long distance star Mo Farah or smooth Californian sprinter Allyson Felix Oregon decathlon ace Ashton Eaton, or Britain's all-rounder Jessica Ennis, or likely even a member of an Olympic team.

Which is not to say that there are not many rewards. But there is a big difference between, say, an honorable mention All-American and an Olympian.

The real rewards come in the zest of sprinting, running, hurdling, jumping, and throwing. All of which can lead to lifelong fitness as well as more immediate rewards, and little of which is likely to cause health problems down the road.

There are no fads, or apps, required on this sort of fitness, which is of the eat less, exercise more school of reality. And the core skills -- speed, stamina, strength, agility -- can be applied in other sports.

It's an excellent basic sport which has very low barriers to entry, especially in terms of cost.

For me, in an Olympics which could easily generate a book with its panoply of color and drama, the best stories were around the track. And while there are many great stories around the track, for me the relays carried the most drama, especially given some dramatic past screw-ups by the American men's and women's teams. There are lots of ways to get the relays right, and of course the best ways are usually the simplest. Even the most mediocre runners, with proper coaching, can show real improvement and cut down on the mistakes, and these folks are arguably the best in the world.


Usain Bolt powered Jamaica to a world-record time of 36.84 seconds in the men's 4x100-meter relay, making him 3 for 3 for gold medals in the second straight Olympics, and the only man ever to win the 100 and 200 twice. The U.S., ending a string of baton pass disasters in Olympic and World championship competition, was second, running what would have been a world record of 37.04. The U.S. women shattered the world record in their 4x100 relay race by nearly six tenths of a second with a smooth 40.82, easily beating the silver medalists from Jamaica, a global athletics powerhouse on the 50th anniversary of its independence from the late British Empire.

Given his gutty relay performance, I was thrilled to see Bryshon Nellum, a fellow Californian from USC, carry the American flag in the Olympic Closing Ceremony on Sunday. He was shotgunned by drive-by gang bangers in both legs in 2008 after being a world class sprinter in high school in LA and moving on to SC. Doctors told him he'd never be competitive again, but he had surgery after surgery and came back and came back, finally winning the Pacific 12 Conference 400 meter dash title this past spring and then making the Olympics in the 400 and the 4x400 relay.

He nearly made the Olympic final in the 400, missing by .03 seconds and ending up 9th, then ran a strong lead-off leg in the 4x400 relay running against a former world champ from Bahamas, giving the U.S. team an edge.

In the end, after earlier losing half the guys in the relay pool to injury, including Manteo Mitchell who broke his leg running in the semis, but got the baton around the track to help the team make the final, the U.S. barely lost to the Bahamas with veteran hurdler Angelo Taylor, pressed into action, giving up the lead finally giving up the lead not far from the finish line. Great run by the Bahamians, who set their own national record.

So Nellum gets a silver medal and so does his USC teammate Josh Mance, who just finished his sophomore year at SC and ran the second leg in the 4x400 relay.

There were dominating performances by the U.S. women, who shattered the world record in the 4x100 relay by nearly six tenths of a second, crushing the Jamaicans who broke their own national record. Allyson Felix, another USC alum, who won the gold in the 200 meter dash, starred on that team, and then ran the fastest leg on the 4x400 relay team, which beat Russia by over 3 seconds, an enormous margin in this kind of race.

And the U.S. men's 4x100 relay team came through, too, after baton pass failures in the last three global championships. The team ran with its two reserves and broke the American record in the semifinals. On Saturday, they ran with all four regulars and ran a world record time ... and lost to Jamaica, which ran two tenths of a second faster.

A really great race, with Jamaica going sub-37 (in my day, the world record was 38.2) for the first time at 36.84 and the U.S. at 37.04, which was Jamaica's old world record from last year at the World championships. Before yesterday, the American record was 37.40, set 20 years ago.

So they didn't screw up like they've done so often lately, and every team ran very well, with the men's 4x400 having to overcome a lot of adversity.

I've watched the men's 4x100 race 15 times now. (Gotta love the new tech.) They only made one mistake, and it wasn't a big one. Our third leg Tyson Gay started off a little late in the fly zone, so when Justin Gatlin, bronze in the 100, opened up a sizable lead on the Jamaicans, he ran up on Tyson, probably costing a tenth of a second. Meanwhile, Yohan Blake jumped on it, getting the stick in full stride and ate our guy up around the curve.

Still, we were a hair ahead at the final hand-off. But you can't be a hair ahead going into the final leg when the opposition anchor is Usain Bolt. Game over.

That guy is the Muhammad Ali of track, great for the sport.

I wish more kids would take up track. Hardly any of them will be great, but they'll be a lot fitter in their lives, it doesn't cost much to do, and they sure as heck aren't going to be NBA stars. And getting everybody running again will be good for the U.S. when it at last embraces what the rest of the world calls football.

I love American football, but I fear that, despite its huge present, its future is going to fade. Which is another story entirely.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.


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