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Archives for Sports

The Games, The Smog, The Promises


I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped on a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece.
- Richard Eberhart, The Groundhog

Now that the Olympic games have begun, it is time to compare promise with performance.

China’s first attempt in recent memory to host the Olympic summer games was in 1993. At that time its efforts to be selected were Herculean.

The visit by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to evaluate Beijing’s bid took place in March 1993 when smog hangs heavily over the city. The authorities knew that if the committee got wind of the smog it would never select Beijing as a site for the summer games. To reduce coal smoke in the atmosphere the government cut off all heat to large areas of Beijing. Taxi drivers and peddlers with cars were advised to take a vacation so that the IOC members would not be slowed by traffic or offended by seeing people munching on food purchased from street vendors. Three hundred thirty thousand school children were enlisted to clean traffic signs. All buses and 30,000 taxicabs were required to post window-stickers supporting the city’s Olympic bid. The government reduced its surveillance of foreign reporters.

That was not all. It modeled itself after the state of Utah which two years earlier had lost out to Nagano, Japan for the 1998 winter games, Saddened by its loss to Nagano, but determined to do better when bidding for the 2002 games, Utah began wooing African IOC members by offering them and members of their families tuition and athletic training assistance in what some perceived as an attempt to get their votes when the venue for the 2002 games was determined. The effort was enhanced when 5 years later the Salt Lake City bidding committee paid some individuals $500,000 in scholarships, 6 of the recipients being relatives of IOC members. Recognizing what a good idea Utah had struck, the Chinese followed suit. They presented the IOC committee with a pair of cloisonné vases estimated to have a value of about $40,000. In addition, they gave the new Olympic museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, a terra cotta soldier from Xian for which China had earlier reportedly declined a $100 million offer.

China’s bid for the games did not succeed in 1993, but the IOC has a long memory and that may explain in part why Beijing is hosting the 2008 games.

When Beijing was awarded the games some, but not all, thought it would enhance human rights in China. In an interview with Ray Suarez on PBS’s News Hour shortly after the games were awarded, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, was asked whether awarding the games would affect China’s human rights policy. She said there was no evidence to support that. She was right. Smog, traffic and press freedom have fared no better than human rights.

Two weeks before the games were to start, Liu Shaokun was sentenced to serve a year of “re-education through labor” because he posted pictures on the web of schools that had collapsed during the recent earthquake. He was charged with “disseminating rumours and destroying social order.” Ye Guozhu was convicted in 2004 of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for trying to organize a group against forced evictions without just compensation in order to make way for construction in preparation for the games. His sentence served, his release was delayed until after the Olymics thus preventing him from being interviewed by visiting reporters.

Smog covered the Beijing during much of July and early August. In 2007 authorities said driving restrictions would not be needed to solve the pollution and congestion problems. July 21 marked the first workday in which car restrictions were imposed on Beijing’s residents.

The press, like driving, were restricted, contrary to earlier assurances that all would be able to operate freely. In 2001, Wang Wei, Secretary General of the Beijing Olympic Games Committee, told the IOC that the international press would have “complete freedom to report when they come to China.” Echoing those comments last month, Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president and, er, Cheer Leader-In-Chief told Agence France-Presse: “For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China.”

But on July 31 it was reported that the IOC had failed to insist on unfettered press access to the Internet. On August 2 Kevan Gosper, press commission chief of the IOC said somewhat enigmatically: “We believe we are moving to a point where you will be moving toward a point where you can report in an unfettered way.”

The games have begun, the smog’s in the heavens, the cars clog the roads, activists and the Internet are imprisoned. But in the eyes of the IOC all’s right with the world. As Mr. Rogge said on August 2: “Come the 9th of August the magic of the games and the flawless organization will take over.”

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Racing and Doping


I bet my money on a bobtailed nag,
Somebody bet on the gray.
— Stephen Foster, The Camptown Races

Bicycle racing and NASCAR have more in common than the fact that both depend on the wheel for their success. Both are infected by the doping bug. Everyone knows that the sport that some might consider a touch effete has had a long history of doping. Learning that it also infected NASCAR came as something of a surprise.

Descriptions of bicycle races are almost always accompanied by news of the drug tests that accompany them. On February 17, 2007, for example, a New York Times description of the Tour of California explained that the tour’s sponsors had been proud of the fact that none of the riders in the 2006 event had tested positive for banned substances. To the sponsors’ embarrassment, however, it turned out none of the riders had been tested for Erithropoietin (EPO), which gives the body extra oxygen-carrying capacity, an oversight that was corrected in 2007.

For the 2006 Tour de France, two of the top favorites were not permitted to race because of allegations they’d been involved in a Spanish doping ring. Their removal before the race proved to be nothing more than a preview of the main event that was the announcement of the results of Floyd Landis’s urine tests.

Mr. Landis had made one of the most spectacular recoveries in the history of the sport. At the conclusion of the final climb of the 16th stage of the 20-stage race, Mr. Landis was 8 minutes behind the leader, a deficit considered to be insurmountable. It was not. The next day he made a brilliant recovery that was described as one of the greatest performances in the history of the event. That recovery, combined with additional time made up in the final time trial enabled him to ride into Paris the winner of the 2006 Tour de France. Then a bad thing happened.

Mr. Landis’s urine sample produced an “adverse analytical finding.” Instead of a normal ratio of 4-to-1 of testerone to epitestosterone, his ratio was 11-to-1. Two reports suggested the testosterone did not come from natural sources. A hearing on May 14 before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency will determine whether or not he is guilty of doping.

The news of Valentine’s Day was that bicycle racing is not the only form of racing involving the wheel that is plagued by doping. So is one of George Bush’s favorite sports, NASCAR racing. (Pictures on the White House webpage show a beaming president standing in the middle of the 2005 Nextel Cup Champion team and their car taken on Jan. 24, 2006. Another picture on the same site taken February 5, 2007, shows Mr. Bush in the Oval Office with the 2006 Nextel Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson.)

On February 14 it was disclosed that doping had become part of the NASCAR scene. The car doing the doping was a Toyota making its NASCAR debut. It was driven by Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. Cars, of course, are different from humans and have different parts from humans. Nonetheless, probing their insides can produce the same kinds of surprising results obtained from urine samples taken from humans. In this case the incriminating sample came from a car’s manifold.

In a pre-race inspection a NASCAR official reached his hand into the Toyota manifold, the part of the engine that supplies the fuel/air mix to the cylinders. He was looking for loose parts. Instead he encountered an illegal substance he said he had never before encountered. The substance, it turned out, was similar to but not the same as, EPO. It was a jet-fuel like substance described as an oxygenate that would boost the octane in the fuel and make the engine run better at higher horsepower.

Mr. Landis and Mr. Waltrip reacted similarly to news of the presence of banned substances in their respective machines. Mr. Landis insisted his testosterone was his own and not an additive. Mr. Waltrip acknowledged it was an additive but has no idea how it got into the manifold.

When illegal substances are found in bike racers they are banned from the race or stripped of the title, as appropriate. NASCAR did not ban Mr. Waltrip from the race but kicked Mr. Waltrip’s crew chief and team director out of the race for cheating and suspended them indefinitely from future NASCAR events. The crew chief was also fined $100,000. Commenting on the episode Mr. Waltrip said, “This was an independent act done without consent or authorization from me or any of my executive management team.” He was, of course excluding his crew chief from that description.

There is a heartwarming side to this tale. Even though geographically and politically NASCAR fans and bicycle racing fans are far apart, doping serves to bring us all closer together.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 3:03 AM | Permalink

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