Why Not Bread and Circuses?

Baseball is back, and it’s already making headlines. Basketball is in the Bubble and the Wubble, about to (re)start exhibition play. Soccer’s been on for a while, although on a pay channel, which is either a missed opportunity or where it belongs, depending on how much you like soccer.

It’s Spectacular!

Alyssa Nakken, MLB’s first female assistant coach made an appearance on Monday. Photo by SJ Mercury News.

That’s Spectacular from the Latin word “speculum” meaning something to watch, especially something lavish, eye-raising, or amazing. It can be used negatively, as in “making a spectacle of yourself” or as in trying to divert attention. Right now, we need some diversion, without a summer blockbuster movie or new singing competitions. We’ve always had spectacle, even though the spectacles of yesteryear were different. Verdi’s massive opera Aida, premiered in Cairo in 1871 with hundreds of extras; sometimes it’s even been staged with elephants. I wouldn’t mind seeing some elephants right now, would you?

The Provocative Question of the week is: Have you missed professional and/or college sports since the seasons were either cancelled or suspended in March? How do you feel about the timing of the return of sports, especially given the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, at least in the United States?

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Not Playing Ball

Sports Fan, the Word of the Day is avarice. That seems to cover it well at least for fans, network executives, owners, and players. Some owners and some players anyway, as how professional sports purveyors are planning to address opening of their sport in our Covid-soaked world varies dramatically by sport. If, like me, you are desperately greedy to watch some games besides a 13-2 baseball donnybrook from 2015 or the Doritos Cornhole Championships, then let me give you a rundown of plans for some of the national sports leagues. How those leagues differ in approach reveals a lot about their industry.

A new revenue stream for sports franchises! Photo from NBAStore.com. Made in China.

Let’s also agree that we don’t want anyone playing who might risk getting Covid-19. I’m not in the camp that thinks we can achieve herd immunity by letting the disease burns its way through or that only weenies wear masks. Any of these players and leagues could decide as they move forward–as they did on March 12th–that it’s too dangerous to risk the health of players, coaches, and surrounding support workers. We don’t yet know if any sport is safe enough. What is true is that this disease won’t discriminate between a linebacker and a knuckleball set-up pitcher.

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Z is for Zagunis

Punk rockers. Primal screamers. Saber fencers are the cool cats of the Olympics, carrying themselves with deadly grace but ready to strike to the death at the first Engarde!

America’s greatest fencer is a good Catholic girl until she puts on the mask. Then, she is All Ninja.

Mariel Zagunis qualifying for Tokyo, one last Olympics. Photo at Oregon Tribune.

Like ninjas, no one knows she’s even there. If you query who is the greatest American fencer, her name doesn’t even come up, until Touché! And, since ninjas never lose their skill and training, Mariel Zagunis, the one you don’t see until it is too late haha!, is going to Tokyo once more.

Maybe They Should Dress Like Luke Skywalker

Fencing is such a cool sport to watch that it’s hard to understand why Americans don’t follow it. Especially when we do follow it in movies, right? We love a good swordfight. Robin Hood, Zorro, Conan, D’Artagnan, the Man in Black! My name is Inigo Montoyaprepare to die. If you give kids a pair of sticks, the first thing they do is start poking each other.

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Y is for Yoshida

As Saori Yoshida, thirteen-time world champion and triple gold medalist in women’s wrestling, walks towards the microphones to announce to the press that she is retiring, her shadow looms large. Larger than she is, the shadow seems a perfect metaphor, a thing that will always tower over her, no matter what she achieves.

January 2019, Saori Yoshida announces her retirement. Photo by Toshiki Miyama.

Yoshida was the face of women’s wrestling—Japanese wrestling, Japanese SPORT—a bona fide celebrity in every possible way. Daughter of a national champion who startled wrestling at age three. A national Japanese hero who, in Brazil on August 2016, was expected to tie the existing Olympic record of four consecutive gold medals for the same event. A drone winning-machine who could be relied on to add to the Japanese medal tally. A national disgrace when she was upset in the finals by the unheralded Helen Maroulis of Rockville, Maryland.

With 40 seconds left, Yoshida dives in like an eel in a way that she has not, all day long… but Maroulis dances to the side…They are waltzing in a weird kind of circle. Until the buzzer sounds. Time seems to stand still; there is a pause, a silence across the arena… Maroulis sinks on her knees and clasps her hands together one last time in prayer, in benediction, in emotion, in whatever her body can think of to do…

From my story, “Rulon with Cornrows” about the Yoshida-Maroulis match.

Yoshida hadn’t lost a match in four years. The last time the two had met, Maroulis ended with a broken arm.

The buzzer sounds, Rio 206. Photo by Mark Reis of the Colorado Gazette.

What’s it like to stop being a legend? When the failure to win, when your achievement of a silver medal isn’t even mentioned in your achievements? You’re not a four-time medalist, but a three-time winner who lost. Your story is no longer your record of being undefeated for 119 matches; your story is how you were beaten.

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X is for X Games

Sky Brown will be 13 in 2021, not the youngest ever, but still hoping to qualify for Skateboarding at Tokyo 2020. Photo from the aptly-named SkyNews.

This post is not alphabetically cheating. X Games starts with an “X.” It does stand for the word “Extreme,” but it also refers to Generation X, the athletes who came of age during the 1990s. Those whippersnappers gravitated towards sports that involved new devices, like motorcycles, skateboards, and snowboards. At the time, cable sports channels were expanding, with networks like ESPN desperate for more things to cover. An annual festival with athletes performing circus-like tricks seemed a natural. With some of the sports coming into Tokyo, it seems like a perfect time for a preview.

X Games sports has already made serious inroads into the Winter Olympics. Snowboarding was introduced in 1998, and, by now, multi gold-medalist Shaun White is already 33 and retired. It took longer for summer X sports to trickle into the Olympics, although BMX will be entering its fourth Olympics in Tokyo. There’s already been a two-time BMX champion dethroned, Maris Strombergs of Latvia. Would it surprise you that Latvians and Estonians are nuts about a sport created in southern California? If you’ve read my posts or are an Olympic fan, it would not.

Extreme sports have captured the fancy of athletes worldwide. Even if many come out of American backyards by American kids using American products shown on American TV, the youth of the world has taken notice. BMX riders from the Netherlands and Colombia are world-class. The best surfers may be from Brazil. Sky Brown, the skateboarder who would have gotten in the record books, is from Great Britain, and Lizzie Armanto will skate for Finland. So, while some have suggested that these sports are going Olympic because they bring in lucrative TV revenue, the truth is that they have worldwide popularity and international talent.

That’s not to say that the IOC isn’t a committee full of greedy old men looking for broadcasting dollars–they are. But Olympic sports are added and eliminated by a formula more complicated than how much the IOC gets paid under the table (which it does). Not only does today’s “X” stand for Extreme, it also stands for Excluded Sports. Because to understand what’s Included, you need to understand what’s Excluded, and how that has created an ongoing raging debate.

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