Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal

I remember September 20, 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets at the Houston Astrodome in the Battle of the Sexes.  I remember when Ms. magazine debuted and when Virginia Slims was a sponsor of the magazine and women’s tennis, when people debated about the merits of letting cigarettes bankroll feminism, but feminism needed the money. I recall when it was fashionable for men to call you “little lady” and drape their arms around your shoulders in casual conversation. I remember when tennis rackets were made of wood.

When Rackets Were Made of Wood

The movie, Battle of the Sexes, brings the story of the King/Riggs match to life.  The film gets the tennis right; the film gets a lot of things right. Wooden rackets weighed 25-30% more the aluminum ones, and the racket face was much smaller, which means players couldn’t hit the ball anywhere as hard. Tennis then was much more a game of strategy — ball placement, serve and volley, and the strategic use of the lob. The tennis match choreography shows this to great effect. To the modern viewers, the play may seem oddly lethargic, almost as if it was in slow-motion. That was the reason Riggs beat Margaret Court, known at the time as The Arm because her height advantage gave her more power and a longer reach. Riggs wasn’t faster; he played more strategically and was wilier about placing the ball. After all, if you can play wearing scuba flippers or wearing a hoop skirt, then your play is about wrist movement, not power.

The trailers for the movie and many of the reviews don’t mention Margaret Court, but she’s a core part of the film, which I appreciated. King would never have played Riggs if he hadn’t already beaten the #1 women’s tennis player. The movie even hints at Court’s rampant homophobia which has made recent headlines, a topic that would have not been included in any biopic of this subject made before the 1990s.  Emma Stone is a credible King, but Steve Carrell is a drop-dead perfect Riggs, a showman playing tennis in a dress or with a drink in his hand to win a bet, a game of slow but deceptively accurate shots. Continue reading “Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal”

Arthur Ashe: Sports & Social Justice Badass

Start where you are;
Use what you have;
Do what you can—
Arthur Ashe

Since it is Black History Month, I thought Arthur Ashe would be a fitting subject for a profile as he happens to be the author of my Favorite Inspirational Quote of All Time. I heard that yesterday was also National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and Monday was the anniversary of Ashe’s death from AIDS-related complications; it was a sign!  I remember him winning Wimbledon in 1975 in very dramatic fashion. I remember him speaking out about apartheid in South Africa. I remember him as one of the first to publically announce he had AIDS, and his passing in 1993.

Little did I know!

20170208-sicover
The dude was a charitable foundation, social justice, human rights badass. His life was full of challenges and struggles, but every time he ran into a personal issue – which he resolved – he would turn around and create an organization to raise awareness and help other people so they wouldn’t face the obstacles that he did.  First black tennis player to play in a tournament under apartheid? He created a tennis center for blacks to play in South Africa. Had quadruple bypass surgery? Became national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association for a year. Contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during surgery? Created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

And all before the age of 50. Honestly, as I read through his biography and the works on the AALS (Arthur Ashe Learning Center) arthurashe.org website, it seemed a little ridiculous. How could one person get all that done?  I remember Arthur Ashe when he was alive, and he displayed such dignity and class, that it’s impossible to imagine any of it was exaggerated. Plus, I remember him doing these things. Continue reading “Arthur Ashe: Sports & Social Justice Badass”

Medal Counts — Bogus and Real

I’m as big a supporter of national pride as anyone, but the constant blaring of Olympic Medal Counts reminds me of that phrase “ugly American.” Since we fielded the biggest team by about 20%, and devote massive resources to sports, the statistic seems pretty crass. Raw volume numbers under those conditions are rarely a reflection of anything beyond size. I wondered whether there might be more fair ways to address medal performance.

As of Tuesday, the U.S. had won 85 medals, 28 gold. But how about if we adjust for the number of athletes, population, or resources? Numbers people would want to know these things. Craig Nevill-Manning has created a lovely site, medalspercapita.com, which did much of this work for me.

Medals Per…
When you start looking on an adjusted basis, small countries—with a small denominator—pop up at the top. (Also, note that a weighted medal count, with points for medal type, is most useful). Grenada with its one medal, a silver by the amazing Kirani James, leads with that one medal in medals per capita, per team size, and per GDP. Kirani won the 400 in London and was heavily favored; in one of the great races of these games, Wayde van Niekierk of South Africa blazed ahead of him and former Beijing champion LaShawn Merritt in world-record time, the only medal ever won by a runner in the outside lane, unable to see anyone behind him the entire race. James’s silver medal puts Grenada “tops” in several medal counts, when adjusted for size. Continue reading “Medal Counts — Bogus and Real”

Olympic Performance & the Four Year Interval

“They’re designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years, they might develop their own emotional responses: hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail-safe device.” (Police chief)
“Which is what?” (Deckard)
“Four year life span.” (Police chief)
Blade Runner

Four years is a long time. In Blade Runner, it was the entire lifetime for Replicants. Four years is an entire high school experience. Think about the different person you became between freshman and senior years; between entering and exiting college. What about how different you felt physically four years ago? How about the differences between when you were 20 and 24? 28? 32? The difference in physical ability and experience can feel like nearly a lifetime, and the difference between when you were clueless and when you knew better can make you a different person.

That interval drives competitive tension in the Olympics, continuously pitting rookies against the veterans, the ones who have had to wait that four year lifetime to return. The phenoms may not yet have a target on their backs  and may not have the pressure of a Sports Illustrated cover to live up to or the hopes of a nation, but they also may not know how to handle the normal butterflies of competition on this biggest world stage. Rookie nerves play into the misjudgment and errors can occur in that closing killer minute when the veteran zooms past in the bike race, leans forward to touch the wall first, or feints right and goes left to score.

Continue reading “Olympic Performance & the Four Year Interval”

CITIUS-ALTIUS-FORTIUS: Musing on why the Olympics Matter

The world needs a moment. After a turbulent year of crises and tragedies and an expletivey summer of political carping, we’re all exhausted. We need some kittens and Corgies and rainbows and plenty of stories of humans helping each other, overcoming odds in order to triumph and – lookee here – we have some of that coming right up. Sixteen days of glory should be just what we need.

Citius…Altius…Fortius – Faster. Higher. Stronger.
–The Olympic motto

The Olympics were created by the Greeks @776 BC to honor their gods and celebrate the human spirit of striving and achievement. They took their Muses seriously and incorporated inspiration into their everyday actions. When the Games took place, a truce was called while athletes from throughout the known world came to compete. Gee, that sounds like a good idea! Over time, the religious purity of the events tarnished somewhat and after several hundred years, the corruption and professionalization of athletes overshadowed the games, and suppression of the old religions by new Christian monarchs ended the games in 394 AD. But a thousand year ride ain’t bad. Continue reading “CITIUS-ALTIUS-FORTIUS: Musing on why the Olympics Matter”