Another twist in the Russian doping saga. Extravagant, even wasteful, spending. Clumsy political maneuvering. These do not merely form the backdrop for the XXIII Winter Olympics, which get underway this week in PyeongChang, South Korea.
These storylines have become deeply interwoven into the fabric of the Olympic movement, more tarnished and more corrupt than ever before. Even before they have begun, the largest Winter Games ever have become fraught with all that’s negative about the Olympic movement.
This week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned 28 of 39 lifetime doping bans levied recently against Russian athletes, including some medal winners from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Revisiting Berlin, 1936; A German Jewish Soccer Luminary; The Super Bowl’s Sultan of Sod; The Search for Jackie Wallace; The Late, Great Inside Sports Magazine; Reading John L. Sullivan; Cricket’s Forgotten Hitman; Remembering Oscar Gamble
The ethically-challenged International Olympic Committee was aghast, as was much of the mainstream media, although a formal Russian team is still banned from competing in PyeongChang.
The furor has set off the usual hand-wringing from the usual official suspects, making one wonder whether anyone can feel guilt-free about watching these, or any other, Olympics from now on.
I wasn’t planning on tuning in, even though here in the U.S., NBC is finally showing most every event as it happens, and not just “plausibly live.”
Then I saw this news, about Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, the famous shirtless flag bearer from the Rio Games in 2016, qualifying for cross-country skiing in PyeongChang.
Cross-country skiing had become my unofficial favorite sport in Sochi, transfixed as I was on the austere appeal of the barren, open winter wilderness, ready to be tamed by the kings of the Nordic discipline.
Nordic skiing was part of the very first Winter Olympics, in Chamonix, France, in 1924. The Alpine events didn’t debut until Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, and wouldn’t truly become popular until the post-war Olympic boom of the 1960s.
Cross-country skiing isn’t a celebrity sport, except perhaps in Scandinavia and other pockets of northern Europe. Its courses aren’t thickly lined with spectators whooping and hollering (although there are some, and they’re just as hearty as the competitors).
It doesn’t lend itself to the easy melodrama of figure skating, or the death-defying drops of the downhill or ski jumping. They’re fun, full of rich narrative and swashbuckling characters.
Cross-country skiers are among the least celebrated athletes at the Olympics. As Sam Anderson writes spendidly in The New York Times magazine, they don’t really seem to care:
“Cross-country skiing is the least glamorous, least pyrotechnic, least watchable of the major Olympic sports. It is notoriously, almost inhumanly, exhausting—a brutally sustained non-thrill. Its longest races drag on for more than two hours. Even the sport’s greatest champions, over the course of an event, average speeds that would be legal in a school zone. In the racers’ slowest patches, struggling up terrible hills, school children could probably outrun them. Cross-country skiing is where the elegant majesty of winter sports goes to die an excruciatingly drawn-out death.”
“Because cross-country skiers are existential heroes in goggles and tights. Instead of offering us distraction—the glittery melodrama of figure skating or the quirky novelty of curling—cross-country skiers lean right into a bleak truth: We are stranded on a planet that is largely indifferent to us, a world that sets mountains in our path and drops ice balls from 50,000 feet and tortures our skin with hostile air. There is no escaping it; the only noble choice is to strap on a helmet and slog right in. Cross-country skiing expresses something deep about the human condition: the absolute, nonnegotiable necessity of the grind. The purity and sanctity of the goddamn slog.”
Let others hem and haw and hyperventilate about the doping and other quandaries that have perpetually been part of the Olympics. They won’t get any serious resolution now, even though many hoped the Russian bans would have been a significant step forward. For reasons explained below, they were not.
I want to watch these gluttons for punishment, not because I enjoy seeing others suffer (I don’t), but because I deeply admire their willingness to push themselves to the limit. To see what the boundaries of their endurance may be.
Forget about figure skating. Who cares if National Hockey League players won’t be competing? I couldn’t care less about snowboarding or moguls or whatever the cool, hip, TV-trendy events are that reel in young viewers.
Give me the grind, give me the honorable slog, and give me nothing else from PyeongChang.
I write this knowing that cross-country skiing has been tainted by the doping scandals. Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin, who won gold and silver medals in the 50-kilometer cross country race in Sochi, were among those who had their bans overturned by the CAS.
Because it’s a timed sport of endurance, cross-country skiing has never been “clean” anymore than the Tour de France. I don’t want to sound like I don’t care at all about doping, but it surprises me that there are those who are surprised that these athletes find means to stretch their endurance.
You can argue all you want about whether it’s ethical or moral, but there’s never been purity in the Olympics, and there never will be.
What is clear is that the hardline tactics of the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency aren’t the answer. WADA’s “guilty until proven innocent” approach came back to haunt it. Russia is an easy target for vilification, but as Andy Brown of the Sports Integrity Initiative predicted the day before the CAS ruling, the doping ban just wasn’t kosher.
Roger Pielke Jr., author of a 2016 book about sports governance and coruption, concurred in a Tweet right after the ruling:
“Lots of outrage at the CAS today. Outrage is misplaced. Due process matters. The failures here lies squarely with IOC & WADA who have botched this from the start.”
He’s written elsewhere that “the soul of sport” is on the line, but he’s also a stickler for waging this battle in an honorable and fair way. The expediency of the Russian doping bans could stall those reform efforts.
But I refuse to feel guilty if those formerly banned cross-country skiers excel in PyeongChang. There are so many others to root for, such as Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, the three-time Olympic champion who’s looking for more.
He’s also generated plenty of goodwill for his gesture in Sochi, when, after winning the gold in the 15-kilometer race, he waited at the finish line to greet the last competitor to cross.
“Super Dario” is the closest thing cross-country skiing has to a globally celebrated figure. But like many in his sport, he’s content to commit himself to the grind.
Sports Book News & Reviews
- To be published this week: “Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August,” by German author and historian Oliver Hilmes (Other Press), retraces each day of that memorable, infamous Olympiad in kaleidoscopic form, via eyewitness views from those who were there, and against a foreboding historical backdrop. Reviews from Kirkus, Netgalley, Die Buchblogerrin, Booklist Online and Meta Historia;
- At ESPNCricinfo, Alan Gardner assesses Steve Neal’s “Over and Out,” a biography of Albert Trott, the Test cricketer for both Australia and England who famously cleared the Lord’s Cricket Ground pavilion in 1899 and whose life ended in tragedy. The book is the winner of 2017 Cricket Writers Club Book of the Year;
- Recently published: “The Day Two Teams Died,” a remembrance of the eight journalists who died in the 1958 Munich air crash that killed several members of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” team;
- Coming soon: “It’s Fantastic: How Marvin, Stern and Air Jordan Revolutionized the NBA,” by Pete Croatto (Atria), which looks at the formative years from 1976-89. Croatto says he got help from Shawn Fury, author of “Rise and Fire,” to shape his proposal.
A Few Good Reads
- Alex Belth calls his epic oral history of Inside Sports magazine for The Sunday Long Read “a labor of love,” and it shows. The original cast of that rambunctious periodical stayed together for only about three years, from 1979-82. Give yourself time to savor this: interviews galore with editor John Walsh (of later ESPN fame), managing editor Peter Bonventre, Roy Blount Jr., Gary Smith, Tom Shales, Diane Shah, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell, Pete Dexter, John Schulian, and Pat Jordan, author of the unforgettable “Trouble in Paradise” story about Cyndy Garvey, who eventually left her All-Star husband for Marvin Hamlisch;
- George Toma turned 89 Friday, and spent it in Minneapolis as the groundskeeper for the Super Bowl, something he’s done since the very first game 52 years ago. His well-wishers over the years have included halftime entertainers, above all Lady Gaga: “In this materialistic world today, she didn’t lose the common touch;”
- Writer, novelist, publisher and bookseller Kevin Sampsell, an NFL Cardinals fan since their days in St. Louis, agonizes over never having known the joy of rooting for a Super Bowl champion;
- Not long after his NFL career was over, Jackie Wallace fell into a “vortex of darkness” of drug and alcohol addiction that rendered him homeless and prompted several disappearances. Ted Jackson, now a retired photographer for the New Orleans Time-Picayune, lost and found Wallace many times over the last three decades in chronicling his story but hasn’t seen Wallace in more than a year. He’s asking for help to locate him once again;
- On the eve of the Super Bowl, the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction class was announced, and it includes Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and finally, finally, finally, Jerry Kramer;
- Two from Bob Smietana of The Washington Post on faith and the Super Bowl: the true believers inside the Philadelphia Eagles locker room; and the aura of spirituality around New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He’s the co-producer of a documentary series, “The Religion of Sports,” by Gotham Chopra, son of New Age figure Deepak Chopra. He’s also doing a shorter series appearing on Facebook called “Tom vs. Time.” Longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan tells Smietana he’s not buying Brady as a spiritual figure: “He’s trying to sell us a bill of goods. The book, to me, is creepy. And it looks like that’s going to be his life after football;”
- In Springfield, Ky., a museum dedicated to Super Bowl champion Phil Simms sits not far from the farm where he was born. Located inside the town Opera House, the museum is part of an effort to revive the tiny town’s downtown core;
- At the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Baxter remembers Kurt Landauer, who built and then saved Bayern Munich after the Holocaust, following his escape from Dachau and exile in Switzerland for the duration of World War II;
- Chief Wahoo is being retired as the Cleveland Indians uniform logo after this season, but will continue to appear on licensed merchandise, as the Indians hold six trademark registrations. This doesn’t make sense, nor does keeping the team nickname. New Hall of Fame inductee Jim Thome has said when he’s enshrined in Cooperstown next summer, he wants his plaque to bear the block capital “C” currently on the team’s caps;
- Paul Beston has put together a bibliography of John L. Sullivan books he referenced during his research for “The Boxing Kings,” published last fall;
- As the Australian Open was winding down last week, there was some (off-court) grunting about “modernized” rule changes that have old-school fans unhappy;
- Dave Parker continues to be a notable omission from the Baseball Hall of Fame, but as Branson Wright writes at The Undefeated, his more pressing battle these days is against Parkinson’s Disease;
- At age 45, Jaromir Jagr’s NHL career is over. The third-leading goal-scorer in league history (766) and second all-time in points to Wayne Gretzky cleared waivers and the Calgary Flames assigned his contract to his hometown team in the Czech Republic. At the Toronto Star, Bruce Arthur ruminates on a player who never wanted to see this day come to pass, but was grateful for every moment he spent on the ice.
Now Hear This
- NBC Sports and Vox Media have launched a Winter Olympics podcast, The Podium, that will be recorded daily starting Thursday, and already has a few introductory episodes to get you warmed up;
- USFL historian Paul Reeths is the latest guest at Good Seats Still Available;
- A new episode of New Books in Sports is out. Bob D’Angelo talks to Sridhar Pappu, author of “The Year of the Pitcher.” It’s one of Sports Biblio’s notable sports books of 2017;
- At the history podcast The Fast Lane, this week’s guest is Lou Moore, author of “We Will Win the Day,” his history of black athletes in the Civil Rights Age, and in observance of Black History Month.
Lost amid his attention-getting hair, Oscar Gamble, 68, hit 200 home runs in a 17-year major league baseball career, and was a popular figure with the fan bases of all seven clubs for whom he played. That included the New York Yankees, where he spent seven seasons, and the Chicago White Sox, for whom he hit a career-high 31 homers in 1977.
At the Chicago Sun-Times, Rick Morrissey remembers the hair, and how Gamble was discovered by former Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil. Gamble died Wednesday in a hospital in Birmingham, Ala., after being treated for a tumor on his jaw. He was diagnosed with ameloblastic carcinoma in 2016.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 113, published Feb. 4, 2018 The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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