The Sports Philosopher: What We Can Learn from the Winter Olympics

March 1, 2010
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By Brad Eastland

I got a very interesting email the other day about the Winter Olympics from one James R. Owen, currently of Arlington, Virginia and—as am I—formerly of Washington County, Iowa.   Jimmy is both a lifelong friend and a loyal LaVerne OnLine devotee.   He works in media relations these days, but many years ago he was a newsman himself, a reporter, a member in good standing of the Fourth Estate; but alas his career in journalism tragically ended.   It ended right around the time I revealed to him that—in general—a couple days after anything a reporter writes it becomes, by definition, irrelevant and fleeting.   Old news.   Fishwrap.   Soon after, Jimmy put down his blue pencil and quit the journalism game for good.

      (Incidentally, when I say journalism is fishwrap, naturally I’m not referring to myself.   I mean Good Lord, of course I wasn’t referring to anything potentially lasting or genuinely transcendent penned by your friendly neighborhood Sports Philosopher!   I’m perfectly aware that all journalism isn’t fishwrap.   Just journalism written by, you know, other people.   Just to be clear.)

      Anyway, friend Jimmy’s email centered around a column he’d read recently by a guy called David Plotz, detailing why the United States should boycott the Winter Olympics.   The original article was written over eight years ago, on the eve of the 2002 Winter Games, but was reprinted, apparently, in the hope that said boycott (which friend Jimmy indicated he himself would cheerfully support) might finally be realized eight years later, i.e. this year, at the recently completed 2010 Vancouver Games.   (Can you say O’ No, Canada?).   I guess you could say that my oldest friend holds a decidedly non-fishwrap view of Mr. Plotz’ talents.  

      Mr. Plotz’s various arguments were, 1) that the Winter Olympics were “an embarrassment to sports”, 2) that most winter sports fell somewhere between incomprehensible and boring, 3) that the incomprehensible “sport” of Curling falls somewhere between bad shuffleboard and compulsively anal housekeeping, 4) that it is bad television, 5) that events such as downhill skiing, luge, and bobsled are not so much “sports” as they are “gravity” (okay, that one’s pretty funny), 6) nobody watches, and 7) the United States, historically, is just no damn good at these boring, incomprehensible, gravity-based bursts of snowy falderal so why embarrass the whole country by showing up.   Wow.

      I responded to Jimmy’s email affirming that I, too, wasn’t that big of a fan of the Winter Olympics, that I am more of a traditional football/baseball/basketball kinda guy, and that Mr. Plotz’ literary style was, admittedly, as humorous as his last name.   At least in a fleeting, fishwrappy way.

      But then, as time oozed by, I began to apply the whetstone of what my late mother (an admittedly biased old gal) once termed my fine mind against the grindstone of the problem.   The problem being that the Plotzman’s words were suddenly not hitting me quite right.

      Because they are no longer true.   (Except the Curling thing, of course.)

      The 2010 Winter Olympics were a rousing success.   People watched.   The TV ratings figures confirm this.   Also, by way of further proof, people kept calling me about it all during the first week, my brother, my sister, my girlfriend, my 13-year-old son, etc., “Are you watching the Olympics?  Are you watching the Olympics?”   It became tiresome.   So I started watching.

      What I saw startled me.   For one thing, the United States was far from no damn good at winter sports!   We actually won the medals race.   By a mile.   It was the first time since 1932 that the U.S. has topped the medals standings, the only other time we’d ever done it.   We also broke the record for most medals ever won at a Winter Olympics by any country.   Gadzooks!   We are the suddenly kings of the tundra!

      Secondly, there were transcendent performances.   South Korean figure skater Kim Whatever-the- heck-her-name-is notched the highest score in that event ever.   There was also that Canadian skater who courageously participated—and medaled—right after her mom died.   What about that Netherlands bobsledder who got so scared he pulled out of the competition before he ever even climbed into that particular death tube?  (Bobsledding might be “gravity”, Plotzie, but any sport that is so scary that one of the best at it in the whole world up and quits out of flat-out, stomach-souring, Hershey-squirts-inducing fear is, I don’t know, something; at least something worthy of a shout-out from the Sports Philosopher.).   There was one 18-mile cross-country ski race that ended in a photo finish, and the Polish girl wound up winning over the Japanese girl by two feet!   After 18 miles!   Long live Poland!   Americans Lindsay Vonn (skier) and Apolo Ohno (short-track speed skater) became instant heroes.   And then there is the redoubtable Shaun White.

      This is where the Winter Olympics has done the rarest thing a sport can do.   Improve.   Evolve.   It’s the newer sports that did it.   Snowboarding is fairly new, is evolving daily, and it comes straight from the street, a la skateboarding, something the kids can relate to.   My own kid, an ex-skateboarder, can easily relate to Shaun White and his shaggy hair and goofy grin.   White won the “halfpipe” gold medal again, just like he did four years ago.   What he does in the air is breathtaking, not boring, not incomprehensible, and not gravity.   In fact, what he does is the very definition of defying gravity.   Did you see him?   I bet you did.  

      And that’s the point.

      The other new event, even newer than snowboarding and halfpipe and all that stuff, is the “ski cross”.   What a great idea!   Skiers racing against each other!   Motocross on skis!   I found it incredibly exciting.   The only thing missing was the track announcer.   I bet next Olympics they sign Santa Anita’s peerless announcer Trevor Denman to call the races, and take what is already suddenly the Winter Olympics’ most exciting event to an even loftier level of showmanship.

      Finally I thought—indeed I fairly mused the way any philosopher would—how can we apply what the evolution of the Winter Olympics has taught us?   How can we evolve football, basketball, and even that most grand and traditional and indeed sacred of all mainstream sports, baseball, evolve them in a way that enhances them and improves them rather than bogging them down with changes for changes’ sake?

      I have a few ideas.   Just to get the ball rolling.

      Football.   Easy enough.   Anyone who knows me knows my biggest football pet peeve is wide receivers who celebrate a touchdown—or even a simple first down—by wildly gesticulating and thrusting their pelvis and hips around and upward in lewd, sarcastic spasms, as if Peace had just been declared or as though they had just reached a whole new threshold of orgasm.   You know.   The so-called end-zone celebration dance.   It’s not what our fathers taught us, people, so let’s get it the hell out of football.   Currently, the most you get for even the most flagrantly embarrassing act of total self-aggrandizement is a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to be enforced on the following kickoff.   This is a comically light, thoroughly candy-ass punishment my friends.   And it’s why head coaches invariably look the other way when one of their star wide-outs—who has just scored a touchdown for that coach, mind you—loses his mind and dignity.   I say make it a 15-yard penalty on each of the next two kickoffs, not merely the subsequent one.   If the offending team doesn’t score the rest of that game, the second 15-yard penalty carries over to the next game.   Oh, and I would insist on an automatic ejection for the celebrant.   Don’t bother to fine the guy; they’re too damn wealthy for that.   Just penalize the team he plays for by sending him to the showers.   I guarantee you, coaches aren’t stupid.   They know when a guy is hurting the team more than helping it.   And then, only then, they would finally impose their will.   This blight on the Human Condition would immediately disappear from the game.

      Basketball.   Again, no problem.   I don’t know about you, but I get pretty sick of watching NBA players carry the ball over (i.e. “palming”) on virtually every possession and get away with travelling as if the referees have been bought off.   In college ball, if a player so much as looks like he’s even thinking about palming the ball on the dribble he gets whistled.   And travelling is treated as blasphemy.   Its always whistled.   So here’s my idea for the pros: If you either carry it over or travel, the other team’s best free-thrower gets two charity tosses and then they also get to take the ball out.   I guarantee you, within a week these fine athletes will be playing the game properly again, and the referees might begin to not only appear relevant again, but also be looked upon, for a change, as something other than what my late brother labeled all pro sports officials; i.e. “The lowest form of Human life….”

      Finally, baseball.   This one is trickier.   If I screw up football or basketball I can live with it, but baseball is about as close to religion as I get, so I have to be careful in what I recommend, lest the baseball gods foist their collective wrath upon me. 

      Here’s what I’ve come up with.  

      Probably the casual fan’s biggest complaint about baseball is that it takes too long for anything to happen.   No urgency.   In other words, it’s too often boring.   And since the essence of baseball is the dual between the pitcher and the batter, that’s where my recommendation for evolution must lie.   Therefore, the pitcher shall be given a hard, no-nonsense, strictly enforced 12-second count.   This could work.   Remember, in pro basketball there was no 24-second clock until 1954 or 1955, and that innovation has worked out pretty well, huh?   If the pitcher does not throw the ball plateward within 12 seconds the umpire will call a ball.   Talk about an incentive.   Pitchers hate falling behind in the count.   The count is everything in baseball.  (By the way, somebody be sure to remind me someday soon to write a column about the inherent difficulties and amusements involved in teaching women about the count.   It’s not sexist, it’s just part of our culture.   Don’t kill the messenger.   It’s going to be funny, I promise.)   By the way, the batter is not exempt in the scenario.   If he steps out of the batter’s box once, the pitcher gets a new 12-second count.   If he steps out twice, a strike shall be assessed against him.   If he steps out a third time, he’s out.   Don’t you think these changes would bring a certain sense of urgency to every at-bat?

      There are still a few details yet to be ironed out.   But I’m on it.

Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland


meet….The Sports Philosopher

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, Olympic theorist, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the links below :


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