A Five-Ring Circus

February 24

The Winter Olympics are heading into the home stretch … my thoughts?

It’s amazing how national pride swells when the US leads the medal count in events we normally don’t care about. Some of us like to ski, but for the most part we aren’t rabid fans. Snowboarding, aerials, and moguls have a growing following, but we don’t pin national pride on the Flying Tomato ( or whatever he calls himself now. )

Hockey is maybe the #5 sport in the US, but we go ga-ga when it’s go-time in the Olympics. Nordic events are just that — Nordic, although the US finally broke through with a couple of medals. Also, how many people have enough money to shepherd their kid through 15 years of figure skating ?

Figure skating grabs the female viewers ( and some males, for different reasons ), but how many of us can relate to these people? How can we relate to a young, waifish athlete in silk and feathers — taught by a stern, mole-ridden 5-foot-tall woman named Ludmila? It’s bizarre theater.

We CAN relate to this: athletes working hard for years, for perhaps a few minutes in the world spotlight. You either produce or you don’t. That’s real drama, not manufactured.

***

I’m also a fan of live television, and if I may beat a dead horse, NBC will give you the finger again on Friday if you’re a US hockey fan on the West Coast. The noon-time semifinal game involving Team USA will be tape-delayed in the West. Again.

It could be the same story for the gold medal game Sunday, the grand finale. Shame on me for thinking we’d have more live programming since we are in the same time zone as Vancouver.

Mercifully, NBC’s Olympic contract ends after the 2012 London Games. After losing $200 million on these games, are they going to that well again?

Who would I rather see covering the games? Anyone. Hopefully 2012 will spell the end of packaged, canned, you’ll-see-what-we-want-you-to-see coverage. I don’t want to see events aired in prime time that are contested in the sunlight.

ESPN, HBO, pony up. Please. I might even pony up to get what I want.

***

The media, searching for a catchy headline, called these “the Glitch Games.” You had the first athlete death at the winter games in 46 years, and that goes beyond a “glitch.” Somehow that is lumped in with a mishap with one of the torch arms during opening ceremonies, and a knock-off Zamboni problem. That is facile, and it only minimizes a tragedy. Competitors had warned of the dangers of the luge course before the Georgian died … and in a multi-million dollar sporting endeavor, you don’t bother to pad the trackside poles?

***

How great would a Canada-US hockey final be? Actually, it’s already happening with the women. It’s the USA, Canada, and everyone else in women’s hockey, and that’s a problem.

As for the men, there would be tremendous anticipation ( live TV or not ) but I’m worried about a letdown, i.e. a Canada blowout. Canada out-chanced the US 2-1 in Sunday’s loss, but as often happens, a hot goalie won the game. USA’s Ryan Miller was outstanding. It’s asking a lot for him to repeat that performance, and GM Brian Burke said as much a couple of days ago.

Jonas Hiller kept Switzerland in the game with the US today, and by the way, I still don’t think the Americans are as good as Canada. Also, you could really see the difference in skill level between the USA-Switzerland game, and Canada-Russia. Maybe Canada needed an extra game to jell — because they were on fire against Germany and then Russia.

On the flip side, the Sharks’ Evgeni Nabokov is in goaltender hell. He was pulled in the middle of the second period against Canada. He was simply not focused. I could be making too much out of this, but I wonder if tonight’s disaster will have any impact on him going into NHL stretch run ? Anyway, I wouldn’t read a Russian newspaper if I were him.

( P.S. if you’re gambling on Olympic hockey, Tony Bruno can make you rich. He liked Canada to cover against Germany, and the Swiss plus three pucks against Team USA. Also, if you’re gambling on Olympic hockey, seek professional help. )

***

Unless he wins another speed-skating gold, Apolo Ohno can’t even be put in the conversation of the greatest U.S. Olympians. Winning medals at three separate games in an unpredictable sport is a great achievement, but when you go 5 for 5 gold, it’s game over. I’m speaking of Dr. Eric Heiden.

***

It’s fashionable to lampoon Ice Dancing as an Olympic event, but if you watched the finals the other night ( a marital obligation on my part ) you saw great athletes. I don’t know if most people realize how difficult it is to carry a woman on your back, on skates, halfway down the ice. ( Okay guys, I hear the jokes already. )

It’s an amazing feat, even if the woman weighs double-digits. Now, do that under pressure in the Olympics. While wearing ruffles.

Given a choice, I’d rather watch athletes in uniforms instead of costumes. I think I can go another four years without seeing a man wearing Vera Wang. I can also go another four years without hearing Russian folk music or the tango, but when you consider the intricacy of each ice dance routine, you realize these people are a couple of steps above Curling.

***

Warriors coach Don Nelson says he’s tried “rubbing his belly,” speaking of Andris Biedrins, but the problem seems to be between his ears. Biedrins was one of the up and coming centers in the NBA leading into this season — but injuries, especially to his abdomen, have set him back physically and emotionally. It’s problem #17 of about 99 for the Warriors, but it’s a problem.

Biedrins doesn’t look for his shot anymore and he can’t shoot free throws, and the two could be related. He might be afraid to go to the basket because he’s afraid of going to line, where he has some of the worst mechanics ever. 3 for 23. Are you kidding me?

This season is lost, but since Biedrins is in the middle of a long-term deal it’s a must for him to bounce back next season if the Warriors have any hope of improving. The improvement must start between his ears.

***

What Tony Kornheiser said about Hannah Storm wasn’t obscene, but it’s not something you say on the air — much less in great detail. The only reason he’s suspended two weeks is because Storm works for ESPN. At any rate it’s a tempest in a teapot in a PC world gone mad. Hannah, keep tarting it up.

***

Can I do a victory lap around the studio? While many Giants fans were clamoring to sign Manny Ramirez a year ago, I cautioned that it would be money poorly spent. That’s because Manny isn’t really Manny anymore. Not as a player. And that warning came before we knew anything about his 50 game ban.

Otherwise, Manny IS still being Manny, and that was part of my warning, too. He’s adding to the fractious Dodger offseason by signaling that he is playing out the string in Los Angeles. Way to start the season.

It’s obvious his L.A. days are numbered, but he didn’t need to say anything. It’s obvious he’ll be an American League DH if he plays elsewhere, but he didn’t need to make himself a lame duck in the first spring training interview. And the Dodgers are paying him how much? I’ll bet Frank McCourt would like that money for his divorce proceedings right about now.

Despite predictions that Manny’s bat would have made the Giants NL West champions last season, a big hole was blown into the middle of his 2009 season, and when he returned he batted just .255. Now, he’s talking about leaving. Surprised much?

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