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Helmut Kohl, soccer and the Berlin Wall

Helmut Kohl was at the game. March 26, 1990 in Dresden, East Germany. That was not quite five months since the fall of the Berlin Wall and six months prior to the official reunification of the two Germanys following 45 years of Cold War antagonism.

So the event, an old-timers’ soccer match featuring a Unified Germany team for the first time since the 1964 Olympics, was far more about symbolism than competition. And it was much more about Kohl, who was in the process of deftly engineering Germany’s new coexistence, than about the former international stars who were scurrying around on the field.

The Unified Germany side was stocked with retired fellows from East and West Germany’s separate 1974 World Cup teams, and pitted against a Rest Of The World outfit that featured such former international stars as England’s Bobby Charlton and Brazil’s Jairzinho. Yet the hardiest pre-game cheers from an overflow crowd of 38,000 were for Kohl, the West German chancellor.

Aside from his physical heft—he was 6-foot-4 and at least 300 pounds—Kohl brought a social and cultural weight to the process. He walked with spectators into the stadium. He performed the ceremonial pre-game kick-off. He mingled with players from both sides after the game. For purposes of sports? Or politics? “Probably both,” German soccer luminary Franz Beckenbauer said then.

News of Kohl’s death last week, at 87, brought all this to mind. A handful of us American sports journalists, who had been in East Berlin to cover a World Cup tune-up match that week between the United States and East Germany’s national team, commandeered rental cars and drove to Dresden to spend another day on the front porch of history.

We had been staying at a hotel on the East side of the Berlin Wall, short blocks from the Brandenburg Gate, cite of President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “tear down this wall” speech. Steps away in the other direction was the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, where sidewalk vendors recently had set up a flea market peddling concrete chips of the wall and virtually entire military uniforms of Soviet and East German border guards, as well as various military pins that had been worn by those guards. It was like some gift shop on the way out of a museum dedicated to the Iron Curtain era.

We could walk through ragged new holes in the wall, no problem.

But for Germans, particularly in the East, there was a state of confusion with the sudden arrival of democratization and reunification. For one thing, East German money had become essentially worthless.

“Mr. Kohl told all the people, ‘Vote for my party and you will get [West German] deutschmarks,’” Sigfried Koenig, an East German sports official, told me. “Well, I voted for Mr. Kohl”—actually for Kohl’s sister party in the East. “I voted for deutschmarks. That was March 18. What is it now? March 28 already. Where are my deutschmarks?”

In fact, Kohl fulfilled his promise with remarkable speed. By that summer, he allowed the 17 million East German citizens to adopt the mighty West German mark at a rate of 1-to-1, an extraordinary economic stroke that further solidified his popularity and likely stanched a destabilizing flow of refugees from East to West.

Meanwhile, though, there was our Dresden adventure.

Forty-five years before, Dresden had been hit by the Allies’ worst firebombing of World War II. (Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” was based on that horrific incident.) When we were there in March of 1990, the wartime ruins of the Frauenkirche church still were untouched. (Starting in 1994, the church was rebuilt as part of reunification.) The firebombing’s rubble from the city’s 16th Century castle, the Schloss, likewise was visible. (Some of the proceeds from that Unified Germany soccer exhibition were earmarked to restore the Schloss, finally completed in 2013).

(Frauenkirche ruins)

Tickets had gone on sale two months before and were snapped up—at prices equivalent to $1.20 to $2.40, U.S.—in a half-hour. On the night of the game, scalpers were getting up to $40, U.S. We U.S. reporters were able to convince officials we belonged in the stadium by using the only word we could conjure in our rudimentary German: Zeitung. (Newspaper.)

Of no significance whatsoever was the soccer result—Rest Of The World, 3; Unified Germany, 1. But even that had its echoes of the hostile past that Kohl was working to mend. Charlton, the great English player who was then 52 years old, was mostly kidding when he said, “I suppose it would have been diplomatic to let the Germans win. But we’ve never been very diplomatic that way.”

That was reminiscent of one British sportswriter’s snarky advance story of the 1966 World Cup final, when Charlton and his English mates were about to take on Germany: “Fret not, boys, if on the morrow, we should lose to the Germans at our national  game, for twice this century we have defeated them at theirs.”

The beauty to March 26, 1990 in Dresden was that it was about neither soccer nor war, and that sports sometimes can be more than just sports. Political? Yes. And having seen Helmut Kohl score was a memorable occasion.

(My little piece of the Berlin Wall)

NHL’s Olympic disappearing act

By banning their players from next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, NHL owners basically are going to spite their noses right off of their faces. They will not participate on international sport’s biggest stage, bypassing the added bonus of furthering the league’s desire to spread the NHL gospel to Asia, because—commissioner Gary Bettman somehow reasoned—the Olympics will cause the NHL to “disappear” for more than two weeks.

In fact, the Olympics has been a boon to NHL visibility since the league first signed onto the Winter Games 19 years ago, even in the face of shameful conduct by U.S. players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. (More on that in a minute.)

The 2010 Olympic gold-medal final was the most-watched hockey game in North American television history—the NHL’s primary turf—seen by 27.6 million Americans and 22 million Canadians. Compare that to the measly 7.9 million who tuned in for Game Seven of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final on U.S. TV, or even the all-time largest Stanley Cup single-game TV audience of 13-plus million in 1972.

Prior to the 2010 Games, the highest rated hockey game featuring NHL players also was at the Olympics, in the 2002 gold-medal final. Donnie Kwak, writing for The Ringer web site, sensibly argued last week that “even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February.”

Especially, I contend, because the skating and puck-handling skills of he NHL’s best are magnified by Olympic rules that do not tolerate the NHL’s counterproductive acceptance of fighting. No other major professional sport puts up with—in fact, markets—such side-shows.

Yet Bettman brings an odd logic to that as well, accepting fighting as a pre-existing condition in his league. “It’s been there from the start,” he has said, “and what is done at other levels isn’t necessarily what’s appropriate at the professional level.”

Bettman has concluded that fighting “is part of the game” because NHL hockey is “intense and emotional.” A similarly timid reluctance to enforce good behavior is what gave the NHL a figurative black eye in its 1998 Olympic debut, when some (still unidentified) members of the U.S. team destroyed $3,000 worth of property in their rooms at the Nagano Games athletes’ village, then made matters worse by dismissing the incident as “blown out of proportion.”

Supposedly there were only three troublemakers who caused that damage, spitting in the face of overwhelming Japanese courtesy to the world’s visiting athletes, yet all 23 members of the team banded together to steadfastly refuse cooperation in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s subsequent investigation. The excuse was “team solidarity”—not ratting on the perpetrators of embarrassment to them and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.

Not until a month later, under pressure from the U.S. Hockey Federation and the NHL Players Association, did the 1988 U.S. team captain, Chris Chelios, at last write a letter of apology to the Japanese people and the Olympic organizers, with a check of $3,000 included.

Somehow, Chelios and 13 of the disgraced Nagano veterans were allowed to represent the United States again at the 2002 Winter Games, possibly because a repeat of the Yanks’ roguish actions wouldn’t cause a similar international incident for Salt Lake City’s hosts. “We kept [the 1998 culprits] to ourselves for a reason,” Chelios claimed, without giving a reason. “People who needed to know what happened, they knew what happened.” He included Bettman among those people.

So the NHL establishment simply moved on with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, just as Bettman and league owners justify occasional, though persistent, goonery on the ice. But if a tradition of fisticuffs is OK in NHL games, what’s the common-sense argument by Bettman and the league owners that player injury is a major reason for skipping the 2018 Olympics?

With NHL rosters becoming more and more geographically diversified—more than one quarter of active NHL players come from outside North America—there is overwhelming sentiment among players to participate in the South Korea Games. Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs not only like the idea of wearing their national colors but also understand that their past presence in the Olympics has cultivated new fans for the NHL.

Even the American players, unlike those few ingrates in Nagano, have come to appreciate that the global exposure and competitive buzz of the Olympics far outpace the mucking in the corners of NHL rinks in mid-February. Without them in South Korea, the TV-ratings winners will be figure skating and snowboarding. And the NHL indeed will disappear for a couple of weeks.

 

The Cubs, the curse and daytime baseball

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Could it be that the final curse the star-crossed Cubs had to reverse was Major League Baseball’s building revolt against the last guardians of daytime baseball?

Let’s, for the moment, put aside the Billy Goat thing in 1945, Steve Bartman’s (quite reasonable) reach for a foul ball in 2003, the black cat moment in 1969, Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932, Leon Durham’s fielding flub in 1984. When the Cubs, after 112 years of only afternoon home games, attempted their first night contest at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988, a fourth-inning downpour wiped out the proceedings.

“Someone up there seems to take day baseball seriously,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized the next day, throwing in the quote from a fan convinced that the heavens’ negative retort to artificial illumination “proves the Cubs are cursed.”

Another 28 years on, the Cubs at last have broken that evil spell on the sport’s biggest stage.

To review: In 1982, then-Cubs general manager Dallas Green first proposed lights for the Friendly Confines. Television, he said, was dictating that the team play at night, and he said that if the Cubs were to make the playoffs, they would be forced to move post-season home games to the rival White Sox’ crosstown Comiskey Park. Or possibly St. Louis.

He hinted—darkly—that, without the installation of permanent lights at Wrigley, the club would have no choice but to move, mentioning a tract of undeveloped land in the Schaumburg suburb, Northwest of the city. About that time, Major League Baseball decreed that, should the Cubs ever return to the World Series for the first time since 1945, their home games would be shifted to an alternate, lighted site.

Sure enough, in 1984, in the midst of Green’s campaign to light up Wrigley, the last outdoor World Series day game was played. San Diego (which had benefited mightily from the Leon Durham error in the league championship series) at Detroit.

(Wrigley before lights)

(Wrigley before lights)

Now, think of Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. Not, specifically, the “Let’s play two” Banks, always eager to go extra innings; more generally, the perpetually sunny-disposition Banks.

Think of C.U.B.S.—Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine—a 1980s neighborhood group on Chicago’s North Side that fought against the establishment of night baseball for the Cubs.

Think of a widely held notion at the time that putting lights at Wrigley was akin to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Think of Bill Veeck, the brilliant baseball executive who had been a Wrigley Field popcorn vendor as a boy and later was responsible for creating the distinctive touch of covering Wrigley’s outfield walls with ivy. To Veeck, Wrigley’s special charm was its commitment to day games, to “make people discover how lovely it is to come and sit in the sun and enjoy a game.”

When C.U.B.S. mobilized protests, its members said they would accept temporary lighting as long as the vast majority of games remained in the afternoon. But Dallas Green called them “inflexible.” In 1985, Green declared that the Cubs would be gone from Wrigley “in five years” unless permanent lights were installed. “We’re dead to this neighborhood,” he said then.

(Cincinnati's Crosley Field, May 24, 1935)

(Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, May 24, 1935)

The first Major League regular-season game played at night was on May 24, 1935, in Cincinnati. By 1939, every team except the Cubs had installed permanent lighting, though it wasn’t until 1971 that a World Series game started after sundown—Baltimore at Pittsburgh.

So maybe MLB won out with the entire 2016 Cubs-Cleveland Indians World Series played under the lights. Did you notice, though, that when the Cubs finally threw off the hex of championship disappointment after 108 years, it was morning? 12:57 a.m.

 

The Cubs fan litmus test. And Hillary Clinton.

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Are you with the Cubs in this partisan fight? If so, should you be required to show your papers? Does it matter whether you were born a Cubs fan—as opposed to being a previously undecided outsider just become drawn to trickle-down excitement?

It’s just baseball. And yet it is abundantly clear that some people out there believe there should be a litmus test. That being a member of the Cubs party now should be restricted to those who can provide indisputable proof. (Photo IDs, maybe?) That they be required to have experienced the Cubs’ overwrought mythology, to know how it feels to be Tantalus or Sisyphus, to have gone through at least a significant part of the team’s 108 years of solitude.

Here’s an example: Hillary Clinton. According to GOP.com, she is “Bandwagon Hillary.” She is “jumping on Chicago’s bandwagon [and] like with every other matter….switches allegiance with sports teams like positions on issues.” GOP.com reminded that, when she was running for the Senate in New York in 2000, she claimed she had “always been a Yankees fan.”

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We probably shouldn’t be allowing World Series loyalties to be leaching into the contentious White House campaign. But it is a given that sports-team passions can get a bit manic around championship time. (If you don’t believe it, listen to sports talk radio.) And just as true is the time-honored tradition of politicians using sports identity to demonstrate their regular-folks bona fides.

Still, I’m going to defend Clinton’s right to declare herself a Cubs fan. First of all, isn’t everybody drawn to the long-suffering Cubs now? Outside of Cleveland Indians territory, anyway? Check out this map, a World Series sendup of the ubiquitous red state/blue state presidential election forecasts, that is circulating on the Internet.

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Beyond the fairly universal appeal of the Cubs’ Halley’s Comet-like star turn, there is data to support Clinton’s logical and lengthy connection to the team. She was born in Chicago (two years into the Cubs’ 71-year absence from the World Series) and raised in the city’s Park Ridge suburb, less than 10 miles from the Cubs’ historic Wrigley Field home. Her father was a Cubs fan. Her brothers, with whom she watched plenty of Cubs’ games on television, were Cubs fans.

In 1993, when she was First Lady, Clinton was offered membership in the Emil Verban Memorial Society, an exclusive club of Washington-based Cubs fans named for a Cubs infielder from the late 1940s and early 50s who was said to epitomize the team by being “competent but obscure and typifying the team’s work ethic.”

emilshirtemil

That a player such as Verban, who hit .095 in 1950, should be fervently embraced in that forgiving way is yet another indication of Cub allegiance, especially since society members were among the nation’s most successful folks—Ronald Reagan, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, TV personalities Bryant Gumbel and Bruce Morton, golfer Ray Floyd, actor Tom Bosley and conservative columnist George Will among them.

What some commentators and Republican Party operatives object to, regarding Clinton’s fandom, is that she indeed admitted to rooting for the Yankees in general—and Mickey Mantle in particular—as a child, in part because she admitted that a Cubs fan so often needs the fallback of having a team that wins once in a while.

Among those who have questioned Clinton on the matter is Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet in a recent column, and political commentator Chris Matthews, who had asked when she donned a Yankee cap during her Senate campaign, “Doesn’t she know she looks like a fraud?”

This protestation of multi-team fandom, unreasonable to my mind, recalls the late Bill Searby, one of my first bosses at Newsday in the early 1970s. The way his colleagues told it, Searby had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to complete his education after his service days, and wound up attending several colleges. As the scores came over the wire on football Saturdays, more than one winner would prompt Searby to exult: “That’s my team!”

“Which one?” his co-workers would snicker. I think they were jealous.

Going ‘way back in (black) baseball history from Cubs’ Fowler

(Dexter Fowler)

(Dexter Fowler)

Baseball coincidence is a fascinating thing. Consider just one in the many notable tidbits related to the end of the woebegone Chicago Cubs’ 71-year World Series drought—a fellow named Fowler becoming the team’s first black man to play in the Fall Classic.

That’s Dexter Fowler, a 30-year-old outfielder who, rather symbolically, was the lead-off batter in Game 1 against the Cleveland Indians. The significance of Fowler’s presence, though, isn’t related to some new civil rights breakthrough. Rather, it is another reminder of how long ago the Cubbies last appeared on the sport’s biggest stage. So long ago, in 1945, that the Big Leagues still were two years from getting around to the initial step of desegregation, in the person of Jackie Robinson.

(Jackie Robinson)

(Jackie Robinson)

But here is the really curious statistic that does connect Fowler to racial inclusion in our national pastime. According to Baseball Hall of Fame records, the first black man on a white professional baseball team—roughly 70 years before Robinson and twice that long before Dexter Fowler—was a gent known as Bud Fowler.

(Bud Fowler)

(Bud Fowler)

Bud Fowler lived from 1854 to 1913 and, beginning in 1878, claimed to have played for predominantly white teams in 22 states and Canada. He was primarily a second baseman. Yellowed newspaper clippings in the Hall of Fame archives describe him as a “versatile, fast, slick fielder.” A Cincinnati Inquirer article published in the early 1900s reported that “Bud has played games for trappers’ furs. He has been rung in to help out a team for the championship of a mining camp and bags of gold dust. He has played with cowboys and Indians. He has cross-roaded it from one town to another all over the Far West, playing for what he could get and taking a hand to help out a team.”

It turns out that Bud Fowler was born John W. Jackson, son of a barber in Cooperstown, N.Y., home to the baseball Hall. There is no information on why or how he changed his name from Jackson, though he was said to be called “Bud” because of his inclination to address most people by that name. He never married, died broke and is buried in a pauper’s field just outside Cooperstown’s city limits, where a tombstone was placed on his grave in 1987 to note his place in baseball history.

He was 5-7, 155 pounds (compared to Dexter Fowler’s 21st-Century dimensions of 6-5, 195.) Bud batted and threw righthanded. (Dexter is a switch-hitter who throws righthanded.) Like Bud, Dexter has had a number of baseball homes, playing for 10 teams at various minor-league levels—the Modesto Nuts, Waikiki Beach Boys and Tulsa Drillers among them—on his way to a nine-year Major League career with Colorado, Houston and now Chicago. And, while Dexter already has earned more than $32 million playing the game, he has a long way to go to equal Bud’s longevity.

According to that century-old Inquirer story, Bud Fowler “has been playing baseball for the past 26 years and he is yet as spry and as fast in his actions as any man on his team. He has no Charley horses or stiff joints, but can bend over and get up a grounder like a young blood….he is 48 years old, but to look at him, you would set him down to be not more than 25.” The Inquirer piece ended with the invitation to “go out and see him play second base this afternoon.”

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Majors, an Eastern Michigan University history professor, Sidney Gendin, published a paper calling Fowler “first of at least 40 blacks who played on teams in organized white baseball leagues before the turn of the century. But in the mid-1880s, with deteriorating social mores pushing blacks out of the minors, Fowler spent more time barnstorming, during which he would help support himself by working as a barber. He started his own all-black team based in Adrian, Mich., sponsored by a wire fence company, the Page Fence Giants, who toured the Midwest in the team’s own railroad car.”

Also in ’97, the Hall of Fame opened an exhibit, “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” which prominently featured Bud Fowler’s role as grand marshal in the parade of long-ago baseball integration. That was before segregationists established the infamous “color line” that lasted until Robinson.

Larry Doby, first black in the American League, poses proudly in his Cleveland Indians uniform in the dugout in Comiskey Park in Chicago, Ill., on July 5, 1947. (AP Photo)

(Larry Doby)

At the opening of that exhibit, by the way, among the invited participants was Larry Doby—the first black player in the American League, who debuted months after Robinson had done so with the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby’s team was the Cleveland Indians, Dexter Fowler’s current World Series opponents. And Doby, along with teammate Satchel Paige, became the first black men to win a World Series title, in 1948—the Indians’ last championship season.

Hmmm.

Centrowitz, reclycled

son

“Are you kidding me?”

It was a good question, one that Matthew Centrowitz said he put to “everyone I know” in the moments after he won the Olympic 1500-meter final, having shocked three-time world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Asbel Kiprop of Kenya as well as the rest of the field. “Everyone” included Matthew’s father, Matt Centrowitz Sr., who was celebrating wildly in the stands of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium as his son took a victory lap.

“Are you —– kidding me?” Matt Sr. shouted back. Whereupon the two commenced volleying the phrase back and forth.

Kiprop aside, it has been Olympic doctrine that Americans just don’t come through in the so-called “metric mile,” 120 yards shy of a mile, which vies with the 100-meter dash as the most appealing of track and field’s events. The last Yank to prevail at that captivating Olympic distance, in 1908, was Mel Sheppard, a man whose application to become a New York City policeman somehow was rejected on the basis of a “weak heart.”

So it could be said that, in Rio, Centrowitz’s karma ran over Olympic prognosticator’s dogma. A real dent in accepted belief. In 1912 (Abel Kiviat), 1936 (Glenn Cunningham), 1968 and 1972 (Jim Ryun), Americans were pre-race favorites based on the fact that they held the world record in either the mile or 1500—or both—entering the Games, yet repeatedly failed to win gold, until it became normal procedure. Other legitimate U.S. threats at the distance, Marty Liquori in the 1970s and Alan Webb in 2004, also succumbed short of Olympic glory to injury or strategic muddles.

Anyway, for those of us who began reporting on track and field happenings in prehistoric times, there were lots of echoes to young Centrowitz’ breakthrough, beyond repeated Are-you-kidding-me astonishment. It was four decades ago that I covered a handful of Matt Centrowitz Sr.’s elite races, including his runner-up finish in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials at 1500 meters and his victory in the 1980 trials at 5,000 meters.

(I also interviewed Abel Kiviat, by the way. Not during his 1912 Games in Stockholm. Rather, in 1982, when Kiviat was then the oldest living U.S. Olympian at 90, we chatted about his disappointment in losing the 1912 Olympic 1500 by a tenth of a second, and about his Olympic roommate, a fellow named Jim Thorpe, whom Kiviat remembered fondly.)

EUGENE, OR - JUNE 29: Matt Centrowitz (white jersey) and Dick Buerkle #51 (red jersey) compete in the final of the Men's 5000 meter event of the 1980 USA Track and Field Olympic Trials held on June 29, 1980 at Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

(Matt Sr., 1980)

The senior Centrowitz is a native of The Bronx who had come to prominence at Power Memorial High School in Manhattan—basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s school, since closed—and for one year at Manhattan College before transferring to the University of Oregon, then and now a track powerhouse. He was a genuine mile star in his time, having broken the school record of the late Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine, though Centrowitz’ 1976 Olympic experience ended abruptly. He was eliminated in the first round, finishing sixth in his 1500 heat. And, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Games left Centrowitz home with the rest of the U.S. team.

But maybe what’s past is prologue. When the storied old Millrose Games downsized from a half-century of annual Madison Square Garden productions to Upper Manhattan’s chaotic Armory building in 2012, a skinny lad named Matthew Centrowitz—recently turned pro after a career at the University of Oregon—brought down the house by winning the featured mile in a hot 3:53.92.

He didn’t look that much like the Matt Centrowitz I remembered. A better tan. No mustache. Shorter hair. Finer features. But the kid could motor and, sure enough, it was—as the tattoo on young Centrowitz’ chest proclaims—“Like father, like son.”

It is unbecoming for a sports journalist to root for a team or individual athlete and, anyway, I didn’t have time for cheering while cranking out a story on deadline that night. But in the Rio final, to watch Matthew Centrowitz’ execution of an apparently risky, yet ultimately brilliant game plan—his dawdling early pace, his insistence on controlling matters from the front of the pack throughout the race, his blistering final lap—was good stuff. And to see his dad, a guy who has been in the arena, come essentially unglued with the result, was—I don’t know—Olympic.

Are you kidding me?

(Statue of the mythological Echo in Seattle)

(Statue of the mythological Echo in Seattle, next to a running path)

Iceland’s soccer referendum on England: Leave

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Dateline LONDON.

Now does not appear to be England’s finest hour. Apart from the obvious—the so-called Brexit vote to pull Great Britain out of the European Union, rattling the world’s financial markets and unleashing political chaos within the United Kingdom—there is the matter of football. (Soccer, to us Colonists.)

England is the Motherland of Soccer, the sport’s original superpower, and Monday’s staggering upset loss in the European Championships to historically insignificant Iceland has contributed to a sense of England’s fading global influence. The 2-1 loss to Iceland, just days after filing for divorce from the E.U., loosed a soul-searching anguish in a nation so long convinced, as Shakespeare wrote, that it was “the envy of less happier lands.”

“Less happy” would be an understatement for England’s general mood right now. Prime Minister David Cameron is resigning, his opposition party has declared an overwhelming lack of confidence in its own leader, European bigwigs are taking a good-riddance stance on the Brexit vote….and the soccer loss is being cast as a “disgrace” and “pathetic failure.” “Stiff upper lip” does not appear to apply.

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It happened that I arrived here for a brief holiday just in time to read the supremely self-assured pre-match analyses of the Iceland duel, with English fans—and especially English bettors—certain there was “no way,” an one pundit put it, “that a major footballing force like England should be losing to a country you could make disappear with a hairdryer in about four hours.”

Normally, I could work up a reasonable passion for England’s endeavors. This is a polite, civilized nation of diversity and gumption, the land of Churchill, the home of the Beatles, the team of David Beckham. But  Iceland’s rollicking advance into the Championships’ knockout round, against all odds—coinciding with My Fellow Americans’ semifinal loss in Copa America—had moved me to declare a week ago that Iceland is my new favorite team.

When the big game arrived Monday evening, we were strolling through Leicester Square in search of theatre tickets, while pubs overflowed with fans straining for a glimpse of TV sets inside. That included a pair of policemen, who informed my wife—not too long after kickoff—that Iceland had a one-goal lead.

Iceland! The tiny Nordic island with more volcanoes than professional soccer players! The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament! My new favorite team!

For the last 20 minutes of action, my daughter and I strained for a glimpse over jostling patrons, beers in hand, on the fringes of Philomena’s Irish Sports Bar and Kitchen in the Holborn district. The end left muttering fans dispersing into the night, and the next morning’s papers raged at the players’ bewildering lack of offensive pressure and English goalie Joe Hart’s “huge blunders” after he had gotten only his fingers on the decisive goal.

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English manager Roy Hodgson immediately fell on his sword, quitting in shame even faster than David Cameron had over the Brexit vote. There was much angst over England’s training deficiencies and the poor investments of the national soccer federation. “English coaching is rotten to the core,” one headline declared.

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Even some of the art at the Tate Britain gallery seemed to address England’s current misery. But, too, this is the home of Monty Python, and The Times of London showed the good humor to run a large feature headlined, “So we all want to be Icelandic now, ja?” Because, the piece pointed out (among other things):

—The men are beefcakes (citing “Game of Thrones” bad guy Gregor Clegane, who is played by Icelander Hafthor Bjornsson)…

—They have magnificent beards…

—Iceland is the third happiest country in the world, according to a U.N. survey (behind Switzerland and Denmark. (Take that, Bill Shakespeare.)

—Plus, the Times writer added, “Did I mention they’re good at football?”

Ja, and that’s my new favorite team. But I’m not worried about England. Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

 

Olympic wear and tear

IMG_1724

In cataloguing past Olympic experiences, I am now willing to air my dirty laundry.

I simply ask the reader to concede that circumstances can provoke transgressions. To cover the Games, as I did for Newsday on 11 occasions, requires a stay in the Olympic host city of roughly three weeks while the international pageant plays out. That demands a considerable supply of raiment. Unless, of course, one avails oneself of the resident cleaning service.

Which I decided to do halfway through the 1984 Los Angeles Games, primarily because I was running short on clean undergarments. And here’s the vulgar denouement: The articles of clothing returned to my room a day later clearly were not mine. Wrong size, wrong color and, frankly, not perceptively clean.

Given my low threshold of revulsion, I abandoned the box of skeevy skivvies and settled on recycling what I had. And never again entrusted the locals with any of my wearables. It is the better part of valor to tote an extra suitcase to distant Olympic venues, packing enough clothes to last the duration.

In every sense, the trick to surviving these long-running shows is preparation. Beyond the specifics of the job—being armed with prior reporting to compensate for limited access to the Games’ principals, plotting adjustments to the Globe’s time zones—there is the matter of appropriate attire.

Jere Longman of the New York Times was among the few who used to go about his business at the Winter Olympics (impressively) in suit and tie. But his chores were conducted almost exclusively indoors—figure skating and so on. For those of us who had to mix in a turn on the ski slope, the bobsled run or the opening and closing ceremonies, a less formal—and more reasonable—answer to possible hypothermia necessitated an array of layered paraphernalia. Long johns, jeans, ski pants, sweater, ski jacket, wool hat, gloves.

IMG_0937

During the bus ride to one event during the 1994 Lillehammer Games, played out in the snowy, 10-degree elements, I was topping off my bundling exercise by sneaking hand-warmers into my boots and gloves when a native Norwegian, working as an Olympic volunteer, sussed me out as a wimpy foreigner. “That’s cheating,” he said. Not in an unkind way.

warmer

The only thing to do is swallow one’s pride and carry on in as much comfort as possible. My friend Jay Weiner, who covered multiple Olympics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, always was a model of sober pragmatism—and to hell with fashion.

For the Winter Games, he had this Elmer Fudd hat, with big flaps to cover the ears. During the typical confusion of bus rides and long days, carting around laptops, reference guides and other necessities, Jay’s hat went missing at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Until he got a call on his cell phone from a Games volunteer: “Mr. Weiner. We have your hat.”

The Japanese were so vigilant to their service culture that there were regular communications to harried, distracted visiting reporters regarding the retrieval of credit cards and other misplaced articles, large and small. In the cafeteria of the main press center, there were little lost-and-found boxes by the cash registers, containing coins as insignificant as one-yen pieces (worth about 8/10th of an American penny) waiting to be claimed.

A second time, Jay misplaced his hat, and a second time Japanese volunteers rescued it.

Weiner, by the way, was so meticulous in his comprehensive strategizing for international sports competitions that, prior to the 1991 Pan American Games in Cuba, he ordered “special tropical shirts” he was convinced would keep him cool in the Caribbean heat of August. L.L. Bean still sells those shirts, claiming they are “top rated for breezy comfort and colorful patterns…in extra-soft and breathable cotton [that] keeps you cool on the hottest days.”

The afternoon of opening ceremonies in Havana, reporters were herded into a large, airless room—stifling hot, with bludgeoning humidity—for the better part of an hour for some sort of security clearance. Eventually all exited, thoroughly soaked in perspiration. Weiner and his tropical shirt included.

Nothing to hyperventilate over, though. There are some Olympic attire anecdotes to lift the spirits, such as during the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, when word spread that visitors could find grand bargains in the city’s Itaewon district, known for tailors producing custom-made suits. One brief fitting session and a return days later for the finished product, and a Mr. Sol had sold me a fine garment for approximately one-third the cost I would have paid at home. That suit lasted 20 years.

But, too, I have a clothes tale hinting at dastardly gamesmanship. During the 2006 Turin Winter Games, I was availed of what trash talk sounds like in the sport of curling, the apparently civilized competition resembling shuffleboard on ice.

curl

American curler Maureen Brunt revealed that a curler might attempt to unsettle an opponent by casting aspersions, sotto voce, during the mostly quiet action. According to Brunt, “You might say, ‘Hey, she has lint on her pants.’ Or, ‘Her mittens are shedding.’ It throws her off from concentrating.”

Now, that is airing dirty laundry.

 

 

 

 

He outlived Hofstra football

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It was just last week that one of my Hofstra University journalism students, for his final paper of the semester, wrote a lament of the school’s 2009 decision to disband its football team. “A Lost Program Gone But Not Forgotten,” he called it.

And now comes the news that a central figure in both Hofstra and Hofstra football history is gone as well: James Shuart, dead at 85.

By the time Shuart retired after 25 years as University president in 2001, he had come to be a sort of Father Hofstra. He had Dutch roots, like the school itself. He had earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Hofstra. He had been one of the first 12 football players to receive a Hofstra athletic scholarship and was a member of the original Hofstra lacrosse team.

He had returned to his alma mater to work as admissions officer, faculty member, dean and vice president before assuming the presidency in 1976, at a time when the university was struggling financially. During his tenure, Hofstra increased enrollment, expanded academic offerings and library holdings, initiated presidential conferences, became the first private university campus in the nation to be fully accessible to the physically challenged, moved its athletic department into top-tier Division I and founded the school of communications—where I now work after 44 years as a reporter for Long Island’s Newsday.

The year after Shuart retired, the football stadium was renamed in his honor. James M. Shuart Stadium still stands, but in 2004, the school’s athletic nickname was changed, from Flying Dutchmen to Pride, and in 2009 Shuart’s successor, Stuart Rabinowitz, did away with intercollegiate football for fiscal reasons.

stadium

I am the first to acknowledge that, in the reality-based world of 21st Century college sports, it is difficult to rationalize the expense of fielding a football team at a small private school. Enormous costs for insurance, equipment and staff are virtually impossible to offset when there is none of the rabid spectator following or the massive television-fueled revenues of thoroughly professional powers such as Alabama or Ohio State.

Furthermore, it is not impossible to be a top-flight institution of higher education without a football team.

But it was sad to see the Dutch label ditched. Hofstra takes its name from William Hofstra, an early 1900s Long Island lumber magnate of Dutch heritage upon whose land the university is built. And Shuart told me, during a long interview shortly before he retired, how his surname “really is from the Dutch ‘Sjoerd,’ which means ‘George’ and was used as a last name when Napoleon insisted that people had to have last names. I’m one-quarter Dutch; one of my grandparents allegedly was Dutch.”

When the teams were called the Dutchmen, Hofstra dressed a coed in a Dutch-girl costume as a mascot, complete with wooden shoes, and called her Katie Hofstra—after William’s wife. (Hofstra still holds an annual spring Dutch Festival to showcase a campus flooded with tulips—another Shuart initiative.)

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More to the point, Shuart epitomized the sound mind, sound body ideal in college, a “student-athlete” before the term was coined by the NCAA as a brand to rationalize the recruitment of jocks whose primary purpose was to win games and boost the salaries and resumes of coaches and athletic directors.

Shuart, a history major, was captain of the 1952 Hofstra football team his senior year, when Hofstra lost only one of nine games. That loss was to Alfred, when an Alfred punt took an odd bounce, glanced off a Hofstra blocker and afforded Alfred the fumble recovery that set up the winning score.

“We were so upset,” Shuart recalled. “Young men—20, 21 years old—tears streaming down our faces.” Hofstra’s coach then was Howdy Myers, who in 1950—Shuart’s sophomore year—had started the school’s lacrosse operation.

“He called his first meeting of the football players that February,” Shuart said, “and handed us gloves, a helmet with wires and sticks. He said, ‘Gentlemen, this is lacrosse.’ That was his spring training.”

As president and after his retirement, Shuart remained a passionate Hofstra football fan until the sport was dropped, a fixture at the team’s home games long before the stadium assumed his name. For years, a Jim Shuart Football Scholarship went to one of the school’s players.

In 1999, when Hofstra advanced to the Division 1-AA football playoffs before losing to Illinois State, a star of the team was Long Island native Kahmal Roy, a sophomore wide receiver who had been granted one of those Jim Shuart scholarships.

“They never threw the ball to me when I played,” said Shuart, who had been an interior lineman. “But when Kahmal scores a touchdown….oh, man!”

shuart

The Boston wranglers: Brady and Olympic bidders

Around Boston, all that whistling past the graveyard on two major sports fronts suddenly has been stifled by realized fears. One day after the city’s ham-handed bidders saw their pitch to stage the 2024 Olympics collapse spectacularly, NFL matinee idol Tom Brady had his claims of innocence in manipulating footballs again dismissed—and more accusatorily—by league commissioner Roger Goodell.

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Predictably, the Brady news created the larger fuss, even though the gridiron fortunes of his New England Patriots—ordered to play four games without their superstar quarterback—have none of the economic consequences for the Boston populace that an Olympic project would. (Well, maybe they do, given the presence of bookies and plotting fantasy leaguers.)

Long ago, the drawn-out Brady investigation veered toward farce, with its conspiracy theories, Ideal Gas Law formulas, a Patriot assistant inappropriately taking footballs to the bathroom and The Destroyed Cellphone. Not that the NFL shouldn’t insist on fair play, or that Brady doesn’t deserve a day in the figurative stocks and hefty fine (based on the “more probable than not” conclusion about Brady’s under-inflation involvement).

Rather, the caper hardly rose to the level of a federal case. And certainly shouldn’t get more NFL attention than football’s effect on traumatic brain injury. Or the NFL handling of players’ criminal arrests.

So, meanwhile, Mr. Holmes, what about Boston’s Olympic scheme (scam?): In January, the U.S. Olympic Committee—shockingly, to Olympic insiders—chose Boston over Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as its representative in the campaign for 2024. (The likely contenders are Rome, Paris, Hamburg, possibly Budapest and maybe Toronto.) Given the International Olympic Committee’s rejection of New York for 2012 and Chicago for 2016, Boston—an American city with even less public support for the Games than those two and an equal lack of existing venues—hardly made sense.

Immediately, the already flat Boston possibilities began to lose more air. (Without Tom Brady being a person of interest.) There were grumbles about the organizers’ lack of transparency while their blueprint continued to expand, both geographically and financially.

Costs ballooned to $8.6 billion and, just a week ago, a release of Boston-2024 documents reportedly revealed a predicted budget shortfall of $471 million. Taxpayers were reasonably concerned, if not downright freaked out. Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College economist who has studied sports finances, noted in a Brookings Institution interview that the chief executive of Boston’s private bid committee, John Fish, is owner of a Boston-area construction company that made its pitch to the USOC without the approval or sanction of the city council.

Fish “applied in the name of Boston,” Zimbalist said. “By doing so, he was encumbering Boston with a substantial financial committment.” And angling for some serious construction work. As Zimbalist had written in a 2012 piece for The Atlantic magazine, there are “Three Reasons Why Hosting the Olympics Is a Loser’s Game:” The Games’ bidding process is “hijacked by private interests….creates massive over-building…[and demonstrates] little evidence that it meaningfully increases tourism.”

Full disclosure here: I consider myself an Olympic patriot. I have covered the Games 11 times, and believe in the value of the United Nations In Sneakers. The Olympics brings together people of all backgrounds and nationalities, peacefully celebrating and crying and doing brave things on the athletic fields; sometimes cheating or making dumb decisions but, through it all, lending some uplifting optimism about human nature even as it is reflecting real life.

The Olympics are worldly, a bit overdramatic, giddy, ephemeral. Absolutely worth carrying on. But they also have become trapped in a cycle of one-upmanship, spending far too much money for a 17-day festival and leaving behind white elephant stadiums and other facilities. (Proof: Four of the six cities that originally showed interest in bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, after staring into the abyss of possible financial ruin, have voluntarily dropped out, leaving only the Kazakhstan city of Almaty and—illogically—the non-winter city of Beijing.)

The story of a Boston Olympics in 2024 was not going to end well. And the best news about its withdrawal is that the USOC likely will put forward, in its place, Los Angeles which—31 years ago—established a gold standard for Olympic efficiency, marketing and fiscal sanity.

Newsday's 1984 Olympic staff

Newsday’s 1984 Olympic staff

In 1984, after the Olympics literally was bloodied by the 1972 Munich terrorist siege of the Israeli athletes’ quarters and bludgeoned by a 1976 Montreal financial disaster and the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles came to the rescue. Official sponsorships (an Olympic first) and the use of pre-existing stadiums provided such an enormous cost-cutting benefit that L.A. produced a $223 million surplus that continues to fund sports programs in the city.

The irony is that L.A.’s overall success and unanticipated economic prosperity released the beasts of gigantism and profligate spending—a prime example being Atlanta in 1996, when the Georgia Games’ budget went from Los Angeles’ $800,000 to $1.7 billion. (And when Atlanta’s organizing chief, Billy Payne, left behind a statue of himself in the Olympic Centennial Park.)

Atlanta's Billy Payne

Atlanta’s Billy Payne

So, again, the Olympics appear in need of a fiscal savior. Why not L.A.? At least there is no NFL skullduggery going on there.