Olympic Tomorrowland

 

Coming (not so) soon: The Los Angeles Olympics.

In 2028!

There could be a robot uprising against humans by then, according to flamboyant inventor Elon Musk. There could be people settling a colony on Mars. There could be genetic doping in elite sports, Six Million Dollar Man stuff. A book and movie predict curtains for the whole world in 2028.

The time gap is so disorienting—the first Games to be awarded to a host city more than seven years in advance—that the typically sluggish buildup in Olympic interest is even more conspicuous, with an occasional drift into fantasy.

The New York Times reacted to the news by having its Los Angeles-based reporters imagine new Olympic events tailored to La-La Land culture, and came up with “most rides on ‘It’s a Small World’ without a nervous breakdown,” “least original movie idea” and “fastest out of Dodger Stadium to beat the crowds (and traffic),” among other snarky proposals.

Me? I think of a more logical L.A. cliché which has been around since the first Games in that city in 1932: Let the auditions begin for another Hollywood cattle call.

Tarzan movies long ago fell out of favor, but a 2030s action-film star very well could emerge from among the ’28 Games’ competitors, discovered by the people in dark glasses and canvas chairs. With all those hunks on the Olympic playing fields, ready to make a muscle; all those female gymnasts flying around in leotards like Superwoman, someone is bound to catch the eye of movie talent scouts.

Such gold medal-to-silver screen possibilities certainly were a topic of discussion going into the most recent Los Angeles Olympics, in 1984, when American boxer Tyrell Biggs predicted he would win the super heavyweight gold medal (he did), “and they’ll cut to my commercial right after the National Anthem….that’s good American stuff.”

It had happened something like that in 1932 to one Clarence Linden Crabbe, whose gold medal in the 400-meter swimming freestyle served as a screen test, leading Crabbe to ditch his law studies, change his name to Buster and put on a loin cloth for the cameras.

Based on that formula, Biggs was asked in ’84 if he could swim. “I can dance,” he assured. And while he never starred in a musical, turning immediately to a 14-year professional boxing career that included three world-title bouts (all losses), Biggs did appear on the small screen in television’s American Gladiator series in the 1990s. And a documentary of his life reportedly is currently in production.

But, back to the future.

By 2028, might the choking traffic on L.A.’s infamous freeways consist entirely of driverless cars? How much sunnier might perpetually sunny Los Angeles be amid advancing climate change? What about the U.S. Geological Survey’s recent study that southern California already is overdue for a major earthquake? (During the ’84 Olympics, there was “earthquake repellent” aerosol spray on sale around L.A. It seemed to work.)

It isn’t clear just how much sweating of the details should be held in abeyance until, say, 2027. It has been duly reported that International Olympic Committee officials chose to nail down a 2028 site so far in advance out of concern that the pool of host cities continues to dry up. (L.A.’s bid technically was for 2024, against favored Paris, but the IOC reasoned that it had better lock up both candidates now, while they were willing.)

Polls repeatedly have indicated Angelenos’ substantial public support for staging the Games, although—in the grand Olympic tradition of NIMBY dissent—there also is a NOlympics group agitating to scuttle the 2028 plans. Given L.A.’s abundance of competition-ready facilities and college dorms available to house the world’s athletes, there is a Bloomberg News suggestion that the IOC should consider placing all future Summer Games in Los Angeles. Or that L.A. at least be incorporated forever in a rotation of three or four permanent Olympic sites.

Such a reasonable approach would be far more cost-effective and rational than the current system, which makes every subsequent Games organizing team a collection of Olympic rookies. But when a similar idea was floated more than 20 years ago for the Winter Olympics, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch dismissed it out of hand, declaring that “the Games belong to the entire world”—and therefore should continue to foster the exorbitant cost, daunting organizational challenges and political trap doors of competitive bidding.

At this point, it’s sounds like we have a winner for that least original idea for a movie.

 

Phelps’ “race:” Google “Jump the shark.”

Maybe Michael Phelps somehow assumed he was furthering his brand with that photo-shopped Discovery Channel concoction, purporting to match him against a Great White Shark in a 100-meter ocean race. Surely he didn’t need the money. Twenty-three times an Olympic swimming champion and with the ensuing goldmine of endorsements, Phelps has a net worth reported between $55 and $94 million. Possibly he felt the shark show promoted his stated wish, first voiced before he began collecting an unprecedented amount of Olympic hardware at the 2004 Athens Games, “to change the sport of swimming the way Michael Jordan changed basketball.”

But not a few people saw it as a humiliating stunt. Phelps certainly wasn’t in a situation similar to 1936 Olympic sprint champion Jesse Owens, who was an American hero at the Berlin Games but just another black man when he returned to the United States. Competing almost 50 years before the Olympics was opened to professionals, Owens earned four worthless olive wreaths and, once back home in Ohio, found himself trying to make ends meet by allowing promoters to stage exhibitions of him racing against horses, dogs and motorcycles.

“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens later wrote. “But what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

And in Owens’ case, at least the man-vs.-beast gimmick consisted of actual races between real creatures. The Phelps-Shark flimflam—one Discovery Channel promo called it “The Battle for Ocean Supremacy”—went from extended carnival barking to a video of Phelps swimming alone in the waters off South Africa. The rival seen hustling alongside him was a computer-generated shark, digitally inserted into the action.

It was almost as silly as those old Land Shark skits on Saturday Night Live, when Laraine Newman or Gilda Radner would be lured to open her apartment door with the promise of a candygram, only to be devoured by a cartoonishly fake shark.

Patrick Redford, writing for Deadspin, called the Phelps-Shark contrivance “a spruced-up version of one of those videos they play between innings in baseball stadiums where three helmets race and [fans in] one section get free pizza if their helmet wins….”

Redford suggested that the Discovery Channel “at least make it goofy, since, you know, you’re having a guy pretend to race a shark.”

Both the Discovery Channel and Phelps protested afterwards that they clearly had signaled he would not be swimming side-by-side against a live shark. (I can hear Bobby Darin singing… “When that shark bites with his teeth, babe/Scarlet billows start to spread.)

Both nevertheless argued for the legitimacy of the competitive comparison and cited Phelps’ genuine fascination with the fish’s power and speed, and described Phelps as a real “shark nerd.” In fact, the elite swimming world in general has had a shark thing for a long time. Prior to the 2000 Olympics, the swimming gear manufacturer Speedo produced a “sharkskin” model amid the marketing of similar full bodysuits by big-name suppliers.

That Speedo suit was studded with tiny hydrofoils with V-shaped ridges like the “dermal denticles” on a shark’s skin, and it was worn by 83 percent of the sport’s gold medalists in the 2000 Sydney Games. Phelps, then 15 years old, had only one fifth-place finish in Sydney but began breaking records a year later wearing the sharkskin. Before long, the suit was judged to be “performance-enhancing” because it provided a buoyancy and muscle constriction that worked to reduce fatigue. In 2010, all full bodysuits were banned by swimming’s global federation.

Anyway, it turns out that real sharks typically don’t swim in a straight line for very long, so the Phelps 100-meter challenge was further skewed by another simulation. Scientists had to estimate sharks’ straight-ahead speed, then feed that data into their computer-generated aquatic racer. What they came up with was 36.1 seconds, which Phelps (38.1) couldn’t quite match. (Surprise, surprise.)

Business Insider quoted George Burgess, director of shark research at the University of Florida, that a side-by-side duel not only was impossible but that even the fastest of humans would “always get his butt kicked” by a shark.

“A far more interesting scenario,” Burgess said, “would have been if you give Michael a head start and put the great white behind him and see how fast he could swim with the white shark chasing him.”

In an espn.com post, D’Arcy Maine cast the whole show as a “joke.” Phelps’ mere participation in the hocus-pocus, Maine concluded, meant that “either being the best swimmer of all time isn’t as lucrative as we previously believed or he is really, really bored in his retirement….”

It’s certainly not the former case. As for the five million who were hoodwinked into watching, I have one word: Candygram.

The real O.J.?

Sometimes, when people learn that I spent a half-century as a sports journalist, they want to the inside scoop on what such-and-such athletic celebrity was “really like.” O.J. was one of those athletic celebrities in question.

As the New York Giants beat writer for Newsday in the 1970s, I had a few occasions dealing with O.J., at first when he played for the Buffalo Bills and later the San Francisco 49ers.

He already was football’s superstar and had been since his glory days at Southern Cal. The way he could find his way through the maze of defensive pursuers—floating, barreling, tiptoeing, darting—was fairly astonishing. Furthermore, he delighted in the public’s adoration, answering Beatle-like mania with charm and a personal touch. “He’s always kissing babies, hugging girls, shaking hands, signing autographs,” then-49ers publicist Dave Frei marveled. More striking to us in the writing press, ink-stained wretches accustomed to arrogant, uncooperative jocks, O.J. was among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects.

He also was wildly popular among teammates, regularly ushering his lower-profile offensive linemen into interview sessions so they could bask in his ball-toting successes. Opponents likewise admired both his prowess and demeanor. “Tackling O.J.,” a young Giants linebacker named Frank Marion told me after a 1978 game, “is like tackling a legend. And each time I got him, he’d say, ‘Nice hit.’ I just had to look at him and not let him get away. Because he can get away.”

Still, the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. Rather, he masters his particular vocation, as O.J. perfected his job and polished his popular image. Neither of which guarantees a look into the soul.

So, even before O.J.’s 1994 arrest in the knife murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman; before the low-speed Ford Bronco chase televised nationally; before O.J.’s acquittal in the spectacular trial and the subsequent 1997 civil trial in which he was found responsible for the deaths of Ms. Simpson and Goldman, I wouldn’t have claimed to know what he was “really like.”

I submit, in fact, that those four parole board members who just voted to free O.J. from a 2007 armed robbery sentence couldn’t know the man any better than I did. That is not to argue for or against the parole decision—that’s way above my pay scale—but only to point out how brief encounters with boldface names such as O.J., whatever the professional setting, aren’t particularly revealing.

When O.J. told the board he was “a good guy….I basically have spent a conflict-free life,” a courtroom prosecutor might have been moved to argue, “Objection, your honor. Assumes facts not necessarily in evidence.”

Much closer to an insightful summation of the man was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent profile in The Atlantic that described how O.J. always has been “an escape artist.” Beginning with his ability to evade tacklers on the football field, O.J. shook off poverty in the San Francisco projects where he was raised, slipped the usual restraints on blacks to cash in on endorsements and movie deals and survived that Trial of the Century. And once again, he’s out of the frying pan.

His life story—he’s 70 now—has played out as some mixture of drama, sit-com and soap opera, wherein he went from inspiring widespread fandom to giving many people the willies. In the 1970s, I was reporting on how he repeatedly got out of the toughest spots on the gridiron. A real escape artist. Any evaluation of his character beyond that slips my grasp.

Sneer and loathing in sports talk radio

As a sports journalist, I am offended that New York’s original sports talk radio station this week auditioned New Jersey governor Chris Christie for a job. Of course, as a sports journalist, I already was offended by sports talk radio, which long ago poisoned the discourse over matters of less-than-earthshaking importance.

And the unhappy truth is that Christie and sports talk radio’s in-your-face format share the same space on a Venn diagram. Regularly rude in his dealings with his Jersey constituents, Christie was predictably insulting to a couple of callers to station WFAN during his tryout. He even complained that he had been “screwed” by his potential employers for putting him on the air on “the two worst sports days of the year.”

But this is where we are with this vacuous programing. An NJ.com evaluation of Christie’s gig judged it a primary “strength” that he was “opinionated and combative.”

As opposed to, say, informative.

Here’s the point (reinforced by WFAN’s current self-congratulatory celebration of its 30th anniversary and the simultaneous fawning over the “legacy” of its caterwauling former partners Mike Francesa and Chris Russo): Conflict and partisan outrage may sell—especially to a target audience of young males—but they aren’t the least bit illuminating.

Yes, sports talk radio—fueled by the hassling, arrogant model of Francesa and Russo—has wildly proliferated since WFAN’s debut in 1987. And, by taking frivolous sports arguments from barstools onto the public airwaves, it has superseded the real sports journalism in newspapers and magazines, influencing far too many editors to dumb down their products.

In the new ESPN 30-for-30 film documenting the 19-year Francesa-Russo collaboration, there is plenty of detail about the pair’s celebrity and vocal version of professional wrestling. But, as Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review of the show noted, “It would have been nice to hear Mr. Russo and Mr. Francesa reflect on how they viewed their roles—were they just there to entertain and antagonize in a quest for ratings, or to educate, facilitate and investigate?”

I think I know the answer. There never was any real possibility that a listener could learn much from those two know-it-alls—who, by the way, often displayed a complete lack of interest or familiarity with sports beyond baseball, basketball and football—shouting over each other’s deranged bellowing.

Naturally dozens, then hundreds, of radio stations (now 790 around the country) copied them. The disputes and sensationalism, the scorn and ridicule, quickly leeched into cable television and its Hot Take sports shows, wherein two or more so-called experts participate in skirmishes essentially boiling down to one fellow—it’s almost always men—making some blanket statement meant to reduce everyone else’s opinion to garbage.

Amid the rumpus, nothing is really thoughtful. Nothing adds to the marketplace of ideas. Nothing goes deeper than caffeinated judgments of a player’s or coach’s bumhood and how everything could be solved by taking the talking (screaming) head’s advice. (My friend Pat Borzi, a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, once astutely observed that “the best thing for sports talk radio is the home team’s 10-game losing streak.”)

The objective is heat, not light. Sports talk radio, rather than evocative, is merely provocative. It’s about rubbing two sticks together.

So here’s Chris Christie, often described as a bully and known to sometimes play fast and loose with the truth, campaigning for the job Francesa has said he will leave in December. Like Francesa, the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick wrote, Christie “treats listeners as if they’re too stupid to recognize that he messes with facts.”

Facts? As a journalist, I made a decision years ago: Switch the dial to NPR.

Defiling the American hot dog

This is to suggest that protesters at Coney Island’s annual July 4 hotdog-eating contest missed the point. Instead of objecting to the event’s promotion of violence against animals by showcasing their consumption, the five demonstrators detained by police should have been railing against the revolting public spectacle of people trying to outgorge each other against the clock.

The so-called winner of the (literally) nauseating pigout devoured 72 dogs (with buns) in 10 minutes and somehow was celebrated in newspaper and television reports which cast him as participating in a distinctive Independence Day American tradition.

In fact, the whole operation deserved bad reviews on multiple levels, beginning with its juxtaposition to the contrary epidemics of childhood obesity and world hunger. The former scourge has more than tripled since the 1970s, with one in five schoolchildren now dangerously overweight, while one in nine people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment. Those statistics ought to take the fun out of the Coney Island show—if it had any entertainment value in the first place.

Hotdogs indeed are an appealing and appropriate July 4 U.S. custom; it was estimated that our 324 million fellow citizens accounted for 150 million dogs eaten. But that averages out, roughly, to a reasonable two franks per person, and it likely would spoil regular folks’ holiday barbeques to see the leading hog on Coney Island wolf down the share of more than 33 people. In 10 minutes.

That put him, and his fellow “competitors,” somewhere between Dante’s third and fourth circles of hell—gluttony and greed. Not to mention their appalling wastefulness. Some people eat to live and others live to eat, but those partaking in the hotdog race were just eating to eat, fulfilling neither the primary (fuel) nor secondary (enjoyment) functions of food.

Alarmingly, the yearly Coney Island binge is just a single stop on a circuit of eating contests conducted by an organization calling itself Major League Eating, which claims it provides “dramatic audience entertainment and offer[s] an unparalleled platform for media exposure.” MLE calls its eaters “an increasingly celebrated breed of athlete.”

These “athletes” challenge each other at speed-eating cake, corn-on-the-cob, butter, chicken wings, glazed doughnuts, pie. And even if no animals are hurt in some productions, it’s enough—more than enough—to make a person sick.

Korean Olympic choreography

I just read the news today (oh, boy): South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has publicly proposed forming a unified Olympic team with North Korea for February’s Winter Games in PyeongChang in the South. Even wilder: South Korean Cultural, Sports and Tourism Minister, Do Jong-hwan, has floated the idea of the North co-hosting the Olympics, with a yet-to-be determined number of ski events at the North’s new Masikryong ski resort.

“Pipe dream” is too mild a description. Any heartfelt longing to advance dialogue and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and the idea of doing so through the world’s most visible athletic festival, is certainly welcome. But the Korean War, after 64 years, technically is still on. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1953 but never signed a peace treaty, and just last month, Moon cited the “high possibility” of renewed military conflict over the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests.

The sports reality, furthermore, is that no North Korean athlete has yet qualified to compete in PyeongChang and, beyond that, officials in the North have not stated a willingness to participate in the Games. Choi Moon-soon, governor of PyeongChang’s Gangwon Province, told CNN this week that having the North host events is impossible, while Reuters reported that North Korea’s International Olympic Committee member, Chang Ung, confirmed that assembling a North-South team is unrealistic given the present political climate.

But the shadow boxing goes on—just as it did leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in the South’s capital, Seoul. Back then, North Korea spent more than a year angling for a role as co-host, demanding that it stage eight sports, which was then one-third of the Summer Olympic program. The IOC, keen to be the globe’s fence-mender, bent its charter—which stipulates that the Games are given to a single city—by offering to place three sports in the North.

As the point man in those IOC negotiations, then-IOC vice president Dick Pound experienced “something almost ritualistic” about the North’s bargaining tactics that was unrelated to real possibilities. “The North Koreans never seemed to hear what they were being told,” he said then.

A year before the Seoul Games, Pound reported that, when the IOC declared its final tender was three sports in the North, “North Korea said, ‘The latest offer is very encouraging progress toward putting eight sports in North Korea.’” The IOC nevertheless persisted with the talks because, “if you could get anyone across that border into North Korea to compete, into such an acknowledged trouble spot, it would really be special,” Pound said.

That still applies. But so does this: “South Korea,” he said, “could go up there and win a gold medal. That means that the South Korean flag goes up the pole in North Korea, and the South Korean anthem plays. And that’s unthinkable in the North.”

In 1988 as now, there were pockets of sentiment for North-South rapprochement, especially among student radicals. At the time, that passion manifested itself in regular, orchestrated demonstrations in which some students would hurl bricks and rocks at riot police, who answered with tear-gas guns and parcel-post-like trucks firing volleys of tear gas.

I witnessed one of those set-piece demonstrations on the steps of Yonsei University in Seoul with my friend Jay Weiner, then a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And, while there was nothing pleasant about being caught in a tear-gas storm, the whole scene—contained within a couple of blocks—produced more a sense of choreographed fervor than of real danger.

A quarter-mile from the most intense action, folks from the neighborhood sat under umbrellas at small sidewalk cafes and drank ginseng tea, and little children bounced on a mattress under a street overpass. Coughing, weeping women streamed out of the university gates, eyeballs and skin burning from the tear gas and their mouths covered with handkerchiefs. But a middle-aged fellow strolling along in his Hawaiian shirt shrugged off the fuss.

“You learn to live with this,” he said. “We Koreans love clashes, although I must say, I don’t think these students understand much.” One student at a neighboring university told us that the “joke on campuses is that these kids don’t want to take tests, so they demonstrate. And the joke off campus is that the radicals are ‘spring mushrooms’ who pop up each year and then get a job working for Hyundai after graduation.”

Those spring mushrooms continue to appear, and the Olympics has been a venue for the hope, however dim, of a reunified Korea. Though the North wound up skipping the ’88 Seoul Games altogether, there subsequently were two occasions at the Summer Olympics, in Sidney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, when teams from the North and South marched together in Opening Ceremonies under a flag with the generic map of the Korean peninsula.

In both cases, though, the North and South competed separately. And to read the news these days (oh, boy) is to be reminded that neither side has won the Korean War.

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)

Los Angeles as the Olympic savior (again?)

(Newsday, March 1, 1979)

What if we updated that headline by 40 years? Will the 2024 Olympics Be the Last?

Los Angeles wound up staging the 1984 Summer Games because no other city wanted them. Now, a decision by the International Olympic Committee executive board, proposing that both the 2024 and 2028 Games be awarded simultaneously later this year, essentially has acknowledged that L.A. likely is the only possible host for ’28.

The IOC should have seen around this corner a long time ago, as Olympic candidates are increasingly shying away from the financial demands and public doubts of staging an elaborate 17-day festival that leaves behind far more debt and white elephants than global goodwill. Only L.A. and Paris remain in the exhaustive, expensive campaign for ’24 after Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest withdrew prematurely, just as Oslo and Stockholm changed their minds about trying for the 2022 Winter Games.

So, rather than be stuck without a 2028 suitor, the IOC proclaimed both L.A. and Paris will get the next two Summer Games after Tokyo hosts in 2020. The loser in ’24—widely assumed to be Los Angeles, because Paris is “due” after losing bids in 1992, 2008 and 2012 and would be celebrating the centennial of its last Olympics in 1924—will be left with the ’28 consolation prize.

If, in fact, it can be considered a prize to operate an event that fills the IOC coffers while having to assume all cost overruns, as per IOC custom. To accept the 2028 Games, instead of the preferred 2024 event, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti suggested there should be a multi-million dollar IOC investment into his city’s youth sports programs. To which IOC president Thomas Bach haughtily replied, “You don’t need to reward somebody if you give them a present.”

Maybe that is what Los Angeles gets for having declared itself “an eternal Olympic city,” always ready with a solvent plan of existing venues and “unwavering public support.” But Bach has been around long enough—he was part of West Germany’s gold-medal Olympic fencing team in 1976—to know it was L.A. that gave the IOC the ultimate present in 1984. By keeping the Olympics alive.

It was on March 1, 1979 that the IOC formally signed the contract to put the ’84 Games in L.A., long after the only other bid city—Tehran, Iran—dropped out of the race. Days earlier, I had been in the office of 37-year-old Los Angeles lawyer John Argue, the man who had finally succeeded in pitching L.A.’s Olympic candidacy after years of trying. Though by default. The financial disaster of 1976, when Montreal left a $1.5 million debt that took 30 years to pay off, came “really close” to killing the Olympics, Argue said then.

“I honestly believe the Games are very much in jeopardy,” he said. “Three cities bid for the ’76 Games. Two bid for the ’80 Games. And only us for ’84. There truly were no other bid cities. We heard the Games were not welcome in Munich, Montreal, Mexico City”—the previous three summer hosts.

Attention had to be paid to the disasters in each of those cities—the Mexican government killing at least 250 unarmed demonstrators days before the ’68 Mexico City Games; Palestinian terrorists murdering 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation in Munich in ’72; the wasteful spending and corrupt leadership of Montreal organizers in ’76.

Still, the IOC stubbornly insisted that Los Angeles abide by its “Rule No. 4,” which required host cities to bear all financial responsibility for the operation of the Games. And the U.S. Olympic Committee originally dismissed Argue’s massive money-saving plan to use USC and UCLA dorms to house the world’s competitors, rather than spend more than $100 million on the traditional athletes village. “The first reaction of the USOC,” Argue said, “was, ‘impossible. The IOC will want a village.’

“We were eyeball-to-eyeball,” Argue said. “And [the IOC] blinked. In a way, they were playing brinksmanship with the Olympics—which they really didn’t have to do.”

Argue, after all, was about to save their bacon. He was a passionate Olympic patriot. He was born in 1932, the year L.A. staged its first Olympics, the son of a 1924 Olympic pentathlete, and followed his father as chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which was formed in 1939 and had been agitating to return the Games to L.A. ever since.

Argue’s group hired as L.A.’s Olympic organizing chief an unknown travel executive named Peter Ueberroth, whose deft guidance of the Games got him named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and led to a turn as Major League Baseball commissioner. Under Ueberroth, Los Angeles established the gold standard for Olympic efficiency, marketing and fiscal sanity.

L.A. created the first “official sponsorships” of the Games, the first “unified look” of branding, and used 40 percent of its record $223 million surplus to fund the LA84Foundation, which doled out more than $185 million in donations to more than 1,000 southern California sports organizations over the next 25 years—including to a youth program that nurtured the likes of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams.

John Argue died in 2002, at 70. And what he prioritized in 1979 for the ’84 L.A. Games—that “we must demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to go broke staging the Olympics”—was so successful that it not only saved the Games but, through its ability to raise big money, also released the beasts of profligate spending at future Olympics. So that now we may be coming full cycle, back to the Montreal problem.

Neither the 2014 Sochi Winter Games nor last summer’s Rio Olympics did anything to restore economic sense. Television ratings, already slipping, won’t be helped by the next three Olympics being played out in Far East time zones—2018 Winter in Pyeongchang, South Korea; 2020 Summer in Tokyo, 2022 Winter in Beijing.

Just this week, the Olympics’ major sponsor, McDonald’s, ended its 41-year sponsorship of the Games—three years early—a high-profile departure that Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly cited as “just the latest signal that the Olympic operation is in decline, along with the benefit of being linked to it.”

Another signal is the IOC’s 2024-2028 host-city packaging, clearly uneasy about future efforts to bring this bloated, unbalanced monster in for a landing. Really: Might the 2024 Olympics be the last?

R.I.P. Frank Deford

I crossed paths with Frank Deford only twice, and chatted briefly with him on just one occasion. So I certainly can’t add to the countless personal appreciations of that sportswriting giant, who died last week at 78. Besides, I am not equipped to sum up Deford as artfully as Deford could get to the essence of his subjects—sometimes in one brilliant sentence.

For a 1979 Sports Illustrated profile of Earl Weaver, for instance, Deford began several paragraphs about the feisty Hall of Fame manager, who was ejected by umpires more than 90 times in his career and was widely known for an almost casual profanity, this way:

“Earl says a dirty word.”

As part of his coverage of the 1988 Olympic equestrian event and its “patronizing upper-crust participants,” Deford made a passing reference to famously snippy British rider Mark Phillips, then married to Princess Anne, by slyly noting that “a number of the horses’ asses are not attached to the horses.”

Deford’s writing was conversational yet literate, a model for anyone who aspires to traffic in the English language. It was full of appreciation for its leading characters, while devoid of the gee-whiz gushing that is so common in sports coverage. And so vivid. He once described Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter and Shorter’s fellow distance runners, at a time when running was just becoming fashionable, as “lean leggy people in a pudgy world of wheels.”

To read his stylish, perceptive prose was to wonder—just as so many sports fans puzzle over some jock’s spectacular play—“How does he do that?”

Don’t ask me. I have spent a half-century as a sportswriter and now teach a college sportswriting course, and the best I can do is cite what a comedian once told aspiring students about her profession: “I can’t teach you to be a good comic. All I can do is introduce you to good comedy.”

So I acquaint the class with really good sportswriting. John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker piece on Ted Williams’ final big-league game. Roy Blount Jr.’s 1984 Sports Illustrated consideration of whether Yankee catcher Yogi Berra could be considered a true yogi (“He loves to sit around reflecting in his undershorts”). Roger Angell’s New Yorker articles on baseball. Kenny Moore’s personal account of the 1972 Olympic marathon for Sports Illustrated.

Anything by Frank Deford.

And still there is the mystery of just how those eminent wordsmiths do that? My best student last semester, in his final class essay, raised the frustration that “we have read wonderful pieces but didn’t really explain how they did what they did. How do you tell a story with a lot of color and detail? How do you write casually? How do you develop your voice?”

Not surprisingly, plenty of admirers had asked Deford, “How do you write?” And his response, recalled in his 2012 memoir Over Time, was, “You mean like: In the morning after breakfast, in my office, on a computer? That’s how I write…” His take was that writing “is such a personal endeavor, people are curious as to exactly how you go about it,” yet guessed that captains of industry aren’t asked what they do in their offices, how they talk on the phone and so on.

Back to the comedian’s system, then: If you want to write sports (or anything, really), the first thing to do is read the best. Read Deford. His work embodied journalism’s ideals, that thorough reporting enhances the quality of writing (his magnificent storytelling always was deeply researched); and that interviewing skills are a key tool in gathering facts. He said he considered the interviewing process akin to flirting, since the purpose is to learn another’s interests, aspirations and grievances.

Then, armed with great detail, he could spin transfixing tales. A treatise on roller derby, an examination of what made cantankerous basketball coach Bobby Knight tick, a study of the Soap Box Derby. Whatever.

He once said that “when people hear you’re a sportswriter, they assume you’re more interested in the first half of that word than the second.” It was obvious that he involved himself in the intricate plumbing of that second half of the word. He often quoted his first Sports Illustrated editor, Andre Laguerre, advising him, “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”

So, even though Deford spent an entire career nettling the American soccer community—he once insisted that the initials U.S.A. stood for “Uninterested in Soccer A-tall”—it didn’t stop him from assigning himself to travel to Cameroon to produce an empathetic account of that nation’s 1990 World Cup quarterfinal showdown with soccer’s Mother Country, England.

Deford found a local bar to witness the Cameroon citizens’ emotional investment in television coverage of the game that was being played in Naples, Italy. When Cameroon, an eventual 3-2 loser, scored the opening goal, “a short, fat lady next to me grabbed me and starting dancing with me,” he wrote in Over Time, “and if only you could’ve seen the unbounded joy on her face. The photographer who was with me took a picture of that moment, and it’s the only sports photograph I keep in my office. It tells you better than anything else about the joy of sports—and the power, too, I suppose.”

In fact, it felt as if Deford’s mastery of his craft best told the joy and power of sports. With the news of his death, I might have said a dirty word.

70 is not quite the new 50

(Here is an old-man adventure that was chronicled in Newsday….)

Just to be clear: I did not attempt running the May 7 Long Island Half-Marathon—13.1 miles—as some death-defying challenge at 70. Risk does not appeal to me, which explains why I never considered celebrating my septuagenarian situation by climbing Mount Everest (fear of heights) or swimming the English Channel (fear of pruney bathtub skin).

Furthermore, in the words of the late George Sheehan—a cardiologist who became a philosopher of the recreational running movement 40 years ago—I have the pain threshold of a firm handshake. I am opposed to torture in all its forms.

So let me report that I did not suffer. Unless one considers the uncomfortable realization that with age comes a significant fading of muscle memory. Leg oldsheimer’s. What took me an hour and 36 minutes when I was 39; what took me an hour and 48 minutes when I was 49 (the last time I attempted the distance); required, on this occasion, two hours, 35 minutes and 41 seconds.

But I will argue that it’s possible to have a good time without having a good time. And I will submit that it is crucial to have a patient wife. Though Donna freely volunteered to be my pre- and post-race valet and to observe my start and finish, I was fully aware that she was due at work a mere four hours after the starting gun. And the clock was ticking.

She had convinced me to buy a $20 pouch for my iPhone, strapped to my bicep, which gave us a lifeline in case of emergency. Turned out that I didn’t die, but her phone did.

And…where was I? Oh, yes. Why?

I’ve asked other runners, of all ages and stations in life, that question—not just about attempting the marathon or half-marathon, but also about putting in the daily mileage necessary to safely attempt them. It’s the challenge, they say. It’s the internal struggle, as opposed to trying to beat the other guy. It’s a great escape from more important things in life. It’s a way to get out of the house.

Also: Why not?

This was not a bucket-list thing. I was in my late 20s when I joined the running boom, a program already in progress, and set about proving (to myself) that I was a “legitimate” runner by twice finishing full 26.2-mile marathons. Then came eight half-marathons, my last one in 1996.

What ended the habit of entering such events was the rigmarole of paying entry fees, fighting crowds, traveling to races, fitting them into work and family schedules. And: Been there, done that. But I remained hooked on the addiction of a daily, leisurely run, and somehow got the notion in February that I should try the half-marathon again. Because it was there, I guess.

The new dare was accepting that I am an old retired guy. On Social Security and Medicare. With a pre-existing condition: moderately severe lead-footedness. I never have been especially fast, and I had to prepare myself psychologically for the fact that many people—not necessarily younger than I—would be passing me along the way.

Chugging along, I had an ideal view of the backs of many, many fellow participants. But, once past the first two miles, fighting to warm up in the chilly winds, things went as well as could be expected. Spectators scattered along the course were exceptionally kind, many offering the standard “looking good” evaluation even for those of us who, I strongly suspect, were not.

In taking constant readings throughout the 13.1 miles, I was encouraged by the lack of alarming signals like balking knees, sore shins or aching Achilles, and was maintaining roughly the same pace as my daily 5- and 6-mile ramblings. I quite enjoyed again being in such a pedestrian celebration, laying down all those non-carbon footprints.

In the end, the greatest danger might have been the bag of munchies handed out to all finishers. Along with a healthy banana, there was a processed bagel, donut, muffin and cookie with frightening levels of carbohydrates, sugar and calories. After being whisked home by Donna on her way to work, I settled for handfuls of almonds and a bag of M&Ms (peanut). Coffee and plenty of water.

I had finished 1,768th in a field of 2,073 and think I detected a chortle in Donna’s voice: “You only beat 305 people!?”

Except, in my age group (male, 70 to 74), I was 10th of 18. The senior discount.