Sunday, February 19, 2006

the truth about the winter Olympics

This is my column from Sunday's rag. It's my first byline in about three months, so it might be a little rusty. It's also on the long side -- about 30 inches -- so you may want to grab a drink or something before you begin taking a gander.

There has been much hand-wringing this week over the plummeting interest in the Winter Olympics. From athletes complaining about nonexistent crowds to network executives lamenting the 36 percent ratings decline since Salt Lake City four years earlier, all essentially express the same frustration. Newfound irrelevance.

But it's no wonder Americans have ignored Turin. The Olympics have become a cesspool of corruption, arrogance and marketing shtick that dilutes the actual meaning of the Games.

Let's stop pretending it's our patriotic duty to revel in the Olympics and acknowledge them for what they are. At the end of his provocative "Real Sports" Show, host Bryant Gumble said: "Face it, these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of Feburary."

Sounds about right.

The loudest voice telling us how excited we should feel about these Games comes from NBC, which not coincidentally is the network that paid $1.5 billion for the right to tell us exactly how excited we should feel.

And NBC has done that with all the subtlety of clobbering viewers with a two-by-four. Instead of broadcasting actual events, competition becomes a sideshow for contrived features. Cue the violins. If an athlete ever endured the crisis of a toothache, you can be sure Katie Couric will reverentially gush with triumph-over-adversity bluster.

Four years from now, Johnny Weir's "They changed the bus schedule whine" will make for a fantastic story for Matt Lauer.

The androgynous figure skater blamed a renegade bus schedule and his subsequent late arrival at his venue for an error-riddled performance Wednesday that cost him a silver medal. "I didn't feel my inner peace tonight," he said. "My biorhythm was off. I was black inside."

This is another thing about these Olympics. The athletes are more unlikable than ever.

Once, part of the appeal of Olympic stars was they didn't behave like the pompous, spoiled millionaires who populate mainstream sports. They were men and women who trained in obscurity for years, persevering toward an dream. They possessed that contagious, underdog spirit. Ordinary people could relate.

Now we get drug cheats on ever corner. We get Bode Miller's daily screeds regarding how little he cares about his performance. We get Weir complaining that a bus schedule turned his inner aura black. We get snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis.

The three-time X Games champion should have coasted to an easy gold medal in Friday's snowboard cross. Instead of nursing her sizable lead, she hot-dogged toward the end, performing an unnecessary jump. She fell. She lost.

Such a stupid stunt not only shows how ESPN's boo-yah culture has infected the sporting landscape, it instantly became a symbol of American arrogance in Turin.

All this arrives on top of the scandal-addled Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which showed Olympic ideals are as much about lining the pockets of politicians and IOC officials as they are international sporting competition.

Even if you overlook the absurdity of whipping fans into a frenzy once every 48 months over a collection of obscure sports they otherwise show zero interest in, it's easy to see why few are excited about Turin.

Fans are fed up. Sappy NBC drivel. Drug cheats. Selfish athletes. Crooked Olympic officials. Shamless sponsors hawking products. You don't need to be a cynical sports writer to feel disgusted.

But just when the urge to dismiss the Olympics forever reaches its flashpoint... along comes Joey Cheek.

The American speedskater won a gold medal Tuesday. He started his ensuing press conference by saying: "I've trained my whole life for this, but I am skating around in a skintight suit. It's a little ridiculous. I can take the time to sit up here and gush or I can do something worthwhile."

He chose the latter. Cheek announced he would donate his $25,000 winnings to a charity called "Right To Play." The organization provides athletic opportunities to youngsters in the war-torn Darfur region. He encouraged his sponsors to do the same.

On Saturday, he won a silver medal that will allow him to donate $15,000 more to the charity.

Then along comes Michelle Roark, a Denver resident who tells an underdog story so improbable, even Katie Couric couldn't have conceived such a remarkable, wrenching tale.

Roark's mother kicked her out of the house at a young age. For her 17th birthday, the homeless girl only wanted food. She lived as a squatter on a tent near Winter Park for six months, scaring bears away by banging on a pot. She worked part-time jobs at a bakery, movie theater and T-shirt shop, earning just enough to scrape by in various mountain towns. She endured six knee surgeries. But she continued skiing.

So there she was, thrashing through moguls in Turin.

Then along come two cross-country skiers who may have finished dead last, but definitely not least. Costa Rica's Arturo Kinch and Thailand's Prawat Nagvajara were one-man delegations in Turin. It took them years to convince their respective governments they were not kidding -- they really wanted to compete in the Olympics.

Kinch, a customer-service agent for United Airlines, sold stock options in the company to pay for his Turin trip. Four years ago, Olympic officials removed Nagvajara from the course because he moved too slow. They wanted to wrap up the event. When he crossed the finish line in Turin this week, he shouted: "I did it! I did it!"

These are people who embody true Olympic spirit. They remind us what the Games are really about. Behind layers of slime and the drape of NBC's sugar-coated coverage, they're just a lot harder to find.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

shooting ducks in a barrel

This game is as hilarious as it is predictable. What's more disturbing is if you follow the link to the story on canned hunting, which is a practice where hundreds of dazed birds are left in a fenced-in area so a bunch of fat, rich white guys can blow them away at point-blank range.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

short final, three zero

Next week, I turn 30.

This may sound strange, but I am very much looking forward to the occasion. Ericka and I are going down to Durango to do some skiing. We are going to perhaps hit Wolf Creek and Purgatory, do some drinking at night, meet up with a friend and generally enjoy a weekend getaway to the mountains.

Any trepidation I had about turning 30 hit last birthday, when I knew there was only one year left in the fantastic decade of debauchery that has been my 20s. At 29, I thought reaching 30 would necessitate a whole lot of changes that seemed pretty lame.

I thought 30 meant settling down, moving to the suburbs, the end of carousing and acting like a clown. If the 20s were a big party, it seemed like 30 was when you accidentally stumbled outside, the door locked behind you, and you can't get back inside to enjoy yourself.

Instead, 30 is looking pretty good.

For one, I'm too lame nowadays to spend my time in a never-ending cycle of drinking too much and feeling crappy the next day. Those spectacular performances are now reserved for special occasions.

Not wasting time on nonsense has opened many other opportunities. I'm hiking more. I'm reading a lot more. I studied my ass off and got my commercial pilot's license and flight instructor's certificate. I'm saving more money. My writing is stronger. I'm in better shape than ever. And most importantly, I'm getting married to a beautiful, wonderful -- apologies for the blatant sappiness -- woman in November, in what promises to be a hard-core wedding at Red Rocks.

So all you 29-year-olds need not worry like I did last year. There's no need to become less hard-core at 30. The milestone merely presents a chance to stack your shit in order, your priorities straight. If that's 30, I like it a lot.

Full steam ahead.

(My apologies for an out-of-character contemplative posting. I'll return to the regularly scheduled crumudgeon shtick soon enough).


Thursday, February 09, 2006

angry letter

This is a copy of the angry letter I sent today to the CEO of Salton Inc. It is a little more restrained than my usual screeds, but I thought I would try a more modest approach this time. (The angry approach works just fine too).

Enclosed in the box that I sent is indeed the offending toaster.

January 30, 2006

To: Mr. David C. Sabin
Salton Inc.
1955 Field Court
Lake Forest, IL 60045

cc: Chairman Hal Stratton
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Washington DC 20207-0001

Dear Mr. Sabin:

It is my sincere hope that you can find an appropriate use for the enclosed gift. It would work well as a stylish paperweight in your office. Or you could utilize the convenient slots for storing CDs. Better yet, it might make an impressive decorative item for your home kitchen, as it recently did for ours.

One thing I would not recommend, however, would be using this to toast assorted breads.

My fiancee and I purchased this toaster for more than $50 only four months ago. We spent our hard-earned money on your brand becaue, though more expensive than your competition, toastmaster (R) was a reputable brand.

That reputation is now tarnished. We might as well have chosen a cheaper toaster, because the one made by your company quit working after a few months of extremely light use. You may notice the depressor refuses to remain deployed while attempting to toast.

What's remarkable is this product ostensibly met with your quality standards before being sold, as evidenced by the "Q.C. pass" sticker on its underbelly.

I may have dismissed this breakdown as an anomaly, had I not recently realized it is your same company that makes the Juiceman, another kitchen appliance that quit working on me after mere months of use. (The motor died long ago).

Considering I have spent hundreds of dollars between these two products, I can assure you that I will never buy another Salton product.

Please understand my intention in writing is not to request a refund. I do not have a receipt, nor was a warranty offered. My hope, however, is that you realize consumers like myself are exasperated by your dedication to producing junk at the minimal possible cost to your company.

I am sure you pay pennies on the dollar to manufacture these toasters in China, then have them shipped here. May I suggest, Mr. Sabin, that you are getting what you pay for? In the long run, that mentality chases away repeat business from customers like myself. This is a disheartening, yet all too common practice in today's corporate culture.

So enjoy your new toaster. Rather than buy another one of your unreliable products, I'll be content to make my toast the old-fashioned way -- cranking up the broiler in the oven.




Monday, February 06, 2006

A futile exercise in self-importance

Baby Boomers unleashed a tidal wave of social change on America, freeing women from the constraints of their kitchens, blacks from the shackles of Jim Crow and millions of citizens from intolerance of many formes.

All these changes created more American progress than the efforts of the preceding generation. At least that's the thrust of a new book called "The Greater Generation," a unimaginative title that rips off Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" label.

This book is unmitigated horseshit.

The premise is absurd as it is self-indulgent. Only a Baby Boomer could conceive of such a ludicrous comparison. Reading a synopsis of this book rekindled a lurking thought that's been in my mind lately: With all due respect to my parents, I don't think there's a more disappointing generation in the last 200 years than the Boomers.

The author of this book, Leonard Steinhorn, acknowledges the noble sacrifices made by the so-called Greatest Generation throughout the Great Depression and World War II, during which more than 2 million American soldiers perished.

But he essentially argues the social progress won by Boomers exceeds those accomplishments because their challenges were more insidious.

"Boomers were passionate idealists who demanded that America live up to its ideals. Disillusioned by official lies about Vietnam, appalled by America's pervasive racism, rejecting double standards for and discrimination against women, unwilling to blindly accept authority, the boomers fought for a more tolerant, enlightened, transparent and just society. They in fact embodied a deeply ethical and committed vision."

For a brief time, the Boomers agitated against a sterile society and protested the pointless Vietnam War. That is their achievement. The rest of that is nonsense.

For one, the civil rights advances of 1964 were won by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, neither one of which were Boomers.

And go ahead and take a trip through the Deep South today and ask minorities whether they think racism has been vanquished. Ask them if their votes are counted. Ask those gays shot up in the Massachusetts bar last week if they think homophobia has been extinguished.

It's hard to fathom this arse calling America more "tolerant, enlightened and transparent" when the Boomers elected George W. Bush to two terms. It's harder to imagine, considering we live in Red State America, where an entire swath of the Midwest and South has veered from its Democratic roots into conservativism since the early 1970s.

That's progress?

In the late 1960s, the Boomers had an incredible opportunity. Their rebellion against the bland world of their parents caused admittedly important societal shifts. But their movement withered away. They ran out of energy after Altamont or something and just deflated before anything was accomplished.

All their change-the-world idealism spawned the Gordon Gekko greed of the 1980s, suburban sprawl, savings and loan scandals, insane national debt, SUVs and lattes. I generalize, but ultimately they've created a society that's gone soft.

I don't think the Boomers, or the younger generation for that matter, could fathom the hard times the Greatest Generation endured. We've lost roughly 2,300 soldiers in Iraq. Not two million. Most of us barely remember there' s a war going on. Television news doesn't report on it because our "viewer fatigue" sends ratings down. We've never been asked to ration rubber, metal or food.

Enduring these hardships like the World War II generation did may merely count as survival, and not an accomplishment, in Steinhorn's world. Even if you buy that argument, our grandparents existed on a pittance during the Depression, endured ghastly shit like the Bataan Death March, righted the economy -- and found some time to stop Hitler.

Meanwhile, the problems Steinhorn exalts the Boomers for fixing still exist. Progress has indeed been made, but in small and sporadic amounts. The Boomers had chances to achieve great things, and selfishly let them all slip away. That's why favorable comparions like Steinhorn's are inept. That's why the Boomers hold the title, in my book, of most disappointing generation.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Mick turns tricks, and other thoughts

With their Super Bowl appearance approaching, there has been a lot of rancor about the Rolling Stones selling out to the stiff, corporate National Football League.

This is a surprise?

It's what the Stones do best. Fans like to act disillusioned by this recent shilling, but Mick Jagger and the rest of the crew have been corporate whores for decades. This is not some sudden, abhorrent development.

E-Trade sponsored the group's last tour. "Start Me Up" was sold to Microsoft for use the company's advertising in the late 1980s. Those are obvious; some of Mick's efforts have been more subtle. In a move of cunning commercialism, he placed a duet with Dave Matthews on the live No Security album to exploit Matthews' rising popularity.

(Dave wrecked "Memory Motel," singing it while he was apparently gargling with shards of broken glass, but that's beside the point).

As far back their 1967 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Stones sold out. Television officials did not want "Let's Spend The Night Together" aired, so Mick acquiesed and changed the lyrics to the tame "Let's Spend Some Time Together."

Don't get me wrong. I like the Rolling Stones. Always have. Their early music taps a dark, raw angst that no band in history has matched. But their shameless commercialism has always been part of the deal.

So let's stop acting like it's some regrettable sign of the times.


More disarray in Detroit. This time it has nothing to do with the Rolling Stones.

The Detroit Lions are a franchise in disarray. That was never more evident than Thursday, when former Rams coach Mike Martz, a man not exactly known for ingenuity, decided he'd rather make no money this year than serve as the team's offensive coordinator.

That's like saying to Johnny, the skateboarding punk on the corner, "Hey, want to come sit on the board of my company," and having him respond, "Nah, I'd rather flip burgers at McDonalds.

Expect plenty of "Fire Millen" chants at Ford Field on Sunday.


This column is a few months old, but it is hilarious. It's a keeper, especially if you work in journalism and have seen various lightweight scum plagiarize your work. Three cheers to Leonard Pitts.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

next up on netflix

At first, I was drawn by car-wreck curiosity. I admit that.

It's not every day you see disabled people smash the hell out of each other in gladiator-style, Mad Max wheelchairs.

Then, I was lured by the stories behind the injuries. They're all riveting. When the movie "Murderball" came out last summer, I did a story on our local quadriplegic rugby team, and I haven't cared about a story for a long time like I did that one.

I watched the movie last night for the first time since last summer, and cannot say enough about it. It might be the best sports movie ever. It's probably the best movie, period, I've seen in the last year. If you haven't watched it yet, check it out at Blockbuster or on Netflix.

What makes it great is this: it's not your typical sappy sports film.

In the hands of less-skilled directors, Murderball could be filled with the overwrought, triumph-over-adversity bullshit that seems to be the theme of every sports movie. Lord knows the material is there. The Murderball directors must have been suffering from a bout of forgetfulness, because they do a refreshing thing. They get out of the way and just tell the damned story without mucking it up with forced emotion.

The movie treats the rugby players as athletes first. It follows the rivalry between the United States and Canada through the 2004 Paralympic Games. That's the loose plotline.

In between, the filmmakers introduce the captains of those two teams, who fucking hate each other. Their lives off the court are incredible subplots, as are the shitty reality of rehab, sex after quadriplegia and the spark of hope quad rugby can provide to injured people.

The documentary captures the U.S. team in all its blunt glory.

"I was at a wedding, and my girlfirend's aunt came up to me and told me how excited she was that I was going to play in the Special Olympics," says one team member. "I told her, 'I'm not a fucking retard.'"

Bottom line, Murderball offers a glimpse at life in a wheelchair without ever becoming preachy or boring. It's about a team gearing up to play its hated rival in the Olympics; the players happen to be in wheelchairs. It's hilarous. It's heart-breaking. It's just a damned good movie.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A waste of time

If anyone is looking for a diversion from work, I have found your Lourdes. Check out this relatively simple game that I found. My record is 142. Warning: This game could captivate your attention for long periods of time.