My Favorites – Winter Olympic Edition

February 22, 2010

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All I have to say about Luge is “Holy Crap”. Imagine going down an ice slope on a sled, on your back, feet first, reaching speeds of 90 miles per hour. You steer with your toes, lift your head just a bit to see where you are going. You stop by sitting up and lifting the front of the sled. Olympic Luge is safe, even considering the tragedy of February 12. The course is banked, with side barriers and straw bails in case of accident. There is an uphill run at the end to help the lugers stop. This year they moved the men’s start line down to the women’s start line. This actually reduced the top speed!

The luge should not be confused with the skeleton, which is a head first sled ride down the same ice slope. Still cool, but just not quite as cool as the luge. Maybe it is the name or just the fact that the skeleton positions is what I use when sledding.

I like the Luge on several levels. First, the athletes are not just kids. Their ages range from 18 to 40. Second, a little extra weight is a good thing. Momentum is the name of the game, the extra weight allows the luger to overcome any friction that the course provides. And third, you get more than one chance. There are at least 3 runs that are considered for the medals. The luger is all alone on the course, just man against hill. Spectators get just a split second of the race, like sitting on the shoulder of the interstate and watching a car go by.

I guess it is the speed that grabs my attention. I like bobsled and speed skating as well. The bobsled run looks a lot like the luge, but it is different. They share the same track, but two man and four man (and woman) bobsled are different from luge because they are team efforts.

Speed skating is just so elegant. With up to six skaters on the short track and two competitors on the long track, they seem to be dancing as they round the course. You are competing directly for advancement until the final run when medals are awarded. Skating you have to compete with other racers as well as the course. The slightest bump can be disastrous for you chances (the sides of the rink are padded to keep the skaters from getting hurt). The only danger of injury is the skates themselves. Speed skating skates are extremely sharp, to dig into the ice for turns. I have never seen an accident involving that kind of injury, and I hope I never do.

All of these sports epitomize the ideal of the Olympics. All can compete; men, women, young and old. They also help to break the monotony of winter as we move through February. Depending on where you live, February can be very depressing. In the north, it is the lack of sun, in the south, the dreary cold and rainy (this year snowy) days. The kids are in the middle of the school year, and the whole family is months away from a vacation. Yes, the Winter Olympics are a great thing.

Knee Jerk Reactions

February 16, 2010

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It is sometimes human nature to react impusively rather than logically. This happens quite often, but I’ll choose to focus on two recent occurences.

The first occurence are the changes to the luge competition in the aftermath of Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death. His death was most certainly a tragedy. The added retaining wall at the spot where he was ejected from the course is a good idea. Shortening the men’s run by moving their start to the position previously used by the women is not a terrible idea. Shortening the course by these 600 feet (with the accompanying loss of elevation) caused speeds to drop from 95+mph to 90 mph.

The point where I have a concern, however, is the shortening of the women’s course by 800 feet (by moving it to the start point of the Juniors). The women were already at less risk of such extreme accidents by the mere fact that they have a tendency to weigh less than the male competitors (luge is a sport heavily affected by gravity, such that athletes below certain weights are allowed to wear lead weights to boost their mass). Less weight = less speed.  The shortening of the women’s course seems to be an attempt to show that an attempt is being made to ensure safety, when in reality, it is unlikely to make a big difference.  I’m not the only person unhappy about the changes – the competitors themselves were less than thrilled.

The second occurence is probably more likely simply sloppy reporting than intentional exaggeration.   I recently read an article about future Hall of Fame NBA player Tim Duncan. In an effort to show how important Duncan is, the writer pointed to the huge improvement from the 20-62 record the Spurs had he year before he joined the team (1996-97) to the 56-26 record they achieved in Duncan’s first year with the team – implying that Duncan was largely responsible for the 36 win improvement.

Tim Duncan is a great player, and I have utmost respect for him.   However, in this case, the writer is wrong about his impact.  In 1996-97, Hall of Famer David Robinson – then in the prime of his career – played just six games due to injury and All Star guard Sean Elliott also missed substantial time due to injury.  In 1995-96, The Spurs won 59 games on the heels of a 62 win season and a 55 win season.  The 20 win season of 1996-97 was a severe aberration and did not reflect the true talent of the team.  Using this as a baseline for determining Duncan’s impact is, in a word, lazy.

And in other sports new …

In luge, the USA’s Erin Hamlin had a disappointing first day.  After a first run of 41.835 seconds that had her eight overall, she slipped to a time of 42.219 in the second run.  That time was twentieth best in the run, and dropped her combined standing to fifteenth – and a long shot to make a run at a medal.  To nobody’s surprise, three time reigning Luge Word Cup champion Tatjana Hüfner of Germany was in the lead after Monday’s runs.  Hüfner’s 41.760 was third best in the first run.  She then put put down a blistering 41.481 in the second run, setting a track record. The Luge will finish with two more runs this afternoon.

Jamie MacMurray won a marathon Daytona 500.  The race was red flagged a couple of times as officials worked to fix a hole in the track -(yep, the NASCAR folks fix potholes much faster than your local DOT.  Although it was unfortunate that my favorite driver – Tony Stewart – didn’t pick up the win, it’s hard to root against a guy like MacMurray.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to acquire Amare Stoudamire.  Hopefully, LeBron James appreciates what the Cavs are doing and stays put.  Seriously, LeBron, you’re a god in Cleveland and you have a good team around you.  Why trade this in to go to the Knicks – a team in tatters – simply to be in the media spotlight more.  Seriously, you’re getting plenty of attention as it is.

The NFL could be heading toward an uncapped year in 2010.  If this happens, there could be some huge salaries for 2010.  The uncapped year would be the result of owners opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement early.  The labor agreement was originally slated to last through 2013; the owners exercised an option to opt out after the 2011 season.  The uncapped seasons of 2010 and 2011 (assuming that a new agreement is not reached) is a poison pill tied to the owners opting out.  The players’ share of revenues is a key sticking point.  The players currently received 60% of revenues.  The owners would like to see this number shrink.  One beef the players have is that the owners won’t show them financial records.  On this particular point, I am forced to side with the players.  In most cases, I would say that a business has the right to keep their financial records secret.  However, you can’t tie the players’ salary cap to a component of finances without allowing the other side to review the records for accuracy and completeness – this leaves the door wide open for fraudulent behavior.  Don’t want the players to be able to look at your records?  Fine – then don’t tie the salary cap to revenue.

Early Olympic Thoughts

February 14, 2010

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The start of the games were  marred by the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run on Friday.  After viewing the video a few times, I came to a couple of conclusions:

  • When I first heard that Kumaritashvili had struck an unpadded steel pole, I wondered why the poles were unpadded and wondering how much this contributed to his death.  However, after viewing the video, I’m not sure that he would have fared any better with a padded pole.  The poor guy had already taken a fairly bad beating by the time he was propelled off the course.  Of course, padding the poles would still be a good idea.
  • It seems fairly apparent that pilot error was the major factor.  Compare Kumaritashvili’s crash to the crash of defending Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler earlier in the day.  Zoeggeler is able to quickly gain control of his sled and escape injury.  Undoubtedly, there were other differing factors in the two crashes, but the way the athletes dealt with the crash is vastly different.  This isn’t to fault Kumaritashvili – he simply didn’t have the same amount of experience as some of the other lugers.
  • Is the track too dangerous?  That’s not an easy question to answer.  An Olympic venue should strive to challenge the abilities of the athletes, and luge is inherently dangerous.  Is the Whistler track too challenging?  Perhaps, perhaps not.

Officials looked into several options to reduce the chance of further tragedy on the course at the Whistler Sliding Centre, including the possibility of canceling the event entirely.  In the end, they constructed a retaining wall at the spot where Kumaritashvili left the course.  They also decided that the male competitors should start further down the track, at the starting location typically used by the women.  This served to cut speeds from 95 mph to 90 mph.

A few things jumped out at me during the opening ceremonies (and related NBC coverage):

  • The fact that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US is pretty amazing, considering how large Canada is.
  • When I heard the stat about the 5000 mile border between the US being the longest friendly border in the world, I had a mental hiccup wondering how on earth this could be 5000 miles, considering that it’s only about 3000-3500 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  Oh, right.  Alaska has a sizable border with Canada.
  • The ovation for the Georgian delegation was great.  Not that I would have expected anything less from the fine citizens of Canada.
  • I enjoyed seeing the athletes from the warm weather countries.  I got a chuckle out of the contingent from Bermuda – wearing their Bermuda shorts.
  • Each time I see an Olympic flame lighted, I am reminded of my favorite Olympic memory – the ’92 games in Barcelona, when an archer shot a flaming arrow into the caldron to light it.  Although this wasn’t as difficult (for elite archers) as it appeared – in practice, a bunch of archers had shot thousands of arrows, and only a handful miss) – it was flat-out awesome.  18 years later, it still resonates with me.

The games are well under way.  Simon Ammann of Switzerland picked up the first gold medal of the games, in ski jumping.  Hannah Kearney picked up the first American gold in moguls.  Apolo Ohno nabbed a silver in a wild and crazy short track 1500 meter race – three skaters from South Korea were ahead of him, but two of them got tangled and crashed out of the race near the end.

American skier Lindsey Vonn gained a few extra days to recover from her shin injury as a result of weather-related delays in her events.

Men’s luge is halfway done, with young German phenom Felix Loch currently atop the standings.  The gold medal will be awarded today.  The female lugers will compete on Monday and Tuesday.  Happy sliding, guys and gals!