sports, x marks the pod

Episode 10: Sports, ceremonies and stories

On Sunday morning, for the second time in seven months, I took apart my makeshift Olympic viewing station, which consisted of a second computer monitor perched on a TV table next to the sofa from which I could see the big-screen TV. I didn’t do quite as much work for Beijing as I did for Tokyo. I was just working for The Guardian, not NBC.

But there’s a certain melancholy to the end of the Olympics. When I covered the Salt Lake Olympics, they must have had something scheduled for the next day in the convention center that served as the media headquarters, because temporary walls were falling like the end of the Cold War. I was afraid to leave my table for fear that I’d come back with no place to sit.

Closing ceremonies are cool, of course, and you don’t always get to see it all on TV. In Salt Lake, we saw the international feed and NBC feed side by side. Viewers around the world saw a bunch of people painting a circle of ice in real time. NBC saw some commercials and then a circle that had been painted.

But the Olympic flame is extinguished, and we’re jolted back to reality. These days in particular, the reality isn’t particularly pleasant. Thanks, Putin.

Even without global political crises or an irrationally enthusiastic convention center demolition crew, the end of the Olympics can prey on my sentimentality. During the last event of the Games, the men’s ice hockey final, I handed off to someone in Australia. This was an event in China that I covered from my basement in the United States and handed off to Australia for a British newspaper. There’s something beautiful about that.

When I’ve been to the Olympics, I can sense from the staff and volunteers that they’ve come to the abrupt end of something they had been anticipating and doing for months or even years, In 2010, I left the beautiful, happy village of Whistler, wondering if I’d ever get back to someplace so beautiful — and knowing that I would soon be leaving USA TODAY after 10 years.

The best closing ceremony story I have is from Beijing. I was in a bus heading back to the media village while the fireworks were going off. We were going on a freeway offramp, and I could see, just sitting to the side, someplace you’d never be allowed to be in the United States, there was a young mother holding up a young child who must have two, maybe three. The mother was beaming, and the child was just looking on in awe as the fireworks exploded a couple of miles away. We weren’t really that close to the stadium. This child just got a glimpse of the Olympics from afar. I’m guessing this family didn’t have VIP status to go to all the venues. 

I hope that child grew up and volunteered for Beijing 2022 and got to see some of it. I hope that made an impression on him that there’s a much bigger world than the Chinese government is going to otherwise give him. 

Of course, my sentimentality and my optimism were killed the next morning when our flight was canceled and we wound up in a hotel next to the Hard Rock in Beijing, which is why I have a Hard Rock Beijing T-shirt. 

But it’s impossible to see something like that family by the side of the road and not think about the power of sports and the ceremonies around them. They can be absolutely over the top — unless you’re Torino, and the opening ceremony is as half-assed as everything else you did in hosting the Games. (And Italy is getting another chance? Weird.)

These ceremonies mean something. They help bring inspirational stories to life. And there were a lot of inspirational stories. These ceremonies just helped them resonate.

And that brings us back to something else that happened in the past couple of weeks. The Super Bowl. For the first time since X Marks the Pod launched, we have an actual generational brouhaha. So I’m going to talk about that for a bit and then tell some Olympic stories.

This is X Marks the Pod.

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politics, sports

Gen X news, Feb. 1: Cynicism, the Olympics and Spotify

No podcast this week, and no, it’s not a Spotify boycott. The Olympics start tomorrow (yes, Wednesday, because the Games now kick off a couple of days before the Opening Ceremony), and even though I’m not giving NBC 10 hours a day, I’m still down for about 40 hours of live blogging and countless hours of prep work and previews. See my viewing guide.

I’ve also spent a lot of time changing my news diet. That involved a reworking of my 683 Gmail filters. Google could really make that easier, but as we’ll discuss in a bit, they’re the least problematic of the Big Tech companies in this post.

Also, I listened to last week’s podcast and decided that it sums up the state of American politics as well as anything I can produce right now. And in terms of great albums, it’s tough to top the Fishbone album discussed there. So if you haven’t listened to it yet or read the post (and I have the stats to prove that you haven’t), check it out.

Moving on …

It’s easy to say we should be skipping these Olympics because of China and COVID. But the moral calculus here depends on who’s being harmed. The 1980 Olympic boycott may have seemed justified at the time because the Soviet Union had stormed into the eternal quagmire of Afghanistan. It’s not fondly remembered. It didn’t change anything politically. It just cost athletes a chance to do something they’ve been trying to do for most of their lives.

Boycotts also rob us of inspiration that can affect things on a geopolitical level. Imagine if Jesse Owens hadn’t been in Berlin to stick it to Hitler.

And generally, cultural exchanges are positive. Paul Simon received plenty of criticism for Graceland, but who benefited from that? The South African government or South African musicians? F.W. de Klerk, who died late last year, spent the rest of his life grappling with a complex legacy he couldn’t quite face in full. Ladysmith Black Mombazo is still winning Grammys. You can draw the line, of course, at directly supporting a corrupt state and/or business with no side benefits, which is why Sun City is the best of the 1980s group protest songs. (Everyone rap along: “Bo-phu-that-swana is far away / But we know it’s in South Africa, no matter what they say.” And it’s hard to top Joey Ramone singing about Ronald Reagan and “constructive engagement.”)

Musicians can play elsewhere. Olympic athletes compete elsewhere, but there’s nothing like the Olympics, especially in the winter and especially now that NHL players aren’t going. Boycotting the Olympics would irreparably harm them. Not China’s government.

Gen Xers’ worst trait is cynicism. It’s too easy to pass a simple judgment and move on. It’s also easy to dismiss the IOC as a money-mad organization or dismiss Olympic broadcasts as too treacly. But at their heart, the Games are about people from around the world challenging themselves and coming together. And hanging out with Australian journalists and Icelandic handball players.

So when mixed doubles curling starts tomorrow, my biggest reservation in watching will be that I find mixed doubles a bit gimmicky for my taste.

In other moral dilemmas …

Spotify: Neil Young et al vs. Joe Rogan

By way of disclaimer: Yes, X Marks the Pod is primarily a Spotify podcast, leveraging the massive music library on offer. Also, I’m a NewsRadio fan and an erstwhile MMA writer.

(Actually, I consider Joe Rogan’s podcast the fourth-best thing he does or has done, behind NewsRadio, UFC commentary and his standup act.)

But with his podcast, Rogan is following Dilbert’s Scott Adams into the a state of delusion in which he thinks his whims outweigh expertise. He used to save his conspiracy lunacy for (pardon the obscure pun on “lunacy”) the moon landing, UFOs and other relatively harmless things. When he rants about vaccines and alternative COVID treatment, that’s a little more difficult to swallow.

That’s why Neil Young decided to withdraw his music from the service. Joni Mitchell followed suit.

The best-case scenario here is that Spotify, whose share price has plummeted, has to have a talk with Rogan or decide to post disclaimers. The controversy may also force more scrutiny of Spotify’s longer-standing issue of how much (little) it pays musicians. Nils Lofgren’s wife tied together the two issues with one clever tweet:

And the issues are tied together by Rogan’s contract. Musicians need a couple hundred streams just to make a buck (literally), but Spotify came up with $100m to pay Rogan.

So do we all follow Neil Young and ditch Spotify?

Well, you could do what Young did and make a deal with Amazon Music.

Which pays its musicians even less, at least by one accounting. And then you’re supporting Amazon and some unsavory business practices.

Besides, some musicians are making money through Spotify, and one of them is (was) Neil Young. Billboard calculated that Young could lose $754,000 a year by pulling his music.

And I found that story published verbatim on Joni Mitchell’s site with an laughable declaration at the end that posting an entire story from a paywalled site constitutes fair use. So if you buy Joni Mitchell’s music, you’re supporting copyright infringement and taking money away from journalists.

Moral decisions are complicated. Few people are completely virtuous or completely evil. Jeff Bezos, after all, propped up The Washington Post, which surely wasn’t the most profit-minded move he could’ve made with his money. Facebook is far too important as a communication tool for everyone to leave it now, and there are plenty of people who have the resources to make something comparable if they were so inclined.

Rogan himself is complex. He has plenty of enablers who think every question he asks or statement he makes is the unimpeachable truth. But he doesn’t even believe that. He’s not Alex Jones. He listens to people. Maybe at some point, he’ll listen to people who tell him it’s time to quit treating self-serving idiots as experts.

I’m also cautiously optimistic about Spotify’s practices moving forward, though a little private chat with Rogan would also help.

And elsewhere …

Wordle and your wallet: Want yet another Big Tech dilemma? How about the NYT buying Wordle and giving a tepid “well, it’s free for now” comment? Even if it’s free, that means the NYT is monetizing your data because it has to sell ads.

One roundup of the Twitter reaction captures the complicated ways of framing this move. Do you start using the many knockoffs instead of the one the NYT just bought? Do you have the right to criticize Wordle’s inventor for deciding he’s not going to spend the rest of his life creating content for millions of people — for free? Do you have the right to criticize the NYT for trying to make money that subsidizes its occasionally worthwhile journalism?

Generations after us have been brought up to expect everything for free — music, news, puzzles, etc. But someone pays, either through money or unpaid effort. At least, in this case, the guy who did the work is reaping the reward.

The vaccination that I get: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones broke up abruptly. Lead singer Dicky Barrett abruptly left his job as Jimmy Kimmel’s announcer. So is it a coincidence that someone named Dicky Barrett was credited as the producer of a song promoting an anti-vaccine rally? We can only hope.

Face off: Are you tired of taking off your mask so your phone or computer will recognize your face? Good news. Maybe.

Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty: Kudos to Janet Jackson, whose career was derailed by what should’ve been a harmless accident but refuses to bear a grudge.

So we’ll head into the Olympics on a nice note to go with all the encouraging COVID news. Let’s end a long winter with some warmth, and I don’t just mean the workouts you get shoveling all that snow.

And here’s the schedule to help you plan, assuming that you generally don’t want to stay up all night and that you really like curling (Google Sheet).

Featured image is me in front of the ski jumps in Whistler, getting ready to cover the 2010 Olympics.

journalism, sports

A quick bit of Icelandic history (or why I’m rooting against my ancestors)

My favorite bio is at Popdose: “Beau Dure learned everything he needs to know about life while stuffed into the overhead compartment of a bus while writing Enduring Spirit, a book about the Washington Spirit’s first season. … He’s best known for his decade at USA TODAY, where he wrote about Icelandic handball.”

Yes, covering Icelandic handball is one of my fondest memories of USA TODAY. I went out on my own accord to see them once, telling my editors they had the potential to be an interesting story.

Far more interesting than I thought …

What we thought before this game is just to do what our forefathers did. They at most endured, like, two or three days at home in peace, and then they had to destroy something. They had to go and fight war somewhere. They went with their boats and stuff like that, and we were just on our boats, destroying something. That’s how we went to the game, just to enjoy those 60 minutes like our (unintelligible) in life. That’s what you do. That’s what you live for.

I have no idea what I asked to get a quote like that from captain Olafur Stefansson. But the rest of the team was fun as well.

It doesn’t matter what time it is, the game starts at 6 in the morning in Iceland, and I think 80-90% of the nation was watching. That’s just typical when we are doing well, everybody follows us.

So said Robert Gunnarsson, a big bull of a central player about the Olympic quarterfinal victory I covered.

Others in the U.S. media, especially Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg, took notice. He and I were among the other American journalists present when Iceland won the biggest game in its history (until today), beating Spain 36-30 in the semifinals. We went to the mixed zone to meet the well-connected first lady of Iceland, Dorrit Moussaieff, who immediately ushered us past security onto the floor, claiming Dan was her husband. (I have no idea who I was supposed to be. Chief of staff? Special Icelandic security detail?)

Gunnarsson compared the game to 300, a movie in which he very easily could’ve been an extra. Gudjon Sigurdsson told me he’d happily play in a U.S. pro handball league if we ever formed one. (Why have we not done this?!)

Moussaieff was clearly the outgoing one between herself and her husband, president Olafur Grimsson, interjecting several times in his interview with us. She was perhaps the most convincing spokesperson for Icelandic tourism imaginable.

Grimsson took office in 1996 and was widowed in 1998. So you can imagine Moussaieff as Annette Bening in The American President, sans the controversy.

Even the best stories have some dark times, though, and Grimsson and Moussaieff are leaving office under a bit of a cloud. The Panama Papers had some sort of link to Icelandic politicians and to the Moussaieff family fortune, and though no one’s being prosecuted for any misdoing, Grimsson abandoned plans to stand for re-election. The next first lady of Iceland, oddly enough, is Canadian.

That election was held in the midst of the Next Great Icelandic Sporting Achievement. The country’s much heralded soccer program has made a nice run through Euro 2016 and toppled not-so-mighty England today to reach the quarterfinals against France.

Which brings us back to 2008 …

Yes, “Dure” is a French name. But I’m rooting for revenge.

journalism, personal, sports

Most popular stories of the year (among those I wrote)

After some year-end number-crunching, here’s what people read — and what they overlooked:

Top stories:

1. U.S. women rout New Zealand to reach quarterfinals. Not surprising in the sense that it’s Olympic women’s soccer, which accounts for most of these. Surprising in the sense that this was their least interesting game, and I covered it by TV and phone.

2. Weight lifted with U.S. soccer victory, gold. The biggest event I covered, and in re-reading it, I’m still happy with the story.

3. Liddell KO gives Evans shot at UFC light heavyweight title. We started covering MMA in earnest this year, and it paid off. This was the first UFC card I attended, and it was worth it.

4. UFC has fight on its hands against Elite XC. Funny to read that headline in retrospect, but this was a breakthrough story — my first cover story and, as far as I know, our first MMA cover story. A headache to write — try summing up a sport’s history and its current political/business in-fighting in one piece that isn’t a 10-page magazine spread — but worth the effort.

5. USA secures rematch with Brazil for gold. Not my favorite bit of writing this year, with a lead that seems a little disjointed upon re-reading it months later, but this was a vital game in Beijing.

6. Words heat up for colossal Shamrock-Slice showdown. Quotable guys, to say the least.

7. In year 1, Beckham on target for MLS.  Should’ve been higher. Exclusive interview with one of the world’s very biggest celebrities.

8. Russian Emelianenko brings big reputation to the States. Another exclusive with a big name, though not quite as big as Beckham. In Beckham’s case, I was literally alone with him — in Fedor’s case, we were talking by phone via translator.

9. Kai scores winner in extra time; U.S. women advance. Another big game in China, another one I covered by TV and phone.

10. UFC champion Couture has been MMA’s elder statesman. Another good exclusive interview, but I really didn’t have the time or space to do much with it.

13. Tiny Iceland on verge of handball glory, sans Bjork. Skipped a couple of routine MMA stories to dig up my best-read non-soccer story from China. Interesting numbers you can see here — no comments, 42 “recommends.” That’s unheard-of.

Here are the ones that, in my humble opinion, deserved a bit more interest.

American men’s soccer team settles for 2-2 draw with Netherlands. One of the best games I’ve ever seen.

Striking career for Fire’s Brian McBride. Cover story overshadowed by the World Series. There are some back stories behind this story that I won’t get into. They have nothing to do with Brian or the Fire, both of whom couldn’t have been more gracious.

Revenge not on Jackson’s mind in third bout vs. Silva. Must have been an early Christmas lull on the site, because this is an interesting guy.

Gold medalists return home as new pro league. Maybe the headline should’ve read, “Hey! More about Hope Solo!”

From bar fights to Vegas lights, Torres has striking career. One of the most exciting guys in MMA, and a great interview, too.

Last shot sinks American again. Just read it. Amazing turn of events, and the story turned out well. My story, that is — I’m not saying I wanted to see Matt Emmons miss. I actually remember gasping when I saw the score pop up.

U.S. women get team sabre bronze; Ukraine is upset winner. Emotional day in Beijing. Also one of the more interesting interview settings for me — Becca Ward was leaving Beijing the next day to go to freshman orientation at Duke, something I know a bit about it. I jokingly asked her why she’d do that, and she responded with a fantastic quote.

Crooning Crew fans band together in show of support. “Columbus ’til I die, Columbus ’til I die …”

American falters on badminton’s big stage. How often do you get a glimpse inside one of the biggest sports in Asia? IN Asia.

No Olympics in 2009, but I hope to get a few more interesting stories out of it.

journalism, personal

Journalism, cynicism and the Olympics

“The blues ain’t about feelin’ better. The blues are about making other people feel worse.” — Bleeding Gums Murphy

Journalists and blues musicians have a lot in common besides poor dental hygiene. We are all too often purveyors of misery, distilling our angst into 500-word stories instead of 12-bar blues songs.

That’s probably for the best. Otherwise, you’d have this …

Ohhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
I said ohhhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
And if that ain’t bad enough, no
I hear we’re getting buyouts next week

A little venting is healthy. Mrs. MMM would say I do all too much. (Then again, I know far much more about her former co-workers than she does about the 10 people who have at least nominal authority to tell me what to do, so I’ve managed to hold something back.)

The danger strikes when we journalists get so wrapped up in our misery that we fail to open our eyes and see what’s actually around us. Our job is, after all, to tell people what we see. Isn’t it? Hang on — I’ll ask the 10 people … nah, they’re not around. We’ll stick with that assumption for now.

As you probably know or assumed from the lack of posts on this blog, I was in China for the Olympics. I can’t imagine anything that compares to the experience of covering the Olympics. You see the interplay of cultures, the mingling of different talents and the wonder of exotic locales both natural and man-made.

The downside is that you hang out with a lot of other journalists.

I met a few people in China that you may have heard of, and many of them are disarmingly nice and refreshingly open to far-reaching discussions. I talked about gender roles and cynicism with Mechelle Voepel, whose work you may have seen around the Web. I shared a table tennis mixed zone interview with two other journalists and quickly realized that the polite guy asking most of the questions was Mitch Albom.

Others, well, not so much. Some people simply dwell in a realm of negativity, barely looking at the sports spectacle in front of them while waiting for something to tear down. Surrounded by a massive festival of interesting people from around the world, they prefer to chat with each other about how stupid everything is.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics. A lot of Big Companies pay a lot of money to have a presence at the Games. These Games were in China, so the holier-than-thou “how dare people enjoy themselves in light of the poverty in much of the country and the policies on Darfur and Tibet” column was in vogue.

But when you’re immersed in the Games, you have to have thick blinders to miss the other half of the story. I wish I could’ve asked the journalists from Kazakhstan why they were laughing. I knew why the Aussies were laughing — if you want a party, you follow either the Aussies or the Dutch.

Then the athletes are such remarkable stories. You find people who dedicate themselves to something obscure like modern pentathlon in the hopes of getting to this stage. Then you interview a 16-year-old with precocious wit who explains why she kissed her horse and a 40-year-old in her third Olympic sport explaining how she didn’t quit when her wayward fencing took her out of medal contention with several hours to go.

Sure, I failed to mention China’s politics in that story. But I haven’t read anything along the lines of “Brett Favre, competing in a country that has decrepit, half-demolished housing along the main train line in Baltimore and has a president who certainly isn’t popular with the Dutch journalists, signed with the Jets today.” (Yes, the Dutch journalists were eager to share their opinions.)

I don’t mean to take a completely relativist point of view here. No country is perfect, but some certainly have bigger problems than others. It’s just that there’s so much more to life than the vagaries of the power elite. Why not take time to learn about a fencer who has come up agonizingly short in past Olympic competition but won a silver medal two days before he started business school? Why not marvel at the shooter who made an astounding mistake to let a medal slip through his grasp, then met the love of his life as a Czech shooter came up to offer sympathy?

On the flip side of the sports politics coin is unabashed provincialism. As much as I love the BBC in so many way, their live commentary was hysterically over the top in boosting the sports in which “Team GB” was faring well and cutting down others. “Why have TWO forms of volleyball?” harrumphed one commenter whose words were deemed worthy of the general discussion. No one seemed to mind all the various permutations of riding a bicycle in circles that made Bradley Wiggins the Michael Phelps of Britain.

Outside the velodrome, some Olympic experiences can indeed be frustrating. I’ve already shared my experience on an overnight train with a teeming mass of humanity and rubbish, having been shooed away from the media bus I was supposed to take. And I can see how the sense of adventure I get when stepping into a taxi with no communicated certainty of arriving anywhere my destination would fade after it happens 10-15 times.

But if you’ve grown tired of the overall experience, there’s a very simple solution. Stay home.

That usually won’t happen because, as my blues song hinted above, journalists are quick to complain but hesitant to do anything to solve the problem. Many people who find themselves forced to look for new employment are pleasantly surprised by what they find. Taking that first step, though, is a mental block, particularly when you don’t understand the forces that are changing the industry.

Consider this blog, chronicling the difficulties of one media company as if those difficulties were confined to that media company. All he succeeds in doing is driving down morale among people who were already grumpy in the first place. I’ve met this blogger, and I can offer an analogy for his comprehension of the business: If he were analyzing the Washington Capitals’ ouster from the NHL playoffs, he’d likely say the Caps were at a disadvantage because their playing surface is covered with ice.

Cynicism is one common theme in all the problems listed above. Yet that cynicism is so pervasive because it’s so convenient. Once journalists find a convenient frame for a story, it’s hard to shake them out of it. That could be the BBC’s UK-up, US-down motif. It could be the insistence on viewing the Olympics as a mere exercise of political and corporate power, even if the Athletes’ Village and the arenas reflect a different reality.

Frames make stories predictable and therefore easy to write. A danger all journalists face is applying those frames to even the most mundane stories.

One day in a previous job, we were discussing coverage plans as a hurricane was about to strike the coast not too far away from us. Someone eagerly went through our plan and how it would follow the hurricane’s track from Town A to Town B. I quickly interjected that hurricanes were rarely so predictable (especially 10-15 years ago) — I had once been in Virginia Beach waiting for a hurricane that basically changed its mind and headed out to sea. A few moments of silence followed then, “So it’s NOT going to hit Town B?”

The pervading frame on political stories is conflict, often portrayed in sports metaphors. That’s why you may have read that Sarah Palin came out swinging, landed jabs, hit a home run and caught Obama leg before wicket. (OK, sorry, the Aussie influence creeped in again.)

We’re only human, and we’re all tempted to fall back on simple frames of reference. Political commentary, particularly in a busy world with a short attention span, is stuck in a red-blue dichotomy that fits well with the people who want to spend their days yelling at each on Web sites. These are often the same people who react to journalism layoffs and staff cuts by assuming it’s because the news organization is “too liberal.” If only they knew that people are far more likely to cancel their subscriptions because the delivery person keeps tossing the paper in the bird bath or, heaven forbid, they took Mary Worth off the funny pages. (Or that the assumptions of political bias are far, far more complicated than they’re assuming. Start here if you’re curious.)

But here’s the good news: There’s hope. Readers will, with only a little plodding, pick up on interesting stories like the Iceland handball saga (part 1, part 2).

We often beat ourselves up in journalism because we can’t attract young readers. The key isn’t writing about whatever MTV is airing these days instead of videos. The key is looking through young eyes.

So here’s the New Rule (apologies to Bill Maher): Check your cynicism at the door. Or check out.

journalism, personal, videos

Videos from China

Since I’ve been slack about sharing my experiences since returning, having Twittered and blogged them in vivid detail while over there, here are a few videos to show what I couldn’t possibly describe.

Here’s the light show all around the main venues at night.
Light show at the Olympics
@ Yahoo! Video

Here’s the trip up to the Great Wall, with a view of the trip down:
Riding up to and down from the Wall
@ Yahoo! Video

And then there’s the hockey venue, where tons of people in the familiar volunteer shirts apparently rehearsed something with the mascots:
Kung Fu Fighting in Beijing
@ Yahoo! Video