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Category: Michael Phelps

The envelope, please: My athletes of year, decade

The year after a Summer Olympics is supposed to be a time when the stars of the previous Games catch their breath while the likely stars of the next Winter Games give the Olympic world some breathless anticipation.

So it was no surprise to see alpine skier Lindsey Vonn emerge as, so to speak, the Michael Phelps of the upcoming 2010 Winter Games, a woman clearly capable of winning four of her sport’s five events.

But we also saw Phelps being Phelps all over again, saving a sport whose brain-dead leadership allowed decades of history to be washed away by its failure to rein in technology.

And Usain Bolt becoming lightning-in-a-bottle for track and field’s leadership, a star of such dimensions he is keeping afloat a sport drowning in its recent doping history.

As they had been in 2008, Bolt and Phelps were the biggest winners of 2009 in the Olympic sports world.

The biggest loser? Chicago, its excellent bid for the 2016 Olympics shamed by a first-round elimination. For that, Chicago can thank the U.S. Olympic Committee’s dunderhead leadership, given the USOC’s determined efforts to create more internal turmoil and infuriate the International Olympic Committee.

Not that anyone was going to deny Rio de Janeiro its historic prize: becoming the first South American host of an Olympics.

That is why I am giving Brazil’s president one of the top prizes in these 23rd annual Tribune international sports awards, for people to whom an Olympic gold medal – or, in this case, an Olympic Games -- is the ultimate goal.

World Athletes of the Year

MEN GOLD – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field. Last year, I couldn’t pick between Bolt and Michael Phelps, so they shared this award. In 2009, Bolt was not only in another class from any athlete in any sport but from any human being who has taken on the simplest of all athletic challenges: getting from here to there faster than the competition. With his second set of 100-200 world records at a major meet (Olympics 2008, worlds 2009), plus another sprint relay victory, Bolt is a runaway winner.

SILVER – Michael Phelps, United States, swimming. It isn’t just that Phelps won five more world championship gold medals, giving him an astounding 20 golds for the four worlds in which he has competed. It is his having defied the anything-goes suit insanity that rendered swim world records essentially meaningless: Phelps set world marks in the 100 and 200 butterfly without the all-polyurethane super suits.

BRONZE – Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway, alpine skiing. After missing a season because of a horrific late 2007 crash at Beaver Creek, Colo., Svindal returned to win the World Cup overall and Super-G titles and the world title in super combined in 2009.

WOMEN

GOLD – Lindsey Vonn, United States, alpine skiing. Imagine what Vonn might have done if she hadn’t slashed a thumb opening a Champagne bottle to celebrate her second gold medal (downhill, Super-G) at the 2009 worlds? As it was, she won 9 World Cup races, a second straight World Cup overall title, two World Cup discipline titles and utterly dominated her sport.

SILVER – Guo Jingjing, China, diving. The word had been that Guo, who turned 28 last October, would retire after the 2008 Olympics, where she won two more golds (after two in Athens). But there she was at the 2009 worlds, winning two titles (including an unprecedented fifth straight in a single event, 3-meter springboard), the ninth and 10th world titles of her career. Now she talks of competing at the 2012 London Games.

BRONZE – Federica Pellegrini, Italy, swimming. In a year when she posed nude for the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, then undressed the competition at the Rome worlds, it was hard to recall this 21-year-old once suffered from panic attacks about competition. She won the 200 and 400 freestyles at worlds to justify the gold paint covering her body in the magazine pictures.

U.S. Athletes of the Year

MEN

GOLD – Michael Phelps, swimming. (see above).

SILVER – Todd Lodwick, Nordic combined. After two frustrating Olympics, in which he had top 10 finishes in all six of his events but could not become the first U.S. athlete to win a Nordic combined medal, Lodwick retired in 2006, 11 years after making his World Cup debut. The father of two returned last season at age 33 to win not only the first world title of his exceptional career but a second one two days later.

BRONZE – Evan Lysacek, figure skating. Making 4½ minutes of jumping, spinning and footwork sequences look effortless, the 23-year-old became the first U.S. man to win the world title since Todd Eldredge in 1996.

WOMEN

GOLD – Lindsey Vonn (see above)

SILVER – Erin Hamlin, luge. Yes, she had home-track advantage in Lake Placid, but no woman from any country had won there or anywhere over the German wundermadchen in 99 Olympic, World Cup and World Championship races dating to 1997 -- until Hamlin took the gold medal at the 2009 worlds.

BRONZE – Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards, track and field. Felix won her third straight world title at 200 meters; Richards finally got the major meet gorilla off her back by winning her first individual title, at 400 meters. Then they teamed up for a second straight world gold in the 4 x 400 meters.

World Performances of the Year

MEN

GOLD – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil. The Brazilian president’s appeal to the International Olympic Committee during final presentations before the 2016 Olympic vote was a brilliant mix of emotion and pragmatism. One telling example: after weeks of telling the IOC to stop giving the Olympics only to rich countries, President Lula reminded everyone that Brazil was the only country among the world’s top 10 economies that had yet to be an Olympic host. That ended when the IOC made Rio the 2016 winner.

SILVER – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field. His world-record time of 9.58 seconds at the Berlin worlds was, well, otherworldly. Next for Bolt: the sound barrier.

BRONZE – Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, track and field. Running in Bolt’s shadow, Bekele became the first man to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at a world championships. "I would definitely beat him [Bolt] at this distance," Bekele joked after the 5,000.

WOMEN

GOLD – Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field. Her stunning win in the 800 meters at the world meet, in a time more than 8 seconds better than her personal best a year earlier, touched off a controversy over what constitutes sexual identity and fair competition that has yet to be resolved. Rivals railed that Semenya, 18, was a man; tests have reportedly shown her to be intersex. Semenya will keep her gold medal, but her competitive future has yet to be decided.

SILVER – Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, cycling, France. Longo, a 1996 Olympic champion, won her 56th national cycling title last summer – at age 50. She also finished 10th in the time trial at worlds five weeks before her 51st birthday.

BRONZE – Kim Yuna, South Korea, figure skating. Before a large contingent of compatriots in a sellout Los Angeles crowd, Kim not only became the first South Korean to win a world figure skating title but did it with a record score, won by a whopping 16 points despite two significant errors in her free skate and established herself as a prohibitive favorite for 2010 Olympic gold.

WORLD ATHLETES OF THE DECADE

MEN

Michael Phelps, United States, swimming: Utterly no contest here. With a record-breaking 14 Olympic gold medals, 20 world championship gold medals and 29 individual world records (the first in 2001; the most recent in August 2009), Phelps was in a class by himself.

WOMEN

Anja Paerson, Sweden, alpine skiing. Quietly, unassumingly (except for her celebratory belly slides after races), the 28-year-old had a decade of brilliance in every dimension. Three Olympic medals (one of each color); seven world titles (plus two seconds and a third); two World Cup overall titles; five World Cup event titles; and 40 World Cup wins, making her No. 4 all-time in that category.

-- Philip Hersh


Phelps clad in glory, but his sport wears emperor's new clothes

Mikey

(All the rage: Michael Phelps reacts to his 100-meter butterfly win over Milorad Cavic, in foreground.  Photo: Domenico Stinellis / Associated Press)

A number of writers doing postmortems on Michael Phelps' victory over Milorad Cavic are saying it proved that the sport still is more about racing than about high-tech suits.

The truth is it proved only that Phelps is: 1) an incredible butterfly swimmer; 2) as fierce a competitor as the sport ever has seen; and 3) also the beneficiary of suit technology.

I mean, it's not as if the Speedo LZR full-body model Phelps wore in the 100-meter butterfly final Saturday at the world championships is a hunk of rubberized junk.  In fact, it -- and its other Speedo models -- was the starting point for Suit Wars, as other companies worked to come up with suits that improved on the LZR's performance-enhancing qualities.

After all, swimmers using the LZR got 51 of the 55 long-course world records set in 2008.  And the one Phelps used Saturday to beat the outspoken Cavic is among those banned after Jan. 1, 2010, when men cannot use suits that extend beyond the waist and knees (shoulders and knees for women).

Continue reading »

Does DeScenza gain or lose by her world record? Suit yourself

Des1a

American Mary DeScenza is the latest (pick one) a) beneficiary or b) unwitting victim of the total incompetence that the leaders of the international swimming federation (FINA) have revealed in their handling of the high-tech swimsuit issue over the past two years.

DeScenza, of Naperville, Ill., whose elite swimming career had been excellent if unexceptional until Wednesday morning, suddenly did something that until last year would have been a great mark of distinction.

The sad thing is what should have been a career achievement for DeScenza -- setting a world record in the World Swimming Championships at Rome -- has become almost inconsequential because she did it in one of the soon-to-banned suits that have rendered world records meaningless.

When DeScenza lowered her personal best in the 200-meter butterfly by nearly three seconds with a time of 2 minutes, 4.14 seconds (four-one-hundredths better than the previous record), she made as clear a statement as anyone about the efficacy of these rubberized, polyurethane suits.

Continue reading »

Absurd is the word for skating, swimming

Judges

    Ten things I know, and you should:

    1.  Stats that say it all: Retired Russian swimmer Alexander Popov began 2008 as world record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle with a mark (21.64 seconds) that had stood since 2000.  As of Wednesday, that had become No. 21 on the all-time list.  Same is true of Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100 -- his world record (47.84)  from 2000 through 2007 now ranks 22nd.  And it's only going to become statistically sillier unless swimming officials get their heads out of the water.  Why?  See Item 6.
    2.  Beverley Smith of the Toronto Globe & Mail, author of many scoops about the International Skating Union's shenanigans, did it again this week when she reported the ISU Council had decided covertly to reduce the size of Olympic figure-skating judging panels from 12 to nine (just as it had done for the world championships) for money-saving reasons.
     So much for another underpinning of the New Judging System designed to end potential corruption in the sport when it was implemented in the wake of the Salt Lake City pairs judging dust-up.
     When the ISU first reformed judging in June 2002, it included having 14 judges, with the scores of nine counting as randomly selected by a computer. Then it was dropped to 12 judges, with nine selected but high and low then dropped.  Now it is down to nine, with seven randomly selected and high and low dropped.  That means only five scores will count, which 1) makes it mathematically more likely that one anomalous score from a (bribed?) judge could determine the outcome or 2) the judges will be even more inclined to give component scores in a ridiculously narrow range rather than use the system as it was designed so that their scores won't look anomalous.
     The whole idea behind the new system was to have enough scores selected randomly that the chance for corruption or mathematical absurdity was minimized.  No more: The reductions have turned the whole exercise into a reductio ad absurdum or, if you like, the classic catch-22:  to save a system that costs too much, the pooh-bahs are killing the system by lowering costs.
    3.  Just how little influence the United States now has in the ISU is evident in both the judging change and the decision by ISU Grand Pooh-bah Ottavio Cinquanta to deny U.S. Figure Skating financial support for Skate America operations because U.S. television networks no longer want to buy broadcast rights for the Grand Prix series, in which Skate America is among the six events.  (Why would anyone pay for the mess the new judging system has made of the sport?)
     In his USFS president's report circulated before the organization's upcoming annual meeting, Ron Hershberger noted the financial issue and said USFS had "objected strenuously'' to the reduction in the number of judges.  The ISU council member from the United States, Phyllis Howard, has been characteristically silent.  Howard never has backed her own country by publicly challenging the ISU -- even when she was USFS president -- or having the spine to take any position that might jeopardize her council sinecure.
     Hershberger met with Cinquanta last weekend, and USFS still hopes the Skate America financial issue will be resolved.
    4.  If you told me the stuff in Items 2 and 3 was the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I wouldn't disagree.  Figure skating is on life support in North America.
    5. And they better have EMTs on call throughout South Korea during the Olympics, to judge by the hyperventilating e-mails I am getting from Korean fans convinced there is a Japanese-funded conspiracy to buy off judges so Japan's Mao Asada will beat Korean heroine Yu-na Kim, the new world champion, in the 2010 Winter Games.  As in: "Nowadays there seems like some referees are suspected of getting money from Japan.''  And, from a different e-mailer:  "I wonder if Japan buys all judges?  Or is there some judge who has (a) conscience?''
Jaked     6.  Speaking of absurdity, we have the latest high-tech swimsuit, from the Italian company, Jaked, which threatens to make the sport's world records even more ridiculous and meaningless than they became when 108 (!!!) were set last year in other companies' suits.  The Jaked suit's polyurethane layer makes it so buoyant the swimmer loses no speed from the effort to stay high in the water.   The international swimming federation continues to sit idly by while manufacturers put everything but inboard motors in the suits.  Is there any need to explain why it often is said that the only amateurs left in Olympic sports are the people running them?
   7.  Until recently, it had escaped my attention that international hockey officials had devalued the 2010 Olympic tournament by allowing Vancouver organizers to have the event on the NHL-sized rink at GM Place (85 feet wide by 200 feet long) rather than spend a lot of money to expand it to the Olympic size (100 by 200).   That obviously made financial sense (the decision came before the global economic downturn), but it spoils what for me was the beauty of Olympic hockey: having more room for these great players to maneuver and show off their incredible skating and stick-handling skills.
   8.  I don't know whether to feel sad or disgusted about cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who has retired from the sport after testing positive for a steroid in an herbal medicine Hamilton said he was taking for depression.  Hamilton admitted he knew the medicine contained the banned substance, DHEA -- which is more than he has admitted about his links to the Operation Puerto doping scandal and the irregularities in his blood samples that should have cost him the Olympic time trial gold medal in 2004 had the Greek lab not screwed up handling of the "B'' sample.  A similar irregularity in his sample at the Tour of Spain a month later led to a two-year suspension.  The recently divorced Hamilton continues to claim innocence in both those cases, but suffice it to say that cycling's dirty history does not encourage giving any of its practitioners the benefit of the doubt.  I just can't help thinking that it might help Hamilton get on with a clearly troubled life if he decided to open up about the past rather than keep dragging it behind him.
   9.  One 2008 Olympic star, swimmer Michael Phelps of the United States, is photographed sucking on a bong, and there is an uproar.  Another, sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, admits to smoking marijuana as a child, and everyone shrugs.  (Phelps never has said what was in the bong, generally an implement for marijuana use.)  Is that because ganjaseems a part of Jamaican culture, even if marijuana use also is illegal there?  Or that Phelps' offense came after he had become a multimillionaire from his Olympic exploits, and that it followed his drunk driving conviction of four years earlier?  Or that, as Joe Marchilena wrote in the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, "We don't really care much about stuff that doesn't involve ... our citizens.  Maybe the next time he wants to light up, Phelps should plan a trip out of the country.''  Bolt, like Phelps, was obligated to apologize for his behavior.
   10.  Will Spain's opposition -- some might say intransigence -- toward doping rules and investigations hurt Madrid's Olympic bid?  Spain's government has approved a royal decree allowing Spanish athletes to refuse doping controls on Spanish soil from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., which is a direct challenge to World Anti-Doping Agency rules.  And a Spanish judge recently ruled that Italy cannot take anti-doping action against Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde based on DNA evidence from blood samples seized in the Operation Puerto investigation.

 -- Philip Hersh

Photos, from top: Six members of a figure-skating judging panel at the 2006 European Championships.  Only the scores of five will count at the 2010 Olympics. Credit: Franck Fife / Getty Images. Federica Pellegrini of Italy wore the controversial new Jaked suit to set a 200-meter freestyle world record at a minor meet March 8. Credit: Giorgio Scala / Associated Press


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