News about the Summer and Winter Games
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Human Zambonis, home cooking, Zhang's agony, Nagasu's appeal, Kwan's impressive new life: A figure skating Q&A [Updated]
1. Who would win an Ultimate Splat-Down between the two falling angels, reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny and 2007-08 European champion Carolina Kostner?
The Zamboni operator, for Czisny and Kostner would clean so much of the ice with their bottoms the resurfacing job would be much easier.
Czisny, no surprise, rendered meaningless her excellent short program at Skate Canada by falling twice and getting credit for just three triple jumps (one given a negative grade of execution) in the free skate. She fell once and had credit for just three triples in her other GP free skate, at Cup of Russia.
Kostner fell once in the short program and once in the long program at Paris, once in the long program in China. That picked up, as it where, from her dismal effort in the free skate at 2009 worlds, when Kostner fell once and did one clean triple jump.
The sad irony in this is both women are among the most elegant skaters in the world when they stay upright.
(Judge for yourself whether ice dancer Tanith Belbin gets style points for this.)
A few figure skating observations as the Grand Prix series heads into its last event before the Dec. 4-5 final in Tokyo:
*Over dinner Sunday night in Lake Placid, five reporters who will be covering figure skating at the 2010 Olympics agreed to hazard predictions on the Winter Games medals.
I decided to come up with an aggregate of our picks by assigning five points for a prediction of gold, three for silver, one for bronze.
I know the whole thing is very unscientific, but the point here is simply to have some fun.
The results showed: no man getting votes from all five of us; Yuna Kim of South Korea being unanimous for gold; wide difference of opinion on the other women's medals; and compelling unpredictability in three of the four disciplines.
Five random thoughts on another unseasonably cold mid-October day here in Chicago:
1. It took me less than three minutes to realize that Kim Yu-Na of South Korea should simply be presented the 2010 Olympic women's figure skating gold medal right now.
Kim's short program in today's Grand Prix series opener -- the Trophy Bompard in Paris -- was nothing less than brilliant. Skating to a musical medley from James Bond films -- including, appropriately, "Goldfinger," in which the villain loves only gold -- the reigning world champion was sassy, speedy and just plain scintillating.
Kim was utterly in another league from a field that included 2008 world champion Mao Asada of Japan; Caroline Zhang of the United States; Yukari Nakano of Japan (who three times has been in the top five at worlds); and two-time European champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, who sadly reprised her stumblebum free skate performance from the 2009 worlds.
The judges were as dazzled by Kim, 19, as I was, giving her a score of 76.08, second only to the record short program total of 76.12 she rolled up at the 2009 worlds. Were it not for a wobbly leg on one of her spiral positions, Kim would have been virtually perfect . As it is, she has a lead of more than 16 points over runner-up Nakano. She opened with a huge triple-triple combination. And her score would have been worth third in the men's event.
One short program does not a season make. But this one made it clear that Kim at her best will be impossible to beat, and Kim at 80% of her best still is better than anyone else. Athlete, artist -- this young woman is breathtaking on the ice. Barring injury or early retirement, she can be the greatest women's skater in history.
2. Good for NBC and its subsidiary, Universal Sports, in deciding to televise (even on a delayed basis) the Grand Prix series events outside the United States. (NBC already had a contract for live broadcasts of Skate America.) Broadcasts begin Friday night on Universal. Click this link for the complete story and schedule.
3. Only three cities met Friday's applicant deadline for the 2018 Winter Olympics. One of the three, Annecy, France, is wasting its time, which leaves Munich, Germany, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, in the race. After close defeats in the 2010 and 2014 bidding, Pyeongchang looks like the early favorite, but Munich gained hope when Madrid lost to Rio in the final round of the 2016 Summer Games bidding, because there won't be three straight Olympics in Europe. The International Olympic Committee will choose the 2018 host in July 2011.
4. Guy Drut of France was one of the whiny IOC members who complained about inconvenience (waiting on buses, early wake-up call) caused by security around President Obama's visit to Copenhagen. "It dampened the enthusiasm of a good number of us,'' Drut told the French sports newspaper L'Equipe.
I can't let Drut's petulance pass without pointing out a bit of his personal history. It is apropos of nothing how entitled some IOC members feel -- even those who aren't even entitled to call themselves honest.
Drut received a 15-month suspended sentence in 2005 after being found guilty of benefiting from a fictitious job at a construction company. Then-French President Jacques Chirac gave Drut a presidential pardon three years ago so he could keep his place on the IOC, from which Drut had been provisionally suspended.
Drut, the 1976 Olympic high hurdles champion, was a member of the IOC commission that evaluated the 2016 bids -- proof that the IOC lets no bad deed go unrewarded.
5. While my Olympic attention necessarily was focused on the ill-fated Chicago bid, one of the country's most successful recent Olympians, fencer Mariel Zagunis, added another title to her resume: world champion in saber. The ex-Notre Damer won sabre gold medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
-- Philip Hersh
Above photo: Kim Yu-Na wins the short program in Paris. Credit: Francois Mori / Associated Press.
Below: Mariel Zagunis after winning the 2009 world fencing title in individual saber two weeks ago. Credit: Kaan Soyturk / Associated Press.
I took 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen at her word when Cohen announced last Friday she was withdrawing from this week's Grand Prix competition in Paris because of tendinitis in her leg.
I posted that news here and in the Los Angeles Times' Olympic Blog, "Ticket to Vancouver,'' with her statement. I made no comment other than putting a question mark -- in the Globetrotting version of the Blog -- over a picture of Cohen. The punctuation referred to the status of her comeback.
Some comments on this Blog took me to task for not having questioned why Cohen was pulling out of an upcoming competition only three days after she had done a show in Anaheim, Calif., for which she was paid.
Some who commented also noted correctly that I had been hard on Johnny Weir for complaining about illness at last year's U.S. Championships after he had flown to South Korea for a show. At least one comment suggested that Cohen's comeback after three years away from competition was nothing more than a publicity grab on her part.
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?''
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