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World Championship Blackout

August 12, 2013 Leave a comment

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I have long been puzzled by the oddity of millions of Americans becoming rabid fans of track and field, swimming, and a host of other sports on a quadrennial basis. Heck, we’ll watch anything if it’s held under the Olympic banner. Rhythmic gymnastics? Sure. Don’t want to miss that keen competition between the Russians and the Belarusians.

But odder still is our lack of resistance when these sports disappear in the intermediate years. I imagine it would be a surprise to many Olympic fans to learn that the participants in these sports don’t just spend those years practicing, waiting for the next Olympics to roll around. In fact, each year brings a rich family of major competitions. Some sports even have world championships, drawing the best from around the world to participate in competitions every bit as fierce and prestigious as the Olympics. Not as rewarding financially, but just as difficult to win.

Speaking of which, the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, is holding the 2013 World Championships this very week in Moscow. All the usual stars are there. Usain Bolt just won the 100m yesterday, though you might have missed it. Kirani James, who won the 400m world championship two years ago and the Olympic gold medal last year, will be aiming for another win tomorrow. If this were the Olympics, we’d be glued to the TV.

Time zone difficulties aside, I would gladly spend this week glued to the TV. I had a bit of a conflict over the weekend, what with the PGA Championship taking place at Oak Hill in Rochester. The extraordinary golf clinic Jason Dufner put on yesterday kept me entranced. Last night I shifted my focus to track and studied the broadcast schedule, ready to program the DVR for the overnight events so that I could watch them later each day.

Which of our hundreds of cable channels is NBC’s Universal Sports Network anyway? Having failed to find it in a search through the guide on the TV, I logged into Comcast on my laptop and searched. I still couldn’t spot it. So I went to the Universal website, which has a link at the top to “sign-in with cable/sat provider.” Cool. This would let me find the channel, and also permit me to stream the events on the computer.

But Comcast didn’t pop up. In fact, hardly any cable companies do. How can this be? Doesn’t Comcast own NBC? Wouldn’t they put all the NBC channels in their cable package?

It seems the situation is more complicated. An article from two Januarys ago in the LA Times with the title “Universal Sports channel didn’t disappear, it just seems that way” offers an explanation.

[Universal] was not technically a cable channel but instead was a digital broadcast channel. Locally, KNBC-TV provides some of its channel capacity to Universal Sports for distribution purposes.

Now, Universal Sports wants to be paid by distributors for carriage and is being offered as a stand-alone cable network. So far, satellite broadcaster DirecTV [and now Dish as well] is the only multichannel video program distributor to have cut a deal with the channel, but its officers say they are confident that they’ll be in 15 million to 20 million homes by the end of 2012. Previously, the channel was available in about 40 million homes.

Unlike many sports channels, Universal Sports is not asking distributors to carry the network on their most popular programming package, typically known as expanded basic or digital. Instead, it is seeking to be part of specialty packages that consumers pay extra to receive if they want the channel.

Great. So, no world championships for me. NBC has limited weekend coverage. Universal has exclusive coverage of all events otherwise.

Worse, no world championships for just about anyone in the US. What a way to kill interest in the sport, making the biennial showcase invisible! Maybe track really doesn’t exist in non-Olympic years.

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Categories: Television, Track

Usain Bolt and His Predecessors

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

I was glued to my computer mid-day today, watching the men’s 100 meter Olympic semi-finals and then, two hours later, the final. The semi-final performances suggested this would be a four-man race, and so it was: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the US’s Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

Despite difficulties over the last two years, Bolt confirmed his greatness today by pulling ahead at about the 50-meter mark, steadily opening up a gap on the field, and winning in the second fastest 100 meter in history. Only his extraordinary world-record time at the 2009 World Championships was faster (though we’ll never know how fast he might have run the year before at the Beijing Olympics, where he set an earlier world record while slowing down at the finish).

However, today’s race, great though it was, is not the point of this post. If you want to know more about it, you can read the coverage. For instance, see Richard Williams’ piece at The Guardian, accompanied by the photo below, which shows Bolt crossing the finish line with Blake, Gatlin, and Gay behind.

[Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images]

Instead, I want to draw your attention to a fabulous graphic at the NYT website. I can’t embed it, so you’ll need to go here. In fact, do so right now. Click on the link — here it is again — and watch the 2 3/4 minute video. It puts Bolt’s performance in the context of the medalists’ times for all Olympic 100-meter races since 1896.

I’ll admit, I’m not convinced that the information conveyed by the video is all that interesting. Times have gotten steadily better over the last 116 years.* If there’s a deeper message, it eluded me. But the graphics are brilliantly done, and that’s why I’m recommending that you have a look.

*Then again, if one wants to find out about improvements in Olympic times, the 100 meter is the race to study. The competitors can’t mess around. They have to run their best, and generally they do. No room for tactics, such as those that occur in the 1500, 5000, or 10,000, with concomitant slow times. The 100 meter consistently produces record or near-record times, as it did today.

Categories: Design, Track

Hail Galen!

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Galen Rupp, Olympic 10,000 meters, London, August 4, 2012

[Found photo here. Not sure of proper credit.]

Michael and Gabby. Gabby and Michael. Geez. Enough already. Okay, so maybe Michael Phelps has won an astonishing number of Olympic medals, and this time he wasn’t even expected to be so dominant. And Gabby Douglas, well, I don’t know. What’s the big deal about her anyway?

What I’d like to know is why Galen Rupp isn’t the star of the day. I may not know a whole lot, but I’m kind of thinking he pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in US track in decades.

It’s not easy to follow the 10,000 meters. Every four years, I look forward to watching it, and if I’m lucky, when I turn on the prime time replay, I see the first 3 or 4 (of 25) laps around the track, then an ad break, then maybe an update or two of some field events, another lap or two, another ad, and somewhere around the 25-minute mark, we come back to see the final three laps. By then, perhaps three great runners from Kenya or Ethiopia have broken from the pack and we have a couple of minutes to contemplate who can pull away on the final lap.

Enough of that. This year, I was determined to watch the live feed. I spent an hour at my desk watching the last swimming finals, took a break to run some errands, came home, and switched over to track.

There was something odd about the live feed. No announcers. I could hear the crowd noise, I could see the race develop, but I had to figure out for myself what was happening. Not entirely a bad thing. (Only five minutes after the race did I figure out that I had clicked on the secondary track feed. The primary one had commentary.)

The leading runners were tightly bunched. By maybe the halfway point, the bunch had strung out to single file, with occasional lead changes, but always among the same runners. The two Bekeles from Ethiopia (Kenenisa, defending his gold medals of 2004 and 2008, and Tariku). Mo Farah from the UK (born in Somalia, runner-up in the World Championships last year). A couple of Kenyans. Or was I mixing them up with the Eritreans? And, oddly enough, the US’s Galen Rupp, a strange sight amongst the contingent of East Africans.

If I could have heard the commentary, I might have been reminded that Rupp finished 7th in the 10,000 at last year’s World Championships. His presence wasn’t that big a surprise. But he would surely fade near the end. And I would have been reminded that he and Mo Farah train together under US running great Alberto Salazar in Portland, Farah having re-located there last year. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Salazar in last week’s New Yorker.) I didn’t remember. All I knew was, the crowd was going crazy whenever Farah moved toward the front, and Rupp would fade.

Then came the 9600 meter mark. The bell lap. On the backstretch, Farah took control. Rupp began to fade. Entering the last turn, Rupp stopped fading. He made a move. He was ahead of the great Kenenisa Bekele. (I confess, I wasn’t clear on this. Without the commentary, I didn’t know who was who.) He was on the shoulder of Tariku Bekele. What’s this? He’s passing Tariku. He’s in second. He’s pulling away, as Farah is ahead of him.

Gold to Farah, silver Rupp, bronze to Tariku, no medal to Kenenisa in fourth. Farah finished in 27:30.42, not particularly fast, but that’s typical of tactical Olympic races. Rupp was just .48 seconds behind, both slowing as they crossed the line with their positions secure. Tariku was half a second behind Rupp, Kenenisa another second back.

Rupp was the lone finisher in the top eight not from East Africa. And the first US medalist in the event since, well, you know when. Yes, since Billy Mills shocked the world with his 1964 gold medal run in Tokyo. I’ll never forget that. Not that I saw it. But the next morning, I was being driven to school with my brother (why we didn’t take the bus, I don’t remember), and we heard the news on the radio, Mills defeating Australian great Ron Clarke (one of my heroes) and the Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi. I’ve long considered that the greatest moment in US long distance running, marathons aside.

And now we have Galen Rupp.

As for Mills, watch. Still incredible, 48 years later.

Categories: Track