Thursday, August 07, 2008

Out of the Sporting Vacuum

Wow, if you disowned baseball when the Expos skipped town and aren't desperate enough that CFL, or minor tennis/golf tournament news can tide you over for weeks at a time, you will have no doubt noticed (as I have) that mid-summer is a vacuum for sporting excitement.

Enter the Summer Olympics.
And for the first time in recent memory, they're actually taking place in the summer!

No matter what your usual sporting flavour is, there should be something to tickle your fancy at the Olympics. There are loads of sports and in excess of 300 different events over a couple of weeks. For the hockey fan, there's lots on offer (take what much of the world calls hockey for one...).

If you are of the ilk that enjoys being lifted out of your seat by a good bout, then excitement is around the corner – the Olympics are home to numerous forms of fighting, from the boxing preferred by Lyle Odelein, the martial arts Jarkko Ruutu practices and the Greco Roman wrestling of about 95% of the other fights on ice.

If fighting is not your thing, maybe speed is. If so, then you have track, cycling, swimming, rowing, canoeing, and every other imaginable way to get from A to B fastest (jumping, vaulting, riding a horse...).

And for those who enjoy the team synergy and the cooperation for a common goal, watch volleyball (the beach variety, if you read Four Habs Fans more than you should), basketball, soccer, baseball (for the last time) and one of my favourites water polo.

I am looking forward to these Olympics. It will be a nice way to get through the doldrums of August without scouring the web for news of Scandinavian hockey holdouts. Of note, I encourage everyone to catch Thomas Hall's canoe races if they can. His heats are on August 18, and he would progress to races on August 20 and then 22 if he performs at his best. Tom's a formidable athlete and a fellow Montrealer.

Athletic excellence

All that brings me round to the point I wanted to make in this piece. Watch the Olympics and records will fall – they always do. Not just national records, but World records. Every Olympics someone runs faster than anyone has run before, someone jumps higher, throws further. Past athletic achievements are laid to waste.

When I think of this, it makes me think of hockey.

In hockey, we are blessed with many experienced and knowledgeable elder statesmen, particularly in the press. Their stories and insights from the past never fail to capture the imagination, stir the emotions. But one thing that has always bothered me about this old guard is the way they cling to the older generations of the game to the point of debasing the current era at times.

Sometimes I want to tell these guys to take a look around. An objective look. Admit that things have changed. Admit that players, tactics, training, coaches, managers and everything else has improved (not devolved).

How can I be sure?

Well, consider the Olympics again. In many (probably most) sports, the average athlete at these Olympics would have been a multi-medalist at any Olympics 30 years ago. In my own sport of swimming, the standards for athletes to make it to the 2008 competition would have claimed all but three gold medals at Montreal and Moscow. Even as recently as 20 years ago, people making the current qualifying times would have been unlucky to walk away without a medal. What this tells me is that between equipment, technique and training methods, athletes in many sports have improved by leaps and bounds over the years.

Is hockey the exception? Not likely.

You only have to watch 10 minutes of hockey from the 1960s, 70s or 80s to realise things are different. Improvement in goaltending has led to less poor quality goals. Improvement in player fitness has led to better defence, tighter games and more advanced tactics. Evolution in sticks and the way players shoot has changed the way (and the speed at which) the puck moves. No, hockey is like many Olympic sports, the champions of old would stand a chance with the athletes of today.

Progress. Not many can resist it. I'm tired of people who continually try to convince me I should. That's why I'll be watching the Olympics, like I watch my hockey – admiring the incredible skill and ability I can hardly believe, right before my eyes...

A curious Habs-related Olympic note

As I was browsing the usual sites, I couldn't help but notice that RDS has a section devoted to the Olympics. It is called Pekin 2008.

Unlike English countries, some countries and their linguists have decided not to evolve their spelling of the Chinese capital's name. In English, the name Peking (the Western version of the name for the metropolis) was gradually removed from documents and maps starting in 1949 – it is all but gone nowadays. The change was due to a change in Chinese government, which led to a decision on their part to spell out the name themselves in our alphabet (Beijing).

Though the French lag in language evolution is not surprising, given their formal approach to such things, I found the possibility of a new name amusing. Given that Peking was spelled out Pekin in French, I think there is little doubt that the adaptation of Beijing into French would be done in the same way – giving me Begin.

Come to think of it, since it would obviously be far too confusing to have a Canadiens player and world city by the same name, I am betting the Office de la langue francaise is just waiting until Steve retires before putting the new name on the books.

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