On Race, Gender, Class, the Olympics, and Of Course Presidential Politics

The 2016 Olympics won’t wrap up until some sort of bizarre post-modern samba-dancing and gender-bending closing ceremony on Sunday evening, but already the American team is assured of heading home with by far the biggest haul of gold, silver, and bronze medals. America’s athletic dominance of the international games has provided a pleasant distraction from the dispiriting domestic presidential election, but of course these days it’s impossible to keep the two events entirely apart.
Over at the reliably liberal Politico.com site a longtime Democratic operative is smugly noting that Republican nominee Donald J. Trump hasn’t yet spoken or “tweeted” a single congratulatory remark about the American champions, reasonably inferring that it’s because their success seems to contradict his campaign theme that “Crippled America” just “doesn’t have victories anymore” and he alone can “Make America Great Again.” The author also rightly notes that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has been a far more full-throated rooter for the American squad, and has happily seized on the politically convenient fact that the medal-winners are an exquisitely diverse group according to the racial and sexual and economic class categories that are a Democratic obsession.
A proportional share of those gold and silver and bronze medals have been won by American women, a gorgeous lot of athletes who recall the great Walt Whitman’s poetic notion of an American womanhood as “tann’d in the face by shining suns and blowing winds, their flesh has the old divine suppleness and grace, they know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, defend themselves,” but we wonder how many of these women who are “ultimate in their own right — they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves” are going to vote for Clinton’s campaign themes that women are victims of American society and she alone can make them great. One of our favorite Olympians of this leap year has been Kim Rhode, who picked up her fifth Gold medal in as many Olympic games for skeet shooting, a sport we have tried and found we have absolutely no talent for, like us she’s a Second Amendment absolutist with no intention of voting for Clinton, and even that Democratic operative at Politico.com concedes that America’s Olympic champions are “presumably as politically diverse as they are culturally.”
Economic class plays its usual role in these Olympics, too, but we don’t expect that any Democratic nominee would want to delve too deeply into that. We’re pleased to note that Great Britain is once again a world-class sporting power, and is currently going nose-to-nose with Communist China for a distant second-place in the medal count, but across the pond there’s usual grousing that too many of those medals are being won by equestrians and rowers and fencers and other sorts of upper-crusty athletes, even if they can’t explain why their more yobbo athletes can’t compete with America’s ghetto stars in the more proletarian events. A lot of America’s medals were won by the sons and daughters of upper-middle class suburbanites who woke up early to get their kids to a swim club or volleyball practice before a long day of school that yielded high grades and SAT scores, and there’s no telling how they’ll vote, and even the sons and daughters of the working class parents who did the same are probably politically diverse.
Over at the reliably Republican National Review, which is so reliably Republican that it’s still NeverTrump, they’re smugly noting that America’s overwhelming Olympic success has come despite the lack of a Ministry of Sports or any other top-down bureaucratic central planning. They argue that America has won “bigly” at these Olympics because individuals of all races and sexes and classes were free to pursue the natural talents they alone knew they possessed, and that such independent and competitive institutions as the members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association were there to provide some much-needed assistance. This strikes us as a more compelling argument, and we can only wish that the Republican nominee wasn’t so cocksure that only he can make America win again that he can’t be shouting “USA, USA” during the closing ceremonies.

— Bud Norman

Sports, Politics, and the Global Chessboard

The quadrennial Olympic competitions always arrive on the same leap years as the American presidential elections, and usually provide some pleasant if nonetheless metaphorical distraction from politics, but in this crazy election year it hasn’t proved sufficient. Even after more than seven years of those awful Obama administrations America is still great enough to be well ahead in the medal count, and there have been the usual plentitude of inspiring tales of individual American effort along the way, but as usual it’s all being re-told according to the same dreary collectivist storylines of race and class and gender and of course how that Muslim-American woman will be competing in the fencing competition in a hijab. By this point, we’re more interested in the upcoming world chess championship.
Most of the rest of the world will pay no attention to the event, and we really can’t blame it, but we have our own idiosyncratic reasons for being enrapt. We first took up chess way back when we were so young we required baby-sitting and our amorous parents hired the local high school champ to watch over us during their occasional and much-needed nights on the town, and he taught us not only the moves but also the tactical and strategic fundamentals of the game in the hope that it would keep us more or less quiet and still until our parents arrived home with an evening’s wages. The ploy had little effect on our more athletic and fidgety older brother, but it led to a years-long and mostly successful rivalry with a more mathematically-talented younger brother and our own life-long fascination with the game. A few years later the ruggedly individualist and undeniably brilliant American champion Bobby Fischer faced off against the collectivist and daunting Soviet Union’s reigning World Champion Boris Spassky in a compelling single combat contest of the ongoing Cold War, and it got more press attention than any of those heroes of a terrorism-stained Olympics or even that classic National Basketball Association finals between The New York Knicks and The Los Angeles Lakers, and when Fischer easily prevailed against Spassky’s brilliance and the commie’s conspiratorial advantages despite his temper-tantrum-induced disqualification in an early game we became lifelong followers of the World Chess Championship.
That Fischer guy could play a game of chess as beautifully as Mozart could write a symphony or Michelangelo could paint a ceiling, but the son of a Jewish mother’s virulent anti-semitism and the American hero’s outspoken anti-Americanism and the champ’s all-around nuttiness eventually undermined his heroic status. The only other American considered a world champion was Paul Morphy of New Orleans, who earned the unofficial title by convincingly beating the world’s best back in the antebellum and pre-official-championship days, and he also wound up going crazy, but in his days at least it had more to do with his unfashionably pro-Union views. Spassky was eventually recognized as a half-hearted dissenter against Soviet communism and an all-around-sportsman and undeniably brilliant chess-player in his own right, but the brilliant but more doctrinaire Soviet Anatoly Karpov wound up winning the next title by default when Fischer insisted on the most insane terms for a title defense.
Karpov successfully defended the title against two Soviet commie challengers, then retained his championship in a phony-baloney draw against the proudly half-Jewish and defiantly anti-Soviet challenger Garry Kasparov in ’84. Kasparov won fair and square against Karpov in ’86, then dominated the chess world into the 1990s.
Some of the corrupt organizational squabbling you find going on all the time in boxing then followed, with a charming enough English fellow named Nigel Short holding one of the disputed more-or-less world titles for a while, but Kasparov generally remained on top before retiring to take up a full-time career in politics, which he admirably continues here and abroad to this day, and a most worthy but altogether boring and draw-prone champion from India named Viswanathan Andad wound up as the little-recognized champion. He nobly defended the title the against yet another Russkie, then wound up losing his title in ’13 to a handsome and buff and combative 20-something Norwegian named Magnus Carlsen, who everyone in the chess world considered a more telegenic and exploitable champion.
This time around the big chess event will take place in November and December in the South Street Seaport district of lower Manhattan in New York City, and although the brilliant if oddly-named yet all-American grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana were upset in the preliminary matches by one of those inevitable Russkie challengers there’s still an intriguing Cold War feel to the championship. Carlsen’s challenger is the outspokenly pro-Putin and pro-Crimean invasion Russkie Sergey Karajkin, and given the champ’s unabashed identification with the free west and under-the-gun Scandinavia the battle lines are quite clearly drawn. Unlike the Cold War days of ’72 we’re in an American election year when the Democrat nominee offered a “reset button” to the Russkies and pulled back on a nuclear-defense deal with the Czechs and Poles and seemed to invite the recent Russian revanchism, and the Republican nominee and his in-bed-with-Russia campaign team were apparently unaware of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and seem quite content with Russia’s revanchism in any case, so our pro-western and pro-western-Ukrainian-type sympathies will be with some pretty-boy Norwegian rather than some nutcase half-Jewish and anti-semitic if undeniably brilliant and ruggedly individualist American this around.
Sports and politics are full of such ambivalent rooting, and even such an elegant game as chess isn’t immune to these complications.

— Bud Norman

The State of the Mid-Season Race

The New York Yankees have traded away their three best players and pretty much the rest of the season in exchange for better prospects in the hopefully near future, The Wichita Wingnuts are holding a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the double-A American Association’s southern division, and with help from an adorable rifle-toting teenaged girl America has already staked a lead in the Olympics medal count. As the stock markets are closed over the weekend our next check of the standings is the Real Clear Politics average of presidential polls, which currently shows the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton edging up to a 7 point lead over Republican nominee Donald J. Trump.
This strikes us as a fair assessment of the race at the moment, given how widely reviled both candidates are and how Trump had an even worse past week than Clinton did, which took some doing. There are a couple of polls showing Trump behind but within the margin of error, but a couple of others showing Clinton with a landslide lead, and even most Trump’s loyal analysts agree that it all averages out to a substantial if not insurmountable lead for Clinton of 7 or 8 or even 9 points or so. When you throw in the third and fourth options of Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Jill Stein, both of whom are polling conspicuously far better in their crazy election than their parties ever have done, the Clinton lead is narrowed to 6 or 7 or 8 points or so. A savvy sports fan’s closer look at the all-important electoral map will reveal that he’s behind but still in contention in some key swing states, clinging to a slight lead in a couple of others, losing ground in several more, and suddenly having to worry about a few states that more traditional Republicans long took for granted.
There’s a whole lot of baseball and presidential politics left to be played between now and the cool of November, and we’ve been following both sports long enough to expect surprise endings, but at this point in a season the teams that come from behind are usually making adjustments. Nothing in the political press suggests that Trump is making any personnel changes, or adopting new tactics, or even bothering to master the fundamentals of the game. Trump is being outspent on the widely-watched Olympic broadcasts and the rest of the airwaves to make the case that he’s a puppet of Vladimir Putin, a President of the United States who somehow has an over-50-percent approval rating and is therefore the most admired man in American politics is making the poll-tested argument that he lacks necessary temperament to be commander in chief, and Trump is responding with the schoolyard taunt that his opponent is “Unstable” Hillary “Rotten” Clinton, which will no doubt delight his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters but do little to convince that pesky 60 percent or so of the rest of the country that he’s particularly presidential.
Clinton is indeed rotten, as we’ve been publicly complaining since long before Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and telling everyone what a great President she would be, and it appalls us that the current rotten president is so unaccountably popular, but we’d much prefer a Republican nominee who could make that case in more compelling terms than a schoolyard taunt. That seems to be where the race stands, though, and from now on we’ll try to pay more attention to baseball.

— Bud Norman

An Olympian Disappointment

The Olympic games get underway today, and in a more perfect world they would provide some much needed distraction from the awful presidential race that’s lately been getting all our attention. Alas, in this imperfect world the Olympics are just as much a gruesome spectacle of incompetence and corruption.
Before the opening ceremonies have even begun in all their quadrennial gaudy splendor the Olympics have already been tarnished by the International Olympic Committee’s usual greasy-palmed awarding of the games to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where much of the local population is infuriated by the government’s spending of much-needed public funds to to the benefit of a few wealthy and well-connected parties, and is beset by rampant crime and one of those apocalyptic tropical diseases and all the inefficiencies of what is still a second-world country at best. The mess has caused many of the world’s top basketball players and golfers and other elite athletes to stay home, and we confidently expect that incompetence and corruption will also play a part in deciding the winners of several of the subjectively scored sports, and that better living through chemistry will once again play a role in the more rigorously timed and measured events.
Which is a shame, really, because the Olympics used to be the most riveting and inspiring thing on the fuzzy black-and-white three-channel televisions of our youth.
Our earliest memories of the Olympics date back to the ’68 games in Mexico City, when Bob Beamon jumped a full foot and a few inches farther than any human had ever jumped before, the future heavyweight champion of the world and grill-machine magnate George Foreman celebrated his gold-medal boxing performance by waving a couple of small American flags, the great Dick Fosbury forever changed the sport of high-jumping with his gold medal-winning “Fosbury flop,” and Kansas’ own Al Oerter became the first track and field athlete to win a fourth consecutive gold medal with another extraordinary throw of the discus. Even then we were aware of the student protests that disrupted the games, and how gold medal-winning Tommie Smith and bronze medal-winning John Carlos flashed the “black power” salute of an upturned and black-gloved fist while standing on the winner’s platform as the “Star Spangled Banner” played, and that Lew Alcindor had declined to the join the basketball team even before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other exceptional black athletes had boycotted the games, but America handily wound up winning the medal count and it bolstered our vague notions of American exceptionalism.
The ’72 Olympics in Munich were in living color, and featured the handsomely mustachioed Mark Spitz winning a record seven gold medals in swimming against a clearly cheating commie squad, the scariest-white-boy-you-ever-saw Dan Gable annihilating one steroid-pump commie after another on his way to a wrestling gold medal, skinny Dave Wottle and his backwards baseball cap coming from way way way behind to beat some fast muscle-bound commie in the 800 meter race, and as well as the hated Soviet Union beating an American basketball team that didn’t have the hippy-dippy Bill Walton or paying for play Julius Ervin on the most outrageously corrupt play-calling in Olympic history. Then there was the massacre of the Israeli team by a radical Islamist Palestinian terror group, and the quick exit of the Jewish Olympic hero Spitz, and Gable’s ill-advised grousing that his win had been overshadowed, and the questionable decision by American Olympic boss Avery Brundage to continue playing the games.
Since then the Olympics have proved less riveting. In ’76 the games went to nearby Montreal, Canada, and America came in an unaccustomed third place in the medal during its Bicentennial Year. The highlight from a patriotic perspective was a handsome young fellow named Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon and the unofficial “world’s greatest athlete title,” and of course he’s now better known as Caitlyn Jenner and was last seen as a honored guest at the Republican National Convention proving how very tolerant even the Republican are about men who think they’re women. America didn’t compete in the ’80 elections in Moscow after President Carter decided to boycott the games as retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Africa, which kept our junior high and high school classmate Darnell Valentine from a good chance at a basketball gold medal, and when the Soviet bloc boycotted the ’84 games in Los Angeles the Americans won so much they got bored with winning. The ’88 Olympics were in Seoul, we vaguely recall, and America was back in third place behind the Soviet Union and its East German puppets. The ’92 Olympics were in Barcelona, Spain, where professionals were at long last allowed to participate without any pretense of amateurism and the most memorable result was a basketball team featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and nine other all-timers that seemed to prove once and for all how well capitalism works. Some homosexual-hating nutcase set off a bomb at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, and except for America’s return to the top of the medal count we can’t recall much else.
By the ’00 Olympics in Sydney there was no Soviet Union and the American victory in the medal count didn’t seem so exceptional, and Marion Jones had two return two of those golds when she was found to be a chemical cheat, and the ’04 Olympics in Athens are best remembered for all abandoned venues that now broke country built for the games. The ’08 games in Beijing were basically a propaganda campaign for China’s totalitarian government, just like the ’36 games in Munich where that same old Avery Brundage wouldn’t let Jewish-American athletes compete for fear of offend his fellow Jew-hating hosts and thus allowed the black Jesse Owens to wind up spoiling the show, and except for Michael Phelps breaking Spitz’ record with eight gold swimming medals we can’t recall a thing about the ’12 games in London.
This year’s Olympics would have been in Chicago if President Barack Obama had his way, and there were reports when he flew off to Switzerland with Oprah Winfrey to make the pitch for his hometown that he envisioned it as a worldwide celebration of the fundamental transformation of America he had wrought by his second term and is pitch to the IOC was mostly predicated on how it would give the Olympics meaning to have them held in his own sanctified hometown. Of course he also hoped it would benefit his longtime consigliere Valerie Jarrett and all the other well-connected slum lords in his Chicago circles, but we suspect the city at large is happy to let the even more crime-ridden city of Rio De Janeiro pick up the tab.
Still, we’ll hope for some uplifting diversion during the games. Surely someone will run faster or jump higher or lift a greater weight than any other human ever has, and there’s a Wichita kid competing with the boxing team, and he might have better luck than the great Wichita miler Jim Ryun or our old basketball-playing classmate or any other local boy has done in the Olympics since James Bausch won the decathlon and the “world’s greatest athlete” title way back in ’32, and there might even be a moment where a good guy or a good gal from any old country wins a moment of well-deserved glory. That would make for a nice diversion right about now, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

— Bud Norman

Taking a Kick at Soccer

We know little about soccer, having grown up on wholesome American games that allow the use of hands, as God and Abner Doubleday intended, but even we knew that the sport’s international governing body is corrupt. It was therefor no surprise to hear that legal action is being taken against them, but we were a bit startled that it was America’s Department of Justice that is doing it.
The Federation Internationale de Football is not based in America, as the foreign name and its galling misuse of “football” would suggest, and so far as we can gather from numerous press reports none of its alleged crimes took place here. Authorities in Switzerland, where the organization is based, and where the alleged crimes seem to have allegedly occurred, and where the populace presumably cares more about soccer than do Americans, are also taking action, so it’s hard to see why America’s legal system should be bothered. All of the 14 FIFA official indicted on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy are from other other countries, there’s going to be a lot of fuss over extradition, it complicates foreign relations with the numerous countries involved to the point that we have to admit Vladimir Putin has a point when he calls it “another case of illegal extra-territorial implementation of American law,” and none of the bribes they’re said to have accepted for awarding international tournaments seem to have been paid by Americans, who won’t be hosting any FIFA tournaments in the near future in any case, so the only point seems to be cleaning up a sport that few Americans bother to watch.
The smart fellows over at the Powerline web site are avid soccer fans, which strikes us as odd given their usually sound political opinions and excellent taste in music, and they contend that the Department of Justice is still sore that FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar despite the long trip to Zurich and personal lobbying of former Attorney General Eric Holder. It won’t be the least bit surprising if it is eventually proved in court that the Qataris prevailed by means of millions of dollars of illegal bribes, as such things are a feature of Arab culture and there is no other plausible explanation for awarding the world’s most-watched sporting event to such a remote and backwards desert hellhole as Qatar. The country’s pledge to air-conditioned stadia large enough to accommodate a soccer field and many thousands of spectators in the 100-plus degree summers has already been reneged on, the tournament has thus been moved to winter during the middle of the seasons of the professional leagues that supply the players, and the Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi laborers who have been imported to build the vast infrastructure that FIFA absurdly requires have died at the rate of one per day. Nor would we be surprised if this is all about Holder holding a grudge, as he always struck as that sort of guy.
Besides, the Obama administration was still smarting from its snub by the International Olympic Committee way back in ’09 when it award its games to Rio de Janeiro over of Chicago. Obama personally flew to Denmark to make the pitch, bringing along Oprah Winfrey, who might or might not be a big deal in Denmark, and giving a speech about how Chicago was his kind of town and recalling how “Nearly one year ago, on a clear November night, people from every corner of the world gathered in the city of Chicago or in front of their televisions to watch the results of the presidential election,” and basically suggested that having the Olympics culminate his eight years in office and welcome the world to his transformed America would give the games new meaning. All the press speculated that of course the deal was already done or no president would put his prestige on the line by making the trip, so when the Olympics went to an even more crime-ridden kleptocracy than Chicago it was the first bad press that the administration got after all the messianic treatment in ’08, and although the loss of the 2022 World Cup went entirely unnoticed we’re sure it still stung.
The blow to Obama’s and Holder’s egos notwithstanding, and despite the lucrative deals that Valerie Jarret’s Chicago buddies would have made preparing for the Olympics, and whatever deals might have been made for a World Cup, these are two games we’re glad America lost. These big international sporting events are lucrative to whatever network makes the sufficient bribes, and they transfix much of the world for a brief time, but they’re usually a severe burden on the communities that get stuck with them and the useless stadia they paid for. Even in soccer-mad Brazil there were riots in response to lavish sums that poverty-stricken country doled out to host the most recent World Cup, and the police are gearing up for more of the same during those ’16 Olympics that Chicago wanted. The only Olympics that we can recall proving profitable for a host was the ’02 winter games in Salt Lake City, and that was due to the organizational skills of Mitt Romney, which the public apparently found less impressive than that soaring “on a clear November night” rhetoric of Obama. The Olympics have lost much of their appeal since the end of the Cold War, not to mention all believable rumors about the IOC’s shenanigans, but they’re still a bigger deal to the real American sports fan than some FIFA contest with a bunch of foreigners kicking a ball around a “pitch” — we know that, too, along with with the corruption of the governing body — to a 1-0 score after some incalculable amount of time.
A country such as Qatar might decide that the millions in bribes and billions in soon-to-be-useless stadia and the daily deaths of Indians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshi is well worth the prestige of hosting a highly-rated sports event, along with all the hooligans that soccer somehow always attracts, no matter how remote the backwards hellhole, but we’d like to think the United States of America can still earn its international prestige elsewhere.

— Bud Norman

The Six Ring Circus

The Olympics are now underway, and that still seems to be a big deal.

Not as big as deal as it was back in the Cold War days, when every competition that pitted the good ol’ USA against the USSR and its various proxies had the feel of single combat for the future of the civilized world. The games were riveting then, with each American victory vindicating the free market system and every commie victory confirming the duplicitous nature of that evil system. Not every Soviet win was tainted, of course, but that basketball final in the ’72 games certainly was, and so were all the medals won by those testosterone-laden women swimmers from East Germany, and countless judges decisions, so there were always enough shenanigans to support a good-guy-versus-bad-guy storyline that makes sports spectating so much more enjoyable.

The demise of the Soviet Union was a boon to humankind, but it did take much of the fun out of the Olympics. When the Russians and their puppets skipped the ’84 games America won so many gold medals that the national anthem became tedious, and all of the subsequent Olympics have lacked a suitable villain. At the Sydney games in ’00 the big competition turned out to be the home court Aussies, and except for Mel Gibson, Yahoo Serious, some crazy gun laws, and an occasional tendency toward self-righteousness there’s really nothing to justify rooting lustily against Australia. China arrived as a major world sports power at the ’08 Olympics in Beijing, and that country has several suitably villainous characteristics, but most of its medals are still being won in sports that Americans don’t bother to watch. The Ummah doesn’t field a team at the Olympics, yet, but even if it did it probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat to America’s standing in the medal count.

The supposed virtues of the “Olympic ideal” are an insufficient substitute for the good-versus-evil narrative. That idealism has been in question at least since 1936, when the games became a propaganda production for the German Nazi party, and every Olympics in our memory has been marked by doping scandals, game-fixing, outrageous political gestures, the worst sort of nationalism, and general poor sportsmanship. The ginned-up controversies over the amateur status of the competitors that were once a fixture of the games has happily disappeared since the Olympics wisely decided to embrace professionalism, but they’ve been replaced by tedious brouhahas over some small point of political correctness. Before the opening a ceremony a Greek athlete has already been expelled for the games over a rather mild joke and some unsavory party affiliations. All the “Olympic ideal” talk has an unsettling hint of one-worldism about it, and the quadrennial controversies always suggest that the one world they have in mind will be a rather stuffy and humorless place.

Still, we’ll be eagerly tuned in to whatever’s still available for free on over-the-air television, and hoping that it is free of tragedy. For all its flaws, the Olympics still bring together the world’s greatest athletes to compete in a variety of venerable sports, and there’s something undeniably compelling about that. The competition invariably provokes the best of humanity, even as it routinely displays the worst, and seeing that extraordinary range play out on a world stage will always have an intrinsic interest.

So let the games begin, and go USA!

— Bud Norman