Behind the Mic: Lesson Learned?

Last week, I discussed the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by Russian athletes during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  An investigation showed excessive manipulation by Russia’s sports ministry in the drug testing back to the 2011 and 2015 Olympic Games as well as the 2014 games in Sochi.  Twenty-eight sports were implicated in the Russian investigation.

A ruling came down on Sunday of this week from the International Olympic Committee that will allow the individual sports federations to decide which Russian athletes would compete in Rio.  The ruling also said that Russian athletes who have previously served bans due to doping will not be allowed to take part in the Games.

Obviously, there was a great outcry from anti-doping organizations that the IOC simply “passed the buck” and did not have the guts to sanction all Russian athletes from the games in Rio.  The IOC defended their position by saying that an athlete who was not implicated in the drug scandal should be free to compete and need not be punished for the actions of others.

One decision had already been made.  The Russian track and field athletes would not be able to compete.  One female Russian, long jumper Darya Klishina, would be an exception because she was tested outside of Russia.  Others say the federations may not have the knowledge or the time to adequately determine who should or should not compete.

I will let you decide if the IOC was only being fair to the Russian athletes who may be clean or very unfair to the world athletes who are definitely clean.

To me, the most interesting decision was the one to ban former Russian runner Yulia Stepanova from the Rio games.  Yulia had been suspended for two years after being found guilty of doping back in 2013.  During her suspension, she and her husband, Vitaliy, broke the story of how the Russian sports system used large-scale doping with their athletes.

So the very person who brought the scandal out into the open would not be allowed to compete even though her two-year punishment had been served.  She wanted to compete as an individual athlete, not for any country.  She and her husband are currently living in the United States.

So what is the lesson learned?  Will others come forward to expose illegal tactics if they, too, will be punished more severely than the athletes who remained silent?  The Olympic Games will go on starting August 5 and will include Russian athletes.  It does appear that there will be a cloud of distrust that winners won medals without the help of artificial assistance.  I can only hope that great performances will be proven to be just that – great performances!  I have my doubts.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. The Russians can’t seem to stay out of the news. They are suspected of having released the Democratic e-mails to Wikileaks that showed the DNC treated the Sanders campaign unfairly to help get the Hillary Clinton nomination.  Trump vs. Clinton may be the best/worst competition of the year.
  2. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon did not stay retired very long. He filled in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the Brickyard 400.  Earnhardt, Jr. has been experiencing concussion symptoms.  Gordon finished thirteenth.
  3. I am not a NASCAR fan, but it appears many more aren’t either. At Indianapolis on Sunday only 50,000 fans filled the 250,000 seats, continuing the steady decline of NASCAR attendance.
  4. As NFL football camps open this week, Ray Rice does not have a contract. In case you forgot, Rice was suspended by the Ravens in 2014 for domestic violence.  He has been out of football ever since.  He wants to play again and says he would donate his entire salary to combat domestic violence.  The minimum he would be paid would be $885,000.  Would you sign him?
  5. The Blue Mountain League regular season ends this week and congratulations to the defending league champions, Limeport Bulls. They won the regular season and, along with the Yankees, will get a bye to the semifinals.  The playoffs should be as competitive as the regular season.  Get out and watch a game.

Behind the Mic: PED’s

The Olympic Games begin in Rio on August 5 and will run through August 21.  During the Olympics, inevitably there will be conversation about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).  The focus on enhancing performance through the use of drugs was magnified in 1976 when the East German female swimmers won 10 gold medals out of 12, six silvers, and one bronze.  The previous Olympics, the East German female swimmers had won only four silvers and one bronze.  After the Berlin Wall fell, documents were found that showed that the swimmers without their parents’ knowledge had been given a drug regimen since the age of 11 to dramatically improve their performances.

The controversy still remains and may be at an all-time high.  Forty-two athletes were stripped of their medals or disqualified from competing in 2012 due to finding banned substances in their systems.  This year, 10 nations and 20 athlete groups have requested that the entire Russian delegation be barred from the Summer Olympics because of state- sponsored doping programs.  Even Russia’s anti-doping lab director said that the government ordered him to cover up the widespread use of PEDs during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

On Monday, a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency was issued and determined that state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes occurred in preparation for the Sochi Olympics.  The US and Canada have asked that “no athlete can represent Russia at the Rio Olympic Games.”  The Commission is leaving that decision up to the International Olympic Committee.

The United States is not free of guilt here either.  It has also had its share of athletes stripped of their medals.  Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones are the most famous.  Since 1968, 11 US medals have been revoked, second only to Russia.  The event that has been disciplined the most with athletes of all countries is Men’s Weightlifting.

So with all the attention that is now focused on PEDs, can we expect the stories coming out of Rio in a few weeks to be about the super-human performances or will they be about how these performances were achieved?

I would like to think when I sit down to watch the competitors that technology has advanced to the point where if you cheat, you will be caught.  And those who win gold medals have done so fairly or, if not, those medals will immediately be revoked.  If that is the case, it will be the first time since 1968, when the first Olympic doping cheat was found, that medals have gone to all who deserve them.

So when I am cheering “USA!  USA!” on the outside, I am hoping “No PEDs! No PEDs” on the inside.  Let the Games begin!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. The Liberty boys and the Nazareth girls won the basketball Sportsfest titles this past weekend. The winter season looks like it will be very, very competitive with so many strong teams in both boys and girls.  Emmaus, Whitehall, Allen, Pocono Mountain West, Parkland, and Bangor look very strong on the boys’ side and an equal number of strong challengers for the girls.
  2. The British Open final round was one for the ages. Henrik Stensen outdueled Phil Mickelson in a match-play-like finale and shot an amazing 63 with 10 birdies.  He had the lowest score ever over 72 holes in a major (264).  Mickelson shot 65 and did not bogey a hole.  His total of 267 was the fourth best score in major history and he did not win.  Colin Montgomery had the same score and did not win in 1995.  Stensen won $1.5 million.
  3. The folk hero of the British Open was Andrew Johnston – “Beef”. The somewhat overweight, heavily-bearded Brit finished eighth and won $224,196.  Ranked 104th in the world, it was his look, his demeanor and, more importantly, his play that captured the crowd’s support.  His father died when he was 17, and he welled up coming up 18 thinking of him.  Let’s hope he continues to play well.  He seems to represent the average Joe.  By the way, his wedge has nine different types of beef engraved on it – rib-eye, brisket, sirloin, t-bone, tri-tip, flank, filet mignon, porterhouse, and skirt.
  4. I never did this playing a round of golf, but if I wouldn’t have to pay for a new club, I probably would have:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/07/furious-golfer-snaps-golf-club-throws-it-in-a-bush-at-british-open

I did play once with a golfer who after a bad shot on hole #18, took each club out of his bag, one by one, and threw them into the nearby woods.  Then, he had second thoughts and painstakingly retrieved them.

  1. When you are a real fan, and a baseball game takes six hours and 18 innings to be completed, your emotions run the gamut. Watch:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/07/young-pirates-fan-18-inning-game-emotions-nationals-mlb

Behind the Mic: Rio and Zika

NBC Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie, who is expecting her second child, has decided not to attend the Olympics.  A handful of other NBC employees have also opted not to travel to Rio.  NBCUniversal is not requiring any employee to go if they choose not to.  Close to 3,000 employees will be part of the Olympic coverage.

Some US athletes have expressed concern, particularly female athletes, but, so far, not many have pulled out. There are approximately 600 cases of Zika in the US right now and those were contracted by citizens who traveled to other countries.  So how concerned should the athletes and spectators be?

In January, the World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency for pregnant women.  As of May, nearly 300 women tested positive for Zika in the US.  Just two weeks ago, 200 scientists signed a letter to the World Health Organization strongly suggesting the Games should be moved from Brazil.  Other health officials, including those at WHO, say there is not a big enough threat to move the games.

National Public Radio (NPR) charted the odds of an American contracting Zika in Rio compared to other everyday threats.  According to their data:

  • One in 11 million Americans have a chance of dying in a plane crash
  • One in 9.6 million Americans have a chance of being killed by lightning
  • One in 5.2 million Americans have a chance of dying from a bee sting
  • One in 3.7 million Americans have a chance of being killed by a shark
  • One in 32,250 have a chance of contracting Zika in the three weeks spent in Rio during the Olympics
  • One in 9,100 Americans have a chance of being killed in a car accident

The NPR article goes on to say that Mikkel Quam, an epidemiologist, has been trying to determine the mosquito activity in Rio in August.  August is winter in Brazil, cooler and drier, and he said, “There’s very little mosquito activity during the Olympics.”

His thesis calculates that there will be approximately 16 cases of Zika at the Olympics.  Other scientists have indicated that the athletes and spectators should be more concerned about the water or food poisoning.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan disagrees completely.  He says this is an epidemic we do not understand and, because of that, we should err on the side of caution and move the Games.

I am pretty certain that, at this late stage, the Olympic Games will be held in Rio.  Hopefully, that is the proper decision.  It remains to be seen.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. Tiger Woods will not be playing in the US Open this week at Oakmont, but he is co-writing a book on his 1997 Master’s victory.
  2. Speaking of Oakmont, I played there a few years back as a guest of Joe Brake of Coca-Cola. It remains the hardest course I have ever played.  It is, also, a bit intimidating when you pull up in your car and a member of the staff cordially greets you and hands you all the rules you must follow both inside and outside the clubhouse.  Trust me; the hardest working member of the staff that day was my caddie.
  3. One more US Open note – high school junior Won Jun Lee missed qualifying for the Open because he fixed a pitch mark off the green. For that, he received a two-stroke penalty.  No good deed goes unpunished.
  4. Last week, I mentioned that the US Women’s soccer team was thinking of going on strike for wages on par with the men’s team. Maybe they should just take up tennis.  Of the top ten female athletes, eight of them are tennis players.  Only non-tennis players Ronda Rousey ($14 million) and Danica Patrick ($13.9 million) made the top ten.  #1 was Serena Williams ($28.9 million) and #2 was Maria Sharapova ($21.9 million).
  5. We are off to Penn State this week to produce the PIAA State Baseball Championships for PCN at Penn State on June 16. The games will be streamed LIVE on the 16th and shown on PCN on the 17th.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Olympic Thoughts

The advertisements for this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio have kicked into high gear, and people who traditionally don’t follow sports like handball, judo, table tennis and equestrian events will suddenly become experts (or at least show a passing interest) if and when these events are on television.

It is a special time, and while I admit to knowing very little about the canoe sprint, rhythmic gymnastics and the modern pentathlon, I will sit and watch almost any sport or activity that’s available to watch.  I think the Games build a spirit of unity and give people a common issue to discuss for 17 days without worry or concern of getting into a nasty debate, as politics, news events or even professional sports issues sometimes do.

(I hate to admit this, but I even enjoy the many “feel-good stories” that the broadcasting networks produce—even if it often interrupts a sport’s natural rhythm of the broadcast when they playback events on a tape-delayed basis).

We have the benefit of having some special former Olympic athletes in the RCN viewing area, and I had the absolute pleasure recently to sit down with a couple of them.  Former cycling gold medalist Marty Nothstein and four-time Olympic track star Joetta Clark-Diggs joined us on “RCN SportsTalk” to talk about many different issues (the entire show is available on RCN On-Demand and on our podcast, here).

Nothstein and Clark-Diggs gave us some great insights on what Olympic athletes really deal with behind the scenes of the Games (for many, it’s not nearly as glamorous as one might think).  They also talked about their individual stories of success, failure and perseverance.  Both Marty and Joetta also gave us insights on what goes through their mind each year when the Olympic Games gain momentum and capture the nation’s attention.  Both of these Olympic legends participated in the 1996 Atlanta games and gave us unique experiences about having this event held inside their home country, as well as talking about their 2000 Sydney, Australia experiences.

What was perhaps most surprising to me is that both of these international stars not only have strong views on today’s young people, but also spend large amounts of their time working with young people, and trying to teach many lessons to young people in the RCN viewing area.

Nothstein lent his name to a youth program that helps support young people learning about cycling but also preaches at length to his students about the importance of teamwork and helping out other people.

Joetta runs a camp each year that focuses on typical track-and-field related events, but also uses the lessons she’s learned as a standout athlete, and applies life lessons to kids who could apply to their lives, and to more everyday hurdles that they might come across in life.

Both of these great talents have written books about these issues that our young people face in addition to great insights to each one’s incredible athletic career.  It is incredibly rewarding to see these mega-stars so involved in giving back to the community—willingly—and to really and sincerely enjoy working with our youth.

If you missed our “SportsTalk” show featuring these two Olympic legends, we’ll have an ‘encore’ edition of this program coming up on Thursday, August 4th at 7pm and again at 9pm on RCN-TV.

Behind the Mic: “The Best ‘Recruit’ of the Year”

Say the word “recruit” or “recruiting” in the Lehigh Valley and get ready for an argument. Whether it’s football, basketball, or wrestling (and even baseball a few years ago), the term riles up athletic directors, coaches, athletes, and parents. Everyone has an opinion on what should determine the eligibility of any student who “transferred” or was “recruited” to another school for athletic reasons. I will leave this volatile subject up to the powers-to-be and I wish them well in finding a solution, if there is one to be found.

I want to talk about the best use of “recruiting” I have seen in my many years of doing high school sports. It came in the final game of the season for the Nazareth Blue Eagles basketball team when they played in their rivalry game against Northampton. For that last game, they added a player to their roster, not only to help them win, but in a way, to help all of us to understand the value of athletics and the value of working with young people.

Joe Arndt, the Nazareth coach, decided to add Devon Roe to his roster. Devon had tried out for the team in the fall, but despite all the encouragement he got from his fellow teammates, he just could not crack the roster.

You see, Devon Roe is a special-needs student who was supposed to be in a wheelchair by the time he was a teenager. However, Devon is not in a wheelchair and spent this past season serving as the Nazareth manager for the basketball team. He dutifully fulfilled his responsibilities for the first 20 games. Devon has many disorders including autism and OCD.

Friday was Senior Night and Coach Arndt felt it would be the perfect opportunity to do some “recruiting” of his own. He “recruited” Devon. Devon wore number 32 and was placed in the starting lineup. There were no protests from Northampton or their coach, Coy Stampone, who, ironically, was an assistant to Coach Arndt for many years. The District XI and the PIAA would not get involved in this case.

Devon led his team onto the floor for warm-ups, received a resounding standing ovation from the fans when he was introduced as a member of the starting lineup, and caught the opening tap. He quickly left the floor. He would re-enter the contest for the final six seconds.

His mother spent most of the day in tears and cried throughout the night. She has watched Devon overcome so much adversity in his life. He participates in the Nazareth job-study program and she sends him off to work at Petco and Giant a few days a week. She has had, I’m sure, many proud moments with her son, but Friday night was certainly a special one.

Congratulations to the coaches, the administration, and especially the players for teaching all of us a valuable lesson about rewarding hard work, teamwork, and compassion. And I offer special congratulations to Devon. He did what the coach asked, did not complain about playing time, and basked in the victory of his teammates.

This is the type of player every coach should recruit. It would help all of us!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. I notice that it always takes me some time to get into the Olympics and this year is no exception. Having grown up during the Cold War, where we spent Health Class in high school learning to build a bomb shelter and going through our decision to boycott the Russian Olympics during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I feel some resentment toward Putin as I watch him. I’m sure I will get over it. By the end of this week, I’ll be chanting, “USA! USA!” along with the rest of you.
2. By the way, there are 12 more events (98 in all) than there were at Vancouver.
3. Sochi this time of the year has an average temperature of 43 degrees making this the warmest site for a Winter Games. The Super Bowl in cold weather; the Winter Olympics in warm weather? Someone will somehow correlate this to global warming!
4. I watched the final Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Thursday. It was quite good and Jay was very emotional. I have always been a Letterman fan and never found Leno to be all that funny. Ironically, I saw him at the Sands a few months back and his stand-up routine was hilarious. He will now do more of that and I would certainly go to see him.
5. The Beatles 50-year anniversary of their appearance in America was, also, quite good. Ringo and Paul McCartney were at their best. The Ed Sullivan clips brought back memories of watching them that night. I think everybody watched. I was a senior in high school. (And I’m feeling quite old right now! Time for a nap.)

 

 

 

 

Behind the Mic: Olympic Wrestling


Today’s “Behind the Mic” blog is written by long time RCN personality Scott Barr. Scott’s on-air career began in 1984 with the District XI Girl’s Tennis Championship, won by Monica Yurkonic. Since that debut, he has covered a wide range of sports, including kick boxing, track and field, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, football, and baseball. Most of our viewers, of course, will know him for his work with District XI wrestling. The 2012-13 season was Scott’s 29th season covering “the nation’s best high school wrestling.” Fans across the valley have heard him call “Give him six!” after a pin, while working with three legends of Lehigh Valley sports—Gary Laubach, Ray Nunamaker, and Jim Best. Outside of RCN, Scott helps small businesses set up retirement plans for their employees, and lives in Macungie with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, ages 6 to 22!


 

Quick—without Google—name the five events in the Olympic Modern Pentathlon.

It’s a sport that may continue to be included in the 2020 version of this worldwide festival of competition. As you know by now, wrestling will not. There is plenty of finger-pointing, from FILA to the IOC, but the bottom line is that this decision is heinous, and reeks of politics.

The IOC stated, in their own report:

“The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.”

Allow me to interpret—they gathered the facts, but didn’t really use them. They had important numbers available, but made this decision based on “emotion and sentiment”. Does anyone else smell corruption? Maybe I’ve been listening too much to Glenn Beck.

Wrestling, as an Olympic sport, dates to 1896, and is responsible for some of the great Olympic memories. Local fans, of course, will remember Bobby Weaver running around the arena with his 8 month old son, celebrating his gold medal in 1984. I still get choked up watching that one. Some may recall Wilfred Dietrich’s amazing suplex of the 500 pound Chris Taylor in 1972—find it on YouTube—it is the most spectacular throw in wrestling history. Other moments, American and otherwise, are equally memorable. To remove this sport is a travesty.

Further, it’s not hard to imagine that the elimination of Olympic wrestling would cause a death spiral to the sport overall. Title IX has already damaged our sport dramatically, and the IOC decision could well finish it off. Since 1972, 669 colleges and universities have dropped their programs. Of the 79 Division I programs that remain, how many would fold if Olympic dreams were suddenly torn away? Once that happens, the high school programs can’t be far behind.

There are those who say that the sport is tough to watch, difficult to understand, and doesn’t translate well to television. For the casual viewer, clearly, these are valid. My response is equally clear—hogwash. All of these arguments can be made for dressage, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized diving, and other events that seem to be safe from Olympic cuts. That’s right—dressage—an event where, as near as I can tell, is best described as “horse dancing”.

The final vote has yet to be cast on this decision, as this will happen in September of this year. I do not have a good feeling about it. The IOC, above all, is a political group, and their intent is clear. Dan Gable, the great American champion, is hoping that a petition with 2,020,000 signatures can sway their opinion. I hope he is right. Gable is not a man accustomed to losing, but the battle of FILA vs IOC is lightweight vs super heavyweight.

I would love to tell you “here’s what we need to do” in order to save this sport. I truly fear that the die has been cast. FILA has changed leadership, and is campaigning with urgency, but it may be far too little, and smells of desperation. Certainly, the IOC is used to outrage, and expects a good amount in the face of this decision. Dan Gable is a competent ambassador, and a passionate leader. If a miracle is needed, he may be the only one capable of delivering.

By the way — the modern pentathlon? Pistol shooting, 200 meter freestyle swimming, horse show jumping, fencing, and cross-country running. A cool event, really, but unless you are from a formerly Communist-block country, you don’t care. In 2005, the IOC affirmed its place in the competition, but will vote again in September of this year. Somebody’s out.