So here it is, Twenty-Eleven, and it’s about time I get the first edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America out of my brain and into the vortex for the fanatical consumption of the masses. One week’s absence was anticipated, as I have been compiling my first treatise on sports in the ardent hope it hits the presses by this spring. The lack of the column a second week was due primarily to finally catching the cold that my wife has been battling since before the flip of the calendar into the new year. But here we are once more, and it never ceases to boggle my mind just how much we as fans cram into our brains in the scope of a few weeks.
Just thinking traditionally for a moment, four HUGE football games have already come and gone in this sports fan’s world. Since this column last appeared, this born-and-bred Badgers fan could only watch as Tank Carder knocked down Scott Tolzein’s two-point pass attempt and secured victory for TCU over Wisconsin. Nine days later, the team I’ve adopted from my current hometown — the Nike Swooshbucklers (aka: Oregon Ducks) of Eugene — were in Arizona for the biggest college football game of the year. And verily it would come to pass that they, too, would be in the game until the end only to lose on the double punch of Michael Dyer’s stopped-forward-progress/keep-running-anyway jaunt into field goal range coupled with Wes Byrum’s kick as the clock expired. Two of my favorite teams… two BCS bowl appearances… and two losses, by a combined five points.
Hopefully all that just means it was meant to be a pro year in football anyway for me. With the NFC Championship game in Soldier Field all that stands between the Green Bay Packers and the fifth Super Bowl berth in franchise history, it feels like the charmed run of luck that seemed to be sticking to the Ducks and Badgers has now transferred to that NFL rooting interest of mine. After two straight road wins, the #6 seed in the NFC looks like anything but just sixth-best in the conference. Sandwiched around that Auburn victory over Oregon, the Pack first engineered the ouster of the Michael Vick Experience in Philadelphia and then the devolution of the Matty Ice home-field advantage in Atlanta on successive weekends.
Now they get the Bears, the team they defeated in Week 17 of the regular season to claim their playoff seed in the first place. It is a rivalry that has stewed longer than any other in the NFL, nine decades of enmity simmered with just one previous playoff appearance to help bring some catharsis to the situation. Yet unlike such battles as the Patriots-Jets and Steelers-Ravens contests we saw in the AFC Divisional Playoff round, this rivalry is more respectfully carried out. Neither team is prone to issue a lot of jawing and trash talk to the press before the fact. When you only get one playoff matchup against one another every seventy years, I guess, you have to relish every facet of it.
But there has been a whole world of action beyond the gridiron over the first three weeks of 2011. The first Grand Slam of the 2011 tennis calendar has already crept up on us. Cycling has exploded with the revelations regarding the grand-jury investigation into potential drug use by Lance Armstrong, prompting the seven-time Tour de France champion to get testy at a recent press conference at the Tour Down Under, the last race of a storied yet increasingly questioned career. And this is all just in Australia, as some sports chase the summertime to the Southern Hemisphere.
On the snowy side of the globe, skiing’s FIS World Cup is hitting some of its most iconic mountains. A year removed from the Vancouver Olympics, life goes on for the winter athletes who are rarely in the American public sports consciousness in these three seasons between Olympiads. We’ve got a lot to discuss this week, so let’s just start ranting along and see where the return voyage takes us…
It doesn’t really matter the sport, pick any sport. It could be any sort of competition — a one-off challenge, a game in a season or a playoff or tournament. There are always going to be those amongst the world of sports fans that are motivated to predict how the chips will fall, who will emerge the victor, how events will unfold. It is yet another way we engage with the athletes locked into combat.
Sometimes it comes down to simple fanaticism for a specific team or player that leads our hearts to guide our predictions. Yet for even the most ardent fan, the urge to predict correctly often precludes any loyalties. Just look at any March Madness bracket — very few fans are able to seriously vote for their favorite team to win it all come that first week in April. Predictions, though we can try to come at a bracket or a slate of weekend games as scientifically and objectively as possible, are always a crapshoot.
I look at the predictions I set out for the men’s and women’s singles brackets ahead of the Australian Open this year. Already both of my darkhorse candidates have fallen by the wayside, and one of my two finalists on the men’s side bombed out before he could even get out of the gate. It is utter carnage, and honestly that’s pretty much a guarantee when you start trying to project out wide fields. And it is instructive to remember that Grand Slam singles brackets contain 128 names from which to whittle down an eventual champion, twice what March Madness springs on its annual flock of followers.
Thiemo de Bakker seemed to have everything right there for the taking, up two sets and 4-2 in the third on #12 seed Gael Monfils. Yet some combination of a lower-body injury that was never really disclosed and his own rattling nerves undid the young Dutchman, allowing his French counterpart back into the match for the ultimate victory. There went one quarterfinalist. Soon there would be another on that first day of play, yet this one would be even more damning to my bracket.
The way Nikolay Davydenko had started the year, with a run to the finals in Doha, Qatar that had included a 6-3 6-2 rout of Rafael Nadal and a loss in the finals to Roger Federer, I had a hunch he would come to Melbourne hot and ready to roll through his quarter. Little did I count on Florian Mayer undoing the Russian in the opening round — and there went my projected losing finalist, out of the draw, leaving lots of slash marks down the line and killing that side of the bracket to obsolescence. All totaled, 23 of my 64 projected first-round winners tumbled to a loss right out of the gate on just the men’s side, with 13 of those 23 having been forecast to win at least one more round beyond that. Decimation is too light a word to describe the occurrence.
The women’s side looks little better, and thus here I am wondering what the point is of even pretending I’m Bigalkedamus. Yet that’s the fun of this whole game, trying to gamble on your own insight and instincts to vicariously “win” along with your picks. We try to predict everything from bowl winners (of which I went 7-3 in lesser bowls… but just 1-4 in the BCS bowls this year for Sports Nickel’s previews) to who will win the Super Bowl (this fan still hopes Green Bay) to who will win at Kitzbuhel this weekend — but that just leads us in another direction…
One person we know definitely won’t be winning on the legendary and fear-inducing Streif downhill course of the Hahnenkamm — the most demanding mountain on the World Cup skiing circuit — is Hans Grugger. The 29-year-old Austrian downhill and Super G specialist was taking a training run down the mountain today when he lost control and suffered a violent crash. (SEE VIDEO HERE, BUT BE FOREWARNED OF ITS GRAPHIC NATURE.)
Grugger started out of the gate, pushing off down the slope toward the first jump toward the top of the course. It is the section known as the Mausefalle (“mousetrap” in German), as it has a tradition of snagging up many of the world’s best skiers on this demanding course. A right-hand turn leads into a 90-degree left-hand bend before a sharp right leads into a jump. Grugger gets a little loose in the turn, tight at the flag yet veering out to the right on his approach toward the jump. Skiers are required to be ever vigilant here, as without a perfect line into the Mausefalle it is nearly impossible to stick the landing leading into the next technical sections of the Karusell and Steilhang.
Grugger found that out the hard way… a very hard way. As he leapt off the jump, his body continued the rotation with which he was still leading into the edge of the launch. As his body twisted, you could see Grugger recognize the trouble into which he had placed himself as he tried in vain to get his skis back parallel with the landing. But the Austrian veteran — who finished sixth on this World Cup stop last season in advance of the Vancouver Olympics and the Alpine events at Whistler — landed with his skis pitched rightward from parallel and immediately toppled leftward onto his back. Detritus flied upward in sharp relief against the snow, his poles and gloves flying from his arms and his right ski shattering on the impact. His body flopped limply as it continued gliding down the steep snow face, his helmeted head dragging and skidding along the hard-packed surface repeatedly with each meter.
There is no doubt that amongst all the sports out there, downhill skiing competition is among the most dangerous out there. For two straight minutes, each athlete must be at the peak of his or her physical and mental focus. There is no grounds for let-up on the course — as Grugger’s greusome crash illustrates, even being a millimeter or two off one’s line or angled even one or two degrees off of parallel to the course can spell the difference between victory and the most horrific of results.
Grugger was airlifted off the course within minutes and flown to a nearby hospital in Innsbruck, where an emergency operation was performed in an attempt to prevent further damage from the brain injury sustained in the fall. It was the third time in four years that the Hahnenkamm has led to such an incident — in 2008, it was American skier Scott Macartney who got too much lift on the final Zeilsprung jump into the finishing area and was kept in an induced coma before his recovery and return to the circuit; a year later, Switzerland’s Daniel Albrecht was injured in a similar crash before also returning the next season to competition.
Didier Cuche, the three-time winner of the Streif World Cup downhill, spoke with the media at the end of the session – in which his own training run set the fastest mark of the day. Echoing the realities of millimeters making the difference, Cuche asserted that it appeared in his eyes as though Grugger wasn’t able to hold the correct line into the Mausefalle before reiterating, “The problem is that you have several bumps in the first two turns. If you can’t keep your direction there, it can cause you real troubles.”
The race is due to go off on Saturday without any changes to the course, and we can only hope that Grugger manages to recover as Macartney and Albrecht were both able to from their equally distressing incidents. There was talk for a short while about altering the course, but since 1931 the course has only been altered in cases of fog or inclement course conditions. While fog and limited visibility affected training on the mountain, it appears that the full 3.3-kilometer course will be utilized for the fourth straight year after warm temperatures forced the cancellation of the 2007 edition. May Grugger return to health, and may the “mousetrap” yield no further incidents this weekend…
Yet while there are incidents that are sometimes inevitable on the course of competition — no sport is without its potential dangers for athletes — there are also times when athletes bring incidents upon themselves. That may very well be the case with Lance Armstrong, the iconic American cyclist whose metamorphosis from cancer victim to Tour de France champion enthralled a nation that didn’t know its derailleur from its domestiques. As Sports Illustrated detailed in its most recent issue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is digging into the potential that Armstrong was the ringleader for a covert and expansive doping operation during his rise to glory.
The crux of the matter is increasing evidence that Armstrong’s lily-white image is the result of bleaching out many grimy truths during his career. Documentation found at teammate Yaroslav Popovych’s house in Italy detailed the work that Armstrong and company purportedly continued with Dr. Michele Ferrari – an ill-reputed doctor and cycling coach who has been denounced in the past as a proponent of doping practices — despite Lance’s protestations that he stopped working with Ferrari in 2004. Paperwork and official minutes of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency meetings harbor the very real potential that the people trusted to ensure the sanctity of clean sport were covering up for Armstrong… both before and after his cancer treatment.
There’s the potential that he was given access to an experimental drug in the late 1990s known as HemAssist, which never hit the open market but was touted as a more-effective means of boosting oxygen-carrying blood levels than EPO. Former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, who were present in Lance’s hospital room during his cancer recovery, have repeatedly asserted that they specifically heard Armstrong answer a doctor’s inquiry as to whether he had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs in the affirmative — citing EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids. There are stories from Floyd Landis, the disgraced 2006 Tour de France champion, about his days with Lance and U.S. Postal, about using charter flights from smaller regional airports to thwart the work of customs officials.
What could this all mean for Armstrong’s legacy? What does this mean for the validity and legitimacy of anti-doping efforts should the grand jury (led by famed BALCO investigator Jeff Nowitzky) come to the conclusion that Armstrong is guilty of even a fraction of the charges leveled against him? Ultimately, we as fans have been forced over the past decade to increasingly come to grips with the widespread use of various performance enhancers across the spectrum of our sports world. No sport is immune from the microscope of accusation and insinuation. Cycling has been both the most pilloried sport and yet also the one at the forefront of the fight against doping.
But if all those tests have proven largely useless, ineffectual and unable to root out the users in each sport… why are we sacrificing the resources and working so hard on a futile project? If Armstrong proves to have been at the heart of these indiscretions, there is no doubt that his reputation will be irrevocably tarnished after so many years spent refuting every accusation leveled against him. Beyond that, though, we might be forced to come to grips with something that is by no means unfathomable — the fact that athletes have always sought some advantage, that they will continue to seek some advantage, and that the most stringent protocols in the world for rooting out the indiscretions do little to dissuade those determined to achieve the gains possible in a vial or a pill.
Landis, talking with Cyclingnews.com, said as much in the wake of his retirement announcement earlier this week. “You’ve got to legalise doping. [The testers] are so far behind in the testing organisations that there’s no way to change it now. Just accept that it’s here, that it’s not going away and that it’s just going to get more complicated and the fact that it’s not that complicated yet compared to what it will be. Ten years from now it’s going to be four times as hard as it is now to test for things. Since you can’t stop it you have to deal with it in rational kind of way. You can’t stop it and you can’t fix it. Monitor it and make sure people don’t hurt themselves, but you have to accept it.”
And maybe that is what we all will eventually be forced to do when it comes to doping — accept it before we can formulate policies that at least keep it in check and ensure athlete safety. For if the evidence throughout history’s various prohibitions proves one thing, it is that a prohibition on substances through legal channels only drives those who would insist upon using them toward substances which may be less pure, more toxic, and less effective at achieving the desired results. In some instances, the only way to eliminate a black market is by undercutting it with a legitimate one.
Who knows? As Armstrong insists on asserting over and over, this could very well be just a bunch more bluster intent on derailing what is in actuality a legitimate story of success achieved after rising from the edge of the precipice. But as the evidence mounts, it is going to be harder and harder to believe this story of resurrection, redemption and revelation. So stay tuned… between this blindside exposé and the impending ruling about Alberto Contador’s clenbuterol positive, we’re about to learn a lot about the true nature of the anti-doping movement throughout sport…