Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed

Janine the Machine. All Janine Shepherd knew was athletic success, winning national titles before she turned 10. She was such a promising skiier that she trained to be a cross-country competitor at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

But one crisp cool day in 1986, cycling on the roads of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia, her life and her dreams changed in an instant. A truck smashed into her, resulting in injuries in almost every part of her body possible: broken neck and spine, broken ribs and arm, broken collarbones and feet, head injury, internal injury, massive loss of blood.

As she deadpans in this very popular TedTalk presentation, “I was having a really bad day.”

But of course, TedTalks are often about inspiration, and Shepherd’s story is nothing but.

She talks of her out of body experience, seeing her body from above, torn apart, and the verbal battle she had with herself, whether to stay or go:

Come on. Stay with me.

No, it’s too hard!

Come on. This is our opportunity.

No, that body is broken! It can no longer serve me.

Come on, stay with me. We can do it together.

After ten days on the razor’s edge of life and death, she chose to “return to her body”, and begin the process of recovery. As she was counselled, she would go through depression, asking herself the inevitable question, “why me?” She was told she would never return to the life she had before, let alone walk again.

janine-shepherd-piolot

“I was an athlete. That was all I knew. That’s all I had done. If I couldn’t do that, then who was I?”

There was a point, at rock bottom, she realized she really did have a choice. That she could embark on the greatest creative act of her life – reinventing herself. Shepherd’s talk is spellbinding, as you hear of her deciding that since she can’t walk, she can fly. She took flying lessons. She began to will herself to walk. She continued to advance her flying skills, learning how to fly bigger planes, and then how to fly planes acrobatically, and then teaching others to fly.

As Shepherd explains at the end of the presentation, “I knew for certain although my body might be limited it was my spirit that was unstoppable.”

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They met the President of the United States even before the Olympics began. Before they set foot in Sarajevo, the 1984 Men’s Ice Hockey Team were treated to festive events and meals, honored in so many towns where they played exhibitions as if they had already won the gold medal.

It’s hard for me to recall, but I suppose I and many other Americans had very high expectations for the 1984 squad. Our memories of the “Miracle on Ice”, proclaimed so emphatically by play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, were seared into our mind’s eyes. We can still today see the team throw their sticks and gear into the air, leaping into each other’s arms as the crowd (and an entire nation) exploded in unrestrained glee.

The 1980 team crept slowly into our consciousness with an amazing buzzer-beating goal to tie Sweden in their first game in Lake Placid, an amazing upset of the Soviet Union in the semi-final match, culminating in yet another come-from-behind victory for gold against Finland. This team proved that David could slay Goliath, assuming David was American. So, of course the 1984 team was destined for greatness and glory.

And the 1984 team sported a few great players, now Hall of Famers, like center Pat LaFontaine drafted by The New York Islanders, goalie Tom Barrasso drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, center Eddie Olczyk drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and defenseman Chris Chelios drafted by the Montreal Canadiens . They even had two players from the 1980 Miracle-on-Ice team, John Harrington and Phil Verchota.

As Bob Brooke, a forward on the 1984 team wrote for the New York Times, “We rode the crest of a media wave all year, basking in the sunshine of little boys and girls tugging at our coattails for autographs, drinking in the prospects of appearing in commercials and [on] posters.”

But the expectations were too great for the 1984 team. How could they possibly replicate the story of the 1980 team, their rise from nowhere to become a rallying cry for Americans, pained by the beatings they were getting internationally (hostage crisis in Iran) as well as domestically (an economic “malaise”).

Even their coach, Lou Vairo, a virtual unknown who had more experience with roller hockey than ice hockey, thought that equaling the 1980 team’s success would be an even bigger miracle, according to this great article by Jeff Pearlman, called “A Miracle Put on Ice“.

“How can you replicate that magic?” Vairo says. “You can’t.”

Those are not words Herb Brooks, head coach of the 1980 team, would ever have slipped from his lips.

Team Canada
Team Canada celebrate a goal during hockey action against the United States at the 1984 Winter
And yet, Brooks was not there to exhort the 1984 team to greatness. While it’s true the American team was routing the opposition in the exhibition matches leading up to the Sarajevo Games, once the Olympics began, the Team of Great Expectations faded immediately. First, they lost to Canada 4-2. Then to Czechoslovakia 4-1. And that was essentially the end of any Miracle redux. The team fought on, managing a 3-3 tie with Norway, routing Austria 7-3, before finishing weakly with a tie against Finland.

There would be no banquets. There would be no visit to the White House. Instead, there would be scorn, as Pearlman wrote:

The players were branded “disappointments,” “slackers,” and “overrated.” In a scathing piece for the Dallas Times Herald, columnist Skip Bayless wrote, “It wouldn’t have been quite so embarrassing if our kids had been half as good as their hype.” Vairo, in particular, caught most of the heat. He was in over his head. He was no Brooks. His style was too basic. He was an amateur. “I can tell you it didn’t hurt,” he says. “But it did. Of course it did. I’m human.”

What will people be wearing for Halloween? To be honest, sports is not the greatest well from which ideas spew. But here are a few ideas, which are clearly influenced by pop culture in America.

Be Ryan Lochte: Jimmy Fallon did it. You can do it. Go to this website for the items you need to be the great American Olympic swimmer, who turned into an overnight PR disaster….for a little less than USD500.

Be a Gymnast: Little girls all over America will dress up as The Final Five, no doubt. Just don’t try to buy an original Final Five leotard. The leotards, with their glittering Swarvorski crystals, cost anywhere from USD700 to 1,200 to make each one. My guess it’s easy to find replicas for cheaper. One of the more popular people to honor with a Halloween costume was Fierce Five gold-medal champion, McKayla Maroney, whose look of disappointment on the medal stand turned into a internet meme. Three years ago, a woman with Bell’s Palsy dressed up like Maroney because “It was the first time in months I got to look like I was intentionally making a face and it has helped me deal with the slow recovery a little better.”

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 Be Original: Paralympian Josh Sundquist, who lost his left leg due to cancer, has competed in the Paralympics as an alpine skiier, and is a popular motivational speaker. He is also known for his one-of-a-kind costumes for Halloween. See him put together his outfit as “Lumiere” a character (essentially a talking candle stick) from the film, Beauty and the Beast.

Be a Kid and Have No Choice: Shaun White is a two-time Winter Olympics gold medalist in the halfpipe, but when he was a kid, his parents put him in prison for Halloween – old-school lock up  style that is. Here he is, with his two older siblings, in a TBT Halloween picture from three years ago.

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Shaun White center
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Tatyana McFadden in Rio

She was born in cash-strapped Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union with spina bifida, a situation that in Tatyana McFadden’s case left her paralyzed from the waist down in a broken-down institution in Leningrad known as “Orphanage 9.” Without funds for a wheelchair, Tatyana got around walking on her hands.

As fate would have it, her eyes locked with a visitor from America, Deborah McFadden, who in 1995 was visiting in her capacity as Commissioner of Disabilities for the US Health Department. Deborah and her partner decided to adopt Tatyana and brought her to Baltimore, Maryland, where Tatyana got the medical care and the family support she was not fated to receive in her home country.

And thanks to the opportunities and clearly her indomitable drive, Tatyana would go on to become one of the most successful athletes in the world. Over a span of four Paralympics since 2004 in Athens, Tatyana has garnered 16 medals for TeamUSA, including 7 golds, in wheelchair racing. Not only that, she has shown incredible range, winning over the entire spectrum of track distance. At the Rio Paralympics, she took silver in the 100 meter sprint and silver in the 42.2 kilometer marathon, as well as gold medals in between in the 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters and 5000 meters.

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Tatyana with her biological mother_BBC

 

 

Tatyana has enormous capacity not only to train and triumph, but to forgive. She set her sites on returning to her homeland and competing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi in a completely different sport – Nordic skiing. Part of her motivation to learn a new sport was to see her biological mother, Nina Pilevikova. In front of her adopted and biological mothers, Tatyana incredibly took silver in 1K sprint for those who skied while sitting. Her capacity for triumph was matched by her capacity to empathize, as she related to the BBC in Sochi.

“It is of course hard as a mother. You carry a child for nine months, but if you think about it, knowing you can’t take care of your child, what do you do? Do you selfishly keep it, knowing you can’t have the medical….I needed a lot of medical treatment. And I needed attention quickly. That’s the toughest decision she has to make.”

Said her biological mother, “I am very proud of Tatyana. I am very happy to be here with all our family. I think people look at Tatyana and they have hope.”

tatyana-mcfadden-in-sochi
In Sochi

Tatyana, like many Paralympians, do not aim to be inspirations. In fact, some often feel patronized by the label. Tatyana had to fend for herself in the orphanage and was brought up by parents who value perseverance in the face of difficulty and self-sufficiency. Her adopted mother, Deborah, understands that as she herself was also confined to a wheelchair for years due to a condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Here’s Tatyana in her own words, highlighted in “The Mighty“, a site devoted to telling the stories of people with disabilities, diseases and mental illness.

People have commented that they are “inspired” by my story. But these compliments, made with the best intentions, can sometimes miss the point. “Inspired” often means they feel sorry for my condition and what I went through in my early life, and feel they should count their own blessings for what they have. But what they are missing is that I am who I am today not in spite of my disabilities, but because of them.

All of us competing in the Olympics and Paralympics have had our own unique challenges, our own strengths and talents that we have nurtured, and our own weaknesses and disabilities that we have overcome. The games in Rio are a test of our ability to push physical and mental limitations, and a testament to humanity’s indomitable spirit to adapt and excel.

9-11-flag-salt-lake-city-olympics

It was the morning of September 11, 2011 when Mitt Romney was driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC. The Pentagon was on fire, the smoke so extensive it filled Romney’s car. Romney was the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee at that time, and was in DC to lobby, coincidentally, for more government support with security for the upcoming Winter Games to be hosted in Utah.

Romney immediately got on the phone with his COO, Fraser Bullock to talk “about the fact that in less than five months, we were going to host the world and how were we going to keep everyone safe.”

The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics went on to become, from a sports and business perspective, a relative success compared to other Olympics. But prior to the start of the Games, with 9/11 heavy on organizers’ and casual spectators alike, security was a major priority.

In fact, even if 9/11 had not occurred, the organizers and the US government had already invested heavily in security. After all, it was only about 5 and a half years earlier that a pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on the evening of the ninth day of the XXVI Olympiad. Over 100 people were injured, including two who died.

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Mitt Romney, President George Bush and IOC Head Jacques Rogge
While the budget for security in Atlanta was $101 million, it more than doubled to $225 million for the Salt Lake City Games, according to this New York Times article. The Winter Games that year saw a security presence unlike any other Games. More importantly, a wide variety of federal, state and local authorities were coordinated in a manner that had been unprecedented, the result of painful lessons learned about the consequences of various relevant agencies not coordinating information and efforts pre and post 9/11. Here are a few or the major decisions to boost security at Salt Lake City 2002, according to the Times article:

  • Secret Service agents will be used to secure all areas used for Olympic events. In the past, their role was confined to protecting the president and other dignitaries. The expanded presence represents the federal government’s largest security investment, $27.2 million, according to the government report.
  • For the first time in an Olympics in the United States — this is the eighth since 1904 — all law agencies, as well as military commanders, will operate as part of a unified Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.
  • Airspace over northern Utah will be heavily guarded, with AWACs surveillance planes on routine missions, F-16’s from nearby Hill Air Force Base on alert and added radar operating at Salt Lake City International Airport, where plans call for commercial traffic to be stopped at various times, including the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • In another new effort, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are pooling resources to create an instant check on foreign visitors through a database that will let Customs officers determine immediately whether an Olympic athlete or official is on a United States watch list.
  • In addition, military forces will be stationed in and around the city. Mr. Romney said the commitment could reach up to 10,000 troops, including more than 2,000 from the Utah National Guard, the largest call-up ever in the state.

On February 8, only 151 days after September 11, the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games commenced. In memory of the events that took place that beautiful Tuesday morning in New York, the tattered American flag that was recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers was brought into the Stadium amidst an honor guard of Port Authority, NYPD and NYFD personnel who were in New York that day, with helicopter rotors thumping in the background.

Bullock said that there were objections from influential people about injecting a potentially powerful political statement like this particular American flag being displayed in an event that purports to be politically agnostic. But Bullock said that Romney had to twist a few arms to get to that decision because it “was the right thing to do.” And when the flag appeared, Bullock said, “the world really came together. It was a special moment for everyone.”

Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

Dong Kih Choh 1
Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..