Adam Scott
Adam Scott of Australia

Golf is returning to the Olympic stage in 2016, the first time since the third Olympics in 1904.

And yet, some big names in the game are declining their invitations: 3-time majors winner Vijay Singh of Fiji, World # 7 Adam Scott of Australia, and World #12 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.

And it’s possible they won’t be the only ones. While Singh cited fear over contracting the zika virus in Brazil, Scott explained that adding the Olympics to the already congested PGA Tour will make for an exhausting schedule. According to this article, “the PGA Tour has had to cram the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, British Open and PGA Championship into a five-week window because of the Olympics. And, two weeks after the Olympics end, the FedEx Cup playoffs begin. Two weeks after those are done, the Ryder Cup will be contested.”

In other words, ensuring they are in top condition for the tournaments that count are key to many of the top pro golfers.

Professional ice hockey players, perhaps many of them, may be having an opposite reaction. Ice hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1920, and countries like the United States, the Soviet Union and former members of that nation, and Canada have had epic battles in the Olympic Games over the decades.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

Professional ice hockey players, particularly those from the National Hockey League, were allowed to represent their national teams at the Olympics, starting from the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. But because the NHL and the owners of the team were worried about disruption to the NHL schedule as well as injuries, it was decided that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) would foot the bill for transportation and insurance costs. For the Sochi Games in 2014, that was a combined USD$32 million!

The IOC, which provided USD$14 million of that bill for Sochi, just announced that they would not pay those costs to ensure the participation of NHL players at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Said Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF in this sportsnet article, “Our wish is to have the best players. [But the IOC] not covering the cost as they did at the last five Olympic Games puts us in a difficult financial situation.”

Immediately after this announcement, one of the NHL’s biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin, announced that he would join his Russian National Team for the PyeongChang Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. It’s likely that many of his colleagues in the NHL will have similar feelings.

Why the difference in reaction towards the Olympics? I’d have to speculate. But here are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. History: ice hockey and the Olympics have a long and emotional history. The Olympics are considered the pinnacle of achievement for many ice hockey players, even beyond the NHL Stanley Cup championship. Golf has practically no history in the Olympics.
  2. Rigors/Value of the Schedule: The Olympics happen at the time in the NHL schedule where teams are jockeying for playoff spots. But since the NHL controls the schedule, they can suspend the schedule for all teams, which makes it an even playing field for all teams. In the professional golf tour, as has been true with the professional tennis tour, those individuals who participate in the Olympics may lose out on opportunities to play in tournaments that will be more lucrative and perhaps perceived to be more important. When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1984, many of the best players did not compete.
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group of death
From JEA’s Sports World

 

What is the “Group of Death”?

  1. A heavy metal band from Hamburg
  2. A recently discovered novel of youthful enthusiasm gone wrong by J. D. Salinger
  3. A designation for the group in a multi-staged sports tournament perceived to contain an outsized level of strong teams
  4. All of the above

That’s right. The answer is “c”. In the first round of a tournament, you’d rather have an easier time before you get into the more competitive rounds. The “Group of Death” is the group said to have no easy wins, so you don’t want to be in that one. Granted, this designation is purely subjective and has no bearing on the tournament themselves. This is how the English newspaper, The Telegraph, describes it:

The “group of death”, a concept that sounds like it was named by an 11-year-old child listening to emo for the first time, was actually coined by Mexican journalists to describe Group 3 at the 1970 World Cup, which contained the defending champions England, the favourites Brazil, the two-time finalists Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Since then, the term has been much used, misused and very possibly overused to describe a group with a lot of good football teams in it, of which only two can qualify.

In the upcoming Rio Olympics, The Groups of Death in the men’s football (soccer) teams are in Group B, and in the women’s teams are in Group G.

Here’s how the sports internet site Vavel describes the two groups of death:

group of death men

Men’s Group of Death

This group is the Group of Death for this year’s Olympic Games. This group is composed of Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria, and Japan, loads of big-hitters in the U-23 game. Nigeria, Japan, and Sweden were all first-time winners of their respective confederation championships, making the competition fierce for one of the two qualification spots in this group. Colombia qualified by defeating the United States in the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL playoff after failing to meet automatic qualification by finishing second in the South American Youth Football Championships.

group of death women

Women’s Group of Death

It’s called Group G for a reason. Why? This is the Group of Death. The lowest-ranked team in this group is Colombia at 24, and they’ve given the United States, the top team in this group, their fair share of battles over time. New Zealand, the OFC champs, are actually ranked higher than Colombia at 16. France is second-highest ranked team in the group, ranked third and is one of two teams from UEFA to qualify for the Olympics via the World Cup. 

2004 Athens Olympics

Reports are that only 50% of tickets to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, starting on August 5, have been sold. For the Paralympics in September, only 12% have been sold.

The Brazilian economy is shrinking during its worst recession in 25 years. The President of Brazil is under threat of impeachment for a decision to include an ex-President in her cabinet, someone under investigation for receiving bribes in the Petrobras corruption scandal. The Zika virus continues to spread in Brazil, a disease where there is now “strong scientific consensus” that it is a cause of microcephaly in newborns.

Those perhaps are the biggest factors that will result in many empty seats of a possible 7.5 million that are available for the Rio Olympics.

What’s interesting is that empty seats at Olympic Games is a recurring headache and embarrassment for Olympic organizing committees.

At the 2004 Games in Athens, “only about two-thirds of the 5.3 million tickets were sold“. At the 2008 Games in Beijing, organizers claimed that all 6.8 million tickets were sold, and yet empty seats blotted arenas throughout the Games. And at the 2012 Games in London, where pledge after pledge was made by organizers to fill the seats, and that “more than 20 million applications were made for the 6.6 million available seats”, the London organizing committee could not prevent the empty-seat phenomenon.

Empty Seats at Gymnastics Competition at London Games
2012 London Games

Athens and Rio share a common issue in that their economies may not be vibrant enough to drive local ticket sales. But Beijing and London do. Other factors are at play, resulting in tickets going unused. This article from The Guardian regarding empty seats at the London Games indicates that a few groups who are granted reserved seating, often the best seats in the house, just don’t show up:

  • Accredited members of the Olympic family, which include international sports federations, IOC officials and corporate sponsors,
  • Guests of corporate sponsors who receive tickets more for their affiliation with the sponsor and less regarding their interest in the Games
  • Members of the press, who may be less interested in heats and preliminary rounds
  • Athletes, particularly in the first week of the Games as all athletes are preparing or competing

Beijing pointed to another group – agencies that buy and re-sell tickets to people overseas or to people locally anticipating a spike in demand during the Games. Westerners in

Row2Rio route map

What does it take to go from London to Rio on human power? Physically fit, mentally strong, well organized fanatics on a mission.

On January 9 of this year, 2 men and 2 women got on their bikes and cycled over 2,400 miles from Olympic Park in London to Lagos, a port town in southern Portugal. On January 31, they left Lagos and started rowing a 8.6 meter long boat called a Rannoch R45, which can house four or five people uncomfortably, allowing three people to row at the same time. They are currently close to the halfway mark rowing a total of 3,600 miles with the intent of hitting land at Recife, Brazil. From there, they will cycle down the Brazilian coast to Rio de Janeiro, which should take another four weeks.

The mission is raise awareness of the upcoming Rio Olympics, making the literal connection between the past 2012 Olympic venue with the future 2016 venue. But on the way, they are raising funds for cancer research, as well as their journey’s operations.

Row2Rio Foursome

The four team members are:

  • Susannah Cass: a 27-year old PhD student of botany from Dublin
  • Jake Heath: a 29-year old podiatrist from Twickenham
  • Mel Parker: a 27-year old fundraiser for a children’s charity from Gloucestershire
  • Luke Richmond: a 31-year-old cross-fit and Olympic lifting coach from Australia

And their posts on the journey rowing south 24 hours a day are fascinating:

  • Luke Richmond, Day 1-3: It was a brutal first day and night, sea sickness had three of us spewing all at once, only Jake seemed un effected. I was sure I was about to die.
  • Jake Heath, Day 1-6: The trip so has been life changing already, because I have realized how much you can push your body, if you can keep breaking things down on the small tasks, like the two hour stretch in front of you. I am currently switching in Row2Rio in boatwith Luke every two hours for 24 hours a day, as we row our way across to Brazil. The girls are also switching with each other, every two hours, but staggered by one hour with us, so everyone gets to spend some time together.
  • Jake Heath, Day 7&8: We have been on what seems like a giant conveyor belt of water and big waves. It’s all good and going in the right directions for us to reach the canaries in two days and then push on to Cape Verde straight after. The sea swells are pretty big and at night they can catch you off guard and just crash over your head. Last night Captain Susannah caught a high wave, which went all over her, but I luckily was out of the rowing seat having a stretch and remained bone dry. Carbon copy thing happens to Mel the next I shift, this time I was getting a drink and avoided it once again. I know what you are thinking? I promise I am actually doing some of the rowing!
  • Mel Parker, Day 18: Imagine your bed is 1m by 1m, around your little square of bed you have everything tied to the walls – your wardrobe, toiletries and a few days food. Above you you’ve got all the comms and electronics you could need to get you safely across an ocean. Behind your head you have the worlds noisiest neighbour, which sounds like a robotic Jurassic park, but is working hard to make sure you’re steering in the right direction.

If you’re interested in making a donation to help the MacMillan Cancer Support organization fight cancer, go to this link.

If you’re interested in following the exploits of this fantastic four, here is a link to their blog – Row2Rio. And stay tuned!

Australian and New Zealand flags
Do you know which is which?

Yes, I agree: I can never remember which one is the Australian flag, and which is the New Zealand flag.

Apparently, heads of state for both countries have been seated or presented in front of the other country’s times more than a few times.

To presumably improve brand recognition of his country, as well as do away with the Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner, Kiwi prime minister, John Key has put it to the people in a referendum whether to keep the current flag, or go with a new version, seen below.proposed new zealand flagProposed in place of the Union Jack is the fern leaf, certainly a more popular symbol of the nation, most commonly seen internationally on the dark jerseys of the intimidating national rugby team, The All Blacks. Unfortunately, according to this article, New Zealanders regard the proposed design with ambivalence, at best. Many want change for the same reasons as the prime minister, but not to the one that is often called, not so affectionately, a beach towel. In fact, according to a recent poll, times may be a-changin’, but perhaps not for the Kiwi flag.

…it doesn’t appear that replacing the country’s flag is actually all that popular with New Zealanders. In a poll conducted in February, 70 percent of the population said they were against the change, though 16 percent of those voters specifically only oppose the new silver fern design.

So which flag will New Zealand Olympians see when they win gold in Rio for the 2016 Summer Games? We’ll find out on March 24, the final day that New Zealanders can vote in this referendum.

UPDATE- March 24, 2016: The people voted status quo. The Union Jack is Happy Jack.

New Zeanad Flag choices
Four choices for the public in December, 2015.

Petrobras 3

Brazil is facing the worst economy in 25 years. The Zika virus is feeding fears, particularly for expectant mothers. And while the Rio Olympics are presenting an opportunity to shine the international spotlight on Brazil, the underclass are generally feeling that the only people who will benefit from the Games will be the fortunate rich and powerful.

And then, there is Petrobras, a government entity embroiled in a bid rigging scandal between officials in the state-owned energy company and construction companies that wish to win Petrobras projects. A secret cartel of construction companies work with Petrobras officials to select the construction company, purposely agree to exorbitant payments, after which the construction companies kick back payments back to the collaborating Petrobras officials, who use that money to fund friendly politicians, which is helpful for a state-owned organization. It is estimated that the scandal has resulted in over USD5 billion changing hands in various illegal transactions. That’s astounding.

Petrobras bidness 2

I have not done this explanation justice, which is why I want to point you to this very clear and effective explanation of the Petrobras Scandal, and the historical and political context, by Zach Beauchamp.

In Brazil right now, if anything can go wrong, it seems it will go wrong – just on the verge of commencing Brazil’s greatest party of them all, the Olympic Summer Games in Rio.

But one thing we can say about the Petrobras Scandal, something that Beauchamp points out at the end of his article. This scandal, which has been tabloid fodder for months in

Se Ri Pak

In the years Before Se Ri Pak, professional women’s golf in Korea was essentially non-existent. In the years After Se Ri Pak, women’s golf exploded.

Se Ri Pak, the 38-year old golfer from Daejeon, South Korea, recently announced her retirement. “I learned a lot and I’m trying to share all my skills and all these dreams,” she said. “So that’s where I plan to be the next step of my life. I just want to make dreams come true.”

Pak is already making dreams come true. In fact, one could say, she was the dream for young Koreans, and by extension young Asian women, in the game of golf. When golf returns to the Olympics since its last appearance in 1904, 60 of the best golfers in the world will compete, with a limit of the top four from each country. In the current 2016 Olympic rankings for female golfers, South Koreans make up an amazing four of the top 7 golfers who qualify for Rio. And if you look even closer, 9 of the top 15 are Asian.

“I remember watching [Pak] on TV,” said Christina Kim, a South Korean-American golfer. “She wasn’t blond or blue-eyed, and we were of the same blood…. You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?'”

In the book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown, Daniel Coyle wrote about Kim, Korean golfers and Se Ri Pak, and called the explosion of talent in Korea an “ignition”. You could be dedicated to developing a skill by practicing consistently and earnestly. But you don’t burn for excellence. You don’t understand what it means to drive yourself to perfection. You never portray your desire as a willingness to die to be the very best.

Until a Hero emerges.

Se Ri Pak 1998.jpg

In South Korea, Se Ri Pak emerged. When she hit the professional stage, Korean women were ignited! Coyle writes,

For South Korea’s golfers, it was the afternoon of May 18, 1998, when a twenty-year old named Se Ri Pak won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and became a national icon. (As one Seoul newspaper put it, “‘Se Ri Pak is not the female Tiger Woods; Tiger Woods is the male Se Ri Pak.”) Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Flash-forward to ten years later, and Pak’s countrywomen had essentially colonized the LPGA Tour, with forty-five players who collectively won about one-third of the events.

As Coyle explains, ignition is “an awakening”, “lightning flashes of image and emotion”, “the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”

“I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself.” – Pietro Aretino

There’s a powerful message in the Under Armour “Rule Yourself” campaign. Being the best is hard work!

The most recent iteration of the Rule Yourself campaign features the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, who hopes to add to his record number of gold medals at the Rio Olympics later this year. But as the commercial is trying to convey, Phelps’ achievements didn’t come only because he has natural talent, but because he applied an unnatural effort, sacrificed, and then achieved.

A few weeks ago, Under Armour released a commercial featuring members of the US women’s gymnastics team, also putting on display the rigorous training regimen of athletes competed to reach the highest levels of excellence.

There was a time people would say there is genius in the world, that the Mozarts and Tiger Woods of the world were born with talent. They were the chosen ones. There may very well be genetic advantages that can be parsed out. But a more likely explanation is that they worked hard at their craft. And in fact, research has shown that the greatest of the great, in any discipline, have often applied at least 10,000 hours of practice.

outliersOne of the populizers of this hypothesis is the acclaimed journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, who has developed a knack for featuring the best of the best in his stories. In the book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he writes extensively about the 10,000 hour rule, and quotes author and neurologist, Daniel Levitin to explain.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Ten thousand hours.

It is as large a number as it seems. If 10 years is 3650 days, and thus 87,000 hours, then to get to 10,000 hours over ten years, you would have to spend nearly 3 hours a day training or practicing. Imagine a 20-year-old woman who makes the Olympic Games. From the age of 10, she’s spending finding time on the rink once or twice day, with longer days on the weekends…for ten years. This doesn’t include the travel time for her and her parents, the pain, the emotional highs and lows, the struggle to maintain school attendance and grades, and an even more heightened sense of self and insecurity as she struggles in her quest through puberty and her teens.

They make it look easy. But it isn’t. For first, you must rule yourself.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes

Of the cities with the highest murder rates in the world, 41 of the top 50 are in Mexico and Latin America. Of those 41, 21 of them are in Brazil. It is both a stunning and unfortunate fact, particularly as Brazil is doing its best to get ready for the biggest sports show in the world – The Summer Olympics.

So by extension, there are concerns regarding crime in Rio de Janeiro.

Top 50 Most Violent Cities by Country_Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago, Australian chef de mission, Kitty Chiller, announced that members of the Australian Olympic squad would not be allowed to visit the favelas “because we could not control visits involving a large number of athletes going to different places at different times.”

While the favelas in Rio, which are communities where the lowest income families often live, are a not-so-uncommon tourist destination, they are also apparently centers for crime: drugs, robberies, murder.

The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, is doing all he can to fight off this negative perception. “There is a lot of ignorance about Rio and Brazil, a certain drama of how things are,” he said in response to Chiller’s announcement.

The world will come to Rio in August. Brazilians will welcome them with open arms. The first Olympic Games held in South America will be a tremendous event. And then life (and death) will likely go on…

See a previous post called “Life in the Favela: At War with the Pacifying Police

Robinson Leonard Ali
Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

manny pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.