What is the greatest benefit in having as diverse a range of sporting interests as possible from a fan’s standpoint? There is never an offseason… something is always right in line to take the place of a departing season with a fresh dose of varied live action. It is often said that there really is no offseason in many American pastimes, but no matter where any one sport takes place there is always a natural rhythm to the season, an ebb and a flow.
Take the NFL for example. The National Football League arose from a ragtag bunch of cities and towns throughout the midwest to overtake baseball as the preeminent sports calendar of the year in the United States. (And before you decry that statement, riddle me this: Which league is it that is afraid to broadcast against the other on Monday nights lest they see a marked drop in their ratings?) They say that the league projects a 24/7/365 news cycle, as relevant in July as it is in January. Why else would the owners be floating the idea of expansion to an 18-game season if there wasn’t some presumed desire to follow the NFL as often and as much as possible amongst the populace?
But if all you were to do is follow the NFL and ignore everything else in the sports world, you’d be greeted with six months before preseason games welcomed you back to live action. Sure, a season lives and dies by things like free agency and the draft. But all we do is debate on mere conjecture and past performance independent of variables like team composition and unity and cohesion that play out only in a game situation during those long, lean months. We subject ourselves to a real-life soap opera — what else are guys like Terrell Owens or Braylon Edwards or Ben Roethlisberger or Albert Haynesworth but the football equivalent of the divas of daytime drama? This isn’t sports; this is a reality show starring guys who don’t deserve or honestly need this kind of attention if they are to remain good at what made them known in the first place.
Of course, there are other sports to fill the gaps in the program — the NBA and NHL overlap in October and keep fans entertained throughout the spring. The playoffs conclude just as baseball starts to heat up into the summertime. The cycle is all there for fans in the United States to keep occupied without too much fuss. And I love the cycle for what it is, a continual feed into Americana at its very best and its very worst, and all those points in between. What, though, about those gaps in the evening and in the mornings? Sports are played in prime time the world around, and after a certain point you can only watch the flapping heads rehash the same tired point so many times before you need to actually see sports. The same highlights won’t work for very long, and thus a sports fan with a diversified scope of interests and too many hours spent awake and outside the realm of live American sports coverage finds himself turning toward places where it is prime time, where the action is taking place.
That’s where modern technology is a boon for the non-traditional sports fan in America. No longer does one have to subsist on what the mainstream media in their current location is willing to feed the masses alone. And for those that were unwilling to do it in the first place, the opportunities are boundless as to what can be accessed in this era. But it all comes back to diversity in the end. Why do we follow sports, ultimately? It’s to see that transcendent moment, the making of legends, all in real time before our own eyes (whether in person or through the magic of broadcasting). Can more opportunities to witness the legendary really be a bad thing?
There’s a reason why they say it is best for kids to play a variety of sports in their youth beyond merely the repetitive-stress injuries that can arise from specialization at a young age. Different activities promote the development of different muscle groups, sure, but an appreciation of a variety of recreational pursuits forges a lasting understanding of each of those games. We take that understanding and apply it to our role as spectators. And understanding the workings of one sport often can translate over so that, even if the rules are different, we can instinctively understand why an athlete might move that way in a given situation. And the more we follow, the wider and broader is our understanding of each one. It is a snowball rolling down a mountainside, picking up the flakes here and there and formulating a boulder of opportunities to keep one entertained at any hour, day or night, a real 24/7/365 cycle of fanhood…
THE EXPANDING LIFESPAN OF ATHLETIC CAREERS…
There always seems to be some grizzled veteran in the mix — no matter which sport you talk about. Cycling has its guys like Lance Armstrong and Jens Voigt; football gets graybeards like Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. Baseball players have increasingly discovered their own fountains of youth (insert Julio Franco joke here). By this point 40 has become the new age benchmark that 30 used to be in the world of sports. When you get down to it, though, it’s not that surprising a mark. We always see our share of anomalies over the years — and in the case of Gordie Howe, grandparents could tell their grandchildren about when they saw Mr. Hockey play live as children. There is no exclusive shock in seeing an athlete hang on as long as possible. That’s simple competitiveness, the unwillingness to concede any lost step in one’s game. But actually still having game at an advanced age?
A veteran presence has long been a sought-after commodity in team sports. And with nutrition and training having both been streamlined and made more efficient and more widespread in the past few decades, more athletes can hang on for longer than ever before. And the ability to slide into a position as more of a role player than the superstar can be done fluidly for those willing to become smart enough to suppress their egos. In individual sports, though, the incentive to keep going must exist solely within oneself; external motivators like teammates and often a rabid fan base are not there to keep an athlete focused when it is just him or her against a clock, against a course, against a fickle fan base. So when we see an elder statesman of the Olympiad performing in his late 30s as well if not better than he did a decade earlier in his presumed prime, it catches the attention even more if only for the dedication required to sustain and persevere the inevitable setbacks which pop up over the decades.
Winner of the Olympic gold medal in the 10,000-meter race at both Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, Haile Gebrselassie is a legend in the world of running. He could’ve easily retired at 27 after his second consecutive gold in Australia put him in rarified company without anyone doubting his right to do so. Or perhaps he should’ve hung up his spikes after winning a world title in the 3000m indoor and a silver at the 10000m in the outdoor worlds in Paris in 2003; injured and lacking requisite training prior to the Athens Games in 2004, Gebrselassie, then 31 and coming off an Achilles tendon injury, was pressured by his Ethiopian national assocation to run in Greece. The lack of race fitness cost him the opportunity to become the first man ever to win three consecutive 10000m Olympic titles.
But even after he finally left the track in 2004 after departing Athens without a medal, he did not go quietly into the night. Instead Gebrselassie reinvented himself as an equally-talented long-distance runner. He has gone from the world record in the 5000m and 10000m to setting records in the half-marathon and, in the case of the marathon, a record that still stands as the sub-2:04 benchmark that everyone is striving to cross. Now 37 years old and still going strong, he raced the Great North Run for the first time in his career this past Sunday and promptly went out and won the damn thing. Ultimately he was but 28 seconds off the record pace set by Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese five years ago, showing that he’s still looking to win not just age-group titles but the whole shebang. How long will he continue? Would you slow down if you still had it?
EVERYTHING SETTLES IN SPAIN AS EXPECTED…
There was everything to race for on the final weekend, and yet everything shook out in the final results just as they looked before it all started. Nevertheless we were witness to one of the most exciting and unpredictable Vueltas in recent history, as no jersey seemed fully secure until the last four stages showed that they had crystallized. Eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali is the heir apparant at Liquigas to replace Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso, a man who can give Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck a run for their money on French roads next July. We saw Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar usher in the new era of sprinting while Alessandro Petacchi is another of those veterans of the sport whose longevity of excellence showed once again in Spain, winning a few early stages after his maillot vert at the Tour.
The sport of cycling is on the cusp of a new golden era, it feels. With the talent dispersal as good as it has ever been and the inclusion of the sport’s top teams together and agaisnt one another in more of the elite races week after week, there never seems to be a truly dull moment. Sure, we might be able to predict the final result if we look hard enough at what’s been happening both recently and historically in a rider’s career, but the tactics on the road have been both sound and unpredictable at the same time. The attacking spirit lives on, and we’ve still got more racing to go in the season. But let’s relive the 2010 Vuelta one last time with the UCI World Championships and fall classics looming in our near future:
STAGE 18 (Valladolid to Salamanca) – Today’s ride from Valladolid to Salamanca set the sprinters of the peloton at center stage, leaving Vincenzo Nibali secure in his red GC leader’s jersey for at least one more day. Of course, it didn’t help that his lead was shaved down by a second after race officials noted that he had jumped the gun heading down the starting ramp in yesterday’s time trial. Nibali is now just 38 seconds ahead of the current runner-up on the leaderboard, Ezequiel Mosquera, fighting to maintain his gap all the way to Madrid. For Mosquera, the veteran Spanish climber, his last chance to really steal away the title and keep the crown domestic will come on Saturday’s run up the Bola del Mundo; there’s no way that Xacobeo-Galicia would be able to snag back 38 seconds on the flatlands for their mountain goat, barring a catastrophic crash rendering another leader unable to continue. No one, not even Mosquera, would dream of the lead changing hands that way… so we wait for Saturday to see the final fight. Instead it was the sprinters who played a cat-and-mouse game with the day’s breakaway, reeling them in and setting up a battle royale in Salamanca. After taking a while to heat up to form in his inaugural ride of the Vuelta, it was Mark Cavendish’s time to shine once again, his third stage victory bumping him up to 23 grand-tour stage victories in his career and bolstering his lead in the points race…. READ MORE HERE
STAGE 19 (Piedrahita to Toledo) – Apparently we can’t get too premature in coronating Mark Cavendish the best sprinter of the 2010 Vuelta. The Manx Missile just didn’t have it today on the stage into Toledo, finishing ten seconds off the pace set by stage winner Philippe Gilbert and runner-up Tyler Farrar and finishing completely out of the points in 17th place. Two of his biggest rivals in the points classification battle managed to claw back some of that ground that Cavendish had gained yesterday, leaving just a dozen points of buffer for the Columbia sprinter with two stages remaining. With the focus shifting to the climbers tomorrow as they try to usurp David Moncoutie’s position as King of the Mountains, there is only one chance left for Farrar to make up those final twelve points. But with the unthinkable now worth thinking about, were Cavendish to once again finish out of the points on Sunday, all Farrar would have to do is finish in the top five to force a tie… and anything better than fifth will allow him to wrest the green jersey off the shoulders of the Manxman at the eleventh hour. If that happens, it would be the first time that an American has ever captured the green points jersey at the Vuelta. But furthermore, it would be the first time an American had ever won the points classification in any grand tour — the closest Yankees have ever come were the runner-up finishes at the Tour de France by Greg LeMond in 1985 and Davis Phinney in 1988.… READ MORE HERE
STAGE 20/21 (Final Weekend News and Notes) – Maybe it is that I was camping during the final weekend of both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France and had some forced time to reflect on the race – rather than busting through a hectic work schedule that left me nearly as difficult to keep up with the action as it would have been out in the middle of nowhere. But from what I’ve been able to see, the last two stages of this race proved to be duds compared to the intrigue and drama of the past three weeks which preceded them. It wasn’t enough to tarnish the most competitive Vuelta in ages; each of the three grand tours have been battles to the bitter end this season. We are really entering a golden age for stage racing, one true legacy of the ProTour (even if all three grand tours are no longer part of that UCI creation). With increased worldwide exposure via telecast and the internet, no longer do the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta play second fiddle to Le Tour. All three attract strong rosters from all of their teams, and they attract the cream of the crop of the world’s squads. That was evident in the final standings, where an Italian won the overall for the first time in two decades, a British rider survived the late surge of an American to capture the points jersey and a Frenchman was the King of the Mountains…. READ MORE HERE
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