Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

XIX Winter Olympics

I was watching the Closing Ceremonies the other night from the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, trying to figure out why I like the games so much. The XIX Winter Games had special appeal because they were held in the United States. It was a chance to wave the flag and host people from all over the world, from countries that are our allies, and from countries that hate us. It was seventeen days when we saw competition at it’s highest level. Yes, there is a payoff for Olympic Gold, Silver or Bronze, but only if you actually win a medal. And winning a medal takes an all-out performance. Nobody gets paid in advance.

The Olympic culture of competition only allows for each athlete giving his or her best. Anything less gets you beat, leaves you off the podium, and out of the potential payoff. We don’t always see that in the highest profile competitions we see everyday in professional sports.

There’s no such thing as “tanking” in the Olympics. This is the one chance every four years to get the job done, so nobody mails it in. That’s why the highs are so high, and the lows are devastating. But through it all, the athletes were as amazing outside of the competition as they were in it. They were humble in victory and gracious in defeat. They cried when the flag was raised and the National Anthem played. They took their hats off in honor of other countries’ anthems and reveled in each other’s success.

I guess that’s why I like the games so much; they’re real.

Jacques Rogge will be the man who saves the Olympic movement. The current President of the International Olympic Committee, a former Olympian himself, understands many things his predecessor didn’t have a clue about. Rogge is media savvy and handles himself like a polished politician. He understands how the U.S. fits in to the Olympic movement. Americans will always be a big presence in both the Winter and Summer Games, and the USOC hopes to win the bid for the 2012 games, possibly in New York City.

Rogge doesn’t dismiss the US as a splinter under his finger, but rather embraces American wealth as an aspect that can promote the games. At the same time, he hopes to move the Games around the world, to South America and Africa incorporating new venues into the regular rotation between Europe, Asia and North America.

The IOC President has to know how the games affect the athletes as well as the economies of the host cities. Rogge has his finger in both pots. “Light the fire within,” was the theme of the Salt Lake Games but Rogge’s comments at the opening ceremonies perhaps summed up the Games’ spirit. “When you finish first you are the winner,” Rogge said, “but to understand the principles of fair play and competition makes you a champion.” Rogge later repeated that statement when he was asked to comment on the doping allegations in cross-country skiing.

It’s not old school to think playing within the rules is OK. I’ve never seen two games played with more grit and passion than the two final games of the hockey tournament where the Americans were involved. The US/Russia game and the US/Canada game involved three teams of big-time professional hockey players with nothing on the line but national pride. Have you ever seen guys play harder? Every minute was like the last seconds of a tied overtime in game seven in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s what fans are looking for, that’s what people will buy tickets to see. If the NHL can capture that, they’ll explode much like the NBA and the NFL have in the last twenty years. If the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL don’t pay attention to it, the public will look elsewhere.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Daytona 500 2002

The 44th running of the Daytona 500 had all of the elements that have made NASCAR racing the premier motor sports attraction in the United States. It had the blend of racing, rubbin’, cautions, a rare red flag, lead changes, personality and goofiness that draws people to NASCAR racing.

I was walking through the infield during the beginning of the race, and heard a loud cheer. I figured that Dale Junior had taken the lead but to my surprise, it was because Tony Stewart was out of the race. It was a cheer akin to when Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. Stewart is talented with a good car and a great owner, but is not a popular driver. He’s unpopular in fact, to the point that fans are happy when he’s out of the race. Kind of like Jeff Gordon, only that’s subsided a bit.

People don’t want to see Gordon win, but like how he competes on the racetrack. His competitive nature pushed Kevin Harvick off the track and started a fourteen-car pileup that took many of the contenders out of the race. Gordon received payback a few laps later, as Sterling Marlin rubbed him off the track with a bump on the rear fender. Gordon said he was just trying to protect his track position, much like in the Harvick incident.

The rules at Daytona mandate that the drivers hold their positions, keep their foot to the floor, and don’t yield an inch. Gordon said he was just trying to keep his position, and following the rules. “I wasn’t going under the yellow line, that’s for sure,” said Gordon in the post-race interview. “It was just racin’, no hard feelings,” according to Marlin.

When the race was red flagged in lap 195, Marlin was in the lead, but had damaged the front of his car in his altercation with Gordon. During the stop, Marlin inexplicably jumped out of his car and ran around to the right side,, pulling on the fender. The NASCAR official in the pace car jumped out and yelled something to Marlin like, “Hey, get back in the car!” Marlin ran back to the drivers’ side and got in but it was too late. NASCAR assessed him a penalty, putting him in the back of the lead laps “longest line” and his chances to win were dashed.

Gordon was put in the back as well, with NASCAR officials saying he pitted too early during a caution. Thankfully, no one was injured in the race, despite 9 cautions and multiple wrecks. “I think we need to go faster,” 2001 Champion Michael Waltrip said. “It strings us out more, but I don’t make the rules, just dabble in the rules. Make the restrictor plate bigger and we’ll race more.”

Ward Burton knew luck was on his side, “we didn’t have the best car, we only lead the last couple of laps.” It’s Dodge’s first win at Daytona since 1974, and only their third win ever in the Great American Race.

There’s something about the 19th starting position as well. Michael Waltrip and Burton both started from the 19th position in their winning year. Waltrip and Burton join Dale Earnhardt as first time winners at Daytona, three of the last five years. But it’s not all-good news. Only once since 1980 has the winner of the Daytona 500 gone on to win the NASCAR season championship. That was Jeff Gordon in 1997.

Give me more races like this one. Nobody gets hurt, everybody’s talking about the race and the finish and how to make it better. I don’t care who wins, just give me some racing.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Olympic Broadcasts

We’re a couple of days into the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake. The opening ceremonies were a beautiful international celebration, reflective of the history of the American West, and at the same time respectful of what’s going on in the United States right now. The competition has been tight with some medals won or lost by hundredths or even thousandths of a second. But the broadcasts have been horrible!

When NBC did an end run on the rest of the networks and locked up the Olympics until further notice, they gave themselves carte blanche over the creativity of the broadcast of the games. They’ll do it the way they want, without worrying about whether they’ll get the games back or not.

Almost every broadcast is basically taped highlights shown as “plausibly live” with the ups and downs of the competitions condensed into 12 minutes that are edited together like a sitcom. A highlight here, a highlight there, and then the climax. Give me something live and if it’s on tape, just tell me.

And the announcers! Who are these whiny, thin voiced shills? Save for Bob Costas and a couple of other recognizable faces, where did they get these people? NBC has a full stable of professional broadcasters, how about using them.

I like seeing Jim McKay and Costas is his usually prepared self. But who picked out Bob’s wardrobe? I understand the no-tie thing, but how about something that matches every once in a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Bowl XXXVI

All of the little sayings turned out to be true. Third time’s a charm, defense wins championships, and they didn’t become sayings because they’re not true. In their third trip to the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots became champions, relying on the defense to get the job done. It’s not the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, but it’s up there. The Rams were considered unbeatable with an unstoppable offense and an improved defense.

Going in, the Patriots knew they had to accomplish several things to give themselves a chance to win. They had to create turnovers and turn them into points. They had to keep the Rams from getting the big play. They had to force the Rams to kick field goals when necessary, they had to control field position and they needed solid special teams play. They knew they had to do it, and they went out and did it.

It’s hard to tell if the Rams were a little off or if it was because of what the Patriots were doing. Either way, when Adam Vinitieri trotted onto the field with seven seconds to play, there was no doubt he was going to make the kick. By the way, when are coaches going to figure out that a soft defense that keeps the ball in front of you gets you beat? No time outs and just over a minute to play, the Patriots dinked the ball downfield, just enough to get in position for the winning kick. Pressure the quarterback and if you get beat, you get beat. The Rams will stay together for at least one more year, and perhaps it’s fitting that a team named the Patriots reigns as Super Bowl Champion this year.

With commercials costing “just south” of $2 million each to air on the Super Bowl broadcast, I thought they might have been a bit more creative. The Budweiser spots were pretty good. I especially liked the “Mini-Fridge” one at the beginning and the Clydesdales bowing to New York City was a nice touch. The promotion of halftime with football player looking guys dressed in frilly costumes didn’t go anywhere. The Dockers ad comparing the pants to a “little black dress” was mildly amusing. All in all, they were OK, but nothing to rave about.

Security at the Super bowl was very tight. The Secret Service was in charge of the area around the Superdome, and they were on top of everything. Uniformed, armed (M-16’s) guards were at every checkpoint. To get to any destination, even the media compound, you had to pass through several metal detectors, have your bags searched, have your credentials checked, get new credentials, get “wanded” and even patted down at least once. Every guard was cordial and professional but you had to add about an extra hour if you were going anywhere near the Dome.

At the Morial Convention Center, the site for just about every event outside of the game, the security was equally as tight. The league changed the credential procedure, and even issued two different credentials; one for the week and one for the game. Running the Super Bowl is a massive operation and the NFL knows what they’re doing. New Orleans was hosting their ninth Super Bowl, more than any other city. Even the Big Easy has changed how they do things over the years. The Convention Center is a new addition as a host site. More than 1.2 million square feet of contiguous meeting space, it housed everything from Paul Tagliabue’s state of the game address to the NFL Experience. Without a spot like that, any city has to be very creative when hosting the game.

Jacksonville’s Host Committee for Super Bowl XXXIX chose a new leader during their meeting in New Orleans. Mike Kelley, who worked on the Super Bowl in Tampa last year, will now serve as the host committee’s chief operating officer. Mike Weinstein is leaving that job in July in order to run for mayor. Kelley says that the similarities between Tampa and Jacksonville’s geography give him a head start. He plans to incorporate all parts of North Florida and South Georgia, including the beaches, to host a variety of events. The host committee received several lessons in security and planning while at the game in New Orleans.