Sunday, August 17, 2008

Youth Will Be Served

Was out for a couple of quick pints with an old friend Friday afternoon and we got to talking about the Olympics.
I'm a big fan. I prefer the Winter Games which are a little more streamlined then the monstrous Summer Games. If I were Olympic czar I would probably eliminate about half of the "sports" but then again I'm a crank. If I were King of the NHL I would eliminate half of the teams. If I were Emperor of Canada the first guy under my watch going over the speed limit in a residential area would be executed in the street. I wouldn't fuck around.
There's a lot of bullshit with the Olympics. The politics. The hypocrisy. The crooked judging. The kowtowing to advertisers and NBC. Having said that I dig it. Big time. I watch it 24/7. Nothing like it and yeah, a lot of it is basic jingoism. I get a charge out of Canadian successes.
So, I was having a pint and discussing the Games with my buddy, who happens to be the most athletic person I know. Another friend of ours, a doctor, describes him as a physiological freak of nature. Plays contact hockey with kids half his age (he's 41) and dominates. Plays soccer, football and whatever else he can. The type of guy who will pull on his sneakers for his local 5K and blow everyone away. Then he puts them away until next year.
The point of all of this is that he knows sports. Discussing last week's uproar over Canada's lack of medals he snorted derisively about those who were running down our team. His points were simple:
- an injury, any type of injury, that effects training almost certainly will lead to failure; it affects fitness and preparation and if either is off a bit then there is almost no chance for success. The fact that a guy like Shewfelt could even compete was a miracle. Other failures that we saw over the weekend - Paula Radcliffe and the American sprinter Gay. You have to be 100%. If not failure will result in nearly every instance.
- the fact that someone was World Champion the year prior or Olympic champ four years ago or the winner of an event has no bearing on the event today. A guy could win a World Cup ski event in 2009 - so what? Other skiers are gearing towards 2010. One might be trying new skis. Another might be a little hungover. The winner may have had the race of his or her life. Watch the Olympics and see how many repeat winners there are. You have a freak like Phelps and there are others but when Grant Hackett, one of the greats, is trying to be the first to win three straight 1500s then it puts it into perspective
- people who aren't at that level (and I hate this argument because Tie Domi used to always use it) have not the foggiest clue of what it takes. People who look at Mike Brown's great semifinal swim and then say he choked because he did not replicate it in the final are idiots. If you are not a part of it then you cannot fathom it.
Anyway just one man's opinion but an interesting one. I'm not much of an athlete but what he told me confirmed a lot of what I believe to be common sense.
So what does all of this have to do with the Edmonton Oilers? As usual its a tenuous connection but hell its August, we have a new baby and I just finished two weeks of vacation. I can be forgiven. Right? (sound of crickets chirping)
The Canadian swim team once was a pretty terrific one. Alex Baumann and Victor Davis were two of the alltime greats. Remember Anne Ottenbrite? She tore it up in LA in 1984. At the time commentators suggested asteriks go beside many of the results (though not Baumann and Davis) - of course history's revelation of the systemic doping in the Eastern Bloc tells us that the asteriks belong elsewhere. Relay medals were common in every Games for Canadian swimmers and there were usually a couple of individual medals as well.
Then things went wrong (much like another proud program, the ski team). Politics has been blamed. Neglect set in. Excuses were made and in Athens the program hit bottom.
Baumann returned from Australia and now we can see progress has been made. I'm not talking about all of the Canadian records. The new suits are causing records to fall everywhere. I'm talking about the long list of young Canadians who made the finals. I'm talking about 19 year old Ryan Cochrane picking up a bronze medal and about youngsters like Julia Wilkinson and AnnaMay Pierse rising from out of nowhere in the last two years to being in the finals in these Games.
One medal does not sound like much but I remember when rowing and canoeing were nowhere, when Canada picked up less then a half dozen medals in the Winter Olympics, when cross country skiers set Canadian records and finished 73rd, when the bobsled team finished way up the track, so to speak.
It takes time and Canada's swimmers are getting there.
People forget that it takes time. Its the times. When a teenager or twenty one year old is a millionaire and hasn't stepped onto the ice in the NHL, hasn't thrown a pass, taken a jumpshot or stepped up to the plate in the majors, well then everything gets skewed. We expect these kids to emerge fully formed as pros and Hall of Famers and gold medallists like Athena from Zeus' head.
It happens - Crosby and Gretzky and your teenagers who win medals from nowhere. But they are the exception.
In the past summer I have read comments about how Cogliano will never be a shutdown centre, how Tom Gilbert has plateaued, how Ales Hemsky should be traded because he has reached his ceiling. Penner, Grebeshkov, Smid, Greene, Stoll, Pouliot, Brodziak, Glencross - to name many current and former Oilers. All relatively young and inexperienced. All of them dismissed as players who cannot do the job, will never improve, have peaked.
Now in some cases this will be true but history tells us that experience and maturity and proper preparation will mean that many of these players will improve, some by leaps and bounds. The number of greats who were dismissed early on is a lengthy one - Lafleur, Neely, Esposito - it goes on and on.
This is going to be an interesting year for the Oilers. They are making strides in the right direction but presently they are the Canadian swim team. They are young and they are going to make mistakes and its frustrating at times but you know what? In a couple of years (likely just about the time Nick Lidstrom begins to slow down) this may be a beautiful thing.


Ender said...

Point of note:

Annamay Pierse actually just fell short of qualifying for the last olympics with a bad swim day. I forget where. Maybe it was the panam games (I know this because I know one of her brothers).

Long story short:

Yes, bad days can impact a lot
Yes, she's made remarkable gains *with* new coaching
Yes, new coaching was made at least partially possible due to the utter failure of the last olympic games.

Athleticism counts for a lot, but so does politics and funding.

Halfwise said...

I like to see our teams do well, and I really like to see our individuals set personal bests in the pressure cooker that is top level competition. There is only one gold medal per event, after all. If you didn't win it but you did better than you have ever done, well that counts for something. Come back even better prepared next time and it counts for even more.

I get impatient with those who think our "Canadian-ness" means we just want everyone to play nice, and should get medals just for being in the sandbox that day. Bullshit! Canadian hockey players (for example) have legendary character, so comments about Canadians being too nice to win are just bloviations from spineless commentators projecting their own inadequacy out over everyone else. No one achieves Olympic qualifying thresholds without being driven to excel.

Go Canada. And soon, go Oilers.

Jamie said...

Great post!
I read between the lines and basically took from your post that a) Patience is a virtue,
b) winning comes with time, and c) talent is to be nurtured.

a) Oilers sucked in the 90's but we hung around
b) MacT has only really had one season below .500
c) we have a farm team and a depth chart...

I wish there were statistics beyond Gold, Silver & Bronze. PB and top 10 finishes should count in development terms. This should make us proud of our athletes too!

Black Dog said...

ender - funding is absolutely huge - our own success in the Winter Olympics is proof positive of this; regarding Pierse she was ranked around 60th in the world (not sure of exact number) just last year, same with Wilkinson - maybe even lower - terrific rise for both

halfwise - agreed and I think there has been a real change compared to even a decade ago - it used to be 'happy to be here' - now its 'I am here to do well' - too many people to name have been responsible for this change in attitude - its a competition and the goal is to win and I think most are finally on board with that

jamie - agreed - my feeling is that winning is the goal but the whole idea that it is all that is important and that anyone who does not win a medal is a failure drives me crazy - so far I would say there have been few who I would be really disappointed with - Hayden's failure to make the final was one but he was so good in the relays- he was also recoverign from injury - Christopher disappointed yesterday but he has been sick.

I have few problems with how things have gone so far. A few fell a little short, many have outperformed.

Jamie said...

You are not the only one comparing Canada's swimming team to hockey.

A TSN article from yesterday

quoting: The youth on the Canadian team prompted Bennett (Cochrane's former coach) to use a hockey analogy to describe it.

"It's like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings," he said. "We're young and talented but we're not the Detroit Red Wings.

"But we're coming. We're going to be good."

David S said...

"It's like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings," he said. "We're young and talented but we're not the Detroit Red Wings."


That little gem assumes everything is equal. Summer sport is such a low priority in this country its a joke. We might have the same amount of raw talent, but not nearly the corporate or political support to get us close to the other guys. In our case, it might be more apt to talk about the Springfield Falcons and Detroit.

We're whining here in Edmonton about an indoor velodrome to replace our outdoor piece of crap. I bet the NIMBY's will win that one. Alot of our elite guys have to train in the countries that are winning the medals. Then they're so broke they can't make it to enough international competitions to get used to going against the medal-winning guys - which is why we stumble alot in the big meets. Not enough game hardness.

Oh man, don't get me started.

Really nice post BTW.

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Black Dog said...

david s. - agreed - its the same every Olympics - people complain about how poorly we do and then when it comes time to do something about it they turn away

personally I believe that investing in sport is extremely important - the return on investment is a great one - I have three kids and the two oldest are already involved in athletics - strong body=strong mind and strong person - sounds trite but I believe this is true

look at our own Winter Olympic performance, Australian swimming, the British rise and so on - money invested equals success

and I do believe this is worthwhile