After Dayton and El Paso: guns must get out of the Games

After Dayton and El Paso: guns must get out of the Games

I was born and grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed and more than two dozen hurt  when a gunman with a military-style weapon opened fire over the weekend at a bar.

That attack came just hours after a gunman with an assault weapon killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

That’s 31 people killed in a space of 13 hours — 31 innocent lives, their hopes and dreams gone forever — because of gun violence.

This has to stop. 

Shooting needs to be off the Olympic program. The guns need to go.

To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

GWANGJU, South Korea — If ever there was an event that suffered from an Olympic hangover, these 18th FINA world aquatics championships would be right up there on the list of leading candidates. Indeed, a longtime FINA official said, these were the championsihps from the twilight zone.

Some 18 months after the hugely successful — and bitterly cold — PyeongChang Olympics over in South Korea’s northeastern mountains, the action shifted to this nation’s southwest, and Gwangju, into the heat and humidity and, as it turned out, virtually non-stop rain. Strike that. These championships went down to the percussive beat of seemingly endless thunderstorms. There was lightning, too, as immediately before the women’s water polo final, won by the United States over Spain.

They tried to sell this event as a peacemaker: “Dive into Peace,” read the white-on-turquoise slogans plastered all over the venues and, indeed, around town, a nod not just to events on the peninsula but, as virtually everyone in South Korea knows, the events of May 1980, when a democracy uprising climaxed in a bloody battle between the military and locals, the victims now honored in an expansive national cemetery near town.

Instead of peace, however, a balcony in a packed nightclub near the athletes village collapsed early on the morning of July 27, killing two Koreans and injuring at least nine athletes, including four American water polo players.

Meanwhile, inside the venues, athletes from Australia and Britain staged medals-stand protests, purportedly over doping matters tied to the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. Attendance proved spotty at best; it would be charitable to say there were even hundreds of people on some days at the diving events that opened the meet’s 17-day run. Even the internet — and South Korea is known for its robust internet — didn’t work, and why?

It was thus left to Katie Ledecky, on the meet’s next-to-last night, to provide the emotional rescue — the stuff, the inspiration — that, truly, makes Olympic sport different from everything else. 

Essentially, Ledecky all but saved these championships.

Caeleb Dressel and the ridonculous hype machine

Caeleb Dressel and the ridonculous hype machine

GWANGJU, South Korea — As our gaze turns inexorably toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, you could feel here Saturday night at the 2019 FINA swim championships the red, white and blue hype machine kick-starting Saturday into full-on gear, the jet fuel pouring into hot engines already burning orange, ready to zoom to white hot, the Caeleb Dressel rocket about to blast off soon enough like a Saturn V, epic, enormous, ridoncolous in every regard.

You might even say — Phelpsian.

The problem with the comparisons that surely will be drawn between now and next July 24, when the Tokyo Olympics get underway, is elemental.

Caeleb Dressel can break — has broken — Michael Phelps’ race records. Here, for instance, he smashed one of Phelps’ singular achievements, 49.82 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly. Dressel went 49.5. In the semifinals, for goodness sake. 

That is hype-worthy. No doubt. But for all the hype, each and every bit of it, Caeleb Dressel has a math problem. Six is not eight. Seven is not eight. It’s that problematic. 

Vulnerable, not dominant, Katie Ledecky summons the will to win

Vulnerable, not dominant, Katie Ledecky summons the will to win

GWANGJU, South Korea — Over the course of her brilliant career, Katie Ledecky has had all manner of memorable swims.

There was the race in London in 2012 when she announced herself to the world by winning gold in the 800 freestyle as a 15-year-old. The 1500 free at the world championships in Barcelona in 2013 that made for 15 minutes of thrilling theater. The 14 world records in the 400, 800 and 1500. And on and on.

Maybe no race, however, tested Katie Ledecky like the 800 free here Saturday night. 

Typically, Ledecky goes out hard and fast puts the race away. Not this time. She had been sick all week. She was vulnerable. She knew it. Everyone knew it. Incredibly, she fell behind in the middle of the race. Even so, she somehow summoned the heart, the soul, the will of the great champion that she is — one of the great athletes of this or any time — to come back late and win, in 8:13.58.  

A "soft bang," nightclub chaos -- and two dead

A "soft bang," nightclub chaos -- and two dead

GWANGJU, South Korea — It was 2:39 a.m. Saturday and the party was in full swing at a nightclub called Coyote Ugly near the athlete village here at the 2019 FINA aquatics world championships. 

The women’s water polo tournament had ended just hours before, the Americans winners Friday evening over Spain, and literally hundreds of happy people — water polo players, swimmers and team officials from all over Planet Earth — were jammed into the place, dozens dancing on an upper deck.

Suddenly, there was, as one witness would later describe it, a “soft bang.”

And all hell broke loose.

Best U.S. team going: 53 straight wins, 3 world titles (and 2 Olympic golds, for now)

Best U.S. team going: 53 straight wins, 3 world titles (and 2 Olympic golds, for now)

GWANGJU, South Korea — It was still raining, and hard, at game time Friday evening as one of America’s great ongoing sports dynasties readied for its latest gold-medal test. 

The U.S. women’s water polo team doesn’t get the mainstream publicity the women’s national soccer team does. When the water polo team wins by the score of, say, 26-1, as it did a few days ago in defeating South Africa to win its group here at the 2019 FINA world championships, there’s no celebrating in the corner or dancing after each goal of or anything of the sort. That’s not the culture of this group. 

All the same, you want excellence? Dedication? Passion? An unwavering commitment to team and country? To the sport? To the notion that by being the best they can be they are in every way role models for little girls — and, perhaps, little boys, too?

The rain came down hard and fast and the women of the U.S. national water polo team gathered to put their hands together in the moments before they played Spain, and Maggie Steffens, arguably the best player of her generation, said all she could do was smile. She felt nervous, sure. But good nervous. This was fun. She had a big smile. She would say later, recalling the feeling, “What an opportunity,” adding, “It’s special.”

This team is special. It deserves luminous, flattering attention of the sort the soccer team just got. We are in the midst of genuine greatness, the Americans going on Friday night to steamroll Spain, 11-6. 

Mob rule is no way to make a stand

Mob rule is no way to make a stand

GWANGJU, South Korea — After the events here this week involving the Chinese star Sun Yang, here’s hoping that both Ryan Lochte and Madisyn Cox not only make the 2020 U.S. Olympic swim team but, moreover, go on to win medals.

Then we can see whether the sanctimonious, self-righteously moralistic and, moreover, self-appointed doping athlete police apply their same rigid and inappropriate black-and-white standards to Americans tagged for “doping” — Lochte, eligible again Wednesday after 14 months off for a rules violation tied to an IV drip, and Cox, who got six months for tainted multivitamins.

Or — and let’s be real — if there’s something more. 

You’d be hard-pressed not to smell the whiff of colonialism, imperialism and racism at work involving an athlete from China. Imagine, if you will, the outrage across all 50 states, red and blue, if had been an American who got snubbed on the medals stand, as Sun Yang did by athletes from Australia and Great Britain. As Sun Yang said, “Disrespecting me is OK, but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I feel sorry about that.”

On Weibo, the People’s Daily — the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party — said, in part, “Sports should be purely sports. It’s not for someone who wants to make a splash. It’s not for someone to make trouble out of nothing, to be deliberately provocative. Let sports return to a normal state. Shame on them.”

If Sun Yang is shown to be liable of a doping violation, he deserves what he gets.

Until then, here is what he deserves — the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence.

Back in prime time: the Caeleb Dressel show

Back in prime time: the Caeleb Dressel show

GWANGJU, South Korea — The American Caeleb Dressel was out like a shot Thursday night and at the turn, the only turn in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, he was so far ahead it was breathtaking. 

It’s not supposed to happen like this. By definition, these were the eight best sprinters in the world. These, of course, are the world championships. And Dressel was making this race like it was him and then seven other guys. The only question was whether he was going to break the world record.

Not quite.

Dressel touched in 46.96 seconds, an American record and just five-hundredths behind Brazilian Cesar Cielho’s world mark, set 10 years ago.

On being Nadia: authentically herself in a world that loves her, and of course

On being Nadia: authentically herself in a world that loves her, and of course

MONTREAL — It was a hot and humid late afternoon 4th of July but no matter, because Nadia Comaneci was in town, and wherever Nadia Comaneci goes, there is light and love and joy, and people are drawn to her and she to them, and especially here in Montreal, because it was here, as a 14-year-old, way back in 1976, that she executed the Perfect 10, and nothing has been the same since, not gymnastics, not the Olympics and for sure not Nadia and the very many people who want to be around her.

Which is, truth be told, pretty much everyone.

Nadia was out for a brief stroll on what is now named Nadia Comaneci Plaza. Of course it is named Nadia Comaneci Plaza. She says now that she had no idea they were going to name it after her when they did so 18 or so months ago, and it was a huge honor because usually — in her telling — they only name things like plazas after people when such people are dead. 

Nadia is not only very much alive, she is a life force, and that is just one of the reasons people — in every country — want to be near, to feel what it must be like to be perfect, if even for a moment, because life is not perfect, as fate is glad to remind us all but, then again, as Nadia observes, if you work hard, maybe, just maybe, you, too, can be great, because everyone has it in them to be great. 

You know what great means? It hardly has to mean you are going to qualify for the Olympics, or even win a gold medal. Great means today is a little bit better in some way than yesterday, and by that same measure tomorrow is better than today. That for sure is great. Just ask Nadia.

No more 'losers': IOC vows new way to pick Games hosts

No more 'losers': IOC vows new way to pick Games hosts

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Thomas Bach is a winner.

From some, that sentence is likely to draw howls. What? Is this, like, sucking up, or what? 

Please — chill. Any objective, reasonable analysis of the International Olympic Committee president’s record would lead to that conclusion. The man is an Olympic gold medalist. A brainy lawyer. An adept businessman. Now in his sixth year as IOC president, he is all but a shoo-in for re-election to a second four-year term in 2021.

Perhaps twice in Bach’s career has he been a “loser.” Once, when as a champion fencer representing West Germany — he, like the outstanding middle-distance runner Seb Coe in Great Britain — campaigned to go to the 1980 Moscow Games amid the U.S.-led boycott. Britain went. West Germany did not.

The next time came in 2011. On that occasion, Bach was leading the Munich campaign for the 2018 Winter Games. PyeongChang won. And Bach was — not happy.

Of course, Bach rebounded two years later to become IOC president. But as the IOC session on Wednesday approved a plan to re-do the process by which it selects cities for the Summer and Winter Games — driven by Bach’s avowed concern that the current system produces too many “losers” — it’s perhaps worth wondering, why? And what of his own experience?