King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Olympics: Speed skater Joey Cheek thinks outside the rink. Plus: Courageous skaters, crazy rules and curling.

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I know you want to talk about Joey Cheek, the American speed skater who says he’s going to donate his gold-medal bonus to charity, or about the pairs figure skating, where the Russians won the gold again but the real story was the amazing comeback from a fall by the Chinese pair.

But I want to talk about Monday morning, when I woke up early but already had six hours of curling waiting for me on the DVR. The U.S. men knocked off the defending gold-medal winners, Norway, though the U.S. women stumbled badly against the same country, twice giving up three-point ends on the way to a loss.

And the Italian men, who never would have qualified but are in these Games because the host country gets a pass, gave powerful Great Britain a scare. Later in the day, the U.S. men lost to Finland.

These Olympics have been a disappointment so far to a lot of people on these shores, not least NBC, which has had to explain that it intended for the ratings to be lackluster.

Some of the biggest American names have done a collective swan dive in the first few days in Turin. Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves and Apolo Anton Ohno all lost on the opening weekend, and Michelle Kwan, biggest star of the Games, withdrew with an injury.

And the last two Olympics have spoiled us. At this point in both Salt Lake City and Athens, we already had a juicy story to follow, the crazy figure-skating judges in 2002 and the lackluster showings by the U.S. men’s basketball team in 2004, which was really just an appetizer for the gymnastics controversy.

No such luck so far this time, though the NHL gambling scandal may pick up some steam once the men start playing on Wednesday.

But no complaints from this corner. USA, one of NBC’s hench-networks, is covering curling lavishly. These are the days. As I type this in the wee hours Tuesday, Canada’s women have jumped out to a 6-0 lead over the U.S. after two ends.

But back to Cheek, who blew the thigh muscles off the competition in the 500 meters Monday, winning by .65 seconds, which is the speed-skating equivalent of about 10 minutes.

He announced that he would donate the $25,000 that the U.S. Olympic Committee gives to gold-medal winners to a charity called Right to Play, which is run by Cheek’s skating idol, 1994 Olympic champion Johann Olav Koss of Norway.

After Koss won three gold medals in Lillehammer, he donated his winnings to Olympic Aid, a group that was helping war victims in Sarajevo, where the Winter Olympics had been held a decade before.

Olympic Aid is now Right to Play, which describes itself on its Web site as “an athlete-driven international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play as a tool for the development of children and youth in the most disadvantaged areas of the world.”

Cheek says he wants his winnings to help children from Sudan’s Darfur region who are in refugee camps in Chad. He has challenged his sponsors to match his donation, which they’d be hard-pressed not to do.

Good for Joey Cheek. It sure is refreshing to hear an athlete talk about something going on in the actual world rather than just describing his training regimen, how the competition went or his feelings upon winning.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if others followed his lead and donated their winnings to charity. The money isn’t much, but the publicity Cheek has given Right to Play is incredibly valuable. And the spectacle of gold medalist after gold medalist announcing that their winnings were going to good causes might just give the millions who idolize them something to imitate.

I’m not holding my breath for any of this. But here’s a prediction. Right to Play’s sharp-looking yellow warm-up jacket is going to become a hot item in the next few weeks, even with a price tag of 100 euros, about $119.

Speaking of charity, it looked to this lay observer like it was in play when the figure-skating judges gave the silver medal to Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao of China. Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin of Russia won the gold medal in a rout. Russia, the Soviet Union and the Unified Team have won every gold medal in pairs figure skating since 1964.

Zhang and Zhang — they have the same surname but are not related — tried to become the first pair ever to land a spectacular jump called a throw quad salchow. But Zhang Dan took a nasty spill, appearing to slam her left knee into the ice before sliding into the padded wall. She got up, tried to skate, then doubled over in pain, and she and Zhang Hao aborted their routine.

But the rules allow them to continue if they’re able and officials agree, and Zhang Dan, after a delay, declared herself ready. With the crowd behind them, Zhang and Zhang skated in circles as their music restarted and played through the point at which they fell, then they skated the rest of their routine beautifully, bringing down the house.

NBC’s cameras caught the pair’s fellow skaters applauding heartily, not the usual courtesy clap. Zhang Dan hugged her partner repeatedly, then sat with him waiting for their scores, a giant bag of ice on her knee, which showed no ill effects during their routine. The scores were good enough for a distant second place to the Russians.

Canadian David Pelletier, who along with his partner Jamie Sale was the victim of the judging mess in 2002 that led to wholesale reform of the scoring system, was in the house working for NBC. He said even though he admired the 20-year-old Zhang Dan’s courageous performance, he doesn’t like the rule that allowed the Chinese pair to continue after stopping their routine.

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The rule does fail the “that makes sense” sniff test, and, as much as the commentators explain how skaters can build up points under the new scoring system, the pair’s high score did too. It doesn’t seem right that you can crash, stop your routine, get a do-over, start again and still get a medal-winning score, crash and all.

“If I compare this sport to skiing,” Pelletier said, “if you get out of the gate too soon and too fast and you miss that first gate, you’re done. So, to me, to give the chance to reskate again, I’m not sure about that rule. I’m not in love with it.”

I’m not either. As inspiring as Zhang Dan’s gutsy performance was, skaters shouldn’t be able to stop the clock because of injury. The rule rewards failure, since Zhang wouldn’t have been injured if the pair had completed the element successfully.

You won’t hear me complaining about it, though. Too much curling to watch.

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Women’s hockey improves [PERMALINK]

It could be my memory playing tricks on me, but it seems that the quality of play in women’s hockey has improved about fivefold since the 2002 Olympics.

I seem to remember watching women’s hockey four years ago and thinking it looked like they were playing underwater. Now, it takes a second to realize the players are women, not men. I’d put the quality of play roughly on par with high-level boys high school hockey.

There’s still a huge gap between the best teams and the ordinary ones, a sign of a sport’s immaturity. What that means here is there’s a huge gap between Canada and the United States on one hand and everyone else on the other. The U.S. and Canada have each played two games. Combined goal scoring in those four games: North Americans 39, opponents 0.

Canada and the U.S. can pretty much skip ahead to the gold-medal game next Monday, which should be pretty good. The two teams have met in the final of every major international tournament in the history of the sport.

But other countries are coming along. They’re the countries you’d expect: Finland, Germany, Sweden. I bet by 2010, the Americans and Canadians won’t be able to pencil each other in for the gold-medal game.

Bill Clement, the hockey announcer whose boundless but somehow not annoying enthusiasm extends to curling and badminton, we’ve learned over the last few Olympics, is teamed with Cammi Granato as the studio host for women’s hockey.

Granato, the longtime captain of Team USA, was shockingly cut in August after having played in every major competition the Americans had ever been to. On Saturday Clement asked Granato how she felt being in Turin, but not as a player.

“Well, you know when you’re here, when you’re at the Olympics, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing or not,” Granato said. “The whole atmosphere, the magic of the whole Games, is alive. You saw that last night with the Opening Ceremonies. I’m happy to be here talking about it. I certainly know these girls really well, and sitting with you for 10 days is going to be a treat, Bill.”

“I love it when you lie to me like that, even here on television,” Clement said.

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Locked and loaded, baby! [PERMALINK]

Why won’t NBC introduce us to that deep-voiced guy — I presume an American coach — who stands in the start house and yells macho clichés at the male American skiers just before they head down the mountain?

“It’s just you now! Locked and loaded, baby! Kill this thing! Come on, brother! Get out there, come on!” He just keeps up a steady stream of them until the skier heads out. I bet he could do 10 minutes without stopping.

Where’s Jimmy Roberts when you need him? This is a Big Detroit Automaker Olympic Moment waiting to happen. The guy must have had a relative get sick or a cat die somewhere along the line, and now maybe his inspiring words of encouragement are uttered in his, her or its memory.

Get on that, Jimmy.

Previous column: Michelle Kwan

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