Hench items

The U.S. track and field debacle and NBC's shabby treatment of the games' glamour event. Plus: Keri Walsh. And: Teddy Atlas.

Published August 22, 2008 6:25PM (EDT)

The blog format really puts the squeeze on an old Olympic favorite of this column, the hench item. So here's a few for this last weekday of the games, as we Americans lick our wounds from the track and field debacle.

  • Yeah, debacle: As of this writing, the United States had won 21 medals in track and field -- or athletics, as it's officially called. That's six more than the second-place nation, which is ... can you guess? Did you guess Jamaica?

    Russia. Jamaica's well behind Russia's 15 with 10 overall. Those two countries share the gold-medal lead with six, one more than the U.S.

    Among the men, the U.S. is even more dominant in overall medals, leading the way with 13. Russia is second with five. Jamaica and the U.S. have each won three golds, one more than Russia. The Russian women have been the clear leaders with four golds and 10 total. The U.S. has eight medals, two gold, while Jamaica has won seven overall and three gold.

    Nobody else is playing in the same league with those three.

    But it has still been a debacle for the United States, which is supposed to dominate in the glamorous sprints and has not. When it comes to track and field, and really when it comes to the Summer Olympics in general, we Americans get to be like those insufferable Yankee fans who simply can't abide second place.

    Well, we are Yankee fans, actually.

  • NBC's treatment of track and field has been pretty shabby. There's been dutiful treatment of the U.S.-centric sprints. But I've watched every second of the prime-time show and have gorged myself on a solid daily helping of the midday network show and the long hours of coverage on the hench networks, and I couldn't have told you that Russia had won all those medals.

    NBC mostly ignores the "field" part of track and field. An American woman won the discus for the first time since 19-dickety-two, so that event got 30 seconds, including an interview with the champ, Stephanie Brown Trafton. The women's pole vault got some coverage, as it generally does, because for some reason women pole-vaulters tend to rate high on the pulchritude scale. I haven't seen a javelin or a shot put yet.

    The heptathlon was a big deal in this country when the incomparable Jackie Joyner-Kersee was winning it. This time around I didn't know it had been contested -- last weekend -- until the news came down that the silver medalist, repeat offender Lyudmila Blonska of Ukraine, had tested positive for a steroid and been stripped of her medal.

    And this wasn't even a no-Americans thing. The new silver medalist, Hyleas Fountain, who had won bronze on the field, is American.

    The decathlon winner is traditionally referred to as the World's Greatest Athlete. The event has produced such American superstars as Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner.

    To save the confused under-35 set a trip to Google: Long before he became a fringe reality TV character, Bruce Jenner won the 1976 decathlon gold medal, and became, relative to the times, as big a star as LeBron James is now.

    On Thursday night NBC had planned to show some early action in the decathlon, the king of all track and field events. But the men's beach volleyball gold-medal match -- won by the Americans, of course -- ran late, so the decathlon got pushed to the late-night show.

    Who are we kidding? Beach volleyball and synchronized diving are the kings of the Olympics for NBC. What strange sporting times these are.

  • If American beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh, of May-Treanor and Walsh fame, doesn't have a regular gig on TV within five years, I'll eat my Expos hat.

  • Boxing is nowhere to be seen on the big show, but it has gotten heavy coverage on the hench network CNBC. No fewer than four announcers are on hand for the six hours of daily coverage: Bob Papa and Teddy Atlas ringside, Jim Gray interviewing fighters and Fred Roggin acting as a site host. Roggin is completely unnecessary, but it's been some of the best TV of the Olympics.

    This despite the fact that, as Gray admitted on the air Thursday, amateur boxing has become "boring." The scoring is a joke, and between that, the giant headgear, the constant stoppages by the referee for warnings and the fact that the system rewards patty-cake punches and bombs equally, leading to lots of pitty-pat, the sport is essentially unwatchable.

    But I've been watching anyway because of Atlas. Alas, not quite enough for a Teddy Atlas Quote of the Day feature, but I've collected some gems.

    On a fighter who carried his left too low: "You know what to do. Give him a haircut."

    To Papa, during a "Teddy's Corner" segment, in which the two announcers shadow-box as Atlas explains what to look for in a coming fight. Papa had assumed a stance right in Atlas' face: "You're aggressive today. What are you, a Moroccan fighter?" Papa, who is clearly as amused as any viewer during these segments: "Uzbekistan, actually."

    Another time, Atlas told Papa to impersonate a certain fighter. "You're a southpaw," he said, and after Papa assumed a lefty stance, Atlas looked him up and down and said, "That's southpaw?"

    On a fighter who used lateral movement to try to create punching angles: "He's looking for the key to the door, but it's not the front door, it's the side door."

    On a fighter needing to use his jab to set up power punches: "If you want to go eat at a table, you've got to go set up the table and everything. Then you sit down, you take a knife, you take a fork and you eat, like a civilized person. Well if you're a fighter and you have power, you use the jab to set up that power. You don't just go in there like a garvone."

    I had to look that one up. Glutton.

    On Thursday, Roggin interviewed Wu Ching-Kuo, the president of the AIBA, the international amateur boxing federation, who ridiculously defended the scoring system by saying it had improved a lot in the last few months, and they're getting some new computers. He then talked about a new AIBA initiative to sponsor a pro boxing league.

    CNBC went back to Papa and Atlas for a comment. Paraphrasing from memory here, but Atlas said something like, "You know that old routine 'Who's on First'? I feel like I just listened to that and I don't know who's on third."

    Here's hoping the morons in charge of amateur boxing fix it by 2012 just so there'll be half a reason to watch Teddy Atlas.

  • By King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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