It’s sort of amazing what happens when people who don’t get a lot of attention get a bit of attention. The expressions of emotion at the Olympic games, unlike any other sport, seem genuine and not forced.
Who knows why this is, but perhaps because the day-to-day routine of athletes visiting with a few beat writers or appearing in scrums is all we know of most professional athletes. This makes a sprinter much different than a hockey player. A sprinter walks into a building with 80,000 screaming fans once every four years in front of the world media and world audiences. Of course they’d soak that up a little.
I really enjoyed the 100m dash. There isn’t a practical use to being able to run really fast for a short distance, but it’s become the staple of the games. It’s simple and nearly everybody can do it. I could walk three blocks to a park and calculate my own theoretical time against Usain Bolt or Asafa Powell and it won’t be a blowout by thirty or forty minutes like the 10k run would be, if I could even finish 10k. Anybody has the endurance to sprint 100 metres.
And they’re all showmen. That’s become part of the allure of the sport. As the sprinters were lining up, each had his own few seconds of face-time, and as athletes competing in an amateur event, they need to raise their stock and awareness. They need to smile for the camera and do the things the sponsors love. Richard Thompson danced and, like Bolt did in the semifinals, did some shadow boxing before saluting the crowd. Asafa Powell glared at the camera. Yohan Blake struck a pose before laughing at the reaction of the crowd. Justin Gatlin walked away from the camera and saluted the crowd.
Bolt had a great routine. He mimicked the actions of a DJ, then pretended to holster a pair of pistols after a series of finger movements that meant nothing to me, but may have to somebody else.
Ryan Bailey pumped up the crowd like an NFL linebacker and Churandy Martina smiled at the camera, saluted and then waved to the crowd around him. Only Tyson Gay appeared to be dialled in to only the race, but the rest of the field was savouring the moment.
It all seems genuine and it all seems fun.
I guess that’s a difference with a routine. There are sporting events in the summer that separate us from the everyday slog through the hockey season. I love hockey and always will, it’s been ingrained into my mind, but the routine sucks. I love the game but the routine sucks.
Hockey, like sprinting and swimming, is a small, tight-knit community. Ex-players who want to continue in the system usually have no trouble finding jobs as scouts or coaches. As Michael Lewis characterized baseball insiders in his book Moneyball, sometimes the heads roll, but the heads don’t roll very far. Since the last time Mike Keenan won a playoff series as a coach, he’s worked with four networks and has been a television analyst on two different networks. While the sport may be larger in scope, the group of insiders is few, and it’s apparent watching broadcasts in any sport that the colour man or woman usually has a few friends competing or coaching. That’s the nature of sport.
Huck a stone at these summer hockey camps, and you’ll hit an ex-NHLer of some sort. The insiders pick their guys, and the guys are now training together earlier and earlier. Gary Roberts and the NHLPA developed a camp for the top bantam players in the country, where they learn off-season fitness and nutrition techniques and the camp culminates with a nationally-televised game of 15-year old players. With three international tournaments for prospects, now, and the advent of social media to keep these players together, teammates become opponents and opponents become teammates so much.
Overall, that wouldn’t bug me too much, but I find that the emotion isn’t genuine. Players are learning to say and do the right things. Prospects don’t hit the draft without media training, yet people still follow these guys on Twitter and reporters beg for quotes from a scrum. Any time you try and force a personality, by reading tweets on a medium other than the Internet or by repeating quotes said in front of a gaggle of reporters who need to file a story, it systematically eliminates individualism.
And the industry jargon, like all jargon, is plain boring. Even the word “industry” sounds forced, as if Canada has become a factory for the sole purpose of developing hockey players. This is a game, and ought to be done for fun. Routines ought to be game days, not scrums or interviews. The benefit of being an outsider is that you can watch the game from beyond the glass and not get caught up in the newspeak or smell the sweat.
I was at the scrimmage for the Canadian U-18s Friday night. I like watching hockey and I like trying to pinpoint the future stars of the game. But you look around and most of the people there have a vested financial interest in showing up. There was a small row of kids that were elated when one of the referees tossed them a puck after the game, but mostly I saw parents, scouts and, oddly, bloggers.
Scouts are the most recognizable people in the high seats above junior hockey games. They’re the guys in windbreakers or carrying clip-boards with team logos. If they aren’t scouts, they’re faking it well. Most of them have heard of every single one of the 40 kids on the roster for Canada’s prospective Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament team, but they like to talk to one another.
I’d pass by conversations and hear buzzwords fly back and forth. Scouts love to compare anything except information. No way is it a negative for a player to not have a “high compete level”, but that shouldn’t be the first thing you pay attention to when assessing a hockey player. Fast players have “good foot speed”. If you have a good shot, you can “snipe”, and if you have a fast shot, you have a “rocket”. I feel like you could discuss a player for 200 words before you learn whether or not they’re any good.
It’s a self-perpetuating routine. The industry likes certain guys, and certain guys want to appease the industry. The way we go about this event is bringing fans as close as they can to the game, but that saturates it. The less you see of something, the more special it is, and where a sprinter will relish his one chance every four years to make an impression on a few seconds on worldwide television, a hockey player will meet his daily scrum with scorn. I can’t say I blame them.
To get closer, to learn more, sometimes we need to step back. Not only for analysis, but even for brief bouts with personality.