Friday, April 27, 2007

On jacks, freeball and the WWO

Until I discovered rock music, all of my childhood imaginations involved sports. I would hit a ball against the wall and play out matches in the World Tennis League, a professional tennis competition divided along international lines. In the WTL, John McEnroe had defected to Canada and led the league in “jacks” – unreturnable serves that weren’t quite aces.

Other times, I’d pull out a piece of paper and write out the tournament bracket for the World Cup of Freeball. (I was, and still am, fascinated by tournament brackets.) Freeball began as a once-a-year competition between the United States and Japan, but it soon caught on in other places and eventually, the Irish, Italians, and yes, Canadians, were amongst the world’s top nations. Wales always posed a threat because of their terrific keeper, who stole more games than Dominik Hasek. I never quite knew how Freeball was played – I imagined it as a sort of cross between football, soccer, and rugby (yet it wasn’t Aussie Rules Football). Still, flipping through my dad’s atlas to pick out World Cup nations taught me a lot about geography.

Then there was my fixation on playing professional hockey – in Finland. Or pulling a hockey card out my collection to predict which NHL team I would be drafted by. (If I drew a team like the Hartford Whalers or the Buffalo Sabres, I’d usually have another go.) For a while, I used my hockey cards to develop an expansion NHL team – I’d lay the cards out on the floor, arranged by forward lines and defensive pairings. Then I would make trades with other, strangely generous general managers, to bring in better players.

This sporty imagination of mine reached its apex with the WWO, or the World Wrestling Organization. Unlike the WTL and Freeball, the WWO went beyond my mind. The WWO was, in fact, my first major writing project. And unlike my second major writing project, it no longer exists.

I began it in the sixth or seventh grade. To begin, I used all the boys in my class at St. Norbert’s elementary school as the basis for wrestlers. Stefano was Tank. Jonathan was John Rocker. Jimmy was Viper. Matthew was The Man in Black. Fernando was The Olive King (his own idea, actually.) I was Marco Marciano. Some of the girls acted as managers and often figured prominently in storylines.

Like the WWF and WCW, the WWO was built around a weekly television show (Wild Wednesday) that built up to a monthly pay-per-view. I also kept track of house shows (non-televised live events where nothing of importance to the story happens).

For every Wild Wednesday, I would write a match-by-match, interview-by-interview recap. I didn’t describe every move or write out the interview line-by-line, but dealt more in generalities. (“The Olive King came out for an interview and proceeded to insult Marco Marciano’s girl, Melinda, in his typically bizarre way. Marciano appeared with a steel chair and a brawl ensued.”)

The feud between Marco Marciano and The Olive King was one of the best and most brutal confrontations in WWO history. Olive King was based in large part on the WWF’s Mankind character, a sort of deranged madman with a propensity for extreme violence and unpredictable attacks. Marciano was a classic technical wrestler who was strong, tough, and very difficult to beat. (Marciano remained undefeated but I never gave him the title, or even a title shot.) Their long-running battle culminated at the World War III pay-per-view, in a bloody submission match, where Marciano managed to squeak out a victory.

My favourite storyline involved John Rocker, Viper and The Man in Black. Rocker and Viper were a successful face (good guys) tag team known as Hit ‘Em High. The Man in Black was a heel (bad guy) martial arts master who was rarely seen without his black baseball bat. The MIB somehow brainwashed Viper, who turned on his partner and became the almost unstoppable Punisher. This led to the formation of The Men in Black stable, which terrorized its opponents with n.W.o.-style, gang-like attacks. The Punisher destroyed Rocker in their brief follow-up feud, eventually took the World Heavyweight title from Tank and reigned as champion until the organization’s untimely demise. (Jimmy and Stefano, ie. Punisher and Tank, were the two biggest guys in my class. Like WWF/E promoter/owner/dictator Vince McMahon, I liked to push the monsters.)

The World War III pay-per-view was the WWO’s last. It involved a series of specialty matches, including the hockey arena battle between Ice Man (Matthew C.) and Beefy (Alan) and a subway match, perhaps my best wrestling idea ever. The subway match was an elimination contest involving fifteen competitors. It began inside the subway station, where the combatants would fight it out with various “foreign objects.” After ten minutes of this, the subway would arrive and the wrestlers had two minutes to get onto the train. The rest of the match would take place in the subway cars. Eliminations took place at each stop, where the wrestlers had one minute to throw their opponents onto the platform. I don’t remember who won.

The WWO came to an end one day, when I popped the disk I had it saved on into the drive, only to hear a strange, skipping noise. Nothing appeared on the screen. Having been trained on the original 8-bit Nintendo, I tried blowing on the disk, but to no avail. The WWO was lost forever.

Soon after, I began obsessively listening to a CD called Who’s Missing that my father had recently brought home. A whole new fantasy world opened up. The tennis racket became a guitar. The tournament brackets became album covers. And the WWO became Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock. It was probably for the best.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On cycling, doping, and The Rebel Sell

Professional cycling is in shambles. Too many cyclists cheat. They use dope, or they use their own blood as dope. Then they deny it. It’s a vicious cycle.

On Monday, French newspaper L’Equipe reported that “followup tests on samples given by 2006 Tour De France champion Floyd Landis have found traces of synthetic testosterone.” Landis is contesting these results.

Yesterday, Ivan Basso, winner of the 2006 Giro D’Italia, was suspended by his team after the Italian Olympic Committee reopened an investigation into the rider's involvement with the Operation Puerto blood doping ring.

Basso was part of a group of cyclists that included former Tour winner Jan Ullrich and contender Francisco Mancebo who were barred from riding last year’s Tour de France for suspected blood doping.

Some commentators have blamed the doping on the difficulty of the twenty-stage Tour de France, which sees riders climb the Pyrenees and the Alps and race up to eight hours a day for three weeks.

Others say the desire to win trumps all other concerns for the professional athlete. The athlete is willing to risk everything, including his physical health and the chance of being caught and disgraced, to taste the glory of victory.

These are interesting arguments. But they do not get to the core of the problem. Doping in cycling is a collective-action problem.

No professional cyclist wants to cheat. The ideal situation for everyone involved in the sport would be a dope-free environment, where talent, skill, fitness, and form determine who wins and who loses. But as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter write in The Rebel Sell, we shouldn’t “assume that because a particular group of people have a collective interest in securing a certain outcome, each individual in that group will have an individual interest in doing what is necessary to achieve that outcome.”

Consider the rush hour drive home on the highway. The group’s collective interest is to get home as quickly as possible. But the individual who sees the opportunity to move past other cars by using the merging lane opts for personal gain at the expense of the group’s interest. This slows down the entire process, as other cars must slow and stop to allow the selfish individual to re-enter.

When other drivers see this and begin to emulate each other in the destructive pattern, we have what’s called a “race to the bottom.” The desired result – a quicker drive for everyone – is in direct opposition to the actions of individuals, who feel they are acting in their own best interest. The classic example of a race to the bottom is the arms race between the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War, where neither side desired an escalation in nuclear weaponry, yet felt compelled to build up their arsenal due to the worry that the other guy was doing the same thing.

This is what’s happened to cycling. Your opponents don’t necessarily have to be using dope – all that’s needed is the fear that they are to compel you to use it yourself.

This problem isn’t going to be solved by any “shift in the culture” of cycling. The onus is not on the athletes to be good little boys and play fair. It’s not in their interest. Like any collective-action problem, this situation can only be resolved through strict enforcement of rules. Rigorous testing and unflinching punishments are the only solution.

Tomorrow: The history of the WWO.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On YouTube, Gennaro Gattuso, and Malcolm Gladwell

YouTube is filled with soccer player highlight packages, usually homemade, and almost always bottomed by spirited debates in the comments section about whether or not the featured athlete is “the greatest in the world.” The majority of these highlight packages feature speedy stikers, like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Alessandro Del Piero, or crafty playmakers like Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and Ronaldinho.

Watching these kinds of players, with their stupefying dribbles and rocket shots, it’s hard to imagine how a player like Gennaro Gattuso, who scores few goals and even fewer impressive goals, could fit into any discussion about “the greatest player in the world.”

He certainly isn’t the most spectacular. Gattuso’s role for Italian club A.C. Milan is to command the midfield, making important tackles, creating turnovers, chasing loose balls, and carrying the ball downfield – pretty unglamorous stuff. Yet Gattuso is very good in this role. He is quick, strong, and a fine tackler. He routinely covers over 10,000 metres of ground every game he plays. He also argues with referees, encourages him teammates, brings fans into the game, and annoys and frustrates opponents, usually by delivering hard fouls or drawing them through dives. If Gennaro Gattuso played hockey, he would be Don Cherry’s favourite competitor.

In a New Yorker book review published last May, Malcolm Gladwell argues that sports fans, analysts and commentators, too often use their eyes to measure a player’s worth. “All we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing,” he writes. “We become dance critics.” In a game like soccer, the dancers are the players who put the ball in the net, and the finest dancers are the ones who do it with flash and flare. So we elevate the Messis, the Ronaldos, and the Zidanes and underrate the Gattusos, the Emersons, and the Claude Makélélés, who are often equally, if not more essential to a team’s success.

Gladwell’s solution to this problem is statistical analysis. He writes about a book called The Wages of Wins by economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook, which uses stats to calculate the merit of professional basketball players. “Weighing the relative value of fouls, rebounds, shots taken, turnovers, and the like, they’ve created an algorithm that, they argue, comes closer than any previous statistical measure to capturing the true value of a basketball player. The algorithm yields what they call a Win Score, because it expresses a player’s worth as the number of wins that his contributions bring to his team.”

Soccer, like basketball, is a team game. An individual’s contributions are only valuable in relation to how much they help his team win. Unlike basketball, soccer is not a game where many statistics are gathered. It is therefore impossible to do for soccer what Berri, Schmidt, and Brook did for basketball. But we should at least understand that awe-inspiring runs and fancy footwork aren’t the only, or even most important assets a player can have. We should give Gennaro Gattuso and players like him their due respect.

Maybe someone has already figured this out. Last year, Fabio Cannavaro was the first defender named FIFA World Player of the Year in the award’s fifteen-year history.

Tomorrow: The dope on cycling.

Monday, April 23, 2007

On pasta, scandals, and violence

Today's post marks the beginning of Sports Week here on Extended Drum Solo. I'll be using the next five days to comment on issues and ideas in the sporting world that have caught my attention over the last few months. Enjoy.

Mario Batali, the New York-based chef, repeatedly reminds cooks at his Babbo restaurant: “It’s about the pasta, not the sauce.” It’s fair to say that over the last twelve months, Italian soccer has been way too saucy.

In May 2006, there was the revelation of the calciopoli scandal, which found teams including Juventus, A.C. Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina guilty of match-fixing. Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 titles, and demoted to Italian soccer’s second division, Serie B, for the 2006/07 season. The remaining teams were given point deductions.

In early February, fan violence at a game between Catania and Palermo led to the death of a police officer and the cancellation of all league games scheduled for the following week.

A brawl erupted between Inter Milan and Valencia players after a March 6 Champions League fixture, leading to suspensions and fines. On April 4, eleven visiting Manchester United supporters were taken to hospital after clashes with police and rival fans before the Champions League match between United and hosts AS Roma.

Even Italy’s win at the 2006 World Cup was tarnished by the actions of neo-Nazis who painted swastikas in Rome’s Jewish neighbourhoods following the victory over France.

No one should have been surprised by these events. Match fixing is nothing new to the Italian game, with a similar scandal having taken place as recently as 2005, when Genoa was dropped to Serie C/1. Fan violence is a constant threat. At a Champions League match between Inter Milan and A.C. Milan in 2005, Inter fans through flares and debris onto the field after a goal was disallowed, and in March of 2006, three visiting Middlesborough fans were stabbed by Italian thugs prior to a UEFA Cup match between the English side and AS Roma. And Swastikas and neo-Nazis show up all too often in Italian stadiums.

Fan violence is not going away. The nature of club ownership in Italy means things will probably get worse. So what is the Italian soccer fan, the fan who is interested in the excitement and drama of the game to do? I can only offer you this piece of advice: Focus on the field. Admire Kaká’s dazzling footwork, Luca Toni’s unstoppable drive, Francesco Totti’s golden boots, Cafu’s agelessness, and yes, even Marco Materazzi’s, um, willingness to win at any cost. Even with all the nonsense off the field, these guys are proof that when it's played well, this game can still be beautiful.

Tomorrow: A close look at Gennaro Gattuso, the rugged midfielder and unheralded star of A.C. Milan, who take on Manchester United in tomorrow’s Champions League semi-final first leg.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Minced Meat Sugo

Pork and veal minced meat, half pound each
Half onion (cut in half not chopped)
Olive Oil
Garlic salt
Salt and pepper
2 cans (28 oz) of tomato sauce

Mix the two meats well and add salt, pepper and pinch of garlic salt. sauté with onion until brown, then add the tomato sauce. Add salt to taste and simmer until it tastes like it’s cooked. Serve with pasta.

Pasta Al Forno

1 box (500 g) Barilla Penne, Fusilli, Ziti Tagliate, or any similar cut pasta
Grated Mozzarella cheese
Grated Romano/Parmeggiano cheese
Minced meat sugo

Preheat oven to 350. Cook the pasta until it’s a little more than half cooked (don’t forget to salt the water) and put it in big bowl when it’s ready. To keep from sticking, put a ladle of sugo and stir. Put one ladle or so of sugo on bottom of baking pan. Place half the pasta in and spread evenly. Sprinkle with the two cheeses (amount depends on how cheesy you want it) and put more sugo on top. Repeat with another layer. Cover with foil and put in oven.

Chicken with Artichokes

Chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
Pinch of garlic powder
1-2 cans artichokes
Sliced Cremini Mushrooms
White wine
Red chili pepper flakes<

Combine flour, salt, pepper and garlic powder and dredge the chicken pieces. Heat oil and brown chicken on each side. Remove the chicken pieces and place in a baking pan. Add the artichokes, mushrooms and sautée for about a minute. Add some salt, pepper and chili flakes to taste. Put a splash of white wine and set on high until alcohol evaporates. Remove from heat. Pour mixture on top of chicken pieces and put in 350 degree oven until cooked.

Sheppard’s Pie

5 or 6 medium sized potatoes
Minced meat
1 carrot chopped
2/3 cup frozen green peas
Half onion diced
½ cup chicken or beef broth

Boil potatoes; mash them adding salt, pepper, butter and milk; set aside. In a frying pan, sautée meat with onion; when browned, add veggies and broth until veggies are tender (add more broth if it’s drying out).
Put this mixture at bottom of baking dish. Spread the mash potatoes on top until smooth. Bake at 350 for approx 30–35 minutes or until you see the meat underneath start to come up the edges.

Recipes courtesy of Grace Ursi

Monday, April 02, 2007

On the media

Sources Say, a media blog I am editing for PopMatters, launched today. We are looking for additional contributors. If you're interested in writing for us, please e-mail me.