Monday, December 24, 2007

More Than Sports

To be honest, I cannot call myself a Christmas guy. Still, if you're writing on Christmas Eve, it's OK to lean a little more toward inspiration than on other days. The following are TV (!) programs from which I have taken some inspiration. Yes, they are connected to sports, but, please, stay with me here. Next week I promise to teach everyone how a presidential caucus works.
Pro golfers are normally not very expressive people. They concentrate, take their big paydays and smile a little when holding the giant check, and that's about it. It's funny how that all changes when an event comes around that involves NO money, the Ryder Cup. All of a sudden it's OUR TEAM vs. THEIRS, the best of the USA vs. Europe in a match play format that puts all those blase' millionaires into a lather trying to make or break par. The pressure is enormous. When it finally ends, there's leaping and hugging that rivals the NFL. Quite often there's a pond which serves as a celebration site for one team while the other one slinks away fighting back tears.
There's another TV golf event that makes even viewers sweat. It's the broadcast of PGA Qualifying School at which local pros or ex-college hotshots line up to get the ticket to golf's big money show, the PGA tournaments. A stroke here and there means the difference between a six or seven figure income doing what these guys do best, or spending another year teaching the local country club brats how to keep it on the fairway while trying to decide about graduate school. The pressure? No problem - it's just the rest of your LIFE!!
The 10-12 year-olds who make up the stars of The Little League World Series have made the show a hit for years. They're not quite adolescents, thank God, but these little guys can PLAY, no doubt due to endless hours of coaching and drilling back home. The dads can admire their skills while moms just think of how cute they still are. The combination is irresistable. You see emotions, too, as we are reminded that sometimes there IS crying in baseball.
Do you know what a triathlon is? Swimming, cycling and running ALL in the same race. Want to up the ante? Put sharks in the water, make the bikes go 100 miles over a shadeless lava field during the heat of midday and make the runners go a FULL marathon, over 26 miles. That describes the "Ironman" Triathlon held each year in Hawaii.
You'd be amazed to see who shows up to compete. Grandfathers in their 70's who found they liked running after being told to lose weight, 90-pound ex-nuns, cancer survivors, people running on prosthetic legs, as well as people who do triathlons for a living. The TV folks know how to put all this together, which isn't easy considering there is almost no "action" other than people starting, going and stopping. Winning on this show is almost irrelevant. FINISHING is the great goal, and even a jaded cynic is in tears by the time it's over. We can't quite feel the athletes' pain, but just watching them at the end really is inspiring even WITHOUT the music the network adds just to make sure we get the point. I get it.
There are other programs aimed at this type of audience, the not-quite sports fan. Women's gymnastics is, to me, pretty creepy when you see how small these never-grew-up elfin girls really are. They leave the floor and get a hug from a gigantic person who's actually average- sized. Their voices sound like what comes out of dolls when you pull the little rings. But they are tough, since all of them have had various stunts end in broken bones. Lots of people like figure skating, which is both athletic and beautiful, but hard to judge objectively. I got hooked into watching one of the so-called "reality shows", "Biggest Loser" which isn't exactly sports, but does involve competition, lots of sweating, and hopeless looking obese people transforming themselves before our eyes. I was won over when I heard one contestant, a slobbish-looking guy the size of three cheerleaders, a former wrestler for Iowa State (no mean feat) say simply that he had once been a "pretty good athlete". Your body and your own self-image - THAT deserves the name "reality."


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