Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trailblazer in the Five Seat

To be an elite athlete is to be a master of balance.
The best athletes I know balance their sport with jobs or classes.
Mo Sbihi, the five seat of Great Britain's 2012 Olympic Eight and the first Muslim ever to row for Britain, is working to balance rowing with his religion.
As a Catholic, I've been lucky in that my religion hasn't come into conflict with my athletics. If anything it makes me faster because Lent encourages me to work on my self discipline and I often come out of it fitter than I was on Ash Wednesday. Muslims, on the other hand, have a month of fasting during daylight as an essential tenet of their religion. (Sawm, which means fasting, is the fourth pillar of Islam.) Needless to say, this fasting can take a toll on one's performance in athletics. I witnessed this in high school when one of my teammates observed Ramadan during the cross country season, and I have to say that it was one of the most impressive displays of dedication I've ever seen in a teammate.
According to this Telegraph article, Sbihi had been observing Ramadan regularly until last year when he was told that fasting during altitude training would be dangerous. But rather than skip the month altogether, he moved it to the winter.
He says he will make a similar decision next year. A London Evening Standard article reveals that Sbihi will be postponing his fast until after the Olympics. Because I don't want to pretend that the Standard's reporting is my own, I won't steal their quotes (okay maybe just a clause), which make up a majority of the article. (The article is very short, and I recommend reading it. Takes ten seconds.) But I will say that I have tremendous respect for the way that Sbihi is conducting himself. He recognizes that what he's doing goes against his religion and does not seem to show contempt for those who would criticize him. But he also seems confident that Allah will understand, saying that "what I do is between Allah and me".
Perhaps his decision to postpone his fast is between him and Allah, but his maturity about it is an inspiration to us all.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Redgrave Mania

I greatly enjoy reading about the British admiration of Sir Steve Redgrave. Here in America, rowers aren't exactly well known (unless, of course, they sue Mark Zuckerberg). Redgrave's fame stems from his five Olympic gold medals (along with a bronze in '88), and the Telegraph reported that 58% of British Olympians voted him the Greatest Olympian ever.
So does that mean he should be the flame lighter? Is this simply an interesting finding or is this the most valid opinion group?
A similar debate ensued when Scottie Pippen tweeted "I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game". The quote created controversy because, as SI's Joe Posnanski points out, Pippen is, in some ways, in a better position than any of us to make such a claim because he probably knows Jordan's game better than practically anyone save perhaps Phil Jackson. Of course, the debate was muted when Pippen backtracked, saying that Jordan was the greatest ever but that James had the potential to overtake him.
Of course, it doesn't take an six-time NBA champion to see that James has potential. Nor did it take such a star to see James overwhelmed in this years finals.
But that's exactly the point: you don't have to be a great athlete to know sports. You just have to be observant and persistent. Otherwise, you'd expect to see the best athletes become the best coaches. Clearly not the case.
And sports are hardly the only area with this debate: do you need to be personally involved to understand how something works?
Generally I'm more inclined to believe the logical explanation backed by evidence than a claim supported only by the gravity of its speaker, though in some cases I find the speaker's own experiences and accomplishments to be evidence enough. "Trust me, I know", when coming from a World Champion, rings more true to mean than does an eloquently made suggestion coming from someone with no experience in competition.
And an honor such as the flame lighter really should be the decision of those who have earned the right to make it. This isn't the government; the British aren't about to be subjected to the rule of the man or woman selected. For something both so ceremonial and so prestigious, the decision should be left to the most distinguished in the field. So if British Olympians think Redgrave is the greatest among them, then so be it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My two cents on Amy Winehouse's death

It's quite intriguing that news of Sigmund Freud's cocaine use seems to have become a popular topic of discussion just as the world is learning of Amy Winehouse's death. Both talented individuals, both drug users, but these two met very different fates.
Successful recoveries, such as Freud's, seem to be the exception rather than the rule. This morning, I read a review of a new book called An Anatomy of Addiction which compares scientists Sigmund Freud and William Halsted. In the case of Freud, Markel observes that cocaine use made him more observant of feelings than he was before. Halsted, meanwhile, was able to continue working as a successful professional but the drug use apparently affected his personal life.
Sherwin Nuland's Times review concludes by writing:
[Markel] has written a tour de force of scientific and social history, one that helps illuminate a unique period in the long story of medical discovery — and the not insignificant cohort of experimenters who have fallen victim to their own research.
Amy Winehouse wasn't a scientist, but she was a talented musician praised for being "eclectic" and for combining different genres into her work. She has influenced artists such as Lady Gaga and Adele, according to this article. And like Freud and Halsted, her work was influenced by her drug use. She was ultimately never able to recover from her dangerous habits, which brought her short life to a sad ending.
While I was never a particularly big fan of Winehouse's music (I didn't like it enough to buy it and my mom always made us change the station when it came on), I can certainly see that she had talent, perhaps even rare talent. Incidents like this, as well as stories about famous scientists, are just a reminder that drugs don't care how smart or talented you are.
A sobering thought, to say the least.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The snack that isn't smiling back

I don't always eat goldfish, but when I do, I prefer to eat it by the handful. I still owe my friend for the full bag of her goldfish I ate the other day. (I'll make it up, I swear!) If the federal government has its way, fewer kids may experience the sensation known as goldfish. According to this New York Times article, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into ways to limit what food is allowed to be advertised to children. Restaurants and food producers are looking to impose the limitations themselves, which is dangerous for the obvious reasons. Margo Wootan, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, mentions some of them, calling this a "preemptive move" which will allow the industry to avoid making real cutbacks. More than that, it creates a prisoner's dilemma. If all of the food companies continue to produce bad food as they are doing or if they all regulate and create healthy food, then they will all suffer similar fates. But if some groups honestly regulate themselves and others bill themselves as healthy foods while their foods have a sugar, salt, or fat content that suggests otherwise, these dishonest foods will prey upon less diligent shoppers who are willing to accept companies' claims of health foods.
I, for one, am all for regulations on advertisements to children. The obesity epidemic is reaching truly scary levels, and so is the childhood obesity epidemic. It is clear that peer pressure isn't going to change this. While I myself have not compiled the data to support this, my general observations are that certain locations have many overweight people, while others are filled overwhelmingly with thinner ones. While I'm not accusing anyone of self-segregation, it seems that different neighbors/villages/regions (etc.) have differing levels of success with weight management. In other words, the fact that I know many health-conscious people doesn't make obesity any less real. This means that overweight people often may not have access to the right social support networks that they need to lose weight and that they may not be fully informed about what kinds of ingredients they should seek in the foods they eat.
And this is where advertising comes in. I'm a big believer in freedom for adults to do whatever stupid things they want without the interference of the law, but children are another story. Since legal regulations regarding other unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking are already an accepted part of the law, I don't see why food regulations should be any different, especially since these regulations aren't even on what the kids can eat, only on what can be advertised to them.
I encourage the government to adopt standards that are rigorous but not so much so that they will be ignored by people who may not have the money or time to analyze snacks thoroughly. If nothing approved is tasty, then kids will simply turn back to the bad foods. Don't make eating healthy a struggle or kids will look for an unhealthy outlet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

4am SportsCenter

This morning I woke up at four and couldn't fall back asleep. With my alarm set for five anyway, I figured it wasn't worth the trouble to fall back asleep so instead I went down to my basement and got on the bike for a chill, half hour ride. (not something i usually do at that particular hour)
Anyway, SportsCenter proved to be thoroughly enjoyable, and here's what I got out of it, or at least the two things I remember from it:
1. The Minnesota Twins are my favorite baseball team for a number of reasons. The athletes are great, the organization is well run, and I love Minnesota. But in case I didn't have enough reasons to be a Twins fan, SportsCenter gave me another one. I've watched their "My Wish" series before, and I've always been very impressed by the sports figures and teams, in this case Ron Gardenhire and the Twins, who give kids these truly awesome experiences. It's been a rough season for the Twins, but they remain, as always, a first class organization.  Here's the full story for anyone who's interested.
2. Hope Solo may be known for being outspoken and somewhat controversial, but I thought she said exactly the right things after taking silver at the World Cup. She credited Japan, spoke with pride about her own team, and acknowledged her own disappointment. My first real exposure to Hope Solo came in the '07 World Cup with her surprise benching and her subsequent comments, but all my (admittedly limited) observations showed me a champion with incredible big-game poise and composure. I know people always talk about the US Women's team as one that is in the shadow of the '99 squad, but I think that this team created a legacy of its own. Unlike Ann Killion, I don't think the extent of the legacy is that the women were admired simply for their ability on the field because they supposedly aren't trail blazing anymore. Firstly, I don't know what spotlight Killion is talking about; the World Cup, though fantastic soccer, wasn't nearly as hyped in the states as last year's men's event, so perhaps more trails need to be blazed, at least in terms of fanship. Moreover, I think this year's team left a legacy of toughness. They didn't play as if they were in another team's shadow; they played with a grit and determination that was all their own. Questionable officiating in the quarterfinal meant that the US would have had more than enough excuses for a loss. Take away Abby Wambach's header and US fans would have had ample reason to complain of a rip-off. But instead of self-pity, instead of giving up, the US kept attacking until the end and found a way to win. But it wasn't even the end result, a trip to the semis, that mattered; it was the fact that the US kept fighting until the end. Perhaps that's what should be taken away from the US's performance at this year's World Cup.
These were clearly the two that made lasting impressions on me. I can only retain so much of what I watch on TV before 5am.