Monday, August 13, 2012

Nationality - Olympics and representation

Note to readers: Spelling conforms to UK English. I am going back to my pre-US days and since the Games are being hosted by London, it is a nod to the mother country of the English language. 

Not that there is any law stopping me from using whatever version of English I please, US, UK, Australian or even Hinglish (Hindi mixed with English) or, for that matter, pig Latin. Just thinking, I am going to try pig Latin one day and give you readers the legend, it will be like an encrypted message, ha ha.

There are always some heavyweights when it comes to international sports. Countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom along with some European countries such as France and Germany, always come out on tops in the overall medal tally.

As a native born Indian, I usually share the common lament of my compatriots: When, oh when, are we going to see our tricolour fluttering at the medal ceremony and hear "Jana Gana Mana" being played?

To their credit, Indians did win a handful of medals this time. And I wholeheartedly congratulate our athletes, Vijay Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and Saina Nehwal for keeping our 'jhanda/kodi' ('jhanda' - meaning flag in Hindi, 'kodi' meaning flag in Tamil) flying high. Check out this slideshow on Indian medal winners at this year's Olympics on India Today.

I really did not want to get into whining mode. Honestly. I am not going to whine about how our government doesn't do enough, how our parents don't encourage us to pursue sports, blah, blah, sniffle. This post is not about one particular country. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is about how many nations participate in the making of a champion or a series of winners.

Training away from home, or at home with foreign help -

Take the example of the 10, 000 metres winner, Mo Farah. He was born in Somalia, emigrated to the UK when he was about eight and trained in Portland, Oregon, United States with one of America's famous long distance running and marathon coaches, Alberto Salazar. His training partner, the American, Galen Rupp, took home the silver medal. Isn't that a sweet victory for the trio of coach and pupils?

To add to this pinnacle of achievement, Mo Farah also took home the gold for the 5, 000 metres.

I found this article on the British newspaper site, the Telegraph, about how his move to the US transformed his athletic career.

[Incidentally, Portland, Oregon was my residence of a few years and still is a place I call home in my heart. It is a verdant green city surrounded by the snow capped Cascades, forests, trails and waterfalls and gets a lot of rain, just like the British Isles.
The flag bearer of the US Olympic team at the opening ceremony in London, the fencer, Mariel Zagunis is from Beaverton, part of the Portland metro area, too, so that makes me doubly proud.]

Mo Farah's win is a prime example of a product of multiple nationalities. This goes not only for athletes who represent their home country but train abroad but also those who train at home with foreign coaches.

CNN had a few inspiring stories of athletes from lesser privileged backgrounds and impoverished nations, who were helped by either emigrating to a developed nation or help from athletes of well-to-do nations.
The runner who was born in Sudan but who trains in and represents the US, Lopez Lomong, and this Rwandan mountain bike rider, Adrien Niyonshuti, featured on CNN's site, are two such respective examples.

Then, there is the fabled Chinese 16-year-old swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who apparently had a lower split time in the last 50 metres of her 400 metre swimming race than many male greats. She trained in Australia.

Major International Sports

In recent years, India, with its mad craze for the game of cricket, had its national team coached by top notch former players from abroad such as Australians, John Wright and Greg Chappell. India's World Cup winning team of 2011 was coached by Gary Kirsten of South Africa. Many top Indian players have honed their skills on the green fields of English county cricket grounds, as mentioned in this article on Indian Express.

There are many athletes who have benefited from training and competing in the US. European and Asian basketball players such as Rudy Fernandez who played for Spain and Yao Ming who has represented China, have been members of NBA teams in the US.

Similarly, many international soccer players are members of top European leagues, helping them to compete with and learn from the best in the world.

Sponsorship -

Many athletes are sponsored by multinational companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiAdidas and Nike, who by their very definition owe their roots to one country but subsequent reach to many.

Immigration - 

If you noticed, there is quite a bit of racial diversity in the delegations of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, countries that typically attract a lot of immigrants from Asia, Africa and other European countries.

The US gymnastics team is the quintessential immigrant success story. I probably don't need to emphasize why I picked this, gymnastics nut as I am:) but there is another reason. Unlike basketball or tennis, gymnastics was not traditionally a US-dominated sport. Sure, America has a tradition of acrobatics, too.
However, utter the word gymnastics, and one would always be reminded of Russian and Romanian girls and guys, with their pointy toes and toned, graceful bodies like ballet dancers. The former USSR, Romania and some of the other Eastern European countries, along with China and Japan, were the leaders on the international gymnastics stage. Even today, Russia dominates events such as rhythmic gymnastics, just check out these London 2012 results on BBC.
Here is a great piece on Russian gymnasts in Splice Today.

In the 80s and 90s, this slowly started to change. Today, the Americans are a force to reckon with and it is very rare to not see the Stars and Stripes being raised at a gymnastics medal ceremony.

This is the site of USA Gymnastics with records of champions from the revival of the modern Olympic Games until now.

Here is a very informative slideshow on the history of US gymnastics on the bleacher report. I learnt that Americans did win medals at international events in the early 1900s but lost out later to European countries, Japan and China.

If you watched the drama of the women's balance beam final with Aly Raisman of the US initially being pipped to the bronze by Catalina Ponor of Romania, you might have noticed a certain grey-haired gentleman rise up in the stands, asking Aly's coach to appeal the decision.
There was a subsequent appeal and after re-evaluation by the judges, the bronze was awarded to Aly.

That distinguished gentleman was Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta Karolyi, was sitting right next to him. Bela and Marta Karolyi are the famous coaches of champions past and present, one of whom happens to be the icon, Nadia Comaneci, the first woman to score a  perfect 10, the shining star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. This couple defected to the US from the Romania before the fall of communism. Marta Karolyi was the Team Co-ordinator for the US this time.

Nastia Liukin, the Beijing Olympics individual all-round champion, was born in Russia to a father and mother who were both gymnastics champions. They emigrated to the US when Nastia was a little girl and the US got a gem of an immigrant family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Then there is Liang Chow. This is the coach of Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist in the individual all round final of the women's artistic gymnastics event in Beijing four years ago.
This year, he is the proud coach of the gold medalist in the women's individual all-round final, Gabrielle Douglas, known more famously as Gabby Douglas. She made history as the first African-American woman to win the title. I haven't seen any non-Caucasian win it before.

Liang Chow represented China as a world class medal-winning gymnast before emigrating to the US. Many former champion gymnasts such as Daniela Silivas and Nadia Comaneci of Romania and Svetlana Boginskaya of the former USSR have moved to the US, too.

The United States is not the only one to benefit from immigration. Among the young, pony-tailed, teeny-bopper brigade of gymnasts in London, there was a veteran, Oksana Chusovitina. This woman is 37 years old,  a gnarled old tree in the world of gymnastics where even 25 is considered over the hill. She is one of the two older gymnasts in competition in this Olympiad.
She managed to surprise us all with her somersaults and flips. Her story is remarkable not only because of her age. Her unique and trying circumstances have contributed to a life full of twists and turns, just like her routine. [Do read this column on Slate about the perils and triumphs of gymnastics and the book, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes". I got the link for the older gymnasts from the Slate article.]

Oksana originally represented the USSR when she was a young girl. After the Soviet Union collapsed, she performed for Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, her son was diagnosed with leukaemia and the quest for his treatment landed her in Germany, her current home. She now sports the German team colours. At this age, she still made it to the event finals of the vault. Oksana is truly an example of humans being parts of different countries and being a positive contributor to every one of them.

I heard of the American footwear giant, Nike's programme to encourage basketball at the grassroots level in China. [Nike is from Portland, Oregon, too, woo hoo!]. Read this article on Oregon Business.

I am just thinking, may we see a LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal coaching a budding Indian basketball team some day? Or a Russian coaching an Indonesian gymnastics team? It would be great to see more variety, more healthy competition in every sport.
The world would be a fitter place with more inspired youngsters both physically and mentally.

Many thanks to all the original sources I have linked to.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Reflections on the Olympics, London 2012

Note to readers: This post conforms to spelling according to UK English rules. Just thought I'd go back to my pre-US days and since the Games are being hosted by London, this is a nod to the British:).

For the past ten or so days, I have been glued to the television for several hours, watching NBC's telecast of the London Olympics of 2012.

The Olympics and also the Asian and the Commonwealth Games were part of my growing up years. I have always been fascinated by the parade of virtually all the nations on this earth, and all the events with the best of each country pitted against each other.

The Olympics are, of course, the king of all sports events, in my humble opinion. This is THE most varied, best known, most prestigious sporting event there is. It is a truly international pageant.

It is one of those rare occasions where even people who normally don't care much for sports sit and watch even lesser known events such as water polo, judo and synchronised swimming. And, I wait with bated breath for my favourite event, gymnastics.
If you have read my previous posts, you might be aware that I am a huge fan of the gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, even though she had retired by the time I was old enough to even comprehend what the Olympics meant. I had watched a four-part movie about her life when I was in school and was completely blown over. I scribbled doodles of gymnasts on random scraps of paper, nursing the impossible dream that I would be one, too:). Ah, the imagination of a child!

The names of various past gymnasts and athletes from other disciplines from countries such as Romania, Ethiopia, Ukraine and China still ring a bell in my head, though I can't utter a single word in any of their languages. Some of these athletes are Svetlana Khorkina (Gymnastics, Russia), Ecatrina Szabo (Gymnastics, Romania), Daniela Silivas (Gymnastics, Romania), Carly Patterson (Gymnastics, USA), Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson (Gymnastics, USA), Haile Gebrselassie (Long distance running, Track and Field, Ethiopia), Sergey Bubka (Pole Vault, Ukraine), Wu Minxia (Diving, China), Ian Thorpe (Swimming, Australia) and Dara Torres (Swimming, USA). Stars such as the legendary swimmer and Olympic record holder for the most medals, Michael Phelps of the US and the runner, Usain Bolt of Jamaica will be remembered and will continue to inspire for years to come.

I would (and still do) eagerly wait for events such as gymnastics, swimming, diving and synchronised swimming. The Games are a place where you can savour the breadth and beauty of human diversity, hearing obscure, normally unpronounceable names from Latvia to Laos, Ecuador to Ethiopia, and the United States to the United Arab Emirates. It is one common ground to see the multicoloured flags of so many nations and also get to know the new countries that have recently been born.

As one of my friends said, you also get to see the people from every corner of this planet, what they look like and sometimes even hear a smattering of their languages.

The opening ceremony was a delight for history and literature buffs featuring scenes from the Industrial Revolution, the pre-Industrial pastoral lifestyle, the various literary characters from Harry Potter to Alice in Wonderland and all that make Britain a great contributor to humanity.
Some comparisons to the spectacular show that the Chinese put up about four years ago at Beijing did pop up in my circle, but, I think each country showed us something unique, their culture and history, beautiful people and garments, dance and music.

The highlight of the evening was, of course, the James Bond clip, featuring Queen Elizabeth II with the actor Daniel Craig, and then the Queen jumping off a helicopter above the actual Olympic stadium:) (even if it was a stunt double who did the actual jump). I have watched many opening and closing ceremonies, full of pomp and colour and co-ordinated dances, but, wow! This particular sequence will be probably etched in my memory for years to come.
Dances and costumes, parades and visual effects fade from memory but characters like Bond and a very formal, famous royal, known for her reserve, performing such a daring act, stay much longer.
Danny Boyle, the well known director of movies such as "Slumdog Millionaire", pulled off a commendable feat.

Now that the Games will soon come to a close, there will be withdrawal symptoms for sure. The motto "Inspire a Generation" does hold true, I believe. Along with my friends and family, I have been inspired to work out, stretch, get fit and accomplish my goals. If an event can get you off the couch and do something, it is well worth the time, money and media coverage.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Colorado shootings - Senseless violence and Guns

About two weeks ago, there was a terrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, as a lone gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises", in the wee hours of 20th July, 2012, killing about 14 people and severely wounding several others.

My condolences and prayers towards the families of those affected, including that of the perpetrator.
May the souls of those who perished, rest in peace.

I read several Internet comments for and against gun control by impassioned people who are rightly outraged. Here is an article on Yahoo honoring the victims. There are tons of comments.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the US and its laws, there is a certain part of the US Bill of Rights that is related to this discussion. It is the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights that allows citizens to bear arms for self-defense.

Overall, the sentiment does seem to lean towards the idea that such crimes cannot totally be prevented as crazy people and criminals who are hell bent on breaking the law, always manage to get hold of weapons, legally or otherwise.

Gun advocates say that if common folks are always armed, there will always be some sane, concerned citizen in a crowd of unfortunate victims, who might fire at such perpetrators and prevent them from unleashing their insanity on the rest. That does seem like a wholly plausible line of defense.

On the other hand, proponents of gun control say that as long as guns are freely available, the chances of such crimes occurring are very high with a resulting high number of casualties. This is also true.

Gun advocates further argue that if guns were banned, violent criminals would always find other means such as knives, explosives, etc. So should we start banning knives? Given the worldwide newspaper accounts of people being stabbed every now and then by loved ones or strangers, knives are a very lethal weapon, too.

Their opponents say that there is no way a knife can be used to kill so many people at a time. I have to agree with the opponents on this one.

Extent of damage
A knife can cause as much damage as a gun or worse when held at close range. When it comes to operating in a crowd though, the situation changes completely.
Unless the attacker happens to be some highly skilled medieval-era-type warrior that can throw an entire array of knives at moving targets in quick succession with a high level of precision, the chances of killing many people in a crowd, who are running helter skelter, are extremely low.

Just take a look at history. How did some nations and cultures manage to subjugate others on the battlefield?  Superior warfare technology was one of the many factors. Of course, the history of colonialism and world wars is far more complex with lots of intrigue, backstabbing, infighting, spying and politics at its Machiavellian best.
However, advanced guns and modern artillery did offer some countries significant advantages over their counterparts.

Do you think an army of aboriginals/natives with poisonous arrows and spears would ever be able to compete against an army with sophisticated machine guns and cannons? Unless the army with guns were to be vastly outnumbered and showered with a sky full of arrows, it is extremely improbable.
There are some exceptions when native armies have outnumbered and conquered invaders largely with their traditional weapons but the reasons were better organization, formation and greater numbers as seen in this very informative Wikipedia article about the battle between the British and the Zulu warriors. Another related article is the armed Maji Maji rebellion in Tanzania.

Physics supports bullets far more than arrows.

When a large weapon such as a spear is thrown at a target, it is visible enough to be thwarted or avoided if seen in proper light. Also, there is a limit to the speed with which a human being can hurl any weapon with his/her bare hands. A bullet, on the other hand, is tiny and travels so fast that there is not much time to react. What the bullet lacks in mass, it makes up several times in its velocity, hence the total momentum of impact is enough to cause substantial damage.
And, if it is a series of bullets in a sophisticated and powerful gun, the chances of hitting targets at close range are very high with not much human body power needed.

Simply put, the number of probable casualties that can be inflicted with a gun in a short period of time, is significantly higher than with a knife or some other common weapon.

Unintentional casualties
There is another problem with guns. Even if one were to keep a gun under lock and key in one's house, if a child were to accidentally get hold of it and pull the trigger, a terrible tragedy could occur. A knife, unless used to stab someone deliberately, causes cuts and deep wounds at the worst. A bullet, if it hits someone in a vital region at close range, can kill almost instantaneously.

Then, there are issues with irresponsible adults. Overreaction to perceived threats can cause loss of innocent lives. A perfect example is the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida and the resulting uproar over "Stand Your Ground" laws. Check out this article in The Week for details about the case. There are some excellent blogs on this point elsewhere on newspaper websites such as the Guardian from the UK (sorry, can't find the exact posts).

Human reaction time
Unless a weapon is within reach and the victim has enough presence of mind, it may not serve the purpose of self defense. Imagine you had a weapon locked up in your garage and are attacked in your bedroom by a masked intruder in the middle of the night. If you are half asleep and the attacker succeeds in overpowering you, will your weapon be of any use?

Most crazy mass murderers succeed precisely because their victims are vulnerable, exposed and completely unprepared.

State laws versus private regulations
Secondly, even if the state or country of residence allows guns freely, a private institution may still have the right to ban them from its premises. Examples include religious and educational institutions.

Gathering from several user comments on Yahoo and other sites, that is apparently what happened at the Colorado theater. The theater itself had banned guns from its premises although the state of Colorado has not. Law abiding, sane patrons complied with the rules whereas the gunman who intended to cause mayhem, did not.
Neither gun advocates or opponents can do anything about this discrepancy. After all, we can't insist that a sacred place of worship such as a temple or church, be forced to let deadly weapons on its property.

Those who quote the Second Amendment must realize that freedom always comes at a price. There are people who will misuse their freedoms to hurt people and unlike free speech, the right to carry weapons comes at a much higher price.

Violent Crime, Law Enforcement and Deadly Weapons
In any society, there has to be a certain amount of trust in people if it is to be called a civilized and progressive one. If one has to constantly look over one's shoulder and be prepared to draw out a weapon, there is very little law and order to speak of. As much as people enjoy the Wild Wild West kind of movies, I don't think many people would want to be transported to that era.

There are a couple of scenarios.
(a) Poor law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means - 
This is a scenario similar to tin pot dictatorships, nations with civil war and/or those infested by mafia or drug cartels. In such cases, the gun becomes the tool of oppression. Law enforcement officials are encumbered by niceties such as subpoenas, arrest warrants, lethal force only for self defense, yada yada, but the outlaws run loose, killing anyone who does not toe their line.

Would it help if common folks were armed, too? To some extent, maybe. Unfortunately, getting hold of an effective gun is hard for most poor folks especially where strict gun control laws exist.

I shudder to think what would happen if everyone had guns and there was lawlessness all around. Even the good folks might eventually end up on the wrong side of the law some time. Revenge and counter revenge might be the order of the day. You might as well toss out penal codes in the trash bin and tell the police to go home and find other jobs.

(b) Poor law enforcement, very little or no gun control and availability of guns - 
If there is a law and order problem in such a society, it would still be a mess. If general poverty is added to the mix, common people who cannot afford guns would still be at the mercy of those who do.

(c) Strict law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means -
This is the situation in some US states. Law and order is generally good, calling 911 gets the police to the spot quickly and there is severe punishment for offenses. It is not that one can buy a gun just like buying a pair of shoes.
Law abiding citizens do not own guns but the outlaws do. Psychopaths and crazy killers manage to get illegal weapons and then go berserk. Guns are freely available in the country if one knows the right channels.

However, hardcore criminals such as drug lords and career hit men never go into a crowd and randomly fire at people. Their crimes are never without motive and profit.

The kind of shootings that have happened in Colorado and earlier in Virginia Tech and in Columbine about 13 years ago were not acts of career criminals or even jihadists. These were the actions of regular young people who were disaffected and disturbed. It is in such instances that guns cause more harm than ever.
Of course, even if there were no guns, these people might have done something worse, just like many terrorists do.
Neither the lack of guns nor their universal presence can provide complete insurance against crime.

Take a look at this excellent article in the Guardian on statistics about gun ownership by country. Wikipedia has a comprehensive summary of gun control laws by country, too.

There are crimes committed in probably every nation on earth but the extent and nature vary. It is extremely rare to hear about a disgruntled youngster killing random strangers for no gain unless he/she happens to belong to or identifies with the cause of some terrorist or militant organization.

It is not enough to merely devise systems to punish crime. Punishment can act as a deterrent for criminals without a conscience but the bigger question that we need to ask is - how do people reach that threshold when conscience is no longer a barrier?

Now, some cases have been traced to mental illness of the perpetrators. But, where do we draw the line between a pure act of evil and that  of madness? Isn't a complete lack of empathy for another human being itself the sign of a sick mind?

There have been debates all over on prevention of crime. MSN Slate had a fine article on combating such mad acts as a society. You may or may not agree with the premise but the discussion is worth pondering.

Just as a healthy diet, exercise and sanitation are needed to ward off disease along with life saving drugs, crime prevention must be employed along with incarceration and the thump of the police baton to have a healthy society.

Eventually, the overall culture, family and social constraints and individual morality are the best deterrents against crimes.