Jason's Whitlock's journal: The trials and tribulations of a starving American in London.
By Jason WhitlockFoxSports
Saturday, August 4, 2012
For much of the day Friday, I’d figured out a plan on how to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. My Obama-like rise to power in England would be a natural outgrowth of my understanding of Chicago politics from years of reading Mike Royko’s column.
Royko understood that voters are motivated by the simple things. An alderman who can get the trash picked on time is an alderman who can deliver votes. Sanitation/garbage removal is the key to any election.
What I’ve noticed in my time in London is that there’s a major trash-can shortage. The problem is so severe I’d call it a trash-can famine. You walk the streets of London and there’s no place to dispose of a soda can, candy wrapper, cigarette carton, receipt, McDonald’s bag or small pet you’ve lost interest in (just kidding).
Does Prime Minister David Cameron have any idea how embarrassing it is to walk through a tube station holding a McDonald’s bag, a Snickers wrapper, an empty little baggie of dry roasted peanuts and a Diet Coke? Seriously, a friend of mine suffered this indignity the other day and nearly asked his boss if he could leave the Olympics and return to the states.
Whatever problems we have in America, regardless of how much ground we may be losing to Europe and Asia, we know how to accumulate and dispose of waste. We’ve never suffered through a trash-can famine. Not in America.
So yesterday, I confronted a London bobby about the trash-can famine.
“Excuse me, fine chap,” I said. “Where in the hell are the trash cans in London?”
He responded: “We’re at a high terrorist threat and we’ve removed all of the trash cans in and around the tube stations during the Olympics. They’re hiding places for bombs.”
“Oh,” I said.
I quickly reformulated my plan to become Prime Minister of England. Maybe I’m not cut out for a leadership position. Maybe I should take advantage of all the walking I’m doing in London by eating less during my commutes and burning more calories. Maybe I should just keep my big fat American mouth shut.
I thought the exact same thing about Roger Goodell when I heard his insane opinion that American football should be part of the Olympics. Really, Roger? Really? This guy is eventually going to remove all doubt that he’s the ultimate winner of the Peter Principle.
How many professional football games are going to be played during a 17-day Olympic Games? It’s going to be a 2-game tournament? Or will the commissioner totally concerned with the health of football players figure out a way for a couple of lucky teams to play four or five games in the span of a couple of Olympic weekends?
American football isn’t an Olympic sport. Period. Professional football overseas is played at a junior-high level in comparison to the NFL and college football in the states. There would be no one for us to play. What the USA basketball team just did to Nigeria would look rather humane compared to what Drew Brees and Ray Lewis would do to some European football squad.
Roger, please shut up and concentrate on making football safe for Americans before exporting the concussion crisis to the rest of the world.
Let me end this journal on a more positive note about leadership.
A few days ago, I wrote about the lack of African-American diversity within the American journalists covering London 2012. It wasn’t a rant about racism. It was a rant about the American newspaper industry dying and editors being placed in position to make really tough choices.
Anyway, some people don’t comprehend the importance of diversity.
Well, I believe Rupert Murdoch’s gang at FOXSports.com gave the world the best and most complete coverage of Gabby Douglas’s inspiring victory in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition. Gabby is the breakout superstar of these Olympics. She’s an important story.
It’s not surprising that a Jew (Rick Jaffe, FOXSports.com’s editor-in-chief), a white male (Bill Reiter, our gymnastics writer), a black woman (Dominique Dawes, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist) and a black male (Jason Whitlock, a strikingly handsome sex symbol) combined to cover the Gabby story best.
Our coverage of the Gabby Douglas story made me proud to work at a place that utilizes its diversity to serve sports fans. That’s leadership. And whether you like it or not, you have to tip your hat to Rupert Murdoch for empowering people like my bosses who made the coverage possible.
We’ve got the best team in London.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1, 2012
So I thought I’d figured out the London tubes, the underground transportation system. I was quite impressed with myself. I’ve never been that good with directions. I rarely know when I’m traveling north, south, east or west in a car. Growing up in Indianapolis, fast-food joints were my compass everywhere. We lived two blocks from Burger Chef and a right turn at Pizza Hut would get me into Jeff George’s neighborhood.
London’s underground tubes aren’t lined with fast-food joints, which makes traveling here quite disorienting and unappealing.
Monday I got lost on the way to gymnastics. After spending the first four days here moving around on the tubes, Bill Reiter and Greg Couch convinced me the “javelin,” a high-speed train, was the real way to get around the city. The javelin is air-conditioned and much less crowded than the tubes. I love the javelin. Why in the hell Monday did I decide to get back on the tubes? It’s a hot-crowded-slow-moving mess on the tubes. By the time I made it to Stratford and Olympic Park, I was drenched in back sweat and it was raining on my forehead. Plus, I didn’t know I was supposed to ride the tube all the way to the site of the gymnastics event. I got off the tube and walked through the Westfield Mall and boarded the official Olympic media buses that take you to the main press center where you catch another bus to the event.
The last main press center bus for gymnastics left at 4:10 p.m. I arrived at 4:15 p.m.
The Fab Five would have to win the gold without me. I headed over to the FOXSports.com studio inside the Olympic Park to watch the gymnastics and swimming on TV. The FOXSports.com studio is just around the corner from a lovely Brazilian Barbecue joint.
This is a rather long buildup to say that I wound up at the USA-Tunisia men’s basketball game at 10 p.m.
When I was chilling at the studio, Reid Forgrave mentioned to me that Tunisia was the country that kicked off all of the political upheaval in the Middle East. Tunisia, a small Arab country in Northern Africa, staged a revolution in late 2010. The next thing you know, Hosni Mubarak is getting run out of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi is tossed out of Libya.
Upsetting LeBron and Kobe couldn’t be as difficult as overthrowing Mubarak and Gaddafi, could it?
Well, actually, yes, it is more difficult.
But really I didn’t come to see an upset. I went to the game because it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to Tunisia, and I wanted some sort of connection to the country and the people. For a sports fan, the Olympics is the most diverse experience of our life. We get to interact with athletes and journalists from all over the globe. It’s cool and enriching.
Last week, at the USA Swimming press conference, Michael Wilbon and I lamented the fact that fewer and fewer black sportswriters are getting the Olympic experience. Wilbon has covered every summer Olympics since 1980. This is my third Olympics.
As best I can tell, Houston’s Jerome Solomon, Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor, NBA.com’s Sekou Smith, Detroit’s John Niyo and the voice of black newspapers Leland Stein are the only brothers from the states writing about the Olympics. I may have missed someone. But I’ve been looking for a week.
Bill Rhoden and Bryan Burwell, experienced and influential voices, are not here. I’m shocked ESPN.com hasn’t sent Howard Bryant, one of the country’s most talented sports writers.
African-American athletes have a long tradition of playing major roles in the Olympics. It’s important that African-American journalists are here to provide perspective. We’re losing our voice.
“There were maybe only 10 of us in Beijing,” Leland Stein told me during the USA-Tunisia hoops game.
This is a complex issue. It can’t be reduced to screams of racism. The American newspaper industry has been gutted. Major newspapers used to send staffs to cover the Olympics. Now a newspaper is lucky to send one writer. A smart newspaper will send its most experienced, talented and versatile writer. That’s a difficult combination. Diversity of perspective has to take a backseat to the demand of sending the journalists most capable of churning out copy on a wide variety of topics. A lot of female writers qualify. They’re less likely to specialize in one particular sport. The Olympics has traditionally been an event that showcases women sports writers. London 2012 is no different.
But black sportswriters are losing their seats at the Olympic table. Wilbon told me this is his last Olympics.
National sports web sites are less concerned with diversity than local newspapers. The web sites aren’t swimming in profits the way newspapers were in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Web sites are in a fight for survival. Having said that, the power sports web sites -- FOX, ESPN, Yahoo -- have the freedom and wherewithal to diversify and cover the Olympics with complete writing staffs. Sports Illustrated can still properly staff the Olympics. So can USA Today.
Most other written media outlets are just trying to avoid embarrassment here at the Olympics.
Monday, July 30, 2012
I had the misfortune of growing up during the Australian Speedo Era, when young men swam virtually naked in the Olympics. The emotional scars left from this era are probably the primary reason I ignored Olympic swimming until these Games.
Seriously, if not for the Speedo Era, I’d probably be happily married to Janice Toth right now. My high school required swimming for graduation. No problem. As a kid, I loved to swim. But my otherwise illustrious high school, Indianapolis Warren Central, required that we wear school-issued, no-secrets Speedo trunks to swim class. And through some unfortunate twist of fate, in a school of nearly 3,000 students, the most beautiful girl on the east side of Indianapolis, my crush since 7th grade, got placed in my swim class.
Janice Toth never looked at me with the same twinkle in her eyes after the first time I climbed out of that cold water. I fell into a deep depression. After completing swim class, I swore off swimming for close to a decade. It brought back too many bad memories. Janice’s family moved to South Bend for her senior year of high school. Mutual friends gossiped that she, too, was traumatized by the disappointment.
If Australians never invent the Speedo in 1928 and Warren Central raises the temperature of its heated pool five or six degrees, Janice Toth and I are probably celebrating 20 years of marital bliss this summer in London.
I had no idea the Speedo era had ended. Olympic swimmers don’t wear the traditional suits anymore. They haven’t for a few years. This year they’re wearing trunks that could best be described as “boxer briefs.” I love boxer briefs! I’ve worn them for years.
Over breakfast last week, my FOX Sports colleague Amy Van Dyken explained to me about the now-outlawed full-body suits that led to all of those swimming records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The full-body suits made the swimmers float on water.
If things don’t quickly improve for Michael Phelps during these Olympics, you might start hearing serious discussion about the 2008 swimming results being tainted. History could be revised and Phelps might be regarded in some circles as Mark McGwire/Barry Bonds Lite. I’m not calling Phelps a cheater. He didn’t cheat. But maybe he’s the king of a tainted era.
Maybe it’s easier to swim in eight events when you’re floating on water?
Obviously I’m no swimming expert. I barely paid attention to the 2008 Games. The Olympics isn’t the place for serious journalism. Television has turned the Olympics into the place for hagiography, the study, worship and creation of saints. Television needs heroes and saints to drive ratings.
Michael Phelps is being hailed in some places as America’s “greatest Olympian.” ESPN.com rated Phelps No. 1 ahead of Jesse Owens. Phelps owns 14 Olympic gold medals. Owens owned just four.
I don’t want to denigrate Phelps‘ amazing accomplishments. He’s a true champion and legend. But the greatest? Maybe not.
Last week, I shared breakfast with Van Dyken (six swimming gold medals) and Maurice Greene (former 100-meter dash record holder and two gold medals) and we talked at length about the differences between swimming and track and field.
Amy helped me appreciate and understand the physical demands placed on a swimmer. As I listened to her describe her post-career physical ailments, you would’ve thought I was talking to a former NFL linebacker. Swimming is incredibly demanding and taxing on the body. Longtime swimmers have shoulder problems, back problems, hip problems, ankle problems, neck problems, etc.
We think of swimming as the activity to rehabilitate and heal from injuries. You hurt your knee playing football or basketball, you rehab in the pool. This mindset can lead you to believe swimming isn’t very demanding. That’s wrong.
But there’s just no way Maurice Greene, Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens could do eight different events in track and field and compete at the highest level. The 100-meter dash might only last 9.7 seconds but it’s such a violent and pounding experience it extracts energy like it’s 15 minutes of football.
Owens and Lewis won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200 meter, 4-by-100 relay and long jump in the 1936 and 1984 Olympics, respectively. That feat on the track is arguably more impressive than winning eight gold medals in the pool.
Swimming, in this current multi-discipline/event era, is akin to being a great decathlete. Michael Phelps is the Daley Thompson of swimming, which would easily make Phelps one of the 10 greatest U.S. Olympians of all time.
Saturday, July 27, 2012
My alarm rang at 6:30 a.m. Four hours of sleep was plenty. My plan was to be at the breakfast table by 7, meet Jen Engel at 8 and grab a seat at the real opening ceremony — Michael Phelps’ morning preliminary race in the 400 IM — by 9.
The beauty of the Olympics is that there’s little buildup once you get past the opening ceremony. There’s no touching of the gloves and a feeling-out process. Mr. Bean farts, the Queen polishes her nails, 204 nations parade, Paul McCartney croons, seven kids fire up the torch and — BOOM! — you fall asleep, wake up and Beijing’s Olympic hero is less than a bong hit from missing the 400 IM finals.
I’m glad I didn’t sleep in. Two decades as a sportswriter has taught me one thing: Don’t take any outcome for granted. Spit happens, especially at the Olympics.
So my plan is to be up early every day. Which really isn’t all that hard because for some freaking reason my body is having an incredibly difficult time adjusting to the eight-hour time difference between London and Los Angeles. Going to sleep at 2 a.m. — 6 p.m. LA time — was quite a struggle. Waking up some four hours later was rather easy.
I don’t get it. I was just in London three weeks ago and my mind and body had no problem with the clock. Four days into this Olympic trip and my body is malfunctioning.
Maybe it’s the food?
Saturday is my last day eating breakfast (I hope). We’re staying at the Doubletree Hilton, and my boss has scheduled a morning editorial meeting, complete with a breakfast buffet, the ultimate P90 Whitlock-killer.
At home, I’ve been eating oatmeal and/or a protein shake for breakfast. Here, it’s been four days of bacon, eggs and potatoes. Bacon in London is like a chicken leg-and-thigh quarter in the States. There’s a strip of crispy bacon attached to a fat piece of ham. Who knew? I’m not really big on ham, but Rule No. 1 of food is: everything tastes better with bacon. Farmers in the UK obviously figured out how to slice their pigs in a way to keep the bacon connected to the ham. Freaking brilliant! I bet pork sales in the UK double sales in the States.
Thankfully, Engel showed up to breakfast around 7:30 and insisted we leave for the main press center a little early. She wanted to stop at Starbucks for coffee before we hopped on the tube for Olympic Park. I only had two bacon-and-ham quarters.
Engel is only about 5-foot-3. But, like most white sportswriters, she walks at a 6-foot-5 pace. By the time we made it to the tube, I had a dash of sweat across my brow. By the time she led me up the three flights of stairs to the USOC office to pick up the media swimming tickets, I was in the process of pitting out. And I was pissed. Bill Hancock, the media liaison for the USOC — yep, BCS-defending Bill Hancock, my Kansas City homeboy, the man I will always defend for being right about college football’s regular season — wasn’t in his office when we arrived around 9. Ticket pickup wasn’t until 11 a.m. And the media only need tickets for the nighttime swimming events.
I had time for at least two more bacon-and-ham quarters!
Whatever, we were off to the aquatics center and the real opening ceremony.
I’ve covered two previous Olympics. The 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. I’ve watched Olympic swimming on television. In 1996, I never covered a swimming event live. I’m not anti-swimming. I’m not some brother who can’t swim. I’ve been swimming since I was a little kid. The apartment complex I grew up in had two outdoor pools and an indoor pool. My house in Kansas City has a pool.
It wasn’t until Saturday that I fully comprehended just how long 50 meters is in a pool. It’s no different from running 50 meters. But, damn, when you’re seated relatively high up inside an aquatics facility overlooking a pool, you get a whole new appreciation for a 50-meter pool. It’s a loooongggg way. I had some crazy image in my mind that my pool in KC was probably 25 meters long and that 16 trips the length of my pool was close to 400 meters. Ha! I have a hot tub in my backyard. Michael Phelps could dive from one end to the other without ever getting his hair wet.
The swimmers are incredibly graceful and elegant in the water. You can’t really appreciate their amazing athleticism watching on TV. You also can’t appreciate how loud and energized it gets inside the arena. These were the preliminaries and at times the arena sounded and felt like an NBA arena in the thick of a furious playoff rally.
Saturday night’s 400 IM final is going to be absolutely insane. I’m writing this journal in the hours before Phelps competes in the final. He was the last qualifier. He barely beat Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh for the final spot. Phelps is going to defend his title from the eighth lane. He’s likely never going to lay eyes on his American rival Ryan Lochte — who qualified with the third-fastest preliminary time — during the most-hyped Olympic race until sprinter Usain Bolt closes out these Games by trying to hold off his teammate, Yohan Blake, in the 100-meter dash.
The Olympics are off to an awesome start. I’ll keep you posted on my race against the bacon-and-ham quarters, too.