Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Has running hit the wall or is it going strong?

Recently, I have seen a pair of contrasting posts about the state of the sport. Broadcaster Toni Reavis argues that, ironically, even though it is "going faster than ever, the sport of distance racing has hit its own wall". To wit, he points out the dwindling competitive fields at B-level road races in America, which are starting to move towards paying just a single headlining elite athlete to run, the slow death of World Cross, and the fact that many white runners are dropping out of the sport at its highest levels. Lukas Verzbicas' much-publicized move from triathlon to running is an example he notes of an athlete leaving the sport for another one.

Reavis might appear to be complaining about the fact that the dominance by a bunch of nameless Africans is killing the sport, but he's not. In a star-studded comment thread, Reavis writes that he does not want to "eliminate the East Africans. Instead let’s incorporate them into a larger competitive model. The question is, how and what?" While locals who could give interviews and didn't have ephemeral careers would be better for the sport, running is more than capable of doing this with things like the man-versus-woman competition at the Los Angeles Marathon. Anything is better than the current system of big city marathons with a dozen East African runners wearing the exact same clothing.

Peter Vigneron responds to Reavis by saying that the only way in which the sport is in trouble is financially:

But Reavis sees competitive running as a commodity. Or he must, because that is the only metric by which it is not wildly successful. Otherwise, things are humming along nicely: international competitive running has never been more competitive, American competitive distance running has never been more competitive, and more people are running and entering races in the United States than ever before.

I agree that running, in many ways, is doing really well, but the sport is slowly dying. It may well be that the sport is in the midst of a long, drawn-out downsizing from the popularity it enjoyed in the early-to-mid twentieth-century, and that eventually it will stabilize. However, it's clear that the sport could be doing a lot more to market itself because the results would be better: more money would mean more TV coverage, more and better competitions, and an elite circuit in places like Canada, America or the UK that's not necessarily tied to the performances of the absolute best in the world. Consider Japan, where it pays to be a 2:10 marathoner because of the value that talent has on domestic corporate teams.

I doubt there's much interest in this, though, because a great deal of the people who care about running are involved in it. It would be like asking high school and college football players to help save the NFL. Fans who watch the NFL might be inclined, but if everyone who watched the NFL was also a football player themselves, they might not be as fascinated by simply watching someone else play football. Running is not only participatory, but it fulfills a public health function, and the existence or absence of elite, professional distance running is irrelevant.

What is likely is that running will remain a niche sport to be enjoyed by those who competed seriously and those amateurs who have an interest in it. We will watch it on TV when the Olympics happen, and the rest of the time we'll settle for online feeds. Whether this starts to constrict the sport in ways beyond the elimination of 10,000-metre races remains to be seen, but running's participatory base and attractive financial incentives for East Africans will likely see it through the next generation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sohn Kee-chung and the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon

I can't say that I've ever run a race and seen Hitler on a big screen the size of my apartment, but there's a first time for everything, I suppose. Today I ran a 10k at the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon, named after the Korean runner who won the 1936 Olympic Marathon. Much as Jesse Owens is celebrated in part for his accomplishments at the Berlin Olympics, Sohn became a national hero after bowing his head at the medal ceremony to protest Japan's colonization of Korea. Sohn competed as a Japanese national under a Japanese name (Sohn Kitei).

The Dong-a Ilbo continued the protest by airbrushing the Japanese flag from Sohn's shirt at the medal ceremony, quite possibly the last independent thought from that venerable journalistic institution. This earned them a nine-month publication ban and caused eight people to be arrested. Sohn himself had a long career in sport as a coach and administrator, so the story does have a happy ending.

I love Sohn's story for a few reasons. The first is the obvious political significance, but Sohn is also a personification of one of my favourite things about running, namely that someone can go from obscurity and an even more obscure place to victory in a matter of minutes, or perhaps hours in this case. Sohn was able to do it coming from a poor, backwards corner of the world while running 2:29, but that it can happen today for people running 2:05 is a lesson in both sport and running.

Second, Sohn's enduring popularity speaks to the immense popularity that the marathon enjoys in Japan and Korea. We know that Japan cares about the marathon more than any country in the world, to the point that 284,000 largely domestic runners applied for 35,500 spots in the Tokyo Marathon. Compare that with about 140,000 applicants for the 47,000 spots in the New York Marathon, and similar numbers for the London Marathon. Korea is able to put together three world-class races in three weekends, with large fields trailing behind.

As for the race and Hitler, today's race started and finished at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul. The 10k ran out of the river and went west along the river, which meant it ran into the wind for 5k and then with it for the second half. After a stinker of a race last week at a race where I normally do very well, I thought I was still tired from the Chuncheon Marathon. While I ran everyday this week, I ran no more than 20 minutes at one time. I was fresher, and the crisp weather (just above zero?) helped.

I had a much better rhythm this time than last time, which is what I use to pace instead of what my watch tells me. My best this year is 40:54 and I was hoping to just beat that instead of getting a sub-40. I was slow at 5k in 20:46, but I had lots of energy and knew I'd get to run with the wind. I ran the next two kilometres relaxed (4:05, 4:05) before pushing hard at 7k (3:55, 4:00, 3:54). The second 5k was exactly 20:00 and the final time was 40:46. That was probably the best I've felt in a race all year. I'll take one last shot at a sub-40 this year in four weeks, but I'm really looking towards the spring now.

As for Hitler, a documentary on Sohn's life was playing on the screen in the stadium as runners finished. When I finished, I looked up and there was a scene of Hitler waving to the crowd at the Berlin Olympics. Much of the footage was quite interesting as the nexus of Korean nationalism, Japanese imperialism and Nazi Germany at the 1936 Olympics is not a topic that's been given a thorough treatment, at least in English.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What does the Korean government really think of the KORUS FTA?

Although a majority of Koreans support the KORUS FTA, the minority in opposition is very fierce in its opposition. Going by what I see on Twitter, I was actually surprised to learn that a clear majority is in favour of it, as I'd imagined it to be precisely the opposite. Nevertheless, to help bolster its image and to help reduce the opposition, the government has gone on an online charm offensive using Twitter and comics like the one below to make its case.

I was disgusted by this comic, which is crude and demagogic. It's the card that the government, which is being accused of selling out the country to foreign interests, has to play, however. Accused of being traitors, the government is assuring opponents of the FTA that rather than selling out Korea to American corporations, it is paving the way for a victory over America.

It's titled "Stop the FTA?". For some reason, when I save it and upload it to Blogger, it comes out in a lower resolution, so I had to link to the image from the government's website, which might eventually disappear. For posterity's sake, the illegible but stand-alone version is here.

The comic, set in the future after the ratification of the FTA, starts at the secret headquarters of a anti-Korean organization that not only hates Korea, but also Hallyu.

One villain asks the other how his spy mission went. He gushes that "Korea is like heaven!" He says that "the people were happy and full of life", before lamely launching into the government's talking points.

"These days, Korea's large and small businesses are selling more and cooperating well. Through the elimination of tariffs, exports have surpassed $140 million. Businesses are doing well and there are plenty of jobs. About 350,000 jobs have been created."

As the boss' face grows angrier and angrier, the henchman continues:

"The economy is growing at a rate of 5.66% and the people can't stop smiling. Foreign investment is up and the economic system is more advanced."

"Social spending is up to $32 billion and the standard of social welfare has improved."

The boss pounds his fists on the desk and shouts, "the KORUS FTA was that big of an opportunity for development?" The henchman stammers, "I guess so."

The boss grabs him and shouts, "were there any side-effects?"

"Farmers and fishermen were hit hard, but the government was prepared for it with subsidies, so there were almost no problems."

"My stomach hurts!" the boss groans. "I can't take it that Korea is doing so well. Let's go to Plan B."

The two get in the "Anti-Korean Time Machine" to go back in time and disrupt the KORUS FTA negotiations.

However, they end up back in the Joseon dynasty, where soldiers stare at the befuddled villains.

In the meantime, the comic concludes that "Koreans continued to live happily amidst abundance."

The villains, meanwhile, end up in some sort of space-time warp. "I'm jealous," sniffs the boss. "Can't we just move to Korea?" asks the henchman.

On the government website, there's only one comment on this comic. It says, "looks like the work of an elementary school student."

The comic is shockingly childish in its adversarial point-of-view and its claim that some vast anti-Korean conspiracy of foreign devils wants to see this country fail, starting first with the FTA.

I can't imagine the White House releasing anything near this slimy and it not being front-page news here. For comparison, when the New York Times wrote about plastic surgery in Korea a couple of weeks ago, it was front-page news on Daum.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is this the first victory for Occupy Wall Street?

Last week, labour activist Kim Jin-suk's 309-day sit-in on top of a crane at a Hanjin Heavy Industries near Busan came to an end (sappy Hankyoreh article, another piece by the Los Angeles Times). For almost a year, Kim had been the darling of the South Korean political left, turning the dismissal of workers at the factory into a hot topic on the Internet, thanks in part to heavy promotion by the actress Kim Yeo-jin.

Finally, an agreement was reached between the company and its workers that called for the dismissed workers to be rehired within a year. In a hardly surprising move, police have issued a warrant for her arrest. One of the ironies about this country is that although it is not exactly famous as a place where laws are obeyed to the letter, there are too many of them to obey.

The victory at Hanjin's plant in Gimhae is the culmination of an occupation that began this January and ended successfully. Its demands might have been overreaching and flat out unreasonable, I don't know whether they were or not, but it was a case of citizens triumphing over corporations. Rather than merely raising awareness, the post hoc justification for just about anything that people want to do in North America, I feel as though even the most baseless protests in Korea tend to have a demand.

The Occupy Wall Street protests might have achieved something somewhere, I'm sure, and the Hanjin sit-in was hardly the result of Occupy Wall Street, as Korean labour protests are ongoing and just as dramatic as this one. It's unclear, though, that Occupy Wall Street will do much more than bring the issues of economic inequality to the table, to be debated with varying degrees of honesty. I don't also know that Korean-style demands are necessary or beneficial for either the movement or society as a whole, but Kim's protest would have gone nowhere without a clear and firm demand.

That, along with the support of frustrated 20-somethings on Twitter who can't find a job and feel entitled to one, provided support for this occupation in a way that wouldn't be possible in other societies. Their sentiments, much like the Wall Street-inspired protests, are not without their merits, though both can give the impression of having a kernel of truth surrounded by the tasty white fluff we call popcorn.

South Korea would never be confused as a workers' paradise, but its highly-unionized, protectionist economy is not as backwards as it might seem at first. The looming FTA with America would open up some sectors of the economy to American products, which will undoubtedly mean lost jobs in some sectors although jobs will be gained in others.

I don't claim to know much about the FTA, which has naturally been protested as though it would bring about the apocalypse. While it's plain as day that doing business in Korea for foreign companies can be absurd, no matter what the latest "ease of doing business" rankings might spit out, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

A part of me thinks that the tariffs Korea puts on imports helps Koreans live better by protecting domestic companies. It is, essentially, a form of welfare that helps prop up inefficient companies and industries, but I don't see why it's a crime for a government to, in a limited capacity, support these businesses through arriers. I'm more than welcome to being proven wrong, but I don't think Korean protectionism is without its merits.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Watching the Patriots lose is still the best play in all of sport

For almost a decade now, I've been watching the Chargers lose and hoping that the Patriots lose. For a long time, the Chargers lost and the Patriots won. Now, the Patriots are losing, but so are the Chargers. It used to be that the Chargers were a phenomenally talented team that just couldn't get over the hump in the playoffs. Now they're a phenomenally talented team that can't get over the hump in any single game. That's how you have the best defense and the best offense in the league, as they did last year, but finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

This year, it's the 6th-best offense in the league and the 7th-best defense (both based on yards), and a middling 4-4 record to show for it, not to mention three straight losses. Last week, of course, was the snap debacle, the first time I've seen anything like it. This week, the Chargers made a game of it against the Packers after being down 45-24 in the fourth quarter, actually getting two chances to tie the game and getting as close as midfield.

Still, it's as frustrating as it ever was to watch the Chargers, who probably should have won a Super Bowl by now. After letting Marty Schottenheimer go all those years ago, Norv Turner's teams have had some amazing feats, which mostly centre around taking a supremely talented team, giving it a 1-4 record, and then seeing what it can do. Ladainian Tomlinson may have missed his chance for a ring, certainly his chance to do it as a star rather than a role player, but the Chargers' window probably isn't quite closed yet. But it will close, and I have a bad feeling that it will likely not include a Super Bowl.

On the other side of the United States, there were the Patriots playing the Giants in what was one of the worst-played games I've seen. Really, it belonged with last week's clinic on how to screw up a football game, because it featured so many dropped or bobbled snaps, dropped kicks and general incompetence, that I often thought I was watching replays.

As the Patriots dynasty fades, it's important for those of us who despise this team to remember that Super Bowl championships don't come from your record in a 16-game season, but how and who you play in three or four playoff games. Still, at 5-3, with consecutive years of home playoff losses that really weren't all that close, I'm starting to breathe easier and easier. The hurricane of fawning adulation, which I feel is controlled by Peter King, is already starting to centre on Aaron Rodgers, though I feel like it could change.

Both the Patriots-Giants and Packers-Chargers games were exciting, as was the Ravens-Steelers game, where I thought the Ravens were going to cruise to an easy win with a 16-6 lead, but had to overcome a Steelers comeback to win 23-20. That last drive led by Joe Flacco might have been the strongest moment for the Ravens offense in 11 years, and it could make them a more legitimate playoff threat.

As amazing of a game as it was, what was mystifying was this comment that Peter King featured in his weekly column from somebody he calls a friend, and what he unflinchingly called his Text Message of the Week:

"I want to die. This feeling feels like death. Nothing else can describe this. The pain is that bad.''
-- Pittsburgh Phil, Phil Gennaro, a friend of mine and a 41-year-old claims adjuster from Monroeville, east of Pittsburgh, leaving Heinz Field early this morning. He went on to text that today "will be miserable. I will have to deal with angry people, all because of this game.''

It's disturbing that a gainfully employed adult could feel this way about a football game. It's one thing to take sports seriously, even too seriously, and another to say this. For a city to have its mood change so drastically after a loss, as Gennaro claims, is almost equally disturbing. It's enough to make me think about no longer watching sports.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Left, right and Naggomsu in South Korea

Sonia wrote here that, "If I were to vote in South Korea, I’d vote conservative. Liberals here scare me." I'm personally not a big fan of voting, which is not something you should admit often because the prevailing orthodoxy is for everyone to vote regardless of their opinions or beliefs. At any rate, I share Sonia's distaste for the South Korean left, though I don't know that Na Gyungwon is better than Park Wonsoon (it's like comparing Cheez Whiz to Snuggies).

In my mind, the merits of Korea's right and left can be distilled to the faceoff you might see at a protest. On the one hand, riot police make Seoul feel like central Beijing, deem protests illegal on whims and have often been accused of brutality. On the other hand, the people you see at protests believe(d?) that American beef, the beef that hundreds of millions of Americans eat every day, could kill them at any second. They attack police and generally spare no excess or hyperbole.

These same people, if you were to vote for them in the next election, are currently holding up the KORUS FTA with threats of violence. If the GNP, which has a majority in the Assembly, tries to use that majority to pass a bill that opposition parties initiated, the opposition parties will retaliate with violence in the Assembly. It's not the case that the GNP hasn't been involved in violence, or that the GNP hasn't tried to investigate a novelist who dared to bring the plight of sexually abused children to the mainstream. Clearly, both parties are not without fault.

So, enter the darling of Korean politics these days, its very own equivalent of the Daily Show, 나는꼼수다 (I am a Weasel). It got coverage in the New York Times, finally, bringing attention to something that would have never otherwise gotten attention in the English-language press.

That 나꼼수 is a podcast rather than a TV show tells you something. If the Daily Show was a podcast because it was too controversial to make fun of politicians on TV, you would have a sense of where things stand in politics here. Not too long ago, a Twitter account with a username that translated to "fuck Lee Myung-bak" (@2mb18noma) was banned by the Korea Communications Commission, though the ban was eventually overturned.

It's very easy to feel hatred for the paternalistic, condescending conservative establishment, which brings you the crappy news you see here, here and here. The quality of news in English is so atrocious, two parts PR for one part news, that I don't think it can be considered legitimate journalism, and I cringe whenever I see anyone citing news from an English-language news source in Korea. However, the Korean-language news is not much better.

From an editorial written in the Joongang Ilbo about 나꼼수, Kim Jin-gook wrote that the podcast "blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction, commentary and comedy", and argued that the traditional media iss fairer. This leads me to wonder if Kim has ever actually read his own paper.

Some of the high-quality journalism you can find on the front page of the Joongang Ilbo:

The top story is some guy's online petition for the release of Park Chu-young
Two women explain how to get a Korean boyfriend
Woman takes pictures of herself everyday for 5 years
Baseball player Lee Seung-yeob's wife "as pretty as ever"
Indian students have a Korean speech contest in New Delhi

Now for the English edition:

Shinee to hold concert in London
K-pop to land in South America
Star chefs get a taste of Korea in Jeonju
An unpaid advertisement from Amore Pacific

Yes, Mr. Kim, it's awful to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, commentary and comedy.

To be honest, neither Naggomsu nor the politcal left are a silver bullet for the problems of a conservative establishment, as this quote from the New York Times article shows:

For their latest recording, the team invited Kim Yong-ok, a philosopher who called Mr. Lee “a tragedy for our nation” and South Korea “an effective colony of the United States.” The show replayed an audio clip in which the philosopher said he was “not convinced even 0.0001 percent” when the government announced last year that the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack.

On the Internet, no paranoid fantasy is spared by anti-FTA activists. I can't say that I have a particularly strong opinion about the FTA, but I don't like to see someone lie at the top of their lungs. These banners at Daehanmun in front of Deoksugung are an example:

The banner on the top, from the Democratic Labor Party, says that they oppose the Grand National Party forcing through the FTA, rich words considering that: 1) the GNP has a majority 2) about 58% of people support the FTA 3) the DLP will use violence to stop the bill.

The one on the bottom claims that the FTA will lead people to their deaths.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

What's in a poppy?

At the Canadian embassy yesterday, I paid 500 Korean won and picked up a poppy. The first thing I noticed was that I'm still abysmal at putting one on and keeping it there, though the poppy I have seems to have made it almost twenty-four hours now without incident. Wearing a poppy is the sort of serious cultural tradition, a convention or orthodoxy in the sense of being what everyone else does, that made me slightly uncomfortable as a child, no matter what the situation was.

In elementary school, there was an assembly every November 11 for Remembrance Day and teachers handed out the red poppies for us to wear. There was a time, I felt, when schools had veterans attend ceremonies, though that seemed to have stopped by the time I got to high school for reasons I don't understand. Wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day was the one day a year in elementary school, and even to an extent in middle school, that I felt I was in someone else's house.

It might be Canada's greatest asset that somebody who has lived there for even a few years can feel as though they belong, not necessarily because there's nothing to which to belong, but that Canadians make others feel welcome and accepted, almost to a fault. With 300,000 people moving to Canada every year (the equivalent of 3 milion new Americans each year), it might be a reflex that's necessary for helping society function.

The Korean experience, if due to nothing but appearance, is very different. That said, it took the presence of thousands and millions before me to make my presence seem ordinary. Korea may well get to that point one day, but it's certainly not there yet. I'm not sure what the Korean equivalent of the poppy would be, but it might be that an immigrant to Korea could sing the national anthem and feel as though it meant something, though I don't know how anyone, Korean or otherwise, feels about the national anthem.

What gave the poppy almost an exclusionary air to me, hardly a negative one, was that it was a reminder of Canada's British heritage. I could have seen myself as Canadian, but bringing in a history that I didn't really share (my great-grandfather did serve in World War I) made things different from the usual fare in the classroom. That British heritage is something I think we should be proud of, but it is also not entirely ours. My grandparents and great-grandparents never wore jeans, but I do. Similarly, the current retrograde movement by the federal government towards a monarchist stance is baffling: why express pride in your country by obsessing over the queen of another country?

On and around Remembrance Day, there is no shortage of people serving up tributes to soldiers, some of them thoughtful and deserved, others verging on melodramatic and the product of emotional insecurities. The lesson today from the deaths of 67,000 Canadians in World War I, representing almost one out of every 100 Canadians, ought not just to be the usual lines about remembering their sacrifices, but also that of a country punching well above its weight.