Monday, April 23, 2012

Did Athletics Canada's tough standards help create Canada's marathoning resurgence?

When Rob Watson ran 2:13 at Rotterdam last weekend and missed the Canadian Olympic standard, it was obviously disappointing to him, but it put the exclamation point on Canada's marathoning resurgence. Canada is by no means a powerhouse just yet, but the first step towards becoming competitive internationally is to become competitive with the past, the past being a 2:09 national record that is decades old.

In 2007, exactly three Canadians ran faster than 2:20, with the fastest marathon being Danny Kassap's 2:17. The next year, Jon Brown ran 2:12, Kassap and Dylan Wykes both ran 2:15, and domestically a handful of Canadians ran between 2:16 and 2:18, itself a remarkable accomplishment considering how rare performances of even this calibre had become.

The next year was technically a step back, as no one ran faster then Reid Coolsaet's 2:16, matched by Andrew Smith, with Dylan Wykes running 2:18. The most important part of the revival was the decision to move to the marathon by Coolseat because the standard was so low. The soft 2:18 standard, instead of the tougher 2:11 that is usually in effect, enticed Coolsaet to run a marathon off of sub-optimal training.

Similar to how America once sent anybody who could break 2:18 to major championships, this did have the effect of bringing people into marathoning, but it's possible that without the tough 2:11 standard, Canada might just have a bunch of people running around 2:14 or 2:15. Instead, Coolsaet ran 2:11 the next year, with Wykes and Eric Gillis both running 2:12.

Then, last year, Coolsaet ran 2:10, Gillis ran 2:11, Wykes ran 2:12, Matt Loiselle and Watson ran 2:16, and Rejean Chiasson ran 2:17. This meant five people had run faster than 2:17 where almost nobody had done that for years in the past. Coolseat, Gillis and Wykes taking multiple cracks at the supposedly too tough standard has transformed marathoning in Canada. All this happened while the man who might well be Canada's most talented marathoner, Simon Bairu, has failed to finish a marathon.

If it was my decision to make, I would send anybody who could run under the standards of the event. I have to admit, though, that forcing people to chase a very tough standard has paid off nicely years down the road. On the other hand, Coolsaet and the others who went to Berlin in 2009 would never have gotten that chance if not for the opportunity offered by the low-hanging fruit of the 2:18 standard.

The next group of Canadian marathoners ought to look at sub-2:10 as the standard to chase for the 2016 Olympics, and to pray for a hot day. We've seen many times how a smart runner in even 2:07 shape can get a medal in adverse conditions, assuming that he prepared for the conditions and raced accordingly.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The NFL and The Hunger Games

Andrew Sullivan has been likening the NFL to Big Tobacco, an enterprise that millions enjoy but appears to be unhealthy, even lethal, to participants. The analogy is not a perfect one, but if you watch The Hunger Games, we can see that the analogy both holds some water while not necessarily proving the NFL to be a lethal enterprise.

Two years ago, I read Peter Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, in which Mlodinow demonstrates how we have far less control over life than we think we do, but also how we misunderstand statistics. The relevant example from the book is the lottery. Mldinow refers to state lotteries in America, but this would be true in many places: the lottery effectively kills one person while rewarding another with a large cash prize. The number of extra car trips generated by the purchase of state lottery tickets means that one person will die as a result.

In The Hunger Games, too, there is a weeks-long sporting event that completely rivets society for its duration while killing 23 people for their entertainment. The NFL doesn't quite kill people with such immediacy, but I think it's not absurd to say that 23 (if not more) out of the 2,000 or so players involved in professional football will die an early death. Technically, the Hunger Games kills people every year, while there probably aren't 2,000 new NFL players every year, so the Hunger Games are more lethal on balance, but you already knew that to begin with.

While it's true that the NFL can be seen as people killed for the entertainment of others, it's really not without precedent or equivalent. Even if we leave out the fact that the NFL enriches its participants tremendously, paying them wages over a career that it would take the average person decades if not a lifetime to earn, we have the example of lottery tickets, where one person's riches all but entails the death of another.

Concern for the health of the players and the athletes we profess to admire is necessary, and I think fans should be cognizant of how dangerous the game has become. Still, in the quest to make football safer, our voice is weak if it is even existent in the first place, far overshadowed by that the of the medical profession, the league, the players and their union.

While the concern is incumbent on our part, it is not true that we should feel guilty for watching the game. It'll be a long time before somebody can convince me that I should feel guilt for the seven hours I spent one Sunday afternoon and evening watching the Patriots, Ravens, Giants and 49ers play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, particularly since everyone involved is a grown adult.

So, the NFL is not quite The Hunger Games, but not without its own lethal aspects that require our attention. As for the movie, it is worth watching as a sports fan for the way it parodies, quite skillfully, the hype machine of gobbledygook that accompanies virtually any significant sporting event around the world, or even the idea of sport as a spectator event itself.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Is the problem with multiculturalism or is it with immigration policy?

People who comment on newspaper articles, to focus on them once again, seem to be universally opposed to multiculturalism. I don't know how you define the word, to be honest, and neither are the people who oppose it, though I suspect that their opposition is informed less by what multiculturalism actually is and more by their opposition to decades of being told to support multiculturalism lest they be branded a racist.

Much was made of Europe's admission that multiculturalism has failed, with Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy all saying so over the past year and change. Before we pronounce it dead, let's talk about what exactly has failed. Has immigration failed or has having multiple cultures in one state failed? It's easy to say why multiculturalism has failed in Germany, especially if the experience of Turks is any guide.

Millions of Turks were brought over as guest workers but, by and large, denied citizenship. People who tenuously kept one foot in Turkey and one in Germany were never going to fully become German by learning the language, culture or taking any steps to build a permanent future in Germany. Living precariously, they turned Turkish enclaves in Germany into a retrograde version of Germany, becoming more conservative than Turks in Turkey.

So what exactly failed in Germany? The failure is one of immigration policy than the inability of people from different backgrounds to coexist. Many of the problems that result from bungled immigration or domestic policy become ascribed to multiculturalism. For example, why is it that so many people who immigrate to Canada from India are truck drivers or factory workers? Is it that they are uneducated morons? Canada, on one hand, excels at letting people enter the country in large numbers, but simultaneously consigns them to low-paying employment by rendering their home-country education and experience essentially worthless.

Multiculturalism is a failure to the extent that you define it. Is multiculturalism a failure when nobody respects the queen anymore? Is it a failure when we take the Lord's Prayer out of schools? Is it a failure when kids of immigrants end up doing drugs and unemployed? Deciding what counts as a failure or a success is not that simple.

You will often find that the Chinese-born doctors and Indian-born lawyers we embrace as the successes of Canadian multiculturalism are the sons and daughters of factory workers and maids, who in turn sponsored their own elderly parents, the parents in question having never worked a day in Canada or learned a word of English. If being who doesn't make a lot of money is a failure, then isn't much of the country itself a failure? If multiculturalism in America is a failure because Mexicans are poor, then is white America a failure because it makes less than Asian America?

I will concede that much of what is said about multiculturalism is nonsense. Toronto's motto, diversity our strength, has always struck me as bizarre. Toronto is remarkable for taking people from around the world and integrating them into the city, but somehow I suspect that if the city was 50% Punjabi-speaking Sikh and 50% Cantonese-speaking from Guangdong, many would find it just as diverse as ever. Diversity, so often, is just another word for not white.

At any rate, what is not a problem of neither immigration nor multiculturalism are the small emotional problems of the old guard, things like pressing 1 to speak in English in a country with no official language, or the resentment at seeing old people in turbans because it represents an erosion of tradition.

So much of what we consider tradition, whether it's in Pakistan, Canada or Korea, is arbitrarily determined. My mother always tells me to speak more Urdu so that I can teach it to my children, but I suspect that hers is the only generation in my family to ever speak Urdu at home. Korea, somewhere along the line, decided that dressing up like a person from 200 years ago, but no more and no less, was traditional. In the West, many of our traditions, from the way people talk in movies set 100 or 1,000 years in the past to our weddings to our holidays, date to the nineteenth century.

Somewhere along the line, we jettisoned the traditions we had to get the traditions we have now. Many of our traditions are great, but others are just things that we've done for a long time and parting with them makes people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Personally, I have no problem with an area landmark being razed for a Sikh temple, when that landmark itself displaced a far duller landmark from a century ago, and so on.

Canada is about to change its immigration policy to one that centres on employers instead of the government. It's hard to predict both what the final system will look like and how well it will work, but it's likely to be superior to the old system of awarding points for degrees and experience that nobody cared about.

The government, which, let's face it, finds its core support in an older and whiter Canada, also took shots at its bogeymen: women wearing niqabs and people who don't believe in "Canadian – read broadly, western liberal democratic – values". That's all well and good, but like the gong show that is airport security, the immigration or citizenship process is not the time to educate people about values. Of course, immigration minister Jason Kenney knows that, he's trying to impress the people who are already here.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Brutal murder in Suwon, police incompetence and online comments

Last Sunday, a woman was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Suwon, not far from my house. What made the crime especially tragic was that the woman was able to call the police and tell them of her location, not far from Jidong Elementary School. Despite knowing this, it took the police 13 hours to find the right house, by which time she had been killed and dismembered.

The police came under fire for their bungling of the 911 call, in which they repeatedly asked the woman to confirm her location, and then asked questions like "do you know who he is?" As the Joongang Ilbo points out, the 112 operator not only wasted time asking stupid questions, but also didn't ask questions like "how far from the school are you" or "what signs did you see around the neighbourhood?"

It's also worth noting the role of neighbours in this, who at one point heard the woman begging for her life from the murder and didn't even bother calling the police, telling the Chosun Ilbo that they thought it was just a fight between a couple. For all the rage that has been directed at the police, some ought to be directed at neighbours. I think it's safe to say that indifference to others is a significant social problem, explaining everything from driving to why meetings between strangers are so awkward.

The fallout has been swift, at least, with the officers in charge of the investigation suspended and an inquiry underway into just how this could happen. The failure of public institutions just when you need them was the subject of this Tweet:

"The cops won't come if you get raped, the Human Rights Commission is silent when the government illegally spies on its people, the prosecutor does nothing with proof of a crime, and the Election Commission isn't there when you're looking for the voting booth. Right now, all we have are (President) Lee Myung-bak, his brothers and their interests. Is this supposed to be a 21st-century democracy?"

A less eloquent but sadly no less popular form of online comment was found here, in response to this article documenting the anti-immigrant sentiment over the past week, the murder in Suwon having been committed by an ethnic Korean from China, and the media never failed to mention the fact that the killer is Chinese.

That a news article got nothing but vile comments isn't really much of a surprise, but I think it's shocking to look at what the most popular comments are. Most of the top 10 or 20 comments are brutally racist, with about a 20:1 ratio of 'agree's to 'disagree's.

1. Deport all the Joseonjok (ethnic Koreans from China). (61 in favour, 4 opposed)

2. Koreans aren't free to walk around where they can't. Foreign languages are scary, so the police have given up in [the immigrant-heavy city of] Ansan. (59 in favour, 4 opposed)

3. What the hell are you talking about? All this time we've been talking about what Joseonjok really are, but they're nothing but foreigners who came here to earn money. They're just money-grubbing insects. Do we have to die just so they can work some dead-end jobs? Who cares what they are? Kick them all out. (47 in favour, 3 opposed)

4. Round up all the migrant workers and illegal immigrants and kick them out. Don't forget all the singers and actors who come from the West, like that bastard Tablo. Kick them out, too. (45 in favour, 9 opposed)

5. Oh my God, he cut off the nipple and ate it? I'm not anti-Chinese, but whenever something bad happens, it's from China. (41 in favour, 2 opposed)

6. Multiculturalism has given us nothing but problems. Sort out these migrant workers! (38 in favour, 2 opposed)

7. If the victim had ordered food for delivery, they would have found her faster. (38 in favour, 1 opposed)

8. Listen up, you fuckers from the migrant worker community centre. The rest of this is unintelligible to me for how badly it's written, so I'll just post the original Korean:

.자국민의범죄가높다고..그래그래도거이검거되지안니?한국범죄검거율존나게높은나라인데.우리나라처럼새벽에혼자돌아다닐수잇는나라가몇업다는건아냐.ㅡㅡ근데외노들이들어오면ㅋㄱ지문도안찍어.불체자되서범죄저지르면신분확인할길이없지..ㅡㅡ미친,,호구들아.다문화이거폐지해야된다.괜히스ㅞ덴독을같은선진국들이다문화실패한정책이라하겟냐 (31 in favour, 2 opposed)

9. 다문화좋아하고자빠졌네. 역사와민족성을 프라이드인 한국인한테 다문화라니 국어도 모르냐? 문화건 잡화건 다 뒤썩자는 게소리지. 도대체 어떤놈이 다문화조잘대고 돌아다니냐. 다문화는 역사가 200년밖에 안된 미쿡에 들어온 온갖이민자들이 뒤섞이며 만들어낸 문화야. 무식한 쉐리들. 미쿡은 아직까지도 이민자들하고 인종,문화차별 전쟁 중이야. 더군다나 우리나라 외국근로자는 95%이상이 저임금 일용직 이딴 노동자들뿐인데 이게 글로벌시대냐? 글로발 노가다판이지. 우리도 통장에 돈없으면 들어오지못하게하고 지문찍고 그래야한다. 완전 글로발 노가다 범죄판 (29 in favour, 1 opposed)

10. Deport all the illegal immigrants. (28 in favour, 1 opposed)

11. The crime rate for non-Koreans is lower than the crime rate for Koreans? Two percent of the population is foreign, but they commit 10% of the crimes. That's five times higher than the crime rate for Koreans. Why would you endanger your own citizens by bringing in dangerous foreigners? (24 in favour, 2 opposed)