Friday, October 24, 2014

Eliud Kipchoge's press conference and how language humanizes us

A long time ago, Michael Hurt wrote that language humanizes us. The exact point he made was that speaking Korean in a situation where you are being harassed would earn you the sympathy of bystanders a lot more than speaking English, especially aggressively. I don't want to get into the rest of Hurt's article, but when I tried to imagine a situation where a Chinese immigrant on the Toronto subway was shouting for help in Chinese, I realized just how true it was that language humanizes us, even when we are not otherwise prejudiced against those who do not speak our language or share our culture. Having not seen what happened, all I would see would be someone shouting incoherently, not something that in and of itself would compel me to help.

It was this line in Hurt's post that led me to write online in Korean a few years ago. The decision was partly inspired by the feeling, really a form of paranoia or megalomania, present in English-language discussion of Korea, where opposition to foreign people and ideas are at the centre of Korean society, politics and daily life. In this explanation of Korea, Koreans act in response or in relation to foreigners. Education policy, for example, is supposedly manipulated by teachers unions who are threatened by the presence of Westerners in the school system, to create job cuts for those Westerners. It's almost as though people can't even imagine a world where their existence is insignificant to the mainstream of Korean society.

I wanted to write in Korean to humanize myself as a foreigner first and to access the vast Korean Internet second. As I wrote in Korean, I realized that while many Koreans have prejudices against foreigners, a phenomenon that is as annoying to quantify against Western countries as it is to try and settle whether Pele or Kobe Bryant would be better at track, foreigners simply didn't matter, for better or for worse. As I got over that and stopped using 'Korea' and 'Korean' as a modifier, I realized that language humanizes both ways. In my case, it helped to remove prejudices that I had. For the people who read my Tweets, it wasn't the case that I had suddenly become a person to them, but that my ideas had become accessible and part of their discourse instead of the English-language discourse in Korea that exists in parallel.

I was inspired to write this post by Eliud Kipchoge's press conference after winning the Chicago Marathon two weeks ago. I've been watching Kipchoge run for 11 years, ever since he won a gold medal at the 2003 world championships, but not only had I never heard him speak, my impression of him was formed entirely by his performance at the 2005 world championships. There, having won gold in 2003 and then bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kipchoge seemed, to me at least, to give up at the end of a race after it became clear that he wouldn't win (Craig Mottram out-leaned Kipchoge for the bronze). To me, Kipchoge was arrogant and sullen, caring only about winning.

That impression, created in a split second from essentially nothing, endured for almost a decade until the press conference Kipchoge in Chicago. LetsRun, which makes it a point to create personalities for stars, saw the interview, uploaded it and highlighted Kipchoge's answers. You need to watch the video, though, to notice that not only does Kipchoge give nice answers to questions like his advice for 5-hour marathoners, but that he looks as though he's enjoying the press conference. Most East African runners are quiet and subdued in their press conferences, which is why LetsRun tries to make stars out of the ones who aren't.

Listening to Kipchoge was an example, from another context and in the interaction of two different cultures, that speaking well in the target language makes you come alive in a way that speaking aggressively in a foreign language simply can't. This holds true for the person who needs help on a subway train, for all the English-language activism that aims to produce change in Korea, and for elite runners who win races in New York and Boston but generate less than one percent of the buzz generated by runners who are also-rans at best.

There has long been a perception that African runners are interchangeable, nameless East Africans who could be swapped out for each other without anyone noticing. In a sense, that's true, just as the winner of a local race could be swapped out for another skinny person without more than a handful of people noticing. That's because spectator sport is about a narrative and about stories, not performance in a vacuum. Performance is in fact secondary to narrative, which is created by knowing players and teams. Athletes, if we knew nothing about them, their histories or their tendencies, would be far less interesting. If they not only couldn't speak to us but didn't speak except for at most twice a year for a few minutes, they would be far less interesting.

This is the problem faced by running as a spectator sport, but it's also the problem faced by outsiders. They may also have a distorted perspective of those on the inside as was the case for myself, and they will often struggle to be fully-fledged human beings to those on the inside even in the absence of overt prejudice. For runners, a classic example of this difference is Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie. Two Ethiopian runners with roughly identical credentials, one is clearly more popular than the other. Bekele is something of a cipher for an athlete who was undefeated at his specialty event for almost a decade.

To bring the story back to Korea, most Westerners in Korea live a non-literate existence to some extent. The average Korean ability of people I meet seems to have improved, but I can still remember naming restaurants based on distinguishing features such as the colour of the sign (three of my favourite restaurants after first coming here were 'red', 'white' and 'yellow') and navigating bus routes by landmarks instead of the names of stops. This may or may not have changed, but I wouldn't be surprised to know that people still employ coping strategies for illiteracy such as using ATMs or websites by memorizing the correct sequence of buttons to press.

Life for such people would obviously improve if they spoke Korean because then they could go about their daily business much more easily, but it would also improve because they would understand the society around them and that they exist, insofar as they are foreigners, at its periphery, not at its centre. It's true that no amount of linguistic ability can overcome prejudice or preconceived notions, which is why learning a bit of Korean actually furthers the prejudicial ranting of some people, but reading a Korean newspaper or watching a Korean newscast would be an eye-opening experience for how little English teachers and even foreigners as a whole factor into the national conversation.

Monday, October 13, 2014

NBC's coverage of the Chicago Marathon was understandably terrible

NBC's coverage of the Chicago Marathon was awful in so many ways. To broadly characterize it, although the main broadcast was done by Ed Eyestone and Tony Reavis, with Greg Meyer and Joanie Benoit Samuelson following the men's and women's races respectively, the whole thing showed, once again, what's wrong with running as a spectator sport. As bad as NFL broadcasts can be, they at least are wrapped up in themselves, alternatively missing the forest or the trees for the other while committing linguistic atrocities as they go along. What routinely passes for coverage of running in mainstream media is inconceivable for another sport.

First, let's go over what made this broadcast so bad for those who either missed it or weren't paying attention. I suspect that we saw about 8-12 km of running total out of the 84 km of racing that took place. The coverage reminded me of sharing a TV with my brothers when, say, one person was watching a playoff hockey game while they other wanted regular updates on a regular-season baseball game. NBC showed the race go off, then cut away after a couple of minutes, showed the mile split and returned for a minute of every mile until 5k, after which it seemed to be a minute for every two mile until we were at around 23 miles. The women's race got about a third to one half of the coverage that the men's race got. There may have been one instance of a split-screen showing both races simultaneously, but I may have just imagined that.

So, what do you do when you're airing running's equivalent of a tennis grand slam but don't actually want to show anyone running? You interview everyone you can get your hands on, and get reporters to provide their unique insights on things that have nothing to do with running. And you show commercials. While watching, I loudly criticized Eyestone, Reavis and Meyers for mistakes such as Meyers repeatedly not being able to pronounce Kipchoge's name or Reavis' Joe Biden-like misspeaks, but those are really trivial, not unlike how football analysts say dozens of ridiculous things in every game.

What was infuriating were the dozen or so weather updates NBC aired showing what the temperature was at each mile marker, explaining and reiterating how the wind would be at the runners' backs at some times and in their faces at other times. There were the interviews. The lengthy interview with Steve Jones was not bad, but it's indicative of the fact that even a generation from now, the only elite runners the casual fan will be able to name will be people like Bill Rodgers. Was there not a more recent champion that could have been interviewed? Does Steve Jones have more name recognition or is he an easier interview as a Westerner? Or both?

Other interviews included people who had run aid stations, people who were standing at aid stations watching the race, and people who were involved with charities that supported the race. Particularly bad was an interview with a family who had been at the 2013 Boston Marathon, even though the video feed had just shown that Kenenisa Bekele had been dropped from the lead pack during the lengthy feature that just finished. A little bit after that, the weather reporter said that because "not much is happening" behind her, they could take another look at the weather. NBC showed pretty much all of the last three miles of the race, but chose to take a commercial break between 24 and 25 miles, which is when Eliud Kipchoge separated himself from Sammy Kitwara and Dickson Chumba.

The coverage was atrocious, but that a major marathon is televised and anyone around the world can watch it is a good state of affairs for track, considering that few non-championship track meets are televised. I have no idea how many people watch NBC in Chicago on a Sunday morning, but it might well have been the case that the number of people who watched even a portion of the telecast online exceeds the number of people watching it on a TV (I'm imagining both numbers in the tens of thousands and using the number of people who run marathons as a barometer).

NBC really isn't to blame because the number of people who care about how a race is shown is really small. Outside of the LetsRun bubble, knowing that the lead pack was not simply jogging despite appearances is on the knowledgeable end of the spectrum, knowing anything more really means you represent less than one percent of the one percent who would watch the race in the first place.

Although major marathons are increasingly and now absurdly popular, with both world records and Boston qualifying times slowly dropping, this hasn't really translated into anything beyond "2:02:57! Wow, that's fast!" in terms of an interest in running as a spectator sport. You can make improvements in how its presented, but I don't think it's ever going to change, not that the improbability is going to stop me from posts on media coverage of running.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Watching October baseball for the first time

Maybe it's the fact that I've gotten married or it's the fact that I teach university students, but I have chosen this year as the year to feel fully grown up. This probably explains posts such as this one, as I realize that things I saw as being in a state of flux when younger are actually in a state of permanence. Thanks to the prominence of Korean players such as Choo Shinsoo and Ryu Hyunjin, Major League Baseball is very popular in Korea and I come across live games, both in the regular season and now during the playoffs, simply by going out for lunch, as many restaurants here have TVs. The Korean league is also very popular in Korea, more popular than American baseball, and the result is that I see a great deal of baseball and hear a great deal of discussion about it.

I enjoy going to baseball games in Seoul, even though the stadium reminds me of a smaller version of Shea Stadium, heavy on concrete and light on anything else, something that is an architectural abomination until you consider that it was built in 1982, a time when Korea was a far, far poorer country. Compared to most other buildings from that time, Jamsil Baseball Stadium is quite nice, actually. The experience of going to a game is also fun, so I ended up going to a game last Saturday just because I happened to be going past the stadium.

It was a 5 pm start and as I realized that this was by far the coldest baseball game I had ever been to, I also realized that I was at a baseball game in October, albeit a regular season game. It's not that I would have never been to such a game in North America since I would have probably ended up at a game in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia or some other Northeastern city in conjunction with some race, road trip or football game. Still, if I hadn't moved to Seoul, I might not have seen a playoff game until I had kids who were older than I was the last time the Jays made it to the playoffs (parenthetically, I moved to Canada in 1994 and started watching baseball in 1995, so I have been waiting for the Jays to make the playoffs for as long as I have known pro sports).

The season that just finished marked the 20th consecutive season of playoff futility, 21 seasons if you consider that the 1994 team wouldn't have made the playoffs even if there hadn't been a strike. I remember a copy of the Jr. Jays magazine for kids sometime between the 1995 and 1996 seasons, that showed the Blue Jays promising to get back to the excellence of the past decade in order to commemorate their 20th season. As things stand now, the 21 consecutive years of futility are stacked against the 17 years from 1977-1993 when the Blue Jays were either on their way to winning or were winning.

To guard against disappointment, I refuse to believe that the Blue Jays will go anywhere until they actually clinch a playoff birth. Even if they stand in first place by a dozen games on Labour Day, I will believe that they will find a way to blow it, even though the story of this team is not really one of tragic collapses or unraveling as much as it is never quite being good enough, or even being close to being good enough.

October baseball goes against everything that baseball is about. The weather is cold and unlike in spring, it's winter that's around the corner, not summer. You don't want to linger as much as you want to stay warm and then get out as soon as possible. The games are also different. They are about performing in the short-term, not over the long-term. I always thought that sudden-death elimination games, or even a game 7, were unlike baseball because baseball doesn't really lend itself to the short-term, as obviously exciting as a single game of baseball might be.

On this night, powerhouse Nexen beat wild card-hopeful LG 6-2 in what could be a preview of the playoffs. I haven't seen much on the debate about the corporatization of pro sports that was prevalent in the 1990s when stadiums began to be named after companies, making me think that no one has issues anymore with the confluence of professional sports and big business, considering that professional sport is a big business to begin with. Still, I smile when I remember that most Korean professional sports teams are named after a large company, not a city, meaning that casual fans would struggle to remember just where a team plays.

In the American League playoffs, it was great to see the Royals not only make the playoffs but advance to the ALCS. I was impressed by the Washington Nationals 96-win season, even if they didn't go anywhere in the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Nationals' playoff appearance in 2012 was their first since 1981. Kansas City is making its first appearance since 1985. The Texas Rangers needed 36 seasons to make the playoffs for the first time. The Blue Jays' playoff drought could easily match or exceed these droughts, using the more popular Leafs as a template, and October baseball would remain something Torontonians see only in other cities.