August 26, 2008

The Old Ball Game

When it comes to bone-crunching existential agony, nothing beats being a Chicago Cubs fan. Someday, though, maybe we Nationals fans will feel the same way:
As Nats fans are now discovering, baseball pain is different than football pain, as of course baseball is different than football. Yes, I remember Mel Gray's phantom catch in the St. Louis end zone 30-odd years ago and how the ache of that lasted -- why, it must have lasted at least until the following Sunday! Because football is so spectacular and overwrought and explosive and so weekly, you get a few days of recovery and then you're suckered into the buildup for next Sunday. Baseball just goes on and on and on and on, grinding you to nothingness.
The key, however, isn't simply that your baseball team is bad; it's that it arrives at the cusp of winning, and then blows it. This is what gives the Cubs, and until 2004 the Red Sox, their poignancy. The Nats have to pick themselves up off the doormat of the National League, get close to winning their division or the NL pennant or even the World Series, and then crumple and burn like a paper lantern. And they have to do it again. And again. And again. Then we fans will be hurtin'.

August 14, 2008

"Nous Sommes Tous Georgiens"?

After 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline, "Nous sommes tous Americains," or "We are all Americans." It was an appropriate thing to say at the time, I think, as it demonstrated that the French, along with most of the world then, were united in condemning al-Qaeda's butchery. It also alluded to the US and France's membership in NATO, and in particular to the clause in the North Atlantic Treaty that regards an attack on one member country as an attack on all. In other words, the French, along with the other NATO members, would back up their condemnation with armed force against those responsible. And sure enough, that clause was invoked to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan.

Suffice to say, John McCain's recent declaration, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, that "We are all Georgians," does not have the same resonance. Indeed, by echoing that Le Monde headline, McCain seems to be trying to call up the same sense of solidarity that the West felt after 9/11. But in fact Georgia and the US do not share the bonds of mutual defense that the members of NATO do: there is no Georgian-American pact to this effect, and in fact there is little to connect Georgia and the US beyond a history of emnity with Russia. As shocking as Russia's actions have been (though Georgia is not innocent either), implying that Americans are bound in some sense to come to Georgia's aid against Russian agression would be to invent a new relationship between the two countries -- to say nothing of the potential of putting Russia and the US in direct conflict. This is not something, I think, a presidential candidate should be doing so blithely, as McCain seems to be.

August 8, 2008

Contrarian Thoughts on the Olympics

With the Beijing games now underway, I'd like to make my usual argument that the Olympics, for all its pomp and pretension, isn't terribly interesting and, more to the point, doesn't live up to its professed goal of fostering international cooperation through sport. Oh sure, there have been plenty of awesome moments in Olympic history, and I like seeing events like swimming as much as the next person, but I find the sheer volume of different events daunting; by the time we've gotten through all the events both major (gymnastics, track and field) and minor (kayaking, badminton) I don't really see any resolution or payoff, other than by looking at the medal count. And on that score, Megan McArdle is right: The United States' overwhelming numbers make it far more likely to win, and win in more events. (See this map for illustration.) Then of course there's the fact that the Olympics has for most of its history been a proxy for great power conflicts, from the rise of the Third Reich to the Cold War to the current contretemps between China and the West. Rather than present an ideal of international brotherhood, the Olympics has more often functioned as a mirror of international strife.

By contrast, the World Cup hits much closer to the mark: For starters, soccer is already the default pastime of most of the world, and perhaps the premiere example of globalization, in all senses of that word. By being focused on one rather than many events, there's not only greater continuity to the World Cup, there's also a more level playing field: smaller and less prosperous countries have the potential to knock off larger and wealthier rivals, and also have a more plausible shot at the championship, rather than a medal count they will almost certainly never win. A goal of international sports should be to upset the traditional concentrations of power in the world, and in that respect FIFA does a much better job than the IOC. (Though in practice, the World Cup has historically been dominated by just a few countries: France, England, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Uruguay, and Argentina. But hey, that's hardly your traditional mix of countries.) If nothing else, the conspicuous absence of the United States in most World Cups provides a vision of a flattened world that Thomas Friedman can only dream of. That, I think, will change: Soccer's popularity in the US has grown by leaps and bounds, which means the level of talent in American soccer teams will only improve, and American interest in soccer abroad will increase as well. After all, as Steve Gilliard used to say, it is the beautiful game.