Wednesday, April 30, 2008

bike sharing in the U.S.--it's a start


it's happening.

and it's about time.

i've written about bike-sharing programs before (reference: velib: la bicyclette parisien). at that time, i pointed out that the french introduction of a bike-sharing program wasn't really anything new, since there were already existing (and effective) programs in other cities in Europe, particularly places like Barcelona, Berlin, and Copenhagen, and to a lesser degree Amsterdam (where the service was found not so high in demand, possibly because the city is already a bike-intensive culture with people owning and using their own bikes).

i lamented in the previous post that this concept wasn't more prevalent, particularly in the U.S.,--for all kinds of various reasons (distances too great, not enough bike paths, absent bike culture, intensive car culture, etc.).

well, it appears that the first attempt at this is now happening in Washington, D.C. it's called SmartBike DC. the website is:

check out the news article written about it:

if the link doesn't work the full text of the article is below.

i should note that there are bike sharing programs in some cities in the U.S. i know of programs in Boston and Portland. but to me, i don't see these as having the same level of mass usage or mass deployment that's being given to this effort in D.C. the bike sharing programs before this attempt seemed to me to be a bit...marginalized. i mean that in the sense that they weren't really perceived, much less adopted, by mainstream citizens, but instead were viewed as something verging on "hippie-ish" or "left-wing" or "radical" or just plain "weird" or even (to the polarized ideologues among us) "socialist" or "communist" or whatever hated-political-invective-label-of-choice seemed appropriate. it didn't help that some of these programs come across as subsidized public services, meaning that they're not entirely stand-alone entities independent of donations or (and much worse) public monies (read: taxes).

this Washington program, in contrast, seems to be aimed at more mainstream consumers in a major "non-hippie-ish" city. and better yet, it's being promoted in a way that is economically competitive, and hence not reliant on the good will in donations or taxes of citizens (which is asking a lot of citizens, especially in tough economic times).

here's to hoping SmartBike DC works. it sure would help the cause of promoting bike usage, and all the attendant benefits to public health, traffic, and the environment.

Bicycle-sharing program to make its U.S. debut
By Bernie Becker International Herald Tribune April 27, 2008

Starting next month, people here will be able to borrow a bicycle anytime they need one with the swipe of a membership card.

A new public-private venture called SmartBike DC will make 120 bicycles available at 10 spots in central locations in the city. The automated program, which district officials say is the first of its kind in the nation, will operate in a similar fashion to car-sharing programs like Zipcar.

The district has partnered with an advertiser, Clear Channel Outdoor, to put the bikes on the streets.

"There's a lot of stress on our transit systems currently," said Jim Sebastian, who manages bicycle and pedestrian programs for Washington's Transportation Department. Offering another option, he said, "will help us reduce congestion and pollution," as well as parking problems.

In the deal, Clear Channel will have exclusive advertising rights in the city's bus shelters. The company has reached a similar deal with San Francisco, and Chicago and Portland, Oregon, are considering proposals.

For a $40 annual membership fee, SmartBike users can check out three-speed bicycles for three hours at a time. The program will not provide helmets but does encourage their use.

Similar programs have proved successful in Europe. The Vélib program in Paris and Bicing in Barcelona both started around a year ago and already offer thousands of bicycles.

Sebastian, who started trying to bring bike-sharing to Washington even before its success in Paris and Barcelona, said that he believed that the program could grow within a year and that he hoped it would eventually offer 1,000 bicycles.

Although automated bike-sharing programs are new to the United States, the idea of bike-sharing is hardly novel. Milan, Amsterdam and Portland have all had lower-tech free bike-sharing programs in the past, with Amsterdam's dating to the 1960s.

But "studies showed that many bikes would get stolen in a day or within a few weeks," said Paul DeMaio, a Washington-area bike-sharing consultant. "In Amsterdam, they would often find them in the canals."

Improved technology allows programs to better protect bicycles. In Washington, SmartBike subscribers who keep bicycles longer than the three-hour maximum would receive demerits and could eventually lose renting privileges. Bicycles gone for more than 48 hours would be deemed lost, with the last user charged a $200 replacement fee.

That technology comes with a price, which is one reason cities and advertisers have started joining forces to offer bike-sharing. The European programs would cost cities about $4,500 per bike if sponsors did not step in, DeMaio said.

Cities realize "they literally have to spend no money on designing, marketing or maintaining" a bike-sharing program, said Martina Schmidt of Clear Channel Outdoor. Washington will keep the revenue generated by the program.

Bike-sharing has become a "public service subsidized by advertising," said Bernard Parisot, president and co-chief executive of JCDecaux North America, an outdoor advertiser that made a proposal to bring bike-sharing to Chicago.

But, Parisot added, if users had to pay all of the costs for bike-sharing, "they would probably just take a cab."

The low cost could be one of the program's major selling points.

At George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, one of the program's 10 locations, students were unsure how often they would use SmartBike but said its price made it worth a try.

"I'd probably use it more in the summer than winter," said Dewey Archer, a senior. "But for $40? That's cheaper than gas."

Friday, April 25, 2008

shark attack (more?!?! aieeeeeeeee!!!!)

oh god, it's happening again.

i've written about my phobias of ocean swimming before--particularly shark attacks (reference: shark attacks with video, or phobias of the ocean). not exactly a good thing for a triathlete or a surfer to have in the waters off Southern California. for the most part, i've managed to keep this fear under control, and in some ways it's pretty much just a thing i've managed to relegate to the recesses of my past memory. it's a work in progress, and i make it a point to focus on it every time i make an excursion into the ocean.

but every once in a while, something will happen that will reignite the phobia again, and it will flare up like an inferno.

and here it is:,0,3429715.story

if the link doesn't work, i've included the full text of the article below.

there's also a more in-depth story at:

god help that poor man. and my sympathies go out to his family.

and it's not helping that experts are saying the incidents of shark attacks--and great white shark attacks, mind you--are increasing off the coast of Southern the exact places i usually go swimming. check out this article:,0,7924244.story

how lovely.

now i'm freaking out.

i've been to Solana Beach. i've swam at Solana Beach. i know triathletes and surfers who regularly hang out at Solana Beach.

and now it's shark bait season.

they can tell me all the scientific facts and empirical observations and theoretical speculations and metaphysical mumbo jumbo they want to, but the fact remains that a great white shark attacked a fellow athlete in the middle of what i consider to be a routine training swim in a routine training area on a routine day.

they can say that great white sharks, and all sharks in general, generally don't like to eat people, and will actually shy away from human flesh. but the problem is that the primary way for sharks to figure out the identity of a potential target is to taste. which means a nibble...and unfortunately, to a great white shark, a nibble constitutes an entire leg.

they can say that sharks off Southern California prefer sea lions, seals, otters, and assorted marine mammals, and so will avoid human bodies. but this ignores the fact that: 1) sharks are near-sighted, 2) the waters off Southern California are murky, and 3) great whites employ breach attacks, a highly aggressive mode of attack involving a rising strike from directly below that involves a committed act of chomping down on the intended target--even if that target is one that the shark prefers to avoid.

they can say that sharks have extra senses involved bioelectrical signals, and enhanced sense of smell, and a 6th sense that let them read human activity and stay away. but try telling that to the old man who got munched in this story. those extra senses didn't exactly stop this great white, did it?

they can say that great whites fear humans, and will vacate an area if they sense mass human presence. again: try telling that to the man who got killed in this story. if anything, it looks like this great white practiced a culling strategy typical of land-based predatory mammals (e.g., wolves), which attack any prey it deems weak or sick or vulnerable...such as being the last person in a swim line in the open ocean.

they can say that sufficient human attention can detect the potential of shark predation by observing natural activity in an area--examples include normal prey seeking refuge on the shore (i.e., the sea lion spotted on the beach in this story). true enough. on this i will agree. but how do you know if such activity is caused by a shark, or caused by other factors? precautionary principles dictate staying out of the water anyway to avoid catastrophic risk, but does this mean we avoid the ocean anytime we see a random sea lion?


like i said, i'm freaking out.

i may be acting like a whiny lily-livered coward. but my phobia has returned in full force with the news release of this story. in short: oh. my. god.

now i have to start the process of getting over my fears all over again.

how lovely.

Shark kills man off San Diego County coast

The victim, a 66-year-old triathlete, was with a group of swimmers off Solana Beach when he was attacked by what an expert says was likely a great white. Authorities close a stretch of beaches.
By Laura Nott, H.G. Reza and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

SOLANA BEACH -- A shark attacked and killed a 66-year-old triathlete this morning, biting his legs as he swam in a group off this beach city 20 miles north of San Diego, authorities said.

Authorities identified the man as Dave Martin, a retired veterinarian who has lived in Solana Beach since 1970.

Richard Rosenblatt, a shark expert and professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, told reporters that "this almost certainly was a great white shark." He said the attack fit the pattern of attacking from beneath, then moving away, and that the wounds also looked like they came from a great white shark.

Martin, Rosenblatt said, was "pushed out of the water in a violent attack, and that's just typical of great white feeding behavior -- that is, they normally feed on seals, come up from below, take a powerful bite, then rush away and wait for other animals to come back."

The swimmers were wearing wetsuits.

"We think it was mistaken identity" because sharks hunt based on "silhouettes," Rosenblatt said. "A human swimmer is not too unlike a seal."

The attack occurred about 7 a.m. near Fletcher Cove in an area known as Table Tops, said Lt. Phil Brust, a spokesman for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Martin was part of a group from the Triathlon Club of San Diego that swims every Friday morning in the Fletcher Cove area. He was on the group's scheduled 6:30 a.m. swim.

"They were swimming and the victim apparently yelled 'Shark,' or words to that effect, and the witnesses that were in the water apparently saw him actually being lifted out of the water and drug under," Brust said. "They went to his aid and dragged him onto the beach, where he succumbed to his injuries."

The attack reportedly took place about 150 yards offshore. Martin was among nine people swimming north when he was attacked, Sheriff's Sgt. Randy Webb said. Martin surfaced and began screaming. Four other swimmers helped him to the beach, where lifeguards performed CPR. A helicopter was called to take him to a hospital, but he was declared dead on the beach. Three volunteers arrived to provide grief counseling to other swimmers, Webb said.

Martin was declared dead at approximately 7:50 a.m.

The shark bit him on both legs, said Deputy Solana Beach Fire Chief Dismas Abelman. Martin had apparently separated from the rest of his group when he was attacked, he said.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department ordered 5 to 8 miles of beach closed while helicopters searched for other sharks in the waters.

Beaches were closed indefinitely this morning from South Carlsbad to Torrey Pines beaches, said Julie Taber, a spokeswoman for the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District. She said no other shark sightings had been reported this morning.

Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian urged people to stay out of the water. "While we don't want people to panic, we do want them to listen to the officials."

A sheriff's helicopter was circling the waters where the man was attacked, searching for the shark. If investigators find the shark, it would then be up to U.S. Fish and Game or another agency to trap it, Brust said.

Harbor seals were reported seen in the water before the attack, officials said. Sharks are known to prey on seals. Seals congregate at the La Jolla Cove south of Solana Beach.

Amanda Benedict, 36, is a member of Martin's swim group but was not in water this morning. After the attack, she went to a nearby community center for counseling sessions.

Benedict said she thought the attack was a "random event" and urged the public "just not to freak out."

But other local triathletes said they had long been worried that an attack like this would happen because of the number of seals in the area and the thousands of triathletes who train in ocean waters.

"I live across the ocean from the La Jolla Cove, and in the last few years, the seal population has been exploding," said triathlete Mitch Thrower of La Jolla. "Now when I swim, the seals actually swim very close by in groups. The seal population seems to have increased here in La Jolla and up and down the San Diego coast."

Thrower specifically criticized the way La Jolla allows dozens of harbor seals to lounge on the beach at the Children's Pool area -- a situation which animal-rights activists encourage but which others criticize, in part because the seals might attract sharks to shallow waters.

"I love the seals, but it was clearly a mistake to open a McShark in the center of the open-water swimming community of San Diego," Thrower said.

This morning's beach closure did not discourage all surfers and bodyboarders.

At Cardiff State Beach, just north of Solana Beach, Lynn Austin, 51, a stay-at-home mother from Carlsbad who has been surfing for 40 years, remained in the water about 12:30 p.m. despite the warnings of rangers who were driving along the beach. Austin, who has a 5-year-old daughter, said her husband thought she was getting her nails done.

"They usually attack in the morning and evening -- and from what I've been told, they spend the rest of the day in deeper water sleeping," Austin said. "But you don't want to catch a wave and fall off your board because that's when you attract sharks, when you do a big splash."

Austin said she thought splashing probably attracted the shark this morning, but she felt the odds were in her favor.

"If it happened to me, I would have died happy," said the veteran surfer, who added, "My husband would shoot me if he knew I was out here."

Nearby, Justin Sturgeon, 34, of Del Mar was bodyboarding with a couple of others. Of the beach closures, he said: "It's an advisory. It's not mandatory. When you surf three or four times a week like I do, you would understand why I and these other two people are out here."

He said he felt safe. "How many times would the same shark attack twice on the same day?"

Brenda Zito, 51, a local resident, attended the beach news conference this morning and said Martin had been her veterinarian and had shown great kindness when he put down her cat.

"He was a very compassionate, nice guy," she said.

She said he had worked at All Creatures Animal Hospital in Del Mar, and added, "It's really odd that someone who had dedicated his life to animals was killed by one."

In Del Mar, Michael Mulvany, owner of All Creatures, said he had gone to the beach to surf in the morning, seen all the commotion and returned to the animal hospital. There, he found out that Martin, who once co-owned the hospital with him, had been killed.

Mulvany said Martin had three older sons and a teenage daughter. He said Martin was "never a high-stress individual. That's why people enjoyed working with him.

"He always had a smile on his face, never seemed to get down. That's what I'll miss."

Brust, who has been with the Sheriff's Department for 17 years, said he can't remember the last reported shark attack. There have been no recent shark sightings reported in the area where the man was killed, he said.

"We know it's the ocean and there are sharks out there, but no one can remember this ever happening and it's just a shock to the community," he said.

"Everybody's thinking about the movie 'Jaws.' "

Thursday, April 24, 2008

International Hug-a-Swede Day--Svenska Kram Dag!


it's true.

it's for real.

it's not a joke.

admittedly, i once thought it was. seeing that it originated on Facebook, and was an idea so outlandish, so completely random, so far beyond the realm of any sense of normality, i honestly had no other opinion than to think it an utter absurdity.

but you see, that's the beauty of it.

it is outlandish, it is random, it is beyond the realm of much so that it actually swings right back around to the borders of making complete and perfect sense.

of course, if you ask me to explain the logic, all i can tell you is: it's like when Moses was on Mt. Sinai and asked Yahweh how he was supposed to explain the existence of God, and Yahweh answered "i am that i am." yeah, it's just like that. it is that it is.

and just what is it?

it is Svenska Kram Dag!!!!!!!!!!

yes, your translation is right: International Hug-a-Swede Day!!!!!!!!!!!!
it's a stroke of pure genius. whoever came up with it should be awarded the Nobel Prize for ingenuity--and yes, i know there's no such thing, but seeing that it's a Swedish award created by a Swedish inventor known for his uniquely Swedish resourcefulness, there damn well in the name of Thor's hammer and Freya's golden hair should be!

you can reference the official Facebook page:

officially placed on the calendar as April 24 of every year, International Hug-a-Swede Day is held in honor of all Swedes (in truth and in spirit) everywhere. on this day, you are supposed to locate your nearest Swede--or at least, your favorite one--and give him (or her, or according to some other Scandinavians, it) a nice, long, warm, loving, tight, comforting, affectionate, caring hug great enough to make Odin proud.

because, you see (*sniff* *sniff*), as the Facebook tagline says: we're the only people who haven't gotten hugged yet.

yes, that's right, beneath that stoic burly gruff bloodthirsty hair-curling storm-roaring exterior, we Swedes are really all just soft, cuddly, fuzzy-wuzzy sensitive souls deep inside.

and even Valkyries need love, too.
so reach out to your dearest Swede, and let them know you love them. and while you're at it, give them something to ease their homesick yearnings for the good land--a tankard of mjöd (mead) will work, as will a bowl of jorgubbar (strawberries...the might Viking fruit if power!!!!!), or better yet smultron (wild strawberries...the closest thing to ecstasy short of sex, and even then it's a close call), and of course some prinsesstårta (princess cake, made with marzipan) will always seal the deal. they'll thank you for it--in ways that only a Swede can (there's a reason we're good for keeping warm on cold winter nights...).

tack so mycket!
and just in case you're still suspicious as to just how soft and cuddly Swedes can be, i'm attaching a recent news item about the Swedish appreciation of the hug:

and oh yeah, in case the link doesn't work, i'm including the full text of the article below.

Study: Swedes Hug Anyone Except Their Boss

Associated Press

While Swedes have a reputation of being reserved, a new study shows they'll hug just about anyone except their boss.

Nine out of 10 Swedes embrace somebody at least once a week, with women aged 30-44 being the most active huggers, according to the study presented Thursday by the Swedish Red Cross.

About 70 per cent of the 1,036 people interviewed between Nov. 5-8 said they had hugged their partner or spouse that week, while 59 per cent said they had hugged a friend or acquaintance.

One-quarter had hugged a work colleague of the same sex, while 14 per cent had embraced a co-worker of the opposite gender.

Only four per cent hugged their boss.

The study by the Synovate polling institute also found that there is a certain etiquette to Swedish hugging traditions.

More than 80 percent said it was appropriate to hug a person in mourning, while 55 percent said they would hug a stranger who had just found their wallet.

Sixty percent said hugging a vague acquaintance at a party was not OK.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Earth Day 2008: Race Day Trash

This is my contribution for Earth Day...I've just been a lurker spectator before for this particular day, but seeing that things just seem to keep getting worse I figured it's time to start becoming a little more active. I've written about this topic before (reference: Blog Action Day 2007), but since it seems to be such a persistent problem, I figure it's worth discussing again on a day like Earth Day.

As an ordinary competitor (i.e., amateur, not pro, nor elite, nor even respectably good) participating in the usual share of races (triathlons, duathlons, runs, bike rides, hikes, etc.), I used to never really consider the habit of discarding used race aids on the race course: empty cups, empty gels, empty candy wrappers, empty fruit skins, along with the usual slew of paper towels, hankies, pain medication, water bottles, or even clothes and random unwanted miscellaneous equipment. Everybody did it. Nobody seemed to complain. It seemed like a common practice, enough that it appeared to be accepted as race day de rigeur.

But somewhere along the way the nature of race day trash began to grow in the consciousness. You can call it the awareness that comes with maturity, or a sign of our environmental times, or a reflection of a mind just trying to escape the monotony of suffering. Whatever.

Let's just say it began to be a problem. Particularly as I began to notice the sheer volume of trash and the blight it was leaving on the landscape (artificial and natural), as well as the level of effort that was required to clean it up. The scale was just profound. Enough that I felt compelled to begin to try and take some action.

Mindful of the pressures that otherwise consume us on race day, I limited my activities to just trying to set a model and taking care of my own personal trash on the race course. I figured if somebody else saw me make the effort to take my cups and gels and fruit and hankies to the aid station trash can, maybe they'd be inspired to do the same, and thereby spread the cause without the annoying sting of anything so obnoxious as self-righteous proselytizing.

Thing is, given the nature and raw volume of race day trash (and we all know just how much trash we're talking about), it seemed like this strategy was tantamount to being a lone salmon trying to swim up Niagara Falls. At times, I felt like the lone loser caught in his own self-delusional anal-retentive fantasies.

That is, it was until I started competing in races in countries outside the U.S. In recent years, I've combined family vacations with local races as a way of adding an extra element of interest in our travel plans, and this has allowed me to take part in races (to date, a few runs and 1 Ironman) in places like Scandinavia, Canada, and most recently New Zealand.

What I saw was, to say the least, eye-opening. Simply put, these countries are a lot more clean. As in green. At least when it comes to organized public sporting events like triathlons. In each of these countries, I saw race organizers, officials, spectators, and--most importantly of all--participants make a concerted, conscious effort to keep the race clean. I regularly saw people take their trash and walk (or run, or bike, or hobble, or whatever) to the nearest trash bin, and each one was very large, very prominent, and very well marked with instructions for waste disposal.

The result was profound...the races in these countries are some of the most beautiful courses I've ever seen. Jaw-dropping may be even be appropriate. And I suspect that part of it was the experience of rolling through scenic countryside without a trace of litter on the roads or trails, leaving only the pleasure (or at least the illusion) of unspoiled sights and sounds and fragrance and feel of grass, bushes, flowers, trees, hills, mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, wildlife, under sun and sky and air so clear you can see to forever--or, if nothing else, far enough to get your head clear and to realize that you're alive. Which is kind of one of the points of race day.

What was ironic was that many of the locals in these countries actually thought they had a problem with race day trash. All I can think is: you have no idea.

Personally, things came to a head when at a recent race outside the U.S., and suddenly realized that all the U.S. racers were maintaining their habit of dropping their trash on the roadside (and I knew they were American because I'd spoken to them pre-race)...while everyone else was trying to stay green. I suddenly felt very ashamed. Enough to do something about it.

Like write this post.

I'm not saying Americans are the only ones guilty of race day trash. I'm sure there are many countries with this kind of problem. But I figure as a U.S. citizen, I figure that as part of Earth Day I can at least address a problem closest to the U.S.

Here's my argument against race day trash:
  • The level of waste is completely out of proportion to the level of competition. By this, I mean that it seems the only people who could be excused for throwing trash on the race course would be professionals and some elites whose livelihoods depended on their velocity and finishing time. For the rest of us, there just isn't that much at stake to justify defacing public property (i.e., if the only thing at stake is your own ego, then how does that weigh against the public money that has to be spent to clean things up?).
  • If you're going to walk (or run) through an aid station to get energy drink, water, gels, fruit, etc., then it shouldn't be too hard to walk (or run) to the trash can at the aid station to drop off the garbage. Seriously, it's only a few meters. It's not that hard. And even if you're on a bike, it's not that hard to slow down to drop your refuse at the trash bin. it's only a few seconds, and the vast majority of competitors are not going to have their livelihoods threatened by losing a few seconds to maintain a clean environment (i.e., again, if the only thing at stake is your own ego, then it's immaterial compared to the few seconds it will take to properly dispose the refuse you are holding in your hands).
  • Even if race fees go towards cleaning up garbage, and hence offset the public taxes expended on the problem, this still creates the subsequent issue of race organizers increasing race fees...just like any business, they're going to pass on the costs (race day trash collection) onto their consumers (competitors). In which case, as a consumer, I'd prefer to save some money and try to see if costs (trash) could be decreased.
  • It doesn't seem limited to race day. I'm seriously starting to suspect that competitors who are lackadaisical about throwing trash on the course during a race are also people who are just as lackadaisical about throwing trash on the streets on normal days...their carelessness seems habit-forming.
  • It seems entirely contrary to the notion of athletics to be so careless about garbage. Athletics is supposedly about values like commitment and discipline. But there's not much commitment and discipline in simply dumping garbage on the race course.
  • This was (and is) the kind of behavior that on normal days would be considered littering, which in most places is a crime involving a fine (and in some extreme cases, more).
  • It's ugly. It's nasty. It's disgusting.
In terms of ways to deal with trash, the strategies I try to practice, and which I offer here, are two-fold:
  • Pack-in-Pack-out: Also called Leave No Trace. This is a hiker's rule held by backpackers camping in the wilderness. It's a general principle meant to preserve the natural world in a pristine state so that its ecology can continue without any more human disruption than necessary. It's also meant to keep things in a way that other people can enjoy it after you've left.
  • Aim for the Trash Can: I figure I can hold on to my trash until I spot a trash can, and which point I can save other people's energy by being responsible and disposing my own garbage into the trash bin. It's not that hard, and I figure it's the least I can do for all the work that race organizers, volunteers, and local communities do in hosting me.
These are the same arguments I've made before (literally). But they're worth repeating, even if it only means that it'll start people thinking. If just a few people can start taking care of their own race day waste (it doesn't have to be someone else's waste, but just your own), it'll mean that much more to making a cleaner and more enjoyable experience for everybody--and not just in terms of being greener, but also in terms of just simply being better.

Which is, in part, what sport is supposed to be about: making the human condition better. For everyone.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

politics and triathlon (part 2) : pressures on the athlete

note: this is part 2 of a 3-part series on the intersection of political protest and triathlon in light of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

The looming onset of this year's summer Olympics promises to bring with it one of the most controversial games in Olympic history. As much as the international community has tried to defuse tensions, the recent spate of protests during the Olympic torch relay only served to indicate just how high passions are rising in the lead-in to Beijing. Whether or not athletes try to avoid it, politics will be the undercurrent of the 2008 Olympics. All athletes--even in lesser-known sports such as triathlon--are likely to find themselves subject to geopolitical pressures they have so far been able to escape, and will thus face questions they may have never been asked to consider.

Ostensibly, the Olympic movement had among its goals the preservation of a spirit independent of politics. This is codified in the Olympic Charter, particularly in Article 51, which expressly states "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic sites, venues, or other areas" ( Ideally, this was meant to allow focus on Olympic values of international fellowship and advancement of human achievement.

Implementation, however, of these strictures for the Beijing games has produced intense criticism among competing countries. The British Olympic Association (BOA) was recently forced to redraft its contract with its athletes after news disclosures that the document expressly ordered British Olympic athletes "not to comment on politically sensitive issues" (reference: Daily Mail). Belgium and New Zealand also received scrutiny for mandating similar agreements with their athletes (reference: LA Times and Human Rights Torch Relay). The Canadian Olympic Committee warned that it would exclude anyone intent on making political statements in Beijing (National Post). The International Olympic Committee extended these activities by issuing free speech guidelines on
athlete's communications via video, pictures, audio recordings, or even blogs during the summer games (reference: The Australian)

In response to such measures, human rights organizations such as the Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders requested clarification from participating nations and also China regarding the extent of free speech restrictions on participants at the summer games (reference: The News Observer and International Herald Tribune, and Boxun News and Reporters Without Borders).

Ironically, as much as some countries may try to limit theirs athletes from attempting political protest, those same countries may try to engage in it themselves. The history of the modern Olympic movement is one rife with examples of nations (even if not athletes) engaging in political statements at the expense of the Olympic games. The 1936 games were notorious as being used as a showcase for Nazi ideology (coincidentally, it was the Nazi regime that initiated the staging of the Olympic torch relay--reference: BBC UK). The 1976 Montreal games were boycotted by 30 African nations upset by the inclusion of New Zealand, whose rugby team had recently played in apartheid South Africa. The 1980 Moscow games were boycotted by 62 countries (including the U.S.) to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. China, after the International Olympic Committee recognized Taiwan for the 1956 games, sat out the Olympics until 1980. Sources are plentiful listing national geopolitics in the Olympics, but useful summaries include the following:
The resultant implication from the such conditions is that the issue with the Olympics is not so much free speech, but rather free speech by athletes. That is, based on the ironies outlined here, it appears that political statements are tolerated only if it they are made by the nation-states, and not the individual competitors. Based on the efforts to constrain athlete protests in Beijing, especially in light of the history of nationalistic politics associated with the Olympics, it appears that countries--or at least their Olympic committees--are really only concerned with their own national interests, and expressing those interests via the Olympic games. For them, athletes are tolerated to the extent they are consistent with those interests. This means that their ulterior agenda is less about the Olympic spirit or the Olympic charter, and more about whether they can exploit athletes to further national aims.

As a result, all athletes--including triathletes--going to Beijing must need to be aware of the context in which they will compete. Regardless of their own personal sentiments on exercising political speech, each athlete must recognize that there are external forces with alternative agendas seeking to pressure athletes to comply with differing ideologies. Even as there is an Olympic spirit and an Olympic charter upholding a stage free of politics, and even as they claim to support such an ideal, nations will seek to use the Olympics and Olympic athletes for the sake of their national interests.

Triathletes, because of the youth of the sport, may have largely escaped such larger geopolitical complexities. Even now, for Beijing, many of them may hope that they go to compete with their own individual choice over free speech. However, triathletes should be cognizant of the larger political games being played out around them...and the political interests which will seek to exploit them.

Monday, April 07, 2008

politics and triathlon (part 1) : innocence at risk

note: this is part 1 of a 3-part series on the intersection of political protest and triathlon in light of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

The growth of triathlon has by now become largely well documented, with a generally accepted timeline of its growth from off-beat curiousity to mainstream recognition. The prevailing genealogy for the modern permutation of swim-bike-run races traces back to events held at the San Diego Track Club in the mid-1970s and the inception of Ironman triathlon in 1978, with the sport and its participants largely perceived by the larger public as elements of fringe (or in modern parlance, "extreme") sports. Since that time, triathlon has become largely recognized as a part of the mainstream consciousness, with status as a premier sport rivaling any other as a test of competitive performance and athletic achievement.

The references on this are pretty well known, but I'll include them here for context:
This ascension has brought with it signs of maturation: an explosion in membership, an increase in sponsorship and prize money, greater attention from the popular media, and the institutionalization of triathlon in the global sports community, with the crowning moment being its inclusion in the Olympics. This has made for idyllic times for triathlon, making it a movement of relative tranquility focused on popular goals like competition, development, and participation.

Maturation, however, is not always a smooth process, and invariably brings with it the challenges of entry into the public stage. Examples of this have been made evident already in recent history, with the disputes (since resolved) between the ITU, USAT, and WTC over the sanctioning of events (for brief summary, reference: ITU withholds sanctioning of WTC, and ITU resolution rescinded), and the specter of doping (I wrote extensively on this before: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) serving to indicate the pressures that come with being a modern sport.

As the profile of triathlon gets higher, it is increasingly likely that it will face the complexities borne by other high-profile, high-attention, high-stakes events. Among these is one associated--perhaps inevitably--with globally popular competition: politics.

There are precedents highlighting this. Sport, despite possible intentions to the contrary, has always been susceptible to politics, particularly at the international level. National pride is often inflamed by international competition, fueling the tensions between rival countries and adding to the combustibility of trans-national border disputes. For an illustrative example, international politics scholars frequently point to the infamous "soccer war" between El Salvador and Honduras, when rioting during a 3-game match in June 1969 between the 2 national teams led to the termination of diplomatic relations, and contributed to the outbreak of military hostilities in July of that year that resulted in approximately 2,000 casualties (brief summaries are available at and the Washington Post's "Soccer Wars). Beyond soccer (or futbol, football, etc., as it is known outside the U.S.), other globe-spanning games such as rugby or cricket are similarly notorious for their frequent association with incendiary political causes (for examples of the passions they engender, see The Hindu's "Rights and Wrongs in India-Australia Cricket" and Malcolm MacLean's "A Right Old Bust Up").

Triathlon is as mature a sport as soccer, cricket, or rugby, but it is nevertheless now a global one, and hence is now becoming vulnerable to the same issues inherent to all sports played before a world audience.

Storm clouds are forming already in the immediate future. The 2008 Summer Olympics is rapidly proving to become one of the most controversial in memory. Intense protests have broken out against the Olympic torch relay over China's human rights record, its involvement in Darfur, and its ongoing tensions regarding Tibetan national independence. Controversy has flared over the nature of free speech restrictions being placed on athletes participating in the Beijing games. There are even calls for boycotts. These signs point to a politically charged, highly volatile atmosphere for all sports in this summer's Olympics--triathlon one of many among them.

While triathlon has managed to escape these kinds of political complications, it has largely been because of its nascent status, with its relatively recent induction at the 2000 Sydney games allowing it to enjoy a period of Olympic history largely free of protests. The timeline of the Olympic movement, however, is one featuring a slew of political activism, stretching from the ideologically-driven 1936 Berlin games to the race protests of 1968 in Mexico City to the Cold War-laced Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics to the boycotts of the 1956, 1976, and 1980 summer games. Given the nature of the current lead-in to the Beijing Olympics, it appears that the odds are for triathlon to face the storm of geopolitics.

The references for the history of politics in the Olympics are numerous, but useful links include:
The storm, if it is going to take place, will likely be from a confluence of two phenomenon. From one side, there is the tendency for nations, organizations, and Olympic organizers to imprint their own political agendas onto the games. From the other side, there is the natural inclination of athletes to have their own beliefs and personal causes.

While these factors may possibly coexist--as has been proven under the management of more peaceful Olympics such as the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens games--they can just as easily erupt given enough passion or principles between opposing beliefs. History shows that both nations and athletes can be motivated to political action, even in the face of the explicit injunctions of the Olympic Charter (most commonly cited is Article 51, which forbids political, religious, or racial protests) or the spirit of the International Olympic Committee (reference: The Olympic Movement). Given the intensity of protests already ongoing before this summer's games, it is entirely conceivable that triathlon will find itself embroiled in one of any number of issues being raised against the Beijing Olympics.

Athletes and fans of triathlon alike may hope to see triathlon remain the peaceful sport that it has been throughout its growth. The reality, however, is that its maturation as a globally recognized event opens it to the controversies that assail all sports, including those of the political variety.

There are those who can argue that this is good, since it indicates a conscience and a consciousness necessary for any human activity that aspires to advance the human condition--which presumably sport, among its other goals, is ostensibly meant to do. Conversely, there are those who can argue that this is bad, since it brings with it outside disputes that distract from the ideals of sport--which supposedly included transcending the self-destructive vices of humanity. Regardless of either point of view, they serve to confirm one thing: that triathlon, as a sport, is about people...and so long as this is true, it will always reflect who and what we are.

Even if that means realizing that triathlon's innocence, even as much as our own, will eventually be gone.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

the post-race fat trap

there's a common ethos among athletes that--among the many privileges of being a physically active, physically fit individual--you have the luxury of being able to eat whatever you want without the pain of having it add to a burgeoning waistline.

i have to admit, i've been part of this. i've even written about it (reference: international pancake day). i, along with so many of my sporting community friends and the larger sporting world, have freely (and, i might add, quite joyfully) partaken of caloric indulgences that most dieticians, doctors, medical researchers, experts, and mothers (including mine) would have an apoplectic fit over. not only have i consumed extravagant quantities of food, i have also ingested--and even actively sought out--veritably decadent qualities of food.

this means ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, cobblers, cakes, tortes, tarts, pies, danishes, muffins, cookies, brioches, scones (oh god, scooooooooones...), turnovers, popovers, flipovers, sweetbreads, shortbreads, any breads, hard candies, soft candies, milkshakes, cold cream, condensed milk, chocolate milk, chocolate puddings, chocolate soufflees, any soufflees, cheesecake, ganache, mascarpone, baklava, nutella (oh god, nutellaaaaaaaa...), jam, jelly, nutella, peanut butter, apple butter, nutella, honey, preserves, honey, nutella, honey, nutella, nutella, nutella, and did i mention nutella?

pretty much any dessert from any culture of any part of any planet you can think of. especially this one.

the reason for this kind of insanity (and let's be honest, that's what it is: insanity. of the obsessive, ravenous, disgusting, uncontrollable kind) is multiple:
  • you're going to burn it off. especially if you're training for Ironman. dude, you're averaging 5,000 calories a day of food intake (if you're about my height, which is roughly 5-10), and that's just to maintain body weight.
  • at a certain point, your body needs raw calories. under the stress of intense physical activity, your body needs calories, preferably easily digestible ones. and it doesn't get more easily digestible that simple sugars. that's partially why they serve defizzed coca-cola at the aid stations at Ironman. it takes too long and too much work for your digestive system to break down vegetables and meat if you're churning through a 4-6 hour training session; you need energy anywhere you can get it, and sometimes all you need is sugar.
  • you need the mental relief. given the amount of self-discipline and regimented diet that goes with a season's training, you start to get a little loopy with the confinement of food restrictions. it's downright claustrophobic at times, keeping to a strictly healthy, athletic diet. sometimes you just need to take a mental rest, and just let loose and relax.
  • you need a reward. there is so much suffering that goes with training. especially for long-distance events. physical and mental. in order to keep pushing through it, you need to have a reward of some kind in mind to motivate you, and sometimes that reward isn't the image of a healthy, fit body (hey, it goes without saying you've got it by this point, and besides, it doesn't really mean much to tell yourself you're sexy when you're staggering along at mile 130 and trying to figure out if you're going to have to crawl the last 10.6 miles to the finish...). sometimes the reward is the thought of a smooth, savory, silky, sweet ice cream triple-scoop sundae with all the toppings, with a nice thick slice of german chocolate cake and steaming hot scoop of heaping apple that's sexy.
unfortunately, this kind of thinking really isn't conducive to a good lifestyle. it's not nutrient-rich. it's not lean. it doesn't help with the normal functioning of the human body. which pretty much means it's garbage. and you know the maxim: garbage in = garbage out.

and it certainly doesn't help you stay sexy once race day is over and the season ends and you're lounging around on the same diet plan (or not).

a buddy of mine warned me that you have to really control yourself and cut back on the calories and change to more nutritious foods as you reduce your training volumes and intensities. otherwise you'll have an excess of calories and deficit of nutrients that'll send your body into a regressive cycle, thereby eroding all the gains you suffered to get in training and racing. he said this the reason why you see so many athletes start to get decidedly fat (sometimes chubby, and occassionaly downright even obese)--because they continue eating as if they're still in-season, when their activity level is anything but. he called it the "post-race fat trap."

it's just basic physics--if energy output decreases, the demand for energy input also decreases.
if energy input remains the same and energy output goes down, the result is an excess of energy in the system...and the human body is programmed to store the excess energy as (you guessed it): fat. faaaaat. faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaattt.

definitely not sexy.

in the weeks following every Ironman i've done (and admittedly, i've only done 3, so i'm working with a pretty limited data sample at this point), i've noticed that my body follows a definite pattern reflecting these dangers. i usually lose about 10 lbs. race day. this tends to get even more in the week after, when i lose about another 5 lbs. but in weeks 2-4 after race day i start to regain weight, and by weeks 5-6 i tend to actually get above what i weighed on race day.

and seeing this pattern again with this post-Ironman period off IMNZ. it's now about 4 weeks out, and in the past 2 weeks i've started to see the weight come back.

which, actually is kind of what i don't want.

i liked the trim, fit body i had after IMNZ. i liked the way it looked. i liked the way it felt. physically and mentally. i certainly suffered enough to earn it. as a result, i have absolutely no intention of losing it.

which is why i'm really fighting this time to keep the weight from coming back. i'm trying to be good about my nutrition. i'm watching the calories, monitoring the nutrients, making sure to control myself.

to some degree i'm having some success--the weight return isn't as big this time as it was the previous Ironmans, and i think it's pretty stable.

the hard part, however, is trying to readjust my sense of what are appropriate portions and types of food. during the training, i was working on the 5,000 calorie-per-day scale, which inflated my sensitivity of how much and what kind of food i needed to take in. as we all know, 5,000 calories per day is not the recommended daily caloric intake for an average male my size and weight, even an active one...think more like 2,000-3,000. you can get an idea of what's more appropriate by checking out:
of course, i recognize that to some degree the post-race weight gain is just your body regenerating in the wake of a highly stressful physical competition, and rebuilding its own systems. this is something that every athlete knows as part of sports (reference:

but to me, there's a difference between weight gain that's related to body reconstruction and weight gain that's just waste. one is healthy, the other is not. one means getting more fit, the other does not. one means you are becoming healthier, the other does not. and there is a difference--it's something we can all see and feel with our own bodies. you know if you're getting pudgy. you know if you're getting sluggish. you know if you're losing performance. i can see it in myself just looking in the mirror (hey, the mirror does not lie: if you're fat, you'll see fat, cuz the love handles will blubbering over your underwear line). i can feel it just moving around (cuz i'll be lugging useless baggage that i'm not used to lugging around).

which is why i'm avoiding the post-race fat trap this time around.

cuz i've just gone through too much to allow myself to fall into it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

the OCD of working out (or, i just have to)

oh god.

i swear this sport has given me obsessive-compulsive disorder (that's a.k.a. "OCD" for all the folks out there)--or at least, made it worse than it already was.

to some degree, coming from Scandinavia, i carried the cultural tendencies that most of the world would describe as "anal retentive." my Eurasian butt just can't get away from a desire to see things organized, arranged, cleaned, neatened, placed, straightened, scheduled, set, and just generally figured out. this applies to everything: carpet, clothes, furniture, floors, classes, car, books, research, computer files, e-mail accounts, Youtube videos, this blog, food, drink, nutrition, swim equipment, bike equipment, run equipment, training schedule, social schedule, relaxation schedule, and pretty much my life schedule. it's all spiffy Swedish clean!


i've tried to work on this. i've tried to learn to just relax and let things go. to just, as they say out here in SoCal, "chill out."

i thought i was getting better at this.

but you know, this sport--particularly with Ironman--just sucks time. and given everything else i've got going on (finishing my dissertation, prepping for graduation, and job hunting...and oh yeah, incidentally: if anybody knows of anybody hiring a JD/PhD in International Law & Politics, let me know...), i've got little choice but to get things to fit together. and this means, unfortunately, that i get things organized.

i thought that this was no big deal, since i figured that it was just a characteristic of training, and that therefore it would be something that would disappear once the cause of the training (i.e., the race) disappeared. i mean, if the race that's made the training necessary is done, it means the training is done, and hence the need for anal-retentive obsession on scheduling workouts with the rest of life is also done. right?


because, you see, what i've realized is that this sport changes you. and not just your body or your relationship with the gods, but you as a person in general.

it used to be i was getting the ability to just take free time in my life and just chill out. to just sit around and laze on the couch and lie on my bed and stare out the window and watch tv and essentially do nothing except just get fat.

but not anymore. i'm looking at free time and thinking to myself "man, this is a good time for a swim" or "man, i could fit in a real nice bike ride right about now" or "man, it would be great to go for a run."

which would be fine, cuz these would just be the delusional ramblings of a athlete's deranged mind. except that i then actually find myself going out at doing them.

even though i don't need to, even though i don't want to, even though i'm tired or sore or beat up or weak or just caught in the state so lovingly called "he's out of it." i just have to.

i have to catch myself sometimes, and ask myself just why i'm pushing so hard and so far and so fast when i really don't have to. seriously. this past week, i found myself doing 2-a-day workouts and pushing 2 and 3-hour workouts. basically, i was doing Ironman workouts, but with no Ironman race.

i had to ask myself why i was doing this, even though Ironman is over and i've got nothing on the race schedule. the only response i had was that it was just free time...and i just have to.

yeah, i know: pretty much the hallmark of OCD. you know: i just have to.

not that it's a bad body is looking great, i feel in pretty good shape, and it's helping deal with the stress of a post-grad school job search.

but you know, they always say you're body, even if it doesn't tell you or give you the signals, always needs a certain amount of down time to heal after a major event, particularly one like Ironman.

i'm going to have to work on this relaxation thing. especially since my family and friends are probably expecting to see more of me and are wondering what's going on. and i certainly would like to get a social life for once in my life (not getting any younger, and it would be great to have some female company).

but i'll get to it after this morning workout...because, you see, i just have to.