Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a yoga controversy

i was going to post on this before, but i wanted to wait until there had been some more presentation of perspectives on the topic.

i'm referring to a New York Times article that asserted a dangerous side to yoga.  it was a relatively lengthy piece detailing injury risks to yoga practitioners, and alleged that such risks are increasingly ignored, denied, or even exacerbated by yoga programs in the United States. the article also alleges that this situation is a result of yoga's rise in popularity, which has spurred a rise in the number of yoga instructors of questionable ability.

you can check out the article for yourself:
i also wanted to offer additional links that respond to the New York Times piece that i think provide additional perspectives (pro and con) to its arguments:
my take on this comes from my own experience with yoga. like so many other endurance sports athletes, i've tried yoga before with various forms and venues and teachers.  unlike so many other endurance sports athletes, however, i've had less than positive results.  in fact, i've had almost the exact opposite of what so many of my friends had.

they did (and do) yoga for therapeutic purposes, using it as a way of mental, spiritual, and physical rejuvenation from the afflictions brought by racing, training, and ordinary living.  i tried to do the same, but instead found that while it offers mental and spiritual benefits, it physically did little to address my injuries or ailments--in fact, if anything, it actually made them worse.  by ankle issues got worse, my hamstring issues got worse, my back issues got worse, my neck issues got worse,  everything got worse.

obviously, i discontinued yoga and don't do it anymore. i've ended up finding physical rejuvenation via other ways.  i'm not going to discount or deny yoga categorically, since i've seen it work well for other people.  i will, however, say that it's just not for me (and apparently, based on these articles, for some others as well).

which i think is my point on this debate:  different people have different bodies, and so they have to do yoga differently in ways appropriate for them individually.  and in some cases, like mine, they will have to not do yoga altogether.

this makes the choice of yoga a function of 1) personal self-awareness and personal judgment regarding what is good for you, and 2) teacher awareness and teacher judgement regarding what works for you.  the challenge is making sure you are mindful of both, and not just someone mindlessly doing something just because it's popular. in short, take the time to understand, and then act once you do.

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body
New York Times
January 5, 2012
By William J. Broad

On a cold Saturday in early 2009, Glenn Black, a yoga teacher of nearly four decades, whose devoted clientele includes a number of celebrities and prominent gurus, was giving a master class at Sankalpah Yoga in Manhattan. Black is, in many ways, a classic yogi: he studied in Pune, India, at the institute founded by the legendary B. K. S. Iyengar, and spent years in solitude and meditation. He now lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and often teaches at the nearby Omega Institute, a New Age emporium spread over nearly 200 acres of woods and gardens. He is known for his rigor and his down-to-earth style. But this was not why I sought him out: Black, I’d been told, was the person to speak with if you wanted to know not about the virtues of yoga but rather about the damage it could do. Many of his regular clients came to him for bodywork or rehabilitation following yoga injuries. This was the situation I found myself in. In my 30s, I had somehow managed to rupture a disk in my lower back and found I could prevent bouts of pain with a selection of yoga postures and abdominal exercises. Then, in 2007, while doing the extended-side-angle pose, a posture hailed as a cure for many diseases, my back gave way. With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.

At Sankalpah Yoga, the room was packed; roughly half the students were said to be teachers themselves. Black walked around the room, joking and talking. “Is this yoga?” he asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. “It is if you’re paying attention.” His approach was almost free-form: he made us hold poses for a long time but taught no inversions and few classical postures. Throughout the class, he urged us to pay attention to the thresholds of pain. “I make it as hard as possible,” he told the group. “It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.” He drove his point home with a cautionary tale. In India, he recalled, a yogi came to study at Iyengar’s school and threw himself into a spinal twist. Black said he watched in disbelief as three of the man’s ribs gave way — pop, pop, pop.

After class, I asked Black about his approach to teaching yoga — the emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you’d expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them. But then he said something more radical. Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.

Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”

Black seemingly reconciles the dangers of yoga with his own teaching of it by working hard at knowing when a student “shouldn’t do something — the shoulder stand, the headstand or putting any weight on the cervical vertebrae.” Though he studied with Shmuel Tatz, a legendary Manhattan-based physical therapist who devised a method of massage and alignment for actors and dancers, he acknowledges that he has no formal training for determining which poses are good for a student and which may be problematic. What he does have, he says, is “a ton of experience.”

“To come to New York and do a class with people who have many problems and say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do this sequence of poses today’ — it just doesn’t work.”

According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems.

Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”

When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, “Don’t do yoga.” “They look at me like I’m crazy,” he goes on to say. “And I know if they continue, they won’t be able to take it.” I asked him about the worst injuries he’d seen. He spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. “It’s ego,” he said. “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.” He said he had seen some “pretty gruesome hips.” “One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints,” Black told me. “The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements.” I asked if she still taught. “Oh, yeah,” Black replied. “There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I’d be so embarrassed.”

Among devotees, from gurus to acolytes forever carrying their rolled-up mats, yoga is described as a nearly miraculous agent of renewal and healing. They celebrate its abilities to calm, cure, energize and strengthen. And much of this appears to be true: yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life. But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. Jagannath G. Gune, who helped revive yoga for the modern era, made no allusion to injuries in his journal Yoga Mimansa or his 1931 book “Asanas.” Indra Devi avoided the issue in her 1953 best seller “Forever Young, Forever Healthy,” as did B. K. S. Iyengar in his seminal “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965. Reassurances about yoga’s safety also make regular appearances in the how-to books of such yogis as Swami Sivananda, K. Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury. “Real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk,” declared Swami Gitananda, a guru who made 10 world tours and founded ashrams on several continents.

But a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities. In one case, a male college student, after more than a year of doing yoga, decided to intensify his practice. He would sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Soon he was experiencing difficulty walking, running and climbing stairs.

Doctors traced the problem to an unresponsive nerve, a peripheral branch of the sciatic, which runs from the lower spine through the buttocks and down the legs. Sitting in vajrasana deprived the branch that runs below the knee of oxygen, deadening the nerve. Once the student gave up the pose, he improved rapidly. Clinicians recorded a number of similar cases and the condition even got its own name: “yoga foot drop.”

More troubling reports followed. In 1972 a prominent Oxford neurophysiologist, W. Ritchie Russell, published an article in The British Medical Journal arguing that, while rare, some yoga postures threatened to cause strokes even in relatively young, healthy people. Russell found that brain injuries arose not only from direct trauma to the head but also from quick movements or excessive extensions of the neck, such as occur in whiplash — or certain yoga poses. Normally, the neck can stretch backward 75 degrees, forward 40 degrees and sideways 45 degrees, and it can rotate on its axis about 50 degrees. Yoga practitioners typically move the vertebrae much farther. An intermediate student can easily turn his or her neck 90 degrees — nearly twice the normal rotation.

Hyperflexion of the neck was encouraged by experienced practitioners. Iyengar emphasized that in cobra pose, the head should arch “as far back as possible” and insisted that in the shoulder stand, in which the chin is tucked deep in the chest, the trunk and head forming a right angle, “the body should be in one straight line, perpendicular to the floor.” He called the pose, said to stimulate the thyroid, “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.”

Extreme motions of the head and neck, Russell warned, could wound the vertebral arteries, producing clots, swelling and constriction, and eventually wreak havoc in the brain. The basilar artery, which arises from the union of the two vertebral arteries and forms a wide conduit at the base of the brain, was of particular concern. It feeds such structures as the pons (which plays a role in respiration), the cerebellum (which coordinates the muscles), the occipital lobe of the outer brain (which turns eye impulses into images) and the thalamus (which relays sensory messages to the outer brain).

Reductions in blood flow to the basilar artery are known to produce a variety of strokes. These rarely affect language and conscious thinking (often said to be located in the frontal cortex) but can severely damage the body’s core machinery and sometimes be fatal. The majority of patients suffering such a stroke do recover most functions. But in some cases headaches, imbalance, dizziness and difficulty in making fine movements persist for years.

Russell also worried that when strokes hit yoga practitioners, doctors might fail to trace their cause. The cerebral damage, he wrote, “may be delayed, perhaps to appear during the night following, and this delay of some hours distracts attention from the earlier precipitating factor.”

In 1973, a year after Russell’s paper was published, Willibald Nagler, a renowned authority on spinal rehabilitation at Cornell University Medical College, published a paper on a strange case. A healthy woman of 28 suffered a stroke while doing a yoga position known as the wheel or upward bow, in which the practitioner lies on her back, then lifts her body into a semicircular arc, balancing on hands and feet. An intermediate stage often involves raising the trunk and resting the crown of the head on the floor. While balanced on her head, her neck bent far backward, the woman “suddenly felt a severe throbbing headache.” She had difficulty getting up, and when helped into a standing position, was unable to walk without assistance. The woman was rushed to the hospital. She had no sensation on the right side of her body; her left arm and leg responded poorly to her commands. Her eyes kept glancing involuntarily to the left. And the left side of her face showed a contracted pupil, a drooping upper eyelid and a rising lower lid — a cluster of symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome. Nagler reported that the woman also had a tendency to fall to the left.

Her doctors found that the woman’s left vertebral artery, which runs between the first two cervical vertebrae, had narrowed considerably and that the arteries feeding her cerebellum had undergone severe displacement. Given the lack of advanced imaging technologies at the time, an exploratory operation was conducted to get a clearer sense of her injuries. The surgeons who opened her skull found that the left hemisphere of her cerebellum suffered a major failure of blood supply that resulted in much dead tissue and that the site was seeped in secondary hemorrhages.

The patient began an intensive program of rehabilitation. Two years later, she was able to walk, Nagler reported, “with [a] broad-based gait.” But her left arm continued to wander and her left eye continued to show Horner’s syndrome. Nagler concluded that such injuries appeared to be rare but served as a warning about the hazards of “forceful hyperextension of the neck.” He urged caution in recommending such postures, particularly to individuals of middle age.

The experience of Nagler’s patient was not an isolated incident. A few years later, a 25-year-old man was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, complaining of blurred vision, difficulty swallowing and controlling the left side of his body. Steven H. Hanus, a medical student at the time, became interested in the case and worked with the chairman of the neurology department to determine the cause (he later published the results with several colleagues). The patient had been in excellent health, practicing yoga every morning for a year and a half. His routine included spinal twists in which he rotated his head far to the left and far to the right. Then he would do a shoulder stand with his neck “maximally flexed against the bare floor,” just as Iyengar had instructed, remaining in the inversion for about five minutes. A series of bruises ran down the man’s lower neck, which, the team wrote in The Archives of Neurology, “resulted from repeated contact with the hard floor surface on which he did yoga exercises.” These were a sign of neck trauma.

Diagnostic tests revealed blockages of the left vertebral artery between the c2 and c3 vertebrae; the blood vessel there had suffered “total or nearly complete occlusion” — in other words, no blood could get through to the brain.

Two months after his attack, and after much physical therapy, the man was able to walk with a cane. But, the team reported, he “continued to have pronounced difficulty performing fine movements with his left hand.” Hanus and his colleagues concluded that the young man’s condition represented a new kind of danger. Healthy individuals could seriously damage their vertebral arteries, they warned, “by neck movements that exceed physiological tolerance.” Yoga, they stressed, “should be considered as a possible precipitating event.” In its report, the Northwestern team cited not only Nagler’s account of his female patient but also Russell’s early warning. Concern about yoga’s safety began to ripple through the medical establishment.

These cases may seem exceedingly rare, but surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly. They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002. These surveys rely on sampling rather than exhaustive reporting — they reveal trends rather than totals — but the spike was nonetheless statistically significant. Only a fraction of the injured visit hospital emergency rooms. Many of those suffering from less serious yoga injuries go to family doctors, chiropractors and various kinds of therapists.

Around this time, stories of yoga-induced injuries began to appear in the media. The Times reported that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. One specialist noted that ligaments — the tough bands of fiber that connect bones or cartilage at a joint — failed to regain their shape once stretched out, raising the risk of strains, sprains and dislocations.

In 2009, a New York City team based at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published an ambitious worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors. The answers to the survey’s central question — What were the most serious yoga-related injuries (disabling and/or of long duration) they had seen? — revealed that the largest number of injuries (231) centered on the lower back. The other main sites were, in declining order of prevalence: the shoulder (219), the knee (174) and the neck (110). Then came stroke. The respondents noted four cases in which yoga’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage. The numbers weren’t alarming but the acknowledgment of risk — nearly four decades after Russell first issued his warning — pointed to a decided shift in the perception of the dangers yoga posed.

In recent years, reformers in the yoga community have begun to address the issue of yoga-induced damage. In a 2003 article in Yoga Journal, Carol Krucoff — a yoga instructor and therapist who works at the Integrative Medicine center at Duke University in North Carolina — revealed her own struggles. She told of being filmed one day for national television and after being urged to do more, lifting one foot, grabbing her big toe and stretching her leg into the extended-hand-to-big-toe pose. As her leg straightened, she felt a sickening pop in her hamstring. The next day, she could barely walk. Krucoff needed physical therapy and a year of recovery before she could fully extend her leg again. The editor of Yoga Journal, Kaitlin Quistgaard, described reinjuring a torn rotator cuff in a yoga class. “I’ve experienced how yoga can heal,” she wrote. “But I’ve also experienced how yoga can hurt — and I’ve heard the same from plenty of other yogis.”

One of the most vocal reformers is Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher with degrees in psychology from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. Cole has written extensively for Yoga Journal and speaks on yoga safety to the American College of Sports Medicine. In one column, Cole discussed the practice of reducing neck bending in a shoulder stand by lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it. The modification eases the angle between the head and the torso, from 90 degrees to perhaps 110 degrees. Cole ticked off the dangers of doing an unmodified shoulder stand: muscle strains, overstretched ligaments and cervical-disk injuries.

But modifications are not always the solution. Timothy McCall, a physician who is the medical editor of Yoga Journal, called the headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes. His warning was based partly on his own experience. He found that doing the headstand led to thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that arises from the compression of nerves passing from the neck into the arms, causing tingling in his right hand as well as sporadic numbness. McCall stopped doing the pose, and his symptoms went away. Later, he noted that the inversion could produce other injuries, including degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine and retinal tears (a result of the increased eye pressure caused by the pose). “Unfortunately,” McCall concluded, “the negative effects of headstand can be insidious.”
Almost a year after I first met Glenn Black at his master class in Manhattan, I received an e-mail from him telling me that he had undergone spinal surgery. “It was a success,” he wrote. “Recovery is slow and painful. Call if you like.”

The injury, Black said, had its origins in four decades of extreme backbends and twists. He had developed spinal stenosis — a serious condition in which the openings between vertebrae begin to narrow, compressing spinal nerves and causing excruciating pain. Black said that he felt the tenderness start 20 years ago when he was coming out of such poses as the plow and the shoulder stand. Two years ago, the pain became extreme. One surgeon said that without treatment, he would eventually be unable to walk. The surgery took five hours, fusing together several lumbar vertebrae. He would eventually be fine but was under surgeon’s orders to reduce strain on his lower back. His range of motion would never be the same.

Black is one of the most careful yoga practitioners I know. When I first spoke to him, he said he had never injured himself doing yoga or, as far as he knew, been responsible for harming any of his students. I asked him if his recent injury could have been congenital or related to aging. No, he said. It was yoga. “You have to get a different perspective to see if what you’re doing is going to eventually be bad for you.”

Black recently took that message to a conference at the Omega Institute, his feelings on the subject deepened by his recent operation. But his warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I was a little more emphatic than usual,” he recalled. “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

stories of sportsmanship

well, given the nature of these times, human nature seems to reveal itself in all its glory--or lack thereof. times of stress seem to generate a polarization in character, such that we get to see either the best or the worst of humanity.  it can be by turns inspiring, exhilirating, affirming or disheartening, depressing, and negative.

to help sway the state of things to the former and away from the latter, i figured i'd use the generally increased available time of deep winter to encourage some reflection and contemplation on the better parts of human nature. i figured to do so by identifying instances where humanity managed to achieve a measure of good character despite being in situations we typically consider to be most conducive to the exact opposite.  specifically, i wanted to remind ourselves of the capacity to for sportsmanship, and that even in the context of impassioned hostility that can occur in the fields of intense play, in the arenas of mandatory competition, under situations of supreme duress, at the highest levels of sport we can still exercise the strength of character to manifest the best parts of our humanity. we can and should, in short, be noble.

so to that effect, i'll offer a compilation of what i've written about sportsmanship before:
in addition to these, however, i'd like to offer up these recent pieces from the Guardian UK, which provides some anecdotes of actual situations where individuals were caught up in intense, stressful, difficult, combative environments but still managed to exhibit qualities that can only be described as noble--and they did so without reward or respect, and in some cases utter punishment and contempt.  they're highly recommended, and i hope the Guardian UK continues to provide more (for your convenience, i'll put the full text of the first article at the end of this post):
i'll finish by what i think we need to hear in these kinds of days: just because we live in hard times doesn't mean that have to give in to the emotions of fear, despair, anger, or sorrow; just because we are surrounded by chaos and darkness doesn't mean that we have to become evil; just because all we see is the worst in human nature doesn't mean we have to be the same way. we can be better. we should be better. we have to be better.

it's not just good to be good. it's necessary to be noble. especially if we are to make this world a better place. because the world starts--and ends--with us.

The Joy of Six: Sportsmanship
From the German who settled Jesse Owens's nerves in Berlin to the man who refused to do a Willie Young in an FA Cup final, a celebration of sport's honourable moments
1. Eugenio Monti (1964 Winter Olympic Games)
Who would expect Great Britain to have any sort of tradition in Olympic bobsleigh? Nobody in their right mind, that's who. And yet.
The duo of Tony Nash, a director of a Buckinghamshire engineering concern specialising in making cigarette machines, and Captain the Honourable Thomas Robin Dixon, an Eton-educated officer from the Grenadier Guards, made off with two-man gold at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Nash was a self-taught driver with poor eyesight, while brakeman Dixon only gave bobsleigh a whirl as part of a jolly caper while on service leave in St Moritz. Still, circumstance brought them together, and the pair became the real deal: as well as winning Olympic gold, they won the 1965 world championship in St Moritz, and came third in the worlds in 1963 and 1966. But even great sports stars need a bit of good fortune along the way, and Nash and Dixon owe the highlight of their career to the generosity of spirit of one of bobsleigh's all-time legends: the Italian driver Eugenio Monti.
Monti was without question bobsleigh's top dog, the dominant figure of the 1950s and 1960s. But despite racking up world titles, Olympic gold was eluding him. He had won silver in 1956, then in 1960 the event wasn't held. (Californian hosts Squaw Valley couldn't be bothered to stump up the cash to build a track.) In 1964, he had just turned 36, and time was running out. But desperate times did not lead to desperate measures. After the first run, the British pair led, only to find the bolt attaching the runners to the casing of the sled had sheared off. With no spare, it looked like they would have to default, but Monti whipped the bolt from his own sled, lending it to the gobsmacked Brits, suddenly still in the game.
After three of four runs, Nash and Dixon were in second place, behind Monti's fellow countrymen Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura, and just ahead of Monti and his brakeman Sergio Siorpaes. They made a dreadful final run – so bad that they immediately took leave of the track and sourced a nearby bar in which to drown their sorrows in schnapps – but the track began to cut up and slow down. Zardini and Bonagura dropped back into the silver medal position, and finally Monti and Siorpaes failed to elevate himself above bronze.
As Nash and Dixon raised a few more glasses, Monti was left with quite a consolation prize: he became the first athlete to be awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for Olympic sportsmanship. (He and his mechanics had also assisted a stricken Canadian team in the four-man event. Monti didn't win gold in that, either, naturally.) And proof that the good guys do come first came four years later at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, when despite being thrown from his bob in practice and taken to hospital, Monti got back on the horse and landed golds in the two and four-man events, aged 40.
2. Luz Long (1936 Olympic Games)
The German long jumper Carl Ludwig "Luz" Long would also be awarded a Pierre de Coubertin medal in 1964, albeit posthumously. It is an honour richly deserved; his act of selflessness is perhaps the most famous in sporting history.
On 4 August 1936, at the Berlin Olympiastadion, US athlete Jesse Owens, who had won gold in the 100 metres the day before, broke the Olympic record in the first round of heats for the 200m. Less than 10 minutes after breaking the tape, he was competing in the qualifying round for the long jump. It was his best discipline – he was the world-record holder in the event – but things didn't start well. He had watched Long – whom he had never previously met – take several practice jumps into the sand. So he took one himself. And was immediately told that had been his first attempt to qualify, and he had fouled.
With the heat on, Owens fouled his second jump too, and was a badly timed leap away from crashing out before the tournament proper had even started. At which point Long came over to introduce himself. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed," Long told Owens. The two chatted awhile. Long told Owens to make a mark a few inches behind the takeoff line, as he would easily clear the minimum distance required to make the final even with that self-imposed handicap. A calmer Owens went back, took off a foot and a half behind the line, and scraped into the final by a centimetre. It was a popular leap: according to the Manchester Guardian, the home crowd gave "a great roar of admiration" as Owens made it through.
In the final, Owens broke the Olympic record, then improved it, at 25 feet and 10 inches. Long, beyond all expectation, matched the jump. At which point Owens turned on the full jets, jumping more than 26 feet with his penultimate leap, then nearly hitting 26 and a half with his final effort. Long had no answer, but embraced Owens warmly at the end, while full jets of steam came out of the ears of Adolf Hitler. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens said years later, "and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment." The two never met again; Long was killed fighting for his country in 1943.
3. Jesse Pennington (1912 FA Cup final)
The most cynical moment in English football history? It's hard to come up with a more egregious disgrace than Arsenal defender Willie Young's infamous tripping of 17-year-old West Ham starlet Paul Allen in the dying moments of the 1980 FA Cup final. With three minutes to go, the then youngest player to appear in a Cup final flicked his boot and squirmed brilliantly free of Arsenal's backline, with only Pat Jennings to beat. A fairytale was in the making but, before Allen could reach the penalty area, in lumbered Young to trip him up in the most brazen fashion possible. Young, in Arsenal's yellow away shirt, lay flat on his back across the sun-drenched Wembley turf, a sick throwback to Charlie George's moment of glory nine years earlier.
Young was booked, and should have been sent off; the challenge effectively changed the rules of football, with referees ordered to come down on practitioners of professional fouls like a ton of bricks.
Allen was denied his goal, but West Ham still won the final, so nothing was lost. Apart from Young's reputation, that is; it's pretty much all he's remembered for these days, despite, as David Lacey pointed out in the furious aftermath of his Wembley disgrace, his being "a basically honest player". Few romantics will have much in the way of sympathy.
And the moral of the story can be found in a simple compare and contrast with Jesse Pennington, the long-time left-back of West Bromwich Albion in the immediate periods before and after the first world war. The 1912 FA Cup final between Albion and Barnsley was a dire load of forgettable tosh: 120 minutes of goalless rubbish at Crystal Palace, followed by another 117 goalless minutes in the replay at Bramall Lane. Still, everyone had put a shift in, and nobody wanted to lose. Then Barnsley winger George Utley slid a pass upfield to Harry Tufnell, who broke clear from the halfway line. Pennington famously had the chance to trip the player up – Corinthian values had long gone by the wayside, even in 1912 – but opted instead to do the right thing, admitting defeat in his personal duel and letting the victor race on. Tufnell slipped the ball past the Albion keeper, Hubert Pearson, and into the bottom-left corner of the net, and the cup was Barnsley's.
A year later, Pennington – who blamed himself for Albion's defeat –took centre stage in a betting scandal, agreeing to influence the outcome of a match, but only in order to gather evidence for the police. As the robber bandit was sent down for five months in the jug, thanks largely to Pennington's efforts, another feather was wedged in the full-back's karmic cap. Pennington would not be rewarded with an FA Cup, but he did go on to captain West Brom to their only league title, in 1919-20.
4. Bill Tilden (1927 French Championships)
The legendary US tennis player Big Bill Tilden was unquestionably the star of the 1920s. After reaching the 1918 and 1919 finals of the US National Championships, he won his home title six years on the spin.
He would likely have repeated this record at Wimbledon, too, but, after winning in SW19 in 1920 and 1921, did not bother to cross the Atlantic again, considering the quality of the opposition outside the States second-rate. Which was a fair enough assumption: a Tilden-led US team kept hold of the Davis Cup every year between 1920 and 1926, handing out fearful thrashings to Australasia, Japan, Australia and France during their reign.
But France were on the up, and were about to knock the States off their perch. Thanks to the Four Musketeers – Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon – the French won six Davis Cups in a row between 1927 and 1932. Tilden, his cap doffed, decided it was time to give the French National Championship a shot.
In truth, Tilden was, by now, slightly over the hill at 34 years of age. Nevertheless, he would have won the French title at his very first attempt had he not served up one of the great acts of sportsmanship in the final against Lacoste. The match went to a fifth and final set, though only because Tilden, when leading 2-1 in sets, had agreed to give his opponent 30 minutes to recover from cramp, rather than win by default. The final set was something of a classic, and Tilden served for it, the match, and the championship at 9-8.
Whistling an ace past Lacoste's lugs at match point, the French player made to advance the net and shake the victorious Tilden's hand – but suddenly a late call came from a linesman. The serve was out. The linesman, ironically, was another of the Four Musketeers, Cochet – though there was never any claim by Tilden of duplicity. Tilden would lose another Paris final – to Cochet, of all people – in 1930. He would never win the title, turning professional, though he did pick up a couple of French Pro Championships in the 30s.
5. Jack Nicklaus (1969 Ryder Cup)
It's easy to harp on about slipping standards – mainly because standards are slipping – but let's be honest with ourselves, they were never that high in the first place. Take the Ryder Cup. In 1991 at Kiawah Island, Seve Ballesteros developed an unfortunate tickle in his throat that would regularly force him to splutter during Chip Beck's backswing, while Corey Pavin spent the entire weekend posturing preposterously in a Desert Storm baseball cap. Both acts registered a full 11 on the bigbairnometer, though the needle sheared clean off eight years later, when the USA team went prance-about across José María Olazábal's line, in celebration of a trophy not yet quite won.
And yet there's an argument that suggests the template for this nonsense was set back in 1969, when Great Britain gave their opponents from across the briny a very rare fright during the era of total American dominance. The USA had won all but three stagings of the cup since its inauguration in 1927 – in 1929, 1933 and 1957 – but in 1969 the contest was, for once, predicted to be tight. "To an ever-increasing extent," wrote Pat Ward-Thomas in this paper, "American golfers are ceasing to appear as formidable, legendary figures. Their efficiency is beyond question, but no longer are they invested with magical skills denied to the British … It should be a memorable three days, come what may."
It certainly was. Ahead of what would be a nip-and-tuck battle, the British captain, Eric Brown, set the tone by instructing his players not to look for any opposition balls that might find their way into the rough. In the afternoon fourballs on the second day, Brian Huggett raised Cain after Dave Hill tapped in for a half, accusing the American of putting out of turn. The referee pleaded for reason, but Huggett refused to accept the ruling, and the Americans conceded the hole. Hill's companion Ken Still, "made remarks that the crowd overheard and on the 8th green booing broke out". During the singles on Saturday, Still deliberately stood too close to his opponent Maurice Bembridge while the Brit was putting.
Thank the golfing gods, then, for Jack Nicklaus, who in the final match of the final day made the most famous concession in all sport.
With the scores level at 15½ points each, Nicklaus and the newly crowned Open champion, Tony Jacklin, went down the final hole all square. There would be little drama, until the death: both men reached the green in regulation. Jacklin left himself a two-foot tiddler for par, while Nicklaus knocked in a five-footer for his.
Nicklaus's par meant the USA would escape with at least a draw, and retain the trophy no matter what. But with his captain, Sam Snead, on the sidelines itching for the outright win, Nicklaus picked up Jacklin's marker and conceded the putt. The match was halved – and the 1969 Ryder Cup was drawn. "I don't think you would have missed that, Tony," Nicklaus said, "but I didn't want to give you the chance."
One of the great moments of sportsmanship. Which shines like a beacon to this day, despite – or perhaps because – it was swiftly followed by an irate Snead giving his star man pelters in a full and frank exchange of views.
6. Alf Gover (1945 Victory Test)
The Victory Test series of 1945 between England and Australian Services was always destined to become a feelgood story for the ages, whatever happened. The first match was held 12 days after the unconditional surrender of Germany, and crowds flocked to Lord's partly to witness the first such action in six years, partly to get back into the groove of normal life. The four three-day matches weren't awarded official Test status – the Aussies had to scrape together an inexperienced team, while England were close to full strength – but nobody paid much attention to the bureaucracy. This was a welcome return to the sort of combat that could be enjoyed.
"The MCC hope always to maintain the great tradition of a game which means so much to both England and Australia," the MCC president, Stanley Christopherson, wrote, during an exchange of cablegrams with the Australian prime minister, John Curtin. "We reciprocate warmly your wish that never again will the matches be interrupted." The nice war was back on.
The series would end all square, two "Tests" apiece, but it was apt that the opening match would be the most memorable. On the opening day, in cold weather, England made a first-innings total of 267 in front of a Lord's crowd of 23,000. By stumps, Australia had put on 82 for the loss of two wickets.
Day two, on the Monday, saw Australia take control of the match as, under perfect batting conditions, they rattled up a first-innings total of 455. "England's somewhat elderly team toiled in vain to stop the young Australian airmen and soldiers," the Manchester Guardian reported. "The truth is that England has had no opportunity yet to replace Hedley Verity and Ken Farnes, both killed during the war, or WE Bowes, who only recently returned from a German prison camp."
Australia's big score that day was made by "night-fighter pilot Keith Miller", who notched a 105 "notable for vigorous drives and cuts". The crowd, as nonpartisan as it gets between England and Australia, simply enjoyed the spectacle. "They welcomed the former prisoner of war, Graham Williams, by cheering him all the way to the crease. He too, enjoyed himself … helping himself to eleven fours in his 53."
England ended the day requiring 188 to avoid an innings defeat.
Which they managed, setting Australia a target of 107 to win in their final innings. They had 70 minutes to score them. For a while, it looked as if the Aussie XI would fail to make it; with 20 minutes of play left, they were 65 for three. But England's bowlers began to flag and Australia inched towards their target. Just as the clock was about to strike seven, to end the day's play, Australia were still five runs short. At which point England bowler Alf Gover ordered his team-mates to rush to their positions to ensure their opponents had one last over, and a chance to register a deserved victory. Which they did, Cec Pepper sweeping to leg for two. The previous ball, also hit for two runs by Pepper, was nearly caught, a draw slipping through the Englishman's fingers. But let's not think how close this fairy story came to remaining untold.

Friday, February 10, 2012

vacation, injuries, issues, and an absence

ok, yeah, i know. last post was back in december and it's now february. it's been awhile. the blog was lonely. so were you. and i was ditto.

if it helps, i did not intend on taking such a long absence from posting on this blog.  i originally planned on the typical winter break over the holiday season and resuming things once things had passed new year's (gregorian, not lunar).  but as you can see, things went for a little bit longer than expected.

it turned out some things came up beyond vacation. i'll spare you the details. i'll just say that once i returned from the annual vacation trip with the family and recovered from the resulting jet lag,  i did resume the usual active lifestyle. unfortunately, i managed to pick up some nagging injuries, primarily in the lower extremities (knee and ankle).  nothing bad, but enough that it registered as reminiscent of some past unpleasant unwanted experiences with chronic ligament and tendon damage.  i decided that caution was the better part of valor and that i should nip things in the bud by just shutting everything down and letting my body work itself out. i'll consider it part of a winter hibernation--and who knows, maybe my body was telling me something and that it really did need this extended period of physical down-time to recharge all systems.

beyond that, i've been experiencing the same challenges everyone else has with these economic times, and it's made it necessary for me to make work more than just a priority but an all-consuming factor in my life. i know this runs counter to the messages that readers of this blog share about trying to find a healthy, productive, constructive lifestyle conducive to overall development as a human being. as you probably realize, however, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control and which we do not plan and to which we have to direct ourselves, at least until the crisis passes.

in the meantime, i assure you i will resume posting. it's sort of like training, albeit of a mental and spiritual kind, and hence something i consider relevant to personal health. just like you, i think it's important for us to make this journey. it's ultimately what life, and hence this blog, is really about.

let's keep going, kids. we'll be all right.