ON THE ROAD TO SOCHI


That was what the sign on the trailer said, as we drove by the US Olympic Trials ski jumping venue.  After seeing a line of parked cars a mile long, we instead went to Park City for lunch.  I was visiting a German friend whom I had met on line, and because she and her family were in the US, I decided to visit. 

Salt Lake City (SLC) got the Olympics by cheating, not that such is unique to any Olympic city, although I expected more from a place that is heavily Mormon. Being religious requires maintaining higher values that those of us non-believers in order to avoid being called hypocrites.  The SLC Olympics had a US federal subsidy of $1.3 billion; $40 million went permanently to SLC to maintain the areas and use locally.  If the current president, who got very few votes in Utah, tried to spend that kind of money, I would need sound canceling headphones to drown out the screaming from Provo to Brigham City.

That subsidy, however, was only 5 times that of Alex Rodriguez’s contract, for hitting a baseball and maybe fielding one.  It equals the combined revenue from sports of the top 10 universities in the US. The NCAA itself receives $1 billion in sponsorship in March alone; about the same is paid for the NFL post-season.

Exceptional athletes are born.  We used to think it was just a matter of training, although if that were the case, then any of us could become an exceptionally good mathematician, musician, or runner, and that isn’t the case. Summiting an 8000 meter peaks without oxygen is an accomplishment, but people who do that have something innate that the rest of us don’t.

One may therefore say that sports are a matter of watching somebody exceptionally programmed (read: born right), who has worked hard, do things the rest of us can never do.  Hard work is only part of the equation.  We aren’t watching a freak show, but the rest of us aren’t going to be the Three Tenors, either.  Money and sports engender greed.  The fact we have to test for illegal drug use is proof of that.  If I improve my running time 1%, it doesn’t matter.  If I am an elite  runner, it matters a lot.  Lance cheated, and many he beat cheated, too.  Doping is part of high level sports, because sports are big money.  Too big.  Money corrupts.  We have our priorities wrong, and it is not popular to comment about it.  As a child, I was in awe of exceptional athletes, back when both “awe” and “exceptional athlete” meant something.

Now, when I see an exceptional athlete, I think “born talent, a lot of work, and what drugs did they take?”  I’m 1.8 m tall and 75 kg.  It’s difficult to believe those men on the front line of virtually every top college program are twice as heavy by eating what I eat and lifting weights.  In 1985, “The Refrigerator” was a freak at 140 kg.  Now, he would be the lightest person on many offensive lines.  If this is evolution, than we have an even worse problem with the species than I suspected.

Yeah, a lot of the money paid goes to the school.  Then why not cut ticket prices?  Why not cut student debt, stop the “student athlete” charade, where they “forego their senior year” (which I call dropping out of college) to go pro,  the required “study halls,” as if college were a place where one studied occasionally, rather than the 12 hour days I put in?  Sport worshipping filters down to high school, where now we have high school national rankings.  On ESPN, I have seen on a pair of high school teams playing a sport that has been shown to harm the brain of those young people playing it, who are the most susceptible to long term complications. This is outrageous.

The Olympics have become an expensive 17 day display of talent, work, cheating, and money, to bid for the site, to build the site by moving homeless people to construct venues (Rio), to have bad contracting (Greece, Russia) that may or may not be used much in the future.  Apparently, this expenditure of time and effort is worth it, despite the fact only a quarter of graduating seniors from Harvard know why we have seasons, at least 40% of Americans believe in astrology, 3 in 8 can find Iraq on a map, only half New York; we have world-wide poverty beyond comprehension, limited family planning, don’t believe in population control, and could protect the environment if we had the same will.

Without a doubt, the Matt Knight Arena in Eugene is a wonderful place to watch college sports and to seat thousands for other events.  On the other hand, I think the $227 million spent by Phil Knight, to honor the memory of his son, Matt, who died accidentally, could also have been used to eradicate hunger once and for all in Lane County and do something about the Whoville homeless tent cities, one of which was 800 meters from the Arena last holiday season. It wasn’t my money, but I know what I would want for my legacy.

Sports and education testing are big businesses.  I’m not certain education is benefiting from either.  We have students whose writing is atrocious; many young people do not know how to handle a pen, can’t write a sentence, and can’t count change.  This is outrageous.  Many make wild guesses, because they were taught to “participate,” regardless of what they say. I have helped 10th graders in an affluent district divide 3 into 12.  We don’t require multiplication table memorization, which is fundamental to math. Memorization is important in life. Many can’t deal with percentages, like credit card interest, which might be useful; 1 of 100 high school students I have asked could tell me how many feet there were in a mile; none yet can tell me how many acres in a square mile (real estate relevancy).  Their grammar is atrocious, so at least two of the three “R”s are not being learned.  I don’t know how much they read, but I suspect it isn’t much.  The concept of a written thank you letter, let alone basic politeness, is often unknown.  I called a Medicare hotline, and the choices the operator gave me for asking how to address me were “Mike and Michael.”  By definition, people who call this line are over 65, unless their children are calling. This approach is impolite to MY generation, and I AM the customer.  Teaching students basic material, and the above is basic, should be mandatory in this country, and it is far more important than the $1 million median salary in MLB or the $37 million Hank Paulson made at Goldman Sachs in 2005, when he left to join the Bush administration. He was outraged at the bonuses paid after TARP.  He made millions helping to set up the collapse that required TARP. This is outrageous.

We have 50 states, 50 laboratories to try new approaches to see what works and what doesn’t.  A lot won’t work, and we will learn why not.  A lot, however, will work, and the benefits will be enormous, not the least being America’s being true to itself for a change.

Where will the money come from?  We should tax stock trades at $1/$10000 or 0.o1%.  That would raise $6 billion a year, enough to pay each teacher in the public schools (I deliberately ignore all others) $2000 more, right there.  Raise it to $1/$1000, and we get $60 billion a year, some serious money to pay teachers an income that would encourage good students to enter the field.  A 39.4% marginal tax rate in high income gave us a surplus.  I’d make it 45%, tax Wall Street bonuses at 75%, and not let students graduate until they mastered basic skills that any reasonable person thinks a kid should know before leaving school.  You want more examples, let me know.  I don’t care if the parents complain.  Education matters more than sports, actors, or rock stars.

America should get gold medals for feeding all its citizens appropriately, educating our population adequately, and reducing homelessness.  In 2024, how we do these will matter and be remembered; nobody will remember Sochi.

Right now, I’m lucky if I encounter a high school student who can find Russia on a map.  Extra credit if they now know the body of water Sochi is near.  Double if they can name the country, the region, and nearby body of water in that region the Boston Marathon bomber came from. I think this sort of stuff is important.  Triple, if they know the doubling time of money at 8% interest.  Sorry to make the last question so easy, since one only needs the basic multiplication tables to answer it.  Hint: it’s the Rule of 72.

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