Saturday, 13 November 2010

Images from the deep - inspiring footage from a marine scientist

I usually blog about land-based sports but will make an exception as an opportunity to show some of the brilliant underwater video work being done by a US colleague Annie Crawley.
She's not an athlete, though her frequent scuba trips would probably qualify her as such, but the footage she brings back from every journey is always stunning and ocean-lovers from surfers and scuba-divers to fishermen couldn't help but be inspired by the images.
I met Annie at a science conference in North Carolina in January 2010 and watched a few of her amazing presentations on her ocean-based education programs. We chatted about her passion for the ocean and, as someone based in London and away from my beloved Pacific Ocean for two years, it revived my inspiration to want to get back in the water.
Her most recent voyage was to the Galapagos Islands. No need to say any more, just watch the video!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Do sports fans at live games really need more stimulation?

There are times in a serious sports watcher's life when they question whether three hours spent yelling at players and umpires on a rain-soaked pitch has really been worth it.

Or for soccer supporters who sit through a string of nil-all or one-all draws, drained of the satisfaction gained from a pivotal victory, who might wish they had an option of something else to watch than the boring spectacle in front of them.

It was only some time before a professional sports league decided fans needed more excitement and, rather than the baseball tradition of just running more colourful and annoying images on even-larger stadium screens, the time must have come for ticketholders to have their own personal entertainment units along with their overpriced hotdogs and lukewarm beer.

These FanVision gadgets, discussed in this post in the New York Times, allow American football viewers to stream footage from the game in front of them as well as several live games from other stadiums.

Teams will sell their own branded units to fans and it's expected that iPhone-draining apps are also on their way from teams such as the New York Giants and the Major League Baseball stable.

While there are positives for fans way up in the nosebleed section who want to know which of the ants on the field scored or people returning from bathroom or bar queues to catch up on missed play, this looks to be further increasing a sense of detachment from the game.

For a paid-up club member, attending and actually watching every game of a team's season either pays off in end-of-season finals success or the hope that their following season will bring long-awaited reward.

For players on the field then to look up into the stands and see supporters staring at tiny video screens, must bring with it some kind of disillusionment with their own achievements. Yes, this may have already happened with the flood of iPhones and similar devices but there should be a limit to how much of fans' attention the NFL, MLB or other leagues want taken away from the onfield action.

No doubt marketing heads in the big leagues have claimed FanVision and other tools are a way of 'owning the space' and taking a slice of the cash to be generated by live-action video content.

What they continue to forget is the reason fans sometimes go back to the lower-paid minor league and country junior competitions: to escape the overstimulated environments and enjoy the simplicity of a game between two teams where the only instant replay is in a viewer's memory bank.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

"I. Don't. Want. Your. Life" and other screen sports gems

In a recent discussion with friends about the new British basketball feature film Freestyle, which I plan to review as soon as I can manage the two hours off from normal life, we got onto the dicey subject of the best and worst sports films of recent memory.

Obviously, the movie referred to in the title had an early mention. Varsity Blues falls, in my view, into the bad sports movie camp, despite some lovable characters (not including James Van Der Beek doing an appalling Southern accent) and a halfway decent depiction of a head coach bent on winning the title at all costs.

Where it fell down was in the actual game scenes. Obviously you don't expect super-realism - this is not a Dan Marino or Timmy Tebow documentary - but the overused and now very lame cliches of the last five seconds of a game that take up four minutes of screen time (and the annoying use of the Foo Fighters' My Hero set to pictures of Van Der Beek and co trotting on field for their final push) are vital flaws.

Any Given Sunday, Friday Night Lights and any other football movie with a day in its title did a better job of the game scenes. Some would say even Jerry Maguire did better on game action but those people are idiots.

Varsity Blues

On the basketball front, there have been too many bad films to list here. I say bad as in the films that lost out when it came to the actors' believability, through both acting and gameplaying ability. I've never rated Kevin Bacon as an actor and he lost major points with his scarcely comprehendible role as a jaded college basketball coach in The Air Up There.

A more streetball-focused film, Above the Rim, had some very tight game scenes but was let down by appalling acting. And I won't even go into the major dent in Michael Jordan's reputation gained by doing Space Jam.

The film that non-players and court stars all can relate to and enjoy in the same way was White Men Can't Jump. Woody and Wesley handled those parts exceptionally and the director and cinematographer showcased both stars' strengths: Wesley with the physical game action, Woody with comedic moments and the actually believable three-point shootout. It's a very well-shot and edited movie that can make you believe the actor really did hit that tray or made the game-clinching dunk without the obvious mashing together of various takes.

And - the key ingredient in my opinion - a good sport film will make you want to get off the couch and go out to play the sport you've just watched. WMCJ did that over and over again for me, in the days when highlight reels from NBA games weren't just filled with huge dunks and the achievements on screen looked, well, achievable to the average baller.

White Men Can't Jump

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Winter Games are over, it's time for a breakdown

I have to give a shout out to Five Tool Tool for his interesting and admittedly biased coverage of the Winter Olympics, especially the ice hockey that had many Canadians praising the Own the Podium program that was so hated by other countries.

Though it's obviously diferent for a bobsled rider and a hockey jock: one has to adapt to a technically difficult track at short notice, the other has to put skates and helmet on, go out on a random patch of ice and hurt somebody.

Anyway, here's the FTT's humorous recap of the greatest Winter Games we could have expected in a global recession:

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Two winter Olympic golds for Australia!!

There will much written in the next few days about the significance of Australia winning two gold medals at the Winter Olympics, including the most recent effort by young freestyle skier Lydia Lassila.
It's a medal in an event that should make Australians extremely proud and is set to send shockwaves through the sport (a big claim I know but hey, it's already making headline news in San Diego, of all places).
I interviewed Lydia back when she had a different surname and was trailing in public profile behind Alisa Camplin, Jacqui Cooper and Kirstie Marshall (details on them and other freestyle Australian Winter Olympians here).
Camplin was the golden girl of the time and Lydia the young up-and-comer, so it's fantastic to see her taking the top spot in the sport.  
I read a few of the Facebook status updates that flickered through on the Vancouver 2010 website and, aside from the excitement, was struck by comments by a few Aussies along the lines of, 'Australia doesn't even have snow and we won a medal'. Um, obviously these people have never been to southern New South Wales, Victoria or Tasmania if they're under the impression there is no snow in Oz.
I understand the more basic meaning of the statement, that Australia does not have the same levels of snow, mountains of high altitude or length of season experienced in other countries. But it's sadly an often-held misunderstanding that our country has no snow at all.
Newsflash: the whole of Australia is not desert. Google 'Australia percent desert' and you see a whole range of figures, various websites claiming from 33% to 70% of the country is desert/semi-arid (though I trust Yahoo Answers and Wikianswers even less than I believe in UFOs).
But the rest of Australia experiences varying climates, so it makes sense than in the colder southeast, where the mountains can top 2200 metres, a good season can generate a 1-2m snowbase and often quality powder to go with it.
And while the crowds are sometimes ridiculous and lift ticket prices exorbitant, I wish more Europeans and Americans would be able to visit us during a good season, help give the Aussie snowsports industry a lift and prove that when we win a gold medal in the Winter Games, it's not always due to a last-minute pile-up, Steven Bradbury fashion.   

Friday, 19 February 2010

Returning from the bench, where only science nerds dwell

It's an odd thing, planning to head back to my old industry of sport after nearly two years in health and medical public relations. 

Many of my UK and US contacts are in health and science and I've had the occasional display of surprise when I say I want to return to sports PR. For science communicators, sports writing and promotion is often a foreign and unknown quantity, something that was made plain by this comment from a fellow science writer yesterday:

I had to Google the term 'double teaming' as I wasn't sure what it meant.

The comment related to a headline about two cancer-beating proteins, which when combined with a special drug, have been shown to effectively knock out cancer cells in the lab (if you want to know more, here some detail on the process).

So the company freelance writer's headline suggestion of 'Double-teaming cancer' as a basketball reference made complete sense to me and none to anyone else. And I just hope the commenter had Safe Search on when she googled that term.

One of the areas I’m relishing in working on is the reason I started this blog and my own Twitter account: the chance to combine sports writing, opinion, health news and social media.

On a corporate level this will be an interesting shift: after working in the aforementioned science field and handling SM for a small company, I have a better understanding of what types of stories scientists want to read about. And while I still regularly read sports news pages and blogs, talking solely to that audience will be a welcome challenge.

On the social media aspect, here's a link to a promotional video showing what my former employer in Australia has been up to while I'm away.

When I left Monash Sport two years ago, they were cautious of the uses, audience and effects of social media but have obviously grasped the basics after setting up Facebook groups, Youtube and Metacafe channels and an underfollowed Twitter account. 
It’s a healthy cultural shift and one that their members are obviously enjoying.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Did I forget it was winter, amidst the ball sport madness?

I don't talk much about snowboarding in my writing, despite it being in my top four favourite sports since I took it up 10 years ago. That first drop, on my third ever run at Mt Seymour near Vancouver, was only three or four feet but that was the point where it was cemented in my sporting passions.

And if money was no object when choosing a dream house, it would be extremely tough choice between a snow-capped mountain lodge and an out-of-the-way beachside farmhouse.

With the Winter Olympics kicking off this weekend, it's a also a brilliant time for newspaper readers in those cities/towns/states where board, sled and ski sports are pretty much non-existent in the sports pages. In the UK, jaded football writers have taken to talking up our skeleton and boardercross prospects while journos at the free Sport magazine (whose website sadly carries only an e-edition) after forced to dumb down their usually insightful interviews for a largely clueless public.

Even though only cable channel Eurosport will carry the coverage and no doubt do it poorly, I'll still no doubt grab a few hours at a pub to get more visual inspiration for an upcoming trip to French Alps.

But often when it comes to watching snowboarding videos, I glaze over after a few minutes due to the inevitable spin-to-win halfpipe footage. Sure, I've never seriously ridden park or pipe but there's nothing I find as interesting on the pipe as the buzz I get watching big mountain riding, Warren Miller film style.

Which is why this brilliant clip caught my immediate attention: some tricky rail grinds and obligatory dance music (whatever happened to good surf/snow punk rock??) sure but the open off-piste riding is where it stands out. And when it comes to talented freaks like Shaun White or this video star Tadej Valentan-Elektro, I'd watch them hill riding any day over a double cork on a pipe wall. Enjoy.

Tadej Valentan-Elektro.2009 from Nejc Hudolin on Vimeo.

Monday, 8 February 2010

What's more important: the Superbowl's best plays, best ads or the 'triumph of the human spirit'?

So the Superbowl has been done and won by corporate America and those wearing Peyton Manning jerseys should be finished drowning their sorrows in Bud Light and drunkenly signing up for a cheap Go Daddy internet package. Saints fans may have moved on from their celebratory texting on their new Motorola phones to Googling "Timmy Tebow and Focus on the Family" (below) instead of a sly search for Megan Fox.

There may even be some out there counting the 'triumph over adversity' style news stories that are piling up on the news pages as sports reporters are encouraged to go beyond the 'Saints win, Colts lose' stream and search for meaning in a game that shouldn't, in my opinion, be linked with mentions of a hurricane or Oprah.

As so many news reports are sydnicated these days, it's hard to know whether a well-meaning hack was looking for a deeper meaning in this UK Telegraph report or just a link to an internationally-known event to attract those who know nothing about the American brand of football:

"Quarterback Brees completed 32 of his 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns to earn the Most Valuable Player award, with the Saints winning in their first Super Bowl appearance after 42 years in the National Football League - and four-and-a-half years after their city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina."

As a former sports journalist, I understand the need to drag in empathy-winning material to make an otherwise dull story exciting or push a slightly interesting story into backpage gold. There was one story I remember where a champion cyclist was tipped as favourite to win the first desert ride across the harsh Australian outback, only to have his sole bike wrecked in a minor collision a day before the start. He managed to wrangle a sub-standard loan bike from a friend and was still able to not only complete the ride but win (not in record time, that would have been too much). It was a great story but in the end the most important details were the riders, the conditions and the overall event itself, not any external hype.

I think it's either the fault of lazy reporting or an editor who wants the front page too much, when a sports story focuses too much on the human interest angle. Yes it matters that the Saints could re-emerge after Hurricane Katrina to win the game because ordinary fans celebrating on the New Orleans streets (or maybe just those intervewied by the WaPo) claimed it as a victory over the flood.

But is it important that a PETA ad was banned from the prime-time viewing slot because of partial nudity? This is barely news, any more that it was when PETA ads were being banned four years ago.

What did matter was that a Colts player battled on through injury, that Tracy Porter intercepted a pass by the Colts star quarterback to touchdown at the opposite end for the win. No marketing slogan or emotive story should take the limelight from details like that.

If they do, then we may as well Tivo the game and next day just watch the ads, eat Frito-Lays and drink Pepsi from one of these ridiculous party packs (above) and convince ourselves that winning a football game really can help people recover from a natural disaster.
PS. I loved this post from The Onion on the true meaning of Christmas a Superbowl win

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Why American college sports teams have all the luck

When I stepped into the Cameron Indoor Stadium (an odd name I thought but then it states its purpose) last week, it was the peak of my four days in North Carolina.

I was actually there to attend a conference on science and the web but two sidetrips to Durham and Chapel Hill being available, I wasn't going to pass up the chance to see the Cameron court at Duke University or the University of North Carolina football stadium (outdoor, in case you were wondering).
Look at the shine on the court, the electronic scoreboard, the TV camera-friendly lighting, 9300-seat capacity and potential for player sponsorshiop deals and then ask why getting a spot on a US sports team  is an internationally-respected achievement. While I wasn't able to catch a game due to tickets being sold out well before I planned the trip (except for the $5000 courtside package), just being in the stadium was enough inspiration for me.

Duke have 15 wins, 3 losses for the season after the 88-74 loss to NC State on Wednesday. Their 6'8" forward Kyle Singler's No 12 jersey can be seen on anyone from freshman to college professor to shopkeepers around parochial Durham (and London UK, now that I splashed out to buy the cheaper $60 away strip).

Glancing down the All-American wall of fame at Duke (small section pictured left) was like a trip back to my first days playing ball in high school, seeing names like Christian Laettner, Jason Williams and Grant Hill slotted in amongst players who may have been just as well known in their respective sports. Whether Singler follows these college legends to the NBA is another question but with the positive reception that greets his consistently high shooting stats, he will no doubt have had all the fame he can handle before he even turns 22 in May.