Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My view on 2020 Summer Olympics bids

The host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics will be elected on 7 September 2013. The candidate cities are Istanbul in Turkey, Tokyo in Japan, and Madrid in Spain. Tokyo was already my initial favorite, I like Japan and I believe they can host well big events. But I also liked the idea of Istanbul hosting the Olympics; Turkey hasn't hosted major sports events very often. Madrid was my least favorite to host the games; Spain is the latest country of the bidders to have hosted Summer Olympics, in Barcelona in 1992.

Talking about the venues, Madrid is my favorite because they have more venues already existing than Tokyo or Istanbul. Too often Olympics leave venues that become white elephants with little use after the games. As Madrid has so many of the venues already now, I believe the risk of white elephant syndrome is the smallest.

Madrid is also a compact project. All of the venues located in Madrid would be within 10 kilometers from the city center. On the other hand, Madrid is the only candidate city located in the inland. That's why the sailing events have to be held in Valencia, over 300 kilometers away from Madrid. Istanbul and Tokyo could host also sailing events in the host city.

Also Tokyo would be a compact project. 85% of competition venues and 70% of training venues would be within 8 kilometers from the Olympic Village. Istanbul wouldn't be as compact a project as the venues would be within 30 kilometers from the Olympic Village.

The Olympic Stadium is maybe the most prominent venue of the Olympics. Istanbul is planning an unusual solution for the opening and closing ceremonies, they are not going to have them at the athletics stadium like usually. Instead they are going to build a 70,000-seat stadium for the ceremonies even though the existing Atatürk Olympic Stadium for athletics would have 76,000 seats. That would be only the third time when the athletics stadium isn’t the Olympic Stadium at the Summer Olympics, the Vélodrome de Vincennes was the Olympic Stadium at the 1900 Paris Olympics and the Maracanã football stadium will be the Olympic Stadium at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The ceremony stadium in Istanbul would be situated at the Bosphorus and there would be a view to the Bosphorus. It would definitely look great but my initial worry was whether there would be post-Olympics need for a stadium that isn’t made to accommodate a running track or a football pitch. At least they would reduce the seating capacity to more reasonable 20,000 after the games, so maybe a separate ceremony stadium isn’t such a bad idea.

Tokyo would have the same Olympic Stadium they had when they previously hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964. The stadium will be reconstructed for the 2019 Rugby World Cup increasing the seating capacity from about 50,000 to about 80,000. Madrid’s Olympic Stadium would be Estadio La Peineta which is currently being expanded from 20,000 seats to 70,000 to become football club Atlético Madrid’s home stadium in 2015.

As a tennis fan, I am interested in the tennis venues, even though tennis is one of my least favorite sports at the Olympics. I think Spain would be the best possible country to host the Olympic tennis; they are probably the most important tennis nation without a slam, the Olympics would be their chance to host something almost as important as a slam. Also, Madrid’s tennis venue Caja Mágica has clay courts so we might see Olympic tennis on clay; previously there have been clay courts only at the 1993 Olympics in Barcelona.

The tennis venue in Tokyo would be the Ariake Coliseum. It currently has DecoTurf hard courts, and that probably wouldn’t change for the Olympics, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 were played on DecoTurf as it prepares players for the US Open played on the same surface. For that reason, I believe also Istanbul would have the Olympic tennis on DecoTurf hard courts, they don’t have an existing venue with another surface like London last year and Barcelona in 1992 had.

I found the proposed dates for the games in the IOC’s Evaluation Commission report. Istanbul and Madrid have proposed to hold the games from 7 to 23 August, i.e. the same weeks as Beijing 2008. Tokyo has proposed to hold the games two weeks earlier from 24 July to 9 August, i.e. the same weeks as London 2012. That affects to the Olympic sports’ competition calendars. In tennis that would obviously mean that Tokyo would host the Olympics before the Canadian and Cincinnati Masters events. Istanbul and Madrid would host the Olympics between those Masters events and the US Open. I am afraid that the latter scenario could weaken the field at the Olympic tennis. Players would have to travel from the USA to another continent for the Olympics and then back to the USA for the US Open. Some players might be reluctant to do that ahead of a slam, especially if the Olympics were played on clay in Madrid. That would mean a transition from hard courts to clay and back to hard courts.

I think the host nation succeeding is important for the atmosphere of sports events. Of these three bidding nations, Japan has been the most successful in the recent Olympic Games; Japanese athletes won 38 medals at last year’s Summer Olympics, Spanish athletes won 17 medals and Turkish athletes five medals. On the other hand, host nations may be more willing for doping as they have the pressure to succeed at their home Olympics. That’s why I think a bidding nation shouldn’t have any recent doping scandals like Turkey and Spain have had during the past year. Numerous Turkish athletes have been caught from doping during the past year. In Spain, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes was convicted over doping offences but the court didn’t allow his clients to be named, which caused cover-up speculations. Because of those scandals, I believe Japan would be the most likely to host clean Olympics, at least when it comes to the home team. Moreover, I think the IOC could punish countries with doping scandals by not awarding them the games.

Yet another reason for why I think Tokyo would be the best host city is that I think Japan is a better place for the 2020 Olympics than Turkey or Spain. There were big demonstrations in Turkey this summer, something which I don’t think should happen in an Olympic host country. Spain, on the other hand, is a country in a financial crisis. Another crisis country, Italy, were also bidding for the 2020 games but withdrew their bid because of their financial situation. That’s why I think neither Spain should get the games.

So, Tokyo is my favorite. They have the most compact bid and I think Japan is the best country of the bidders to host the Olympics. I would prefer Madrid’s bid as they have most venues already existing. Unfortunately I don’t think Spain would be the best country to host the Olympics in 2020 because of their financial crisis. What I think is Tokyo’s problem is that there would be two consecutive Olympic Games in Eastern Asia; South Korea’s Pyeongchang will host the 2018 Winter Olympics. But I don’t think that should be a problem, Greece’s Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics and Italy’s Torino the 2006 Winter Olympics so there were two consecutive Olympic Games in Mediterranean countries.

Monday, August 12, 2013

How commercialism is destroying sports – Part 2: Tennis

I wrote in the previous text about how commercialism has changed the racing in Formula One. But it isn't the only sport that has changed because of the commercial interests. The game of tennis has changed over the last decade for commercial reasons.

Tennis originated in the 19th century as lawn tennis played on grass courts. Since then other playing surfaces have been introduced and those different surfaces favour different playing styles. The contrast between playing styles on different surfaces had become biggest in the 90s. French Open champions were struggling to get past even the early rounds on Wimbledon's grass and players like Sampras, Becker, and Edberg never managed to win the French Open on clay to complete the Grand Slam. That's why Andre Agassi's Career Grand Slam is a truly amazing achievement.

Unfortunately the game seen on the fastest surfaces in the 90s didn't please the big crowd. The big crowd found serve-and-volley boring and rather wanted to see long rallies. That's why the two fastest Grand Slam events; Wimbledon on grass and the US Open on hard courts slowed down their surfaces. After that you could hear players saying that the US Open is already faster than Wimbledon. That shows how much Wimbledon was slowed down. Grass is supposed to be the fastest surface but Wimbledon became slower than US Open on slowed-down hard courts. Nowadays Wimbledon is probably again the fastest slam, but not because it would have been speeded up. Instead the US Open has been even slower in the last years.

The other hardcourt slam, the Australian Open, changed their surface for the 2008 tournament because the previous Rebound Ace hardcourt became sticky on hot weather causing injuries. Already Rebound Ace was slower than the US Open's DecoTurf hardcourt, and be it intentional or not, the new Plexicushion hardcourt was even slower. Also, the fast indoor carpet courts were abandoned on the tour after 2008 and replaced with slower indoor hard courts. A real reason or an excuse to slow down the game, but one of the aims was to reduce the risk of injuries.

There is still one surface that hasn't been slowed down, it is clay. If anything, it has rather been speeded up. The French Open plays faster than previously, even though it can be explained by the faster balls introduced in 2011. Then again, balls can be used to homogenize court speeds; not only Wimbledon's grass has been slowed down but also the balls are slow there.

I find it sad that they are homogenizing surfaces. Homogenized surfaces take away variety from the game. I think that has depreciated the Grand Slam as an achievement. It is easier to master different surfaces than it was in the 90s when Agassi reached the Career Grand Slam. And not only Agassi reached the Career Grand Slam on four very different surfaces but he also won the Year-End Championship on indoor carpet. Also, as the homogenization is done mainly by slowing down the fastest surfaces, it has favoured players with great defensive abilities at the expense of players with great offensive abilities. Moreover, I think the slower surfaces make the game more physical. Longer rallies require better stamina and you need to be stronger to hit through the slow courts. Of course, faster surfaces favour big-hitters but you have less time to prepare the shots there. That hurts some big-hitters. Also, fast surfaces enable players with weaker shots to hit winners. I would say the average pace of courts on today's tour is medium-slow; courts are more often slow than fast. Then again, I think the average pace of 90s' courts was too fast. Most hard courts were fast, the 90s US Open was very fast as even the slowed-down mid-00s' US Open was still fast. I think grass and clay should have been left like they were, they are the two most traditional surfaces. But I think hard courts needed some slowing down. The Australian Open on Rebound Ace was fine. It was a slow hard court but not as slow as the current Plexicusion surface. And I think the US Open was fine in the mid-00s when it had been slowed down a bit from the 90s. It was still fast but not too fast as shown by the French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero reaching the 2003 final.

But the slower surfaces have brought what the big crowd wanted. More long rallies, less serve-and-volley. And the homogenized surfaces have one effect which the ATP and the WTA must like. As the surfaces play more similarly, it is more likely the same players that make the late rounds in all events. In the 90s it was hard to succeed at both the French Open and Wimbledon, in the recent years it has been much easier as shown by Nadal winning them both in 2008 and 2010 and Federer doing that in 2009. The previous time that had happened was in 1980 by Björn Borg.

But maybe the surfaces might be speeded up again in the near future. The slow surfaces can lead to long matches like the six-hour final between Djokovic and Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open. TV channels probably aren't too happy with matches being so long. By speeding up the courts, points would become shorter and matches would be over in a shorter time.

Monday, August 5, 2013

How commercialism is destroying sports – Part 1: Formula One

The rapidly degrading Pirelli tyres and DRS have somewhat changed the nature of racing in Formula One. DRS has made overtaking easier and rapidly degrading tyres give more overtaking opportunities for the drivers whose tyres are in a better shape. And that was the reason for why DRS and rapidly degrading tyres were introduced. Overtaking had become very difficult in F1. They tried to make overtaking easier with rule changes for 2009, for example aerodynamics were reduced and slick tyres were introduced to help to follow a car ahead. But that didn't increase overtaking very much. That's why something more radical was made for 2011; a driver can open his rear wing when he is enough close to the car ahead. Also, the tyres were made to degrade more rapidly. That was made because some drivers having much fresher tyres would enable more overtaking.

But was that good for F1? We can hear people praising today's F1 as it has much more overtaking than there was some years ago. But we can also hear other people complaining about how F1 isn't anymore proper racing. And that is my opinion, too. Rapidly degrading tyres have brought an endurance aspect to F1. Drivers need to nurse their tyres to avoid additional tyre changes. That wasn't the case some years ago when the tyres didn't degrade as much. Over the last decades, F1 had lost the endurance aspect it had had in its early decades. The relatively short race distance allowed building cars that lasted well for the whole race and drivers didn't need to save the car. The longlife engines and gearboxes introduced in the 00s multiplied the distances driven with them but because of their great reliability, drivers don't have to save the engines unless they are in a position where they can do it without losing their position.

But the rapidly degrading tyres have caused that the drivers need to save tyres and that's why we can hear engineers warning them of driving too fast. I don't think that kind of an endurance aspect belongs to F1. Endurance racing like Le Mans is another thing, even though the improved reliability has reduced much of its endurance aspect, too. Also, the rapidly degrading tyres have affected to racing in F1. It is easier to get overtaking chances if you have fresher tyres than the car ahead. That has increased overtaking. But if the driver ahead is struggling with his tyres and trying to preserve them, he may be reluctant to do all he can to defend his position. And I think defending a position is an important element of racing. That's why it is sad to see drivers being unable to try to defend their positions. Also, overtakes where a driver passes another driver who cannot defend are not so spectacular in my opinion. The greatest overtakes are the ones where a driver battles his way past a well-defending driver.

That is also the reason why I don't like DRS. Too often it leads to easy overtakes where the driver ahead cannot defend. I think DRS works best on circuits like the Hungaroring where it is almost impossible to overtake otherwise. On those circuits, DRS doesn't make overtakes so inevitable. But it is sad to think there is a DRS zone on places like the Kemmel straight at Spa. That was always a great overtaking spot even without DRS. DRS takes away all challenge in overtakes there. If there has to be an overtaking aid in F1, I would prefer the push-to-pass system used in IndyCar. You can get extra horsepower only for a limited number of times and you can use it also to defend.

But why does F1 need those overtaking aids? The purists may be complaining but more overtakes and drama is what the big crowd wants. The big crowd was bored of most races being processions after the first lap and it was hard to win from behind the front row. Now we can see a driver winning a race after a poor qualifying if he can manage his tyres better than others and now races aren't over after the first lap.

And F1 isn't the only sport which has been affected be commercial interests. One of my next texts will be about how commercialism has changed the game of tennis.