Friday, March 18, 2016

V 6 N. 23 Has the Sport Found a Way to Present Itself?

I must confess that with the World Indoor Championships last night in Portland, OR scheduled to begin,  I was less than  enthralled by the prospects of watching that event.  First it would only be seen on live streaming on NBCSN in the States and CBC and BBC computer links as well as others of which I'm not aware.  The meet was in competition with the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament making it the red haired stepchild of sports programming.   Heck,  in Canada it was in competition with the Women's World Curling Championships.  You know who won that contest for live TV programming.   Can an American transplant on Vancouver Island even begin to comprehend that arrangement?  Certainly not.    Fortunately I met a track nut yesterday who informed me about the CBC live streaming of the event, and I tuned in at 6:15 last night.  

The venue,  the Portland Convention Center is somewhat smaller than I expected.  It's not a cavernous building like the Hoosier Dome where the World Championships were held years ago. But the upside was, less than sold out but  appreciative crowd got their money's worth on the opening night.

After a somewhat lackluster opening ceremonies with a few speeches from local dignitaries and Seb Coe,  none of which I had time to listen to,  the meet got underway.  Actually it wasn't a track meet in the traditional sense with two or three field events going on while prelims and finals in running races dominate the scene.  Instead the night was a two ring circus of women's and men's polevaulting being the only events contested. It was reminiscent of the Brit Pub Vault on the Roof in Minneapolis.   And the competitors put on a display of vaulting and showmanship that thrilled even the most jaded of spectators.
Jenn Suhr,  Class of the Women Pole Vaulters

Jenn Suhr proved once again in an understated way that she is the class of women's world polevaulting.  New faces and some older faces showed up and approached their personal bests, but no one appeared to have much chance against the world and Olympic champion.

The organizers and maybe even the IAAF deserve some credit for the way the event was presented.  The men and women vaulted at the same time on two parallel runways and pits.  They alternated attempts first women, then men, so there was almost constant jumping going on.  From a livestream viewer's point of reference, a competitor would vault, you'd get a replay from two or three different angles and then a competitor from the other gender would be ready to go.  There was a constant flow to the event.   Vault after vault after vault for three hours plus.  The women's event finished at least an hour before the men's event and Renaud Lavillenie had not even taken his first jump yet.     As dominant as Suhr is in the women's event, Lavillenie is in a completely different domain.  He is the single best representative for the sport of anyone in my memory, yet I doubt  he would  be in the 100 most recognizable athletes in the US.  In Europe, yes.  He would rank up there with the best known soccer players and Formula One drivers.   His presence last night made it a landmark viewing experience.   LaVillenie has the Gallic charm of a French movie star like Belmondo or Montand.  He shows a lot of emotion but in a calm controlled way.  He can focus all that energy into his event and put himself over the best the world has to offer.   He came in late in the event as everyone except Sam Kendricks was struggling near their limits.  He dumped a heap of psychological hurt on everyone by clearing 5.85 meters like it was a warmup jump.  Which it was, as he hadn't taken even a run through with the pole for two hours.  I may be in error on that, as the videographers did not show us any warmups.   Was this a poker game with the other competitors?  Very possibly, but it may just have been Lavillenie enjoying the moment.  He does not seem to be an arrogant person.  Last year at the Prefontaine meet I spoke to him, and he was very approachable, very personable.  He races motorcycles, he takes jumps off an icy, snow covered runway as seen on youtube this winter.  He runs the 4x100 relay for his track club in France.
Lavillenie,  What More Can He Do for the Sport?

  During the event last night he was charming everyone one around him including a beautiful Brazilian vaulter who sat with him much of the time.  After clearing his opening height he immediately passed the next two scheduled heights, thus putting enormous pressure on the remaining vaulters.  Kendricks was able to respond to his next height, but went out on the subsequent height thus handing the event to Lavillenie on a gold platter.   Lavillenie  won the event  with only two jumps.   He went on to clear 6.02 meters then had the bar set at 6.17 which would have  been a new WR.  He failed three attempts, but each one was a show in itself.     His second jump came close to disaster when he came down in the front of the pit on his back, his feet straddling the box.  He sat there for a few seconds, and then a broad grin turning to  a smile spread across his face.  Was he saying, "How glad I am to be alive and able to move all my limbs." or was he just epitomizing that sentiment that all the rest of us feel about polevaulters, that they are bat shit crazy?  Did he call it a night with the victory already in hand?  No, he went for it again when almost no one in the crowd would have faulted him for packing in his poles.   He bailed on that last jump, but still did a back flip on the mat thus ending the show.

During the evening ,  I never once thought about the doping scandals that cloud track and field these days.  The dopers as far as I'm concerned were on the sidelines last night.  These guys get their highs and rushes from their event.  No amount of performance enhancing drug is going to give them the acrobatic ability or courage to do what they do.  There is something beyond the strength and speed required in this event that only some psychological quirk can give an athlete to want to fly to and fall from such heights.

Final Thought:    Reigning World Outdoor Champion,  Shaunacy Barber the very young Canadian showed a lot of poise and fortitude while not having his best night.  He hung in, passed when he had two misses to go to a last ditch effort on the next height and just barely failed to clear.   However he does need to work on color coordination.  His green and yellow socks with his red, white and black  Canadian uniform turned the screen into a nauseating blur of bad dreams and psychodelic disharmony.


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