Category Archives: World Around Us

Russia vetoes probe into Malaysian airliner crash

So far as admissions of guilt are concerned, this one ranks with the best of them: Russia, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council, vetoed the idea of creating an investigative tribunal to probe the Malaysian airline flight MH17 catastrophe.

The aircraft was shot down while flying at about 11,000 kilometres above the Donbass region of Ukraine. Most of the evidence available thus far points to Russia’s involvement.

The incident cost the lives of 298 people. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Security Council representative, was the only person present to reject the tribunal plan out of hand. He didn’t have to explain anything. Neither do China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States have to explain why they veto any so-called “substantive” Security Council resolution, and the decision which resolution is substantive and which isn’t is theirs, too.

Here are the rules: the permanent members can abstain (not vote, that is), or make themselves scarce while a vote is underway (thus, not vote, again), but these moves haven’t got the effect of a veto. Only a majority vote against it or a veto can stop a Security Council resolution in its tracks.

And only the five permanent members, as established at the creation of the United Nations in 1945, have the right of veto.

Well, nobody has ever said that the United Nations is a democratic body, after all.

Here are the basic facts: 11 of the 15 Security Council members voted for the resolution submitted jointly by Malaysia, Australia, the Netherlands and Ukraine. China, Angola and Venezuela abstained. Russia had been saying all along that the resolution would not pass. Now, it made sure of it.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte went so far as to telephone Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, to ask him to reconsider. To no avail.

Why, oh why?

Russia’s official reaction is simple: the tribunal would develop into an instrument of anti-Russian propaganda, and besides, you’d have to find the guilty party (parties) first, and judge them only after you’ve found them.

This has been known for decades as the Andrei Yanuarevich Vyshinsky theory of jurisprudence: once you’re brought before a court, it means you’re guilty.

Presumption of innocence? HUH? The accuser has to prove the accused’s guilt? HUH? The accused is innocent until proven guilty? What the heck are you talking about?

Vyshinsky’s approach worked splendidly during Josef Vissarionovich Stalin’s trials. True, some would later claim the trials were only based on occasional errors but, otherwise, Stalin was right, and so was, by extension, Vyshinsky.

Of course, what Russia’s behaviour caused is known as the boomerang effect. Thus Malaysia’s transportation minister, Liow Tiong Lai: “(This) sends a dangerous message about the impunity perpetrators of this heinous crime can enjoy.”

U.S. Security Council Ambassador, Samantha Power, said Russian veto will only bring more pain to victims’ families. Left unspoken: they would logically link their pain to Russia’s unwillingness to help find the perpetrators.

Russia’s Churkin said establishing a tribunal would have been premature. He said his country has always been prepared to cooperate in a full, independent and objective investigation.

Investigators who had been probing the crash since it happened have looked at the latter statement askance. What they have encountered so far has been anything but Russia’s cooperation.

Basic debate

The Malaysian airliner, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, came crashing down in the area of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists last July.

Experts say the plane was brought down by a ground-to-air missile launched in a Russian separatist-controlled area. They said it was a weapon nobody else but the Russian army had in its arsenal at the time.

Russia revealed recently a digital video recording that, it says, proves the plane was shot down using an air-to-air missile, launched from a Ukrainian fighter jet.

One minor mistake of major proportions: experts analyzed the digital video file and found conclusive evidence that it was fake.

Another Russian theory: Ukrainian army launched the ground-to-air missile.

Another minor oversight: the Ukrainians had no access to this kind of weaponry.

And, of course, a recently revealed video that shows the pro-Russian separatists inspecting the debris, exclaiming, oh, but we didn’t know this was a civilian plane, and similar words to that effect, isn’t helping the official Russian cause, either.

Ukrainian authorities, aware that the Russians would not accept any evidence they would present, gave up their right of investigation and transferred it to the Dutch. So, the office for airline safety of the Netherlands has received all of the debris, and has been trying to find the reasons for the crash. Its job is not to find the perpetrators. The Dutch attorney general’s office has been trying to find those guilty. It put together a commission that includes experts from Ukraine and the countries whose citizens had been among the victims.

There are no Russians on this body, and this makes Moscow even more paranoid.

Considering Russia has for centuries acted on the premise “it’s us against them,” and “everybody’s against us, and we know it,” no wonder its government is openly suspicious.

It remains to be seen what the Kremlin is going to think, say and do if Ukraine’s government decides to propose the formation of a similar tribunal at its earliest convenience at the United Nations’ General Assembly. To win, they would require just two-thirds of the vote, and Russia would be able to vote in any shape or form, but without the right of a veto.

The only problem: none of this is going to bring the 298 victims back.

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Russian doping case just won’t go away

Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, step aside. Your doping scandals have been thrashed through the media left, right and centre. Yet, they can’t even begin to compare to what Russian sports authorities have done to show what can happen when winning (at all cost) is everything.

Russian athletes have been accused of doping on a scale unheard of before. What has happened since?

Not much.

Following the alleagtions published some time ago in various European media, representatives of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have gone to Moscow and left the Russian capital a few days later with more than 3,000 samples. They took all of it to a specialized laboratory in Köln am Rhein in Germany. Considering Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutka told the Reuters news agency on the occasion that his country will provide WADA with everything, it raises a few uncomfortable questions. Such as: who guarantees that the samples WADA has loaded on the plane have never been tampered with? Not that one is paranoid but: the Russians have a history rich on disinformation (bluntly put: lies and obfuscation).

So, here’s the question again: who is making the guarantees everything’s above board and nobody’s trying to make any deals under the table?

It’s not a rhetorical question. And here’s the answer: nobody.

In case you’re wondering: remember, for example, the Chernobyl nuclear station meltdown? The one where everybody all over the world knew there was an unexpected release or radioactive material into the air in the Soviet terrirory (most reports went so far as to pinpoint the location within a few centimetres), and yet, the Soviets kept denying it all for days on end?

Or, to remain within recent memory, remember the Kursk submarine that went down in the Arctic, all and sundry aware of the tragedy and offering a number of helping hands, with the Soviets first denying there even was such a submarine, then, denying that it had some kind of technical malfunction, then, denying that they can’t save it by themselves, and, then, letting the entire crew die while help was just around the corner?

So, one more time: nobody can guarantee that everything’s going to be above board, with no under-the-table deals, so help us Nature. Not with the Russians in on it. Not with their president (a former KGB spy) in on it. Not with his KGB cronies helping him run the country any way they felt was useful – to them.

Here’s what happened

Originally, this scandal involved only the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). It would spread across the sporting spectrum as a forest fire in no time. Russian track-and-field athletes, swimmers, cyclists, biathlonists, cross-country skiers and weight lifters face charges of doping. Russian sports bodies’ chiefs stand accused of participating in a massive conspiracy that permitted all that.

IAAF President Lamine Diack’s own son, Papa Massata Diack, has been involved personally, too. Young Diack has been IAAF’s marketing poohbah. This gives nepotism a brand new meaning.

Germany’s ARD television network charged recently that young Diack had personally helped Russian marathoner Lilya Shobukhova make her 2009 positive out-of-competition doping test disappear from the record so she could take part in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. She paid 450,000 Euros through her coach Alexei Melnikov.

Not that it helped much: Lilya Shobukhova didn’t finish due to injury.

The French newspaper, l’Equippe, found more documentation. Some of it links Russia’s widespread doping culture directly to the office of then-prime minister (and today’s president) Vladimir Putin.

In fact, decrees authorizing Russian sports bodies to use all means at their disposal (whatever THAT is supposed to mean) to achieve victories have come down under Putin’s own signature.

Russian officials, as could have been expected, denied the ARD and l’Equippe reports as smear campaign filled with innuendo and nothing more. Except, just several months earlier, these same officials had banned that same marathoner Lilya Shobukhova for two years because of doping. To add insult to injury, Lilya Shobukhova now went public, saying that some of the money she had to pay for the cover-up has been refunded to her.

The entire operation was easy enough. The athlete to be tested under the so-called out-of-competition protocol would be notified well in advance that the testers were coming, with precise date, time and place included in the warning. Most of the tests require collection of urine samples. Still, those athletes were allowed the privacy of their own washrooms, with the commissioners waiting (discreetly) outside. That, despite the requirement that the commissioners were supposed to be present at all times when the samples were collected.

Dr. Gabriel Dollé, the director of the medical and anti-doping department at the IAAF, stepped down after he had been interviewed by this august body’s ethics commission.

How perfectly honourable!

The German TV ARD and French paper l’Equippe’s probes found many more details. Not that they had any sporting ideals in mind when they went public with them. Titillating scandals such as these help enhance ratings. Better ratings help enhance advertising. Better advertising helps enhance the health of the bottom line.

Running concern

Sir Sebastian Coe, the legendary British middle-distance runner, boss of the 2012 London Olympic Games and the man expected to become the IAAF chief in the not-so-distant future says track-and-field is facing its worst crisis in the last four decades.

Depends on how you view it.

Canada’s own Ben Johnson had to return his gold at the Olympics at Seoul, South Korea in 1988. He won it in the crowning track-and-field race, 100 metres dash.

America’s own Marion Jones was involved in the doping lab BALCO scandal, and, sportingly enough, was economical with the truth when speaking to U.S. federal investigators. That landed her behind bars.

Johnson’s gold would eventually go to America’s Carl Lewis. This guy distinguished himself by not getting caught. Nobody in their right mind would believe that a human can run at 40 km per hour speeds. Horses can do that. Not humans.

Not surprisingly, the drug Johnson was caught with was Stanozolol, a medication used most frequently to improve muscle growth, red blood cell production, increase bone density and stimulate the appetite of debilitated or weakened (what? yes, you do hear it right!) horses. Stanozolol can be used for people, too, to help treat anemia and similar conditions. But definitely not in doses whose traces were found in Johnson’s body.

The numerous medals won by Marion Jones went all over the place to other female athletes whose medical and coaching staffs knew better than to associate with BALCO too openly.

Sir Sebastian used to face accusations of cheating himself, too.

Again, the point of view depends on the angle.

Having noticed that most African runners spend most of their time training in high altitudes, only to come down to race in lower elevations and beat everybody hands down, Sebastian Coe (as he was then) followed in their footsteps.

Is that cheating?

If you tried to replicate the effect training at high altitudes has on an athlete’s body by injecting oxygen into an athlete’s blood, it would be called blood doping. That’s illegal. If, on the other hand, you were to spend a few months in, for example, the Andes, now, that would be considered an innovative approach to training. Yet, the effect is the same.

Was Sebastian Coe cheating? You be the judge.

That uncomfortable angle might, however, explain Sir Sebastian’s calls for prudence. Still, he said, if the accusations are proven beyond any doubt, the penalties should be harsh enough to deter any followers.

He’s definitely not afraid of the embarassment a proper clean-up job would cause the sports to suffer, Sir Sebastian said. He is scared that if people try to sweep all these allegations under the proverbial rug, spectators would lose any interest they have had so far in watching sports.

Which is all this is about.

Sir Sebastian should have mentioned Russian officials’ penchant for publishing fake information, distributing falsified data all over the place or, to put it bluntly, lying through their teeth. It’s called disinformation, and if anyone’s a past master in this field of human endeavour, it’s the Russians. History proves it beyond any doubt, reasonable or not.

Sir Sebastian didn’t say it. Why not? As mentioned, he’s a presumed heir to the top post at the IAAF. Except, he still would face a vote by the body’s general assembly. Here are the numbers: the IAAF consists of 212 member federations. It used to be 213 but the November 2010 meeting of the IAAF Council found that the Netherlands Antilles was going to cease its independent existence.

Like it or not, the Russians still carry considerable weight within that body. They can have unhealthy influence on the outcome of the voting. So, Sir Sebastian, who used to say the Russians ought to be stripped of all of their medals and let’s be done with it once and for all, is now backpedalling. Ever so gently, but still, distinctly enough.

So, what’s the issue?

The issue is that all this outcry and indignation are hypocritical.

Nothing more, and nothing less, either.

Professional sports are all about business. They are part of entertainment industry. So, they do their utmost to entertain. If they were to manage to find ways for humans to catch lightning with bare hands and twist its shape according to their spectators’ wishes, so much the better.

That people are wiling to pay good money to watch well-trained humans (animals would seem to sound better and closer to the truth) performing acts beyond the limits of human abilities is a strange phenomenon. It’s not particularly new. Attendance at Greek Olympiads, predecessors of the modern extravaganzas, would make today’s organizers turn yellow with envy. Doping and outright cheating were a normal way of doing things then, and nobody would even bother to shrug about it, let alone create expensive bodies to oversee what these bodies call “the cleanliness of the sports.”

That professional sports would develop into a global business of such gigantic proportions is a sign not of the athletes’ godly (or ungodly?) abilities but of pure marketing genius.

It is also a sign of something more sinister. Nobody described it better than the British writer, George Orwell. He wrote an essay for the Tribune newspaper in December of 1945, commenting on the visit of Soviet football team Dynamo. Some people, not so much out of sheer naivete but, rather, knowing a marketing opening when they saw one, would go so far as the herald the visit as a sign of everlasting peace between the democratic (no matter how Royal) Great Britain, and the communist Soviet Union.

After all, who could blame them if “everlasting” didn’t last even till the end of Soviet footballers’ trip to Great Britain? The organizers (meaning: the guys who promised everlasting peace) have collected the spectators’ money and spent the rest of the time laughing all the way to the bank.

That average people in both countries were still going hungry following the war was not much of a concern to them.

Anyhow, herewith a few quotes from George Orwell’s piece.

The Sporting Spirit

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. …

Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will “lose face”.

Thus spake George Orwell in 1945. Remember: in 1945. Thus spake George Orwell 69 years ago.

He said it all, and let’s leave it at that.

Toronto’s Olympic dream Canada’s nightmare

Why the people of Toronto continue to think that their collection of villages is the centre of the universe as we know it remains a sweet mystery.

Why many others across Canada seem to keep swallowing this nonsense hook, sink and line has become an enigma beyond belief, too.

On the heels of the Pan American Games, whose bill is yet to be revealed, so all of us learn how much this sham is going to cost us, there seems to be a growing sentiment abroad, insisting that Toronto should bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. Why, they say, it’s the ideal moment in history: the PanAm Games have been a resounding success (says who? Oh, they say so, which means that’s how it’s got to be!), and besides, the other potential North American suitor has just pulled out of the contest. A window of opportunity if there ever was one!

If only they listened to what Boston’s Mayor Martin S. Walsh had to say.

Announcing that he was asked to sign a contract that would guarantee that the city of Boston would be responsible for potential financial losses, Mayor Walsh said he couldn’t in good conscience do anything of the kind. He is of the view that this ought to be somebody else’s responsibility (read: the organizers ought to be responsible, not the taxpayers). Besides, he was asked to sign a document the precise language of which would be revealed to him some two months after he had signed on the dotted line. No option to negotiate, Mayor Walsh added, and that sealed it for him.

In that one sentence, Mayor Walsh revealed the criminality of the Olympic system as we’ve known it for decades.

Olala, Marcel!

Enter Marcel Aubut, head of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

To refresh everybody’s memory (in case it needs refreshing), that would be the same Marcel Aubut who drafted Eric Lindros first overall in 1991 even though he had been perfectly aware that Lindros would refuse to join the Quebec Nordiques no matter what. As a result, Lindros, considered by many Wayne Gretzky’s second coming, would lose an entire NHL season. That makes Aubut’s move even more unconscionable. As a hockey official of extensive experience Aubut must have known that professional players’ careers are limited.

And he crowned this sordid drama by trading Lindros a year later to two teams (the excuse that he and Pierre Page had no way of informing one another about their individual but separate talks does not hold water). The case had to be settled by an independent arbitrator, a scene that still makes the crowd at 1185 Avenue of the Americas in New York cringe.

To refresh everybody’s memory again (in case it still needs refreshing), that would be the same Marcel Aubut under whose personal and expert guidance the Quebec Nordiques were eventually forced to leave Quebec City in a financial shambles, only to resurface in Denver as the Colorado Avalanche and win the Stanley Cup within a year.

Of course, in fairness, who knows whether the Avalanche would have won anything without the presence of Patrick Roy in their net? It seems quite obvious that, had the Nordiques stayed put, theirs wouldn’t be the club the Montreal Canadiens would trade Roy to.

But that is hindsight. The fact that remains is that it was Marcel Aubut who caused the Lindros scandal, and that it was Marcel Aubut who helped bring the Nordiques to financial ruin and ignominious departure.

So, having this guy say that “It’s time to make it crystal clear, I am officially declaring that I will use the full power of my office to lead and advocate for Toronto’s candidacy to hold the 2024 Olympic Games,” that would be a clarion call for everybody concerned to run for cover.

Not so easy

Let them apply, so what? many might suggest.

Alas, that’s not how it works.

To put together a presentation for an Olympic Games bid costs money. There are firms that specialize in this kind of work. They charge their clients for every box of Kleenex they use when they happen to sneeze. With the deadline for bid submissions set for September 15, 2015, these consultants would have to work pretty hard and fast. Double (or triple) the original demand in order to account for the deadline pressure.

So, taxpayers would be shelling out their hard-earned loonies just so the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members have something to read in their leisure time. Without any guarantee whatsoever. Marcel Aubut might be presenting himself as a heavy hitter whose word spreads general fear in the IOC offices in Lausanne, Switzerland, but, in fact, he’s a featherweight so far as the Olympic poohbahs are concerned.

But, while the Olympians get set to gather to ponder on the individual bids by hicks who are willing to mortgage their citizens’ future for the chance they might appear on TV screens, bidding cities will have to prove they have sufficient facilities to host events on such scale.

No problem, the Toronto bid supporters will yell, we’ve just had the PanAm Games, and our facilities worked just fine.

First of all, they would be lying through their teeth. Track-and-field experts have been shocked by the small-country-county ambience of Toronto’s fields. Even Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium worked better during the track-and-field world championships in 2001.

Besides, the Olympic would-be royalty demands that their events happen in brand new facilities. They claim, as an excuse, that these facilities would then remain as legacy for future generations to use. Another bald-faced lie. There have been exceptions, to be sure. Some of the winter sports facilities in Calgary still remain in use. But going into more detail would reveal some horror stories that are better left for windy and rainy autumn nights. They are best shared by crowds that are sitting by the fireplace, with toddies all around. These stories are scarier than most of the Halloween costumes people could ever imagine.

In any case, even facilities built brand-new for the PanAm Games would be obsolete (in Olympians’ view) nine years hence.

Here’s what happens

Hordes of realtors, developers and sundry financiers will overwhelm all levels of government telling them this or that kind of work’s got to be done immediately, even before the Olympic crowd bothers to descend upon the bidding city. Whether it’s a conspiracy, as many Olympic watchers suspect, remains to be seen. But the fact is that, when asked, Olympic officials will nod in agreement: what, you didn’t read the fine print?

Interestingly enough, government officials proceed to spend like crazy sailors on shore leave. After all, it’s not their money they are spending. And there is a sufficient number of fools amongst their electorate who fall for the shamelessly idiotic propaganda about the Olympic Games. It’s the greatest sporting event on earth, and one that takes its responsibilities seriously, whether it’s the environment or the cleanliness of the athletes. We as citizens should be proud that the august Olympians decided that ours is the best spot on planet Earth to hold this event, that’s the motto.

And not even the fact that it took Montreal almost four decades to pay off its Olympic debt, and that it’s going to take Vancouver about that same amount of time to pay off its Olympic debt changes the hoopla.

If the Olympic Games were produced and paid for by private organizers and if they made money in the process, three cheers for them.

But since the Olympic Games are produced and paid for by taxpayers who have literally no say in what is going on, the picture changes.

There have been case studies during which analysts presented private entrepreneurs with Olympic budgets and accounting books, so far as they could lay their hands on them.

The private entrepreneurs were shocked both by the budgets and by the accounting that followed.

To use a most recent Canadian example, none of them would have thought of bringing snow (using trucks and helicopters) from Manning Park all the way to the mountains around Vancouver.

The more thoughtful people in the entrepreneurial crowd hated what they saw. Not because none of them got to hop on the gravy train. Because they saw where their taxes were going, and they didn’t like it one bit.

To be sure, by the way, this kind of megalomania is not limited to Canada.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, alpine skiing events took place quite far from the sea shores, separated from the Black Sea by massive mountain ranges. The organizers, in an attempt to make access easier for the tourist hordes who would want to watch the break-neck artists hurtling down the slopes, broke through the mountains. One tunnel after another, one artificial pass after another. The result: the moist sea air made it all the way through to the alpine events areas. Tons of artificial snow and sundry chemicals made the slopes acceptable for the skiers. Not for the nature. The alpine meadows have been devastated beyond belief and it will take decades for the scientists to be able to say whether they would ever recover.

So much for the Olympians’ environmental responsibility.

But sports are good for your health!

Absolutely. But not sports as performed at highest-level events.

First and foremost, to even have a chance of becoming an Olympic-level athlete, you’d have to become a professional in your chosen field. Nobody can make it on talent alone any longer.

Becoming an Olympic athlete is no guarantee of success, either.

Now, if you decide you want to spend the rest of your productive life jumping over hurdles or throwing all kinds of stuff so far as they can fly, it’s your business. You may even think that what you’re doing is useful for society. It’s your right to have opinions.

The buck stops once you accept a cent of public funding. And getting money from sports federations equals exactly that. These bodies wouldn’t be able to survive a single season without getting government support.

As an athlete, you may claim that you are presenting yourself as a role model for the younger crowd so that they become hooked on sports, too.

There’s nothing easier to explode than this myth. If money various levels of governments grant to various sports federations, up to and including the Olympic committee, were spread among schools, so they can build and maintain sports facilities, hire and keep physical education teachers, and are able to keep physical education as a daily class on their schedules, that would be the proper way of engaging in sports.

The highly trained gladiators just don’t cut it. And that’s ignoring all their doping and other dirty shenanigans.

To sum this angle up: the federal government has, quite properly, resisted spending taxpayers’ money in support of professional hockey clubs.

It should tell the same thing to all those who come, caps in hands, asking for federal government support in staging events such as the Olympic Games. The government is not in the business of professional sports.

And if those would-be organizers start pushing their point by saying what an economic bonanza their event would turn out to be, the government should issue a collective smile and say: Is that so? So, go ahead, invest, and be successful. We’ll watch your progress with considerable interest.

And if the potential organizers, blackmailers, one and all, start crying, the answer should be even simpler. Let them eat cake.

Note to NHL: public money and private business do not mix

As gall goes, Gary Bettman has set new standards.

In a live interview on Hockey Night in Canada  the other day, Scott Oake apologized for even broaching the subject, and then he asked a logical question: what’s the NHL commissioner’s view of the City of Glendale’s decision to quit the agreement they had with the Arizona Coyotes?

Why did Oake feel he had to apologize? It was hot news of the moment, and he was speaking to the boss of the outfit that has had a keen interest in the matter.

Apologies or not, Bettman’s answer showed anger unbecoming of a person in his position. And it showed an arrogance that in just a couple of sentences displayed for everybody to see everything that’s wrong with professional sports on the business level.

Corporate welfare is the best description of what professional sports teams have been abusing. They’ve been getting away with public financing of new arenas, special deals, and whatever they could obtain, ripping off the (mostly unsuspecting) taxpayer all along. And, most surprising, shocking, even, they have felt they are entitled.

Which brings us to the outburst of anger one isn’t used to see in a Gary Bettman.

Unhappy council

The good members of the Glendale city council have had enough of the Arizona Coyotes shenanigans. They couldn’t get majority owner Andrew Barroway to talk to them. When they asked the minority owner, Anthony LeBlanc, about reports of some financial transactions that allegedly went against both the letter and the spirit of the deal the city had with the club, all they would get was incoherent obfuscations. Mr. Barroway, thus Mr. LeBlanc, is a busy man. He runs a hedge fund in New York, you see. The message was obvious: he hasn’t time to spare to talk to the hicks who run the city of Glendale.

So, council members decided to look for a hole that would get them out of the deal. They said so publicly that this was their plan. A few weeks later, Mr. Barroway and Mr. LeBlanc managed to find time in their preciously crowded schedules to meet with the mayor of Glendale, his deputy, and a few city officials. No coffee was served, no sandwiches were available. According to some reports, there were a couple bottles of water somewhere in the room.

That wasn’t the important part. The important part was that city representatives told Coyotes’ owners they were unhappy about the entire scenario and would like to open discussions about making a few changes here and there. The Coyotes’ owners said absolutely no way. To top it off, Mr. LeBlanc said they were ambushed. Either he’s illiterate and doesn’t know how to read regular newspapers (or their associated websites), and nobody read it to him, or he just doesn’t care what the city of Glendale has been saying rather publicly for quite some time.

If he wasn’t making it up and this was the first time Mr. LeBlanc had heard about the city’s distinct lack of happiness about the deal, it speaks volumes about his entrepreneurial incompetence.

In either case, ignorance is no excuse.

City in the poorhouse

The city of Glendale has been suffering for quite some time. It has had difficulties meeting its own financial obligations. Compared to just a few years ago, the city government’s workforce has been cut by almost 20 per cent. Enforced furloughs, vacant positions going unfilled, merging departments, you name it, the city has used all of these methods, and then some. Yet, it’s still unable to buy a new firetruck or open a new public library.

There might be studies that would find why this has been happening. There might be studies trying to figure out who or what is guilty of it all. But they are not relevant for the Arizona Coyotes soap opera. The city’s economic situation is what it is, and to be demanding $15 million annually for arena maintenance borders on the unconscionable.

That’s how simple it is.

In fact, for professional sports clubs to be asking for public handouts in the first place is unconscionable.

A bit of theory. Economy is divided into three basic spheres. They are described as core, public purpose, and business spheres. Some classify them as household, government, and business spheres. Names may differ, but other than that, it’s the same thing.

In economic theory, business sphere is strictly separated from the other two spheres. Government can (or may) use policies of economic stimuli to attract or keep an industry (a business, that is), but this just happens to be one of the must muddied areas of economics. Suffice it to say that pure economic theory frowns upon such relationships.

End of the bit of theory.

To be blunt: professional sports clubs do not create anything productive. Enthusiasm about a wicked wrist shot in hockey, or a curved (Beckham-like) shot in football (soccer, that is), or a new kind of kicking in free-style swimming, may (or may not) improve an individual’s mood. But that’s about it.

To limit an individual’s emotional well-being to watching extraordinary feats achieved by professional athletes is a dumbing-down proposition.

That’s one point of view.

To limit access to basic services that a government is supposed to provide just because said government is out of money as it had spent it on helping a professional sports club borders on the criminal.

To stay with Glendale, Arizona: what is more important to its citizens, a new firetruck, a new library, or an old and repeatedly failing hockey club? According to a recent public opinion poll, almost two thirds of Glendale’s citizens prefer the former to the latter.

Enough said?

Not according to the owners of the Coyotes, a hockey club that’s been losing money left, right and centre since the moment it landed in Phoenix in 1996. Please remember: it came to Phoenix from Winnipeg, a hockey-crazy community that had not been able to sustain it. And it came from Winnipeg to Phoenix, the place where they like their ice at the bottom of their glasses (filled with fire water, mostly), and where most of the locals can hardly care less about the fastest team game in the world.

Why Phoenix in the first place?

The strategic intent was easy to grasp: let’s have NHL hockey spread all over the Excited States. That’s the only way to get a national broadcasting contract and, thus, exposure. Alas, it seems (in hindsight) that Phoenix and environs have been doomed right from the start.

Not only that: blessed with one suspect owner after another, it seems NHL poohbahs would do well to look up in their dictionaries the real meaning of the expression: due diligence.

But the main point is simple: professional sports clubs should not be allowed to even approach governments, hats in hands, asking for taxpayer-subsidized handouts. If there is one industry where this should be forbidden by law, it’s the professional sports industry. (That, by the way, includes the Olympic Games and sundry international events, too.)

The rule should be: if you have the wherewithal to start a professional sports club, you would be logically expected to have enough money to pay for the re-zoning and building permits, for the construction itself, and for the running of the club, too. If one of these pre-conditions is not met, no permits would be forthcoming, and no taxpayer-funded subsidies, either.

And the word to such owners and leagues should be simple: no, you are NOT entitled to anything.

A minor legalistic observation: the Coyotes intend to claim that former city attorney Craig Tindall had nothing to do whatsoever with the contract between Glendale and the hockey club. That, they said they planned to say, makes the hole the city used to call the deal off null and void. They’ll have to convince a number of judges that they have a valid point. For the city, it would suffice to show that the text of the deal passed once (just once!) through said Mr. Tindall’s hands, even if it was for proof-reading purposes only.

Of course, it would be grasping at straws on the Coyotes’ part. And it would be missing two basic points.

First: the locals don’t want you. Stop behaving like a jilted lover who keeps telling her or his departing partner but you can’t leave me! Why not? Because I love you!

Instead, leave while the leaving is (still) good.

And the second point, even more important: grow up and realize that you are not entitled to anything from the public. Grow up and realize that public money and private business just do not mix. Remember that, eventually, if you persist in your attempts to blackmail the public, it may come back to haunt you.

And then, where will you be?

Russians still don’t get it: their unsportsmanlike behaviour deserves punishment, not alibis

Russian sports minister Vitalyi Mutjko agrees Team Russia shouldn’t have left the ice after losing to Canada in last month’s world championship finals before O Canada was played. Still, he maintains, if the organizers didn’t open the gate, his country’s players would have never done that.

This seems to be a bit at odds with the latest news coming from Moscow: Russian hockey federation plans to punish a few people for the incident. General manager Andrei Safronov and head coach Oleg Znarok seem to be the targets. That, at least, is what Arkadi Rotenberg is saying. His word carries some weight: he sits on the board of the Russian hockey federation, and he also serves as Dinamo Moscow president.

“Yes, people will face consequences,” Rotenberg says, “and the general manager and head coach were right there to make sure our players stayed to hear Canada’s anthem.”

Of course, considering that International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel is on the record as saying the Russian federation will face a punishment meted out by his organization, Rotenberg’s next words were not surprising: “It wasn’t planned for our players to insult Team Canada, and it wasn’t planned ahead, either.”

Nobody’s talking about planning. Everybody’s talking about lacking sportsmanship and behaviour worthy of a butcher’s dog, to use the local lingo in translation. Besides, Fasel stood there, in shock, watching Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk order his teammates to leave as soon as they collected their medals and shook the Canadian players by the hand. Only very few Russian players, led by superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, stayed, and Kovalchuk skated toward them and very forcefully insisted that they leave the ice before a live orchestra gathered to render the Canadian anthem.

There was no sign of either Safronov or Znarok, and it makes no difference, either: this was not Kovalchuk’s first international tournament, and he would be expected to know the rules.

Besides, ignorance is no excuse.

“Safronov and Znarok are aware of what they did wrong,” thus Rotenberg, “and I believe that this will never happen again.”

A nice change from sports minister Mytjko’s qualifier that, while wrong, Team Russia players were not to blame. If it weren’t for a gate opened by the organizers, they would have stayed. He simply echoed Russian hockey federation president Vladislav Tretiak’s assurances that it was the Czechs who were the guilty party. They could have kept his team on the ice if only they didn’t open the gate.

The only English-written newspaper published in Moscow, The Moscow Times, has come up with an interesting take. The paper described, tongue in cheek, what would happen if Canadian players left the ice before they heard Rossia Sviaschennaia Nasha Derzhava, formerly known as Soyuz Nerushimyi.

“The investigators find,” thus The Moscow Times spoof, “that Team Canada, by leaving the ice before hearing the Russian anthem, have committed a criminal act comparable to abuse of the national flag of Russia. If found guilty, they will have to install toilet seats in all of the KHL arenas all over Russia, as punishment.”

Fine and dandy as it goes.

But let’s cut to the chase: what punishment will Safronov and Znarok face? Any consequences for team captain Kovalchuk?

“First, we’ve got to see what the IIHF is going to do,” said Rotenberg. “We’ll make our decision based on that.”

In his land, they have an expression for this kind of behaviour. They call it alibism.

Team Russia shows no sense of decency

This is called sportsmanship at its best.

After Team Canada won the world championship 2015 title in the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, it took the vanquished team quite some time to skate over and accept their silver medals from International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel.

In fact, Fasel had to keep waving at the Russians for almost a minute to convince them to come over and collect what was deservedly theirs.

But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

What happened then was even more shocking. Not surprising: something like that had happened in other, similar situations, too. And it always involved Russian teams in one shape or another. But one would have expected that the Russians would have learnt their lesson by now and not stoop to this kind of scandalous behaviour yet again. When Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk saw the IIHF dignitaries began distributing gold medals to the winners from Canada, he ordered his teammates to leave the ice. He waited by the door to the bench to see that the entire squad leaves.

To their credit, a small group that included Team Russia’s brightest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin, remained at the blue line. Kovalchuk kept ordering them to leave forthwith, while Ovechkin was gesticulating back that good manners dictate they should stay there till the end of the ceremony. Or, at least, until Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby receives the championship cup and O Canada had been played.

It took about a minute of embarrassing exchanges. But when the fireworks started and the confetti were fired, Kovalchuk skated over and personally forced the remaining Russian players to leave immediately.

That no Russian player stayed to see Crosby and his teammates skating around with the cup is one thing; that they didn’t wait until an orchestra gathered to play O Canada, is another.

Fasel said he was very disappointed with Team Russia’s behaviour. He said he found it perfectly unacceptable and added that the IIHF is going to debate potential punishment. Team Russia’s behaviour showed profound lack of respect for the other team, and Russian Hockey Federation will be asked for an explanation, Fasel told the Russian TASS news agency, adding Team Russia’s behaviour showed not only lack of sportsmanship, it also broke the IIHF’s rules, and for that, the Russian Hockey Federation can expect proper punishment.

Fasel said some Russian players wanted to be sportsmanlike: “We saw Ovechkin and Malkin who tried to stay. It’s the team management and coaching staff who should have made sure nothing like this happened; they were right there, on the ice, at the time.”

Vladislav Tretyak, the former all-world goalie who now serves as Russian Hockey Federation’s president, said it was all a misunderstanding rather than lack of respect: his players even shook Canadian players’ hands, he said.

But former Czech goalie Petr Bříza, who served on the organizing committee, said wherever Team Russia showed up, difficulties would follow.

When they came to Ostrava, instead of staying in a hotel reserved for all teams that played there, the Russians demanded that they be accommodated in Kravaře, an Ostrava suburb. Then, when they saw it took them longer than it took others to get to the ČEZ Arena, they demanded that the organizers provide them with police escort, so their team bus can get to and from the arena breaking all traffic rules.

In fact, Team Russia was scandalized its team bus had to wait at a railway crossing for a train to pass. Organizers in Ostrava started asking publicly whether they should have made the railway change its schedule, and Team Russia dropped the subject.

And, Bříza added, “They brought a few problems with them to Prague, too, issues that hadn’t been here before their arrival. The eight teams that had been here were living side by side quite famously, but then the Russians came and the first thing they did was they blocked off a hallway in the arena and demanded to stay in a different hotel. That created serious security issues for us, and if anything had happened, it would have been linked to the championship, no question. And then, they topped it off with such lack of sportsmanship and respect for others, including the entire event,” Bříza concluded.

It seems it may be useful for the organizers of the forthcoming World Cup (NHL and NHLPA) to remind Team Russia management in advance that there are basic rules of decency and sportsmanship that one should keep in mind even following bitter defeat.

And if they can’t live with it, disinvite them, no matter the star power that the event would lose.

Nostradamus would run away rather than predict Edmonton Oilers’ future

So, now that the original Edmonton Oilers-linked hoopla has died down for a moment, let’s try to have a detached look at what has just happened.

To sum up: until proven otherwise, Oilers’ fans have just been taken down to the river where they were sold a bill of goods. Again.

The Edmonton Oilers will be picking first in this year’s draft, and they are going after Connor McDavid. That’s what all and sundry say. The only thing we know for sure is that they are picking first. The newly installed poohbah Peter Chiarelli is on record as saying he’s not trading the pick no matter what. He is not on record as saying young McDavid it is and will be. Considering the Oilers’ needs can be found elsewhere (blueline, net), what if there’s a blue-chip, NHL-ready defenceman available?

Yes, most commentators would insist, but Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are generational players, and McDavid even more so than Eichel.

Mumbo-jumbo

Care to explain the word: generational?

Care to elaborate in what sense: generational?

It just so happens that there are several definitions of generations, all of them valid. Some use demographics, others sociology, some others use the economy. All of these definitions have some features in common: a generation defines approach, use of whatever tools, vision, among many other characteristics. The span of a generation is based on the specifics of its definition: an economic generation covers a different number of years than, say, a generation that shares similar tastes in what kind of jeans to wear.

How did the word “generational” make its way into professional hockey? In a debate over one beer too many, that’s how.

A reminder: hockey is a team game. Wayne Gretzky didn’t produce the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles no matter how hard he tried. Mark Messier, despite the frequently-repeated legend, didn’t win the Stanley Cup in New York: he would have been nowhere without, say, Mike Richter in goal.

And if there was a player who re-defined his position, it would have been Wayne Gretzky. And, behind the blueline, Bobby Orr.

Did you notice? These guys re-defined their positions. Not the game. As Wayne Gretzky himself liked to say, nobody’s bigger than the game.

Yes, Connor McDavid keeps turning heads by his play. In junior. Here’s hoping that he’s going to keep turning heads once (and if) he makes the big show. Still, bluntly, he hasn’t re-defined anything. Not yet, in any case. Oh, definitely, he’s playing with flair rarely seen in professional hockey these days, and he doesn’t make too many mistakes, either.

How will all of this junior stuff translate into the NHL?

Nobody knows. Connor McDavid least of all.

In any case, there are at least as many questions linked to Connor McDavid and his future with (let’s assume) the Oilers as there are answers.

How did we get here?

Let’s try some chronology.

Until the lockout of 2004-2005, the Oilers served as a useful farm team to the richer clubs in the NHL. They would develop young talent and, once those players’ contracts have expired, it’s goodbye, it’s been nice knowing you, Edmonton will for ever remain etched in my heart, but, for the moment, my cheque book is more important.

No need to blame the players: their careers are limited and what they don’t make now, they won’t make in the future. Most of them, at least.

Whether this kind of approach is fair to the rest of the masses of the unwashed is irrelevant here. This kind of approach is what we have. Let’s live with it. There’s not much else we can do about it.

The NHL reigned the players’ salaries in by introducing a salary cap. It would be an extravagant exaggeration to say this solved everything: the ratio between the salary cap and the league’s hockey-related revenues deserved better, and it would take another lockout for the league and its players to at least attempt a new, more flexible, tack.

In any case, next thing you know, the Oilers were in the Stanley Cup finals, extending the eventual winner (Carolina Hurricanes) to seven games, losing by a lousy single goal (empty-net goals, as it happened to end then, do not count).

In the process, the then-coach, Craig MacTavish, managed to outsmart his Detroit Red Wings counterpart, Mike Babcock, and the Oilers went on to eliminate the mighty Wings in the first round.

Less than three weeks after the final game in the Stanley Cup finals, star defenceman Chris Pronger officially asked to be traded. According to insiders, this wasn’t the first time; those same insiders claim Pronger managed to change the Oilers’ dressing room into a poisonous snake pit by the previous Christmas. Stories about reasons for Pronger’s request differ: his wife Lauren didn’t like Edmonton as such, also, she didn’t like it that her husband was recognized by all and sundry whenever the couple decided to go out for a quiet dinner in one of the poshier eateries in town, or she didn’t like alleged extramarital activities some claimed her husband was guilty of.

All of this is irrelevant now.

What is relevant are two things: Pronger went to Anaheim, and the Oilers ended up landing Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and, eventually Jordan Eberle. Not bad for a general manager (Kevin Lowe) who had to deal from a position of weakness as Pronger had let the entire world know in advance that Edmonton wasn’t his cup of tea.

The roof fell in next season: the Oilers didn’t make the playoffs. That the eventual Cup winner, the Hurricanes, didn’t make it, either, was of little or no consolation. How can one even dare considering comparisons between the fanaticism of Carolina’s supporters with the flames that burn in the hearts of Oilers’ fans?

One issue remained: thanks (or due) to Chris Pronger’s shenanigans, the Oilers’ reputation among potential free agents hit the freezing point. In attempts to lure help, the Oilers simply had to be satisfied with second- or even third-ranked free agents, and they still had to overpay them to attract them.

No, neither Kevin Lowe nor Craig MacTavish turned stupid overnight. The issue was (and remains to this day) they had to play the cards they’d been dealt.

They had to deal with inept ownership, too.

First, the so-called Edmonton Investors Group bought the club from its original owner, Peter Pocklington, in 1998. That would have been nice and dandy, on one condition: if most of the more than 30 participants didn’t think they knew hockey better than people who had been in it professionally, and with considerable success, for decades.

Gone was Glen Sather who had been grooming Kevin Lowe for his position for quite some time. Instead, Lowe was moved into Sather’s office. Prematurely, it seems in hindsight. Why prematurely? Simple because if he had some general-management experience to fall back on, he would have told the meddling Investors Group crowd to stop giving him advice on hockey-related matters, no matter how well-meant.

Enter Daryl Katz, he of the Rexall pharmacy chain fame, and a self-proclaimed Edmonton Oilers’ fan. He made an offer to buy the club that amounted to hostile takeover, as one of the chiefs of the Investors Group said at the time.

Another Katz’s claim to fame: he’s a bosom friend with some of the boys on the bus, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, in particular.

Both Lowe and MacTavish are very capable hockey people, and honest, too.

After all, it wasn’t that then-general manager Steve Tambellini fired MacTavish after the dreadful 2008-2009 season. MacTavish stepped down himself because he felt he didn’t have much more to give. That must have taken a lot of courage.

While away from Edmonton,. MacTavish worked on his vocabulary as a TSN commentator, kept up with coaching as the bench boss for Vancouver Canucks’ then-farm in Chicago and, most importantly, earned his Master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

Perfectly impressive.

But in the cold-blooded world of professional sports, with the cutthroat competitiveness that rules ruthlessly all over that kind of universe, two questions emerge:

Should it have been thus?

Was Kevin Lowe’s “best-before” date in Edmonton Oilers’ hockey operations past? While his knowledge, experience, talent and hard work are unquestionable, would it not have been for the better for everybody concerned if he either moved himself to another side of the operation or (even) offered his services to another organization? Kevin Lowe chose the former for the time being. Let’s see where it leads him (and the Oilers).

The question in Craig MacTavish’s case differs. It is based on a theory developed by Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian who rose to fame in the Excited States. As author of the wildly popular book on hierachiology, Peter Principle, he said: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Mind, incompetence in this context does not mean stupidity in any shape or form. It only means that the waters around you are too deep for comfort.

So, what was the case with Craig MacTavish?

As anybody who has ever touched any basic study on the theory of negotiations would quickly attest, it is wrong to even mention publicly your shortcomings, in addition to making your time limitations known. That, alas, is precisely what Craig MacTavish did when he was introduced as the Oilers’ new general manager. He would be making bold steps, and he was impatient. Bold steps mean: I haven’t got much time. I’m impatient means: I can hardly wait because I have no time at all.

Both statements must have made 29 other general managers giddy. Craig MacTavish just gave them weapons to help them defeat him.

Being a general manager of a professional sports team doesn’t give one too much time to learn on the job. Craig MacTavish only got two years.

Except: in strolls a guy who just lost his job because his club didn’t make the playoffs. On one hand, it seems to indicate different culture: one misstep, and you’re gone.

Alas, a look that goes deeper reveals a few more missteps. Another proof that the economic theory that holds that quantitative changes accumulate until they reach a tipping point after which they become qualitative changes. Meaning, in Peter Chiarelli’s case, such steps as trading Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He got, in exchange, players who aren’t bad but who won’t reach Tyler Seguin’s potential if their lives depended on it. All that because of some off-ice misbehaviour and indiscretions attributed to young Mr. Seguin. How come the Dallas Stars managed to put young Mr. Seguin on the straight and narrow before even the next season started?

How will Peter Chiarelli fare in his new job? Fine, he didn’t open his statement by saying he was going to be bold and impatient. He put the young (and most talented) core on notice, instead: you may be out of town before you know what hit you, if we get someone of equal or better value to the club in return.

As a philosophy, this is as it should be. Even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t untouchable, after all.

But as part of your opening statement, before you even shook hands with the guys?

Looking ahead

Will the Oilers be chasing the cup this coming season?

The answer is simple and straightforward: no.

Oh, yes, miracles do happen, but it seems the club has collected on its share of miracles by yet another improbably lucky draft lottery win.

Once we get closer to the free-agent deadline, we’ll know whether those who are now saying that picking Connor McDavid were correct in suggesting that this would help the club immensely. Top players will be lining up to offer the Oilers their services, and at a discount, too.

Besides, considering the Oilers are not trading away their first pick, it remains to be seen whether anything has changed. There have been reported cases of Oilers’ hockey people being overruled (and guess three times who is in a position to do that). The scouts were drooling about NHL-ready defencemen, and the club would end up picking yet another forward.

If this doesn’t change, then the bloodletting made no sense. Except that it made overwhelming headlines about issues that are frightfully overrated, bordering on the irrelevant, at a time when we’re supposed to be deep in thought about whom we’re going to elect to run Alberta for the next few years.