Thursday, September 14, 2023

Review: Long Run to Glory (2023)

By Stephen Lane

If your memories of the 1984 Olympic women's marathon are anything like mine, you probably remember a single person running almost by herself. 

Joan Benoit pulled away from the pack fairly early in the race, and no one went with her. So Benoit was lacking in company as she maintained a good-sized lead through much of the 26 miles, 385 yards that comprise the event. That can happen in a marathon, in which more than two hours of running can be decided by a single moment at almost any point. Benoit always will be remembered for winning that race, particularly since she had arthroscopic knee surgery shortly before the Olympic Trials.

With that in mind, it might seem ought to consider reading about a book that describes that race. After all, there wasn't much drama. But there were some dramatics just to get to a starting line, and author Stephen Lane wisely concentrates on that "run up" in his solidly written book, "Long Run to Glory."

The miracle of that Olympic marathon was not the race itself, but that it happened in the first place. It took a long, difficult battle over several years to allow runners of both sexes to go through the biggest test running has to offer on a large scale. 

The problem was that women were considered too fragile and feminine to even consider running such a long distance. It took quite a while just to allow females to run farther than 800 meters at a time, as ridiculous as it sounds now. Those attitudes were still in place in the late 1960s, but cracks were starting to develop. You probably can credit the women's movement of that time with helping to change some minds. But more importantly, a few women simply liked to run long distances and were determined to do it. The walls eventually came down during the course of the 1970s, and a women's marathon was greenlighted for the Los Angeles Games of 1984. 

After setting up the backstory, Lane moves toward the main event. We were lucky to have some great runners then who were really ahead of their time. They may not have had the depth of competition that today's runners do, but their achievements can hold up in any time period. Benoit joined with Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota to dominate the sport for several years. They combined to win all of the Olympic and World Championships in the 1980s. 

They for the most part were generally unprepared for the rush of fame and publicity that hit them as the sport became more popular with fans. Running is often a solitary exercise, and glory probably was that last thing that all of them expected when they hit their final finish line as world-class athletes. But they did it anyway. 

And they did it without often competing again the other top runners. It's fascinating to think that this group of runners all lined up on the same starting line once in their lives - and it came in Los Angeles in 1984. 

Lane has the time and space to include some of the lesser players in the story. Other runners turn up as well, and some of the administrators - like the New York Marathon's Fred Lebow - are memorable in their own way. He talked to some of the principals as well as several others for the book, and he obviously did as much homework as he could under the circumstances. The one oddity I noticed is that for all of that research, there aren't many quotes in the story. But that won't affect your enjoyment.

It took a little more than 17 years to go from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to be registered for the Boston Marathon in 1967, to Benoit's win in Los Angeles. Those years probably seemed endless to those involved then, but common sense eventually won out. "Long Run to Glory" is a good place to fine out how that happened.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Review: Freezing Cold Takes (2022)

By Fred Segal

For those who are considering entering the sports media business in the near future, there's something you should know. At some point, you will be asked to make predictions. It comes with the territory.

Oh right - at some point, you will be wrong. Horribly wrong, at times. 

This is no sin, naturally. If sportswriters and broadcasters could predict the future, they wouldn't waste their time on the outcome of the next NFL game in their city. They'd concentrate on the Powerball lottery, collect the winnings, and head to the Caribbean island they just bought with the proceeds. 

Usually, such predictions wind up in the trash and are quickly forgotten. But these days, it's a bit easier to bring them back to life. The Internet is forever ... at least in some cases.

What's more, Fred Segal has made something of a pastime out of resurrecting old quotes. It started as some posts on social media as a way to gently make fun of those trying to look into a crystal ball. The ex-lawyer followed that work, which became popular rather quickly, with a book in 2022 called "Freezing Cold Takes." And yes, many of them deserve to be in the ice box.

After a quick introduction, Segal jumps into some of the comments that were made at the time of some big moments in recent pro football history. (No, he didn't find a comment from a sports writer in 1940 saying that the Bears were no match for the Redskins in the NFL championship game ... although no doubt there is one out there somewhere.) The titles of the chapters tell the story. "The Patriots Will Regret Hiring Bill Belichick." "Trade Dan Marino, Keep Scott Mitchell." "Brian Brohm Has More Upside Than Aaron Rodgers." "Tony Manderick Is in a Class by Himself." "Why would we give up a first-round pick for (Brett Favre)?" It ends with a chapter on the Patriots of the early 2000s, with several reporters wondering why the team would ever turn to Tom Brady at quarterback when it had Drew Bledsoe at the position?

If a football fan saw one of the quotes by itself, he or she instantly would know what something had gone horribly wrong with the forecast. That makes it a very good fit for social media. This is an attempt to put the areas of conversation into some sort of context, as entire seasons get the once over. In addition, some of the authors of those quotes gone wrong are given the chance to explain their thinking at the time. I personally know a couple of the people quoted in this book, and I'd bet they'd have appreciated the chance to explain where and why they went wrong. That makes the publication less mean spirited than it could have been, which is a good idea.

If there's a lesson here, it's that the book's added perspective makes some of the predictions seem more rational than they are in hindsight. For example, Favre had done very little as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons, and Packers' executive Ron Wolf seemed to be the only person in the NFL who thought the quarterback would turn out well. A trade was made, Favre got his act together, and he became a Hall of Famer. Bill Belichick hadn't done much to show that he'd be in the conversation as the greatest coach of all time ... until Brady walked through the locker room door and claimed the starting job. 

That leads to the key question about "Freezing Cold Takes": social media post or book? I think the idea works better with the former, since the short posts contain just enough snark to fit the target audience. The book is reasonably entertaining, and the quotes are still fun to read years later. Still, most of the back stories are familiar to many football fans, so it's difficult to see those other than the format's biggest fans to do anything but read this quickly (and it is a quick read, if you skip the many necessary pages of notes) and move on. 

And Segal has opened a door that could lead to other areas. Who wouldn't want to go through "Freezing Cold Takes" about current events, films or music? This could be the start of an industry.

Three stars

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