Take One for the Team

September 20, 2006

The canary yellow band rides as tight as a second skin just below my right wrist. It is my constant companion. LiveStrong are the letters stenciled into the rubber loop, part admonition and part motto, my personal connection to Lance Armstrong, a supreme athlete and cancer victor. Armstrong has touched millions of us, we who are the LiveStrong army. 

But whether he uses a silver sword, a magic arrow, or poison, it will not matter. Lance Armstrong will never slay the hoary dragon that is the belief that he is a drug cheat, a Tour de France champion whose blood was boosted by EPO. The opinion regarding Armstrong is neatly proportionate to geography, as the strength of feeling against him grows stronger the closer one moves towards
Paris, the epicenter of the Tour and of big time cycling itself.
 

There is a nicely aged half filled bottle of what is claimed as a B sample of Armstrong’s urine, 1999 Tour vintage. The French vintners claim that it contains more trace metabolites of erythropoietin than any healthy human is able to produce. There is the speculation and the second hand news that places Armstrong as complicit with others using the same illegal substances. Guns that certainly smoke, even if one can never tell exactly when the trigger was pulled. 

In the
United States, Armstrong became a hero when he defeated cancer, but not for the Tour triumphs alone. The ever expanding collective American gut is ample proof that typical Americans are not avid cyclists nor are they much concerned about playing any sport. Sports participation is more often as a fan of big league glitz. The
U.S. networks regard televised cycling as a niche product at best, events that attracts ratings near those of lawn bowling and log rolling. Lance Armstrong became an American icon because he was an international figure who not only beat testicular cancer, he achieved his most spectacular successes after chemotherapy treatments. Americans best love those winners who can instill hope and courage in the average citizen; the fact that Armstrong triumphed in the most Eurocentric of competitions made the Armstrong legend even more delightful in his popular designation as an embraceable All-American hero.
 

A far more popular televised American sport is the omnipresent American legal culture. Television has created an obsessive public interest in due process, where the seeking of refuge in a forest of rules is an honourable American pursuit. Morality, from that of the Mob to the conduct of Presidents consorting with their interns, is equated with the proper adherence to the rules of any investigation, not the fruits. Johnny Cochrane elevated the sophistry, ‘if the glove don’t fit, acquit!’, to a high art. A single, telegenic display will often trump a pattern or an entire landscape of evidence. Procedure rules. 

The many supporters of Lance Armstrong, and the athlete himself, take precisely this tack. Their mantra is that as Armstrong has never failed a drug test, he is therefore innocent of all charges of doping. Anything advanced by way of oral statements, recollections, hearsay, or circumstances, especially those proffered by the despicable French cycling press, is stymied. The science of urinalysis is held out as the only legitimate Armstrong judge and jury. 

The landscape of both the Tour de France and world cycling is increasingly littered with the corpses of former team mates of Armstrong, including those who wore the colours and carried the figurative mail on his dominant U.S. Postal Service team. At least eight riders who both rode with Armstrong and executed the team tactics that helped position him as a seven time Tour champion have been suspended for various doping violations by the International Cycling Union. 

Everyone has an opinion about Lance Armstrong and his complicity or otherwise in any sort of scandal, either as a sole operative or in concert with his team of riders. A September 17, 2006 letter to the editor of the New York Times from one Patrick Watson may have captured the issue best of all. Watson, a former US Army lieutenant, recalled that in the military, it is the commander of the platoon, squad, brigade, or company that must take responsibility for all of the actions of his unit, for better or worse, no matter how distant he might be from the event in question. 

Lance Armstrong may well have not known of his team mates jacking EPO or amphetamines into their systems to increase their red blood counts and their oxygen uptake. Did he get a benefit from their deceits and their breaches of the rules of their sport? 

One can argue that given the importance of team riding tactics in road racing, Armstrong benefited from the actions of his team as surely as if he had taken blood boosters himself. Teams fend off the challenges of other riders. Teams make it easier for the leader to be fed and hydrated in the grueling daily grinds that are the Tour de France stages. They protect their leader by providing the aerodynamics necessary to ease his workload. Team mates run down opponents who try to make a break from the peloton. All of the efforts of an elite team are directed to protect and advance the best rider with the chance of victory – for U.S. Postal, that man was Lance Armstrong. He clearly profited both by reputation and through immense financial rewards, from the doping of others, even when the frenzied hurly burly of the mob denouncing Armstrong as a cheat is silenced in a moment of reflection. 

Floyd Landis, the earnest American Mennonite now stands accused of enhancing his searing ride to the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour using synthetic testosterone for fuel. Landis makes the point of the Armstrong accusers all the more acute – another American cheating to best the best of
Europe.
 

A nation of sports cheats is the further extrapolation of Lance Armstrong. Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, Rafael Palermo, and the medicine men of BALCO – they all cheated.  Lance Armstrong is laughably mis-cast as the unsullied debutante when he rode in a posse of cycling hookers who admitted to turning any chemical trick to win. 

The American defenders of Armstrong say that guilt by association is even worse than a failure of due process. One single question might put it all to rest – can it be said to a mathematical certainty that Armstrong would have won his seven Tour championships without the efforts of his boosted and industrious teammates?  

My respect for Lance Armstrong would be preserved if he would simply acknowledge that he clearly gained a personal and financial benefit from the doping of his teammates over the years. I suspect that I shall be disappointed. 

In every place in this world, there are times when the leader of an organization must extend their arms, palms out, and head high to face a truth. The leader must then take a measure of unvarnished personal responsibility for the actions of his team. Responsibility and moral guilt are too often confused, as if they occupied a two sided coin. They are separate currencies. Patrick Watson has it right – Lance Armstrong should acknowledge the obvious.  He should continue to be a leader long after his races were won. A true champion, committed to the ‘live strong’ creed, would do nothing less. 

 

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Stressed out, m’Lord?

September 13, 2006

 

For two days running the Toronto Globe and Mail has turned its reporting and editorial attention from the Afghan war and the trembles in our economy that inevitably follow any quivers south of the border, to an issue that should galvanize every true Canadian. There are not enough federally appointed judges. Perdition looms.

 

The superior courts of the nation are evidently creaking from a workload that threatens to crush these loyal and dogged foot soldiers in the pursuit of justice. ‘Burnout’ is imminent, say their publicists, masquerading as executive legal officers and other functionaries. One such agent, Paul Evraire of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, told the Globe that…”the judges are suffering a great deal. I think that they all feel the pain.” Evraire did not advise as to whether visiting hours were limited to family.

 

Some years ago, the judges, using our Constitution as the weapon of choice, successfully established a neat reducto ad absurdum – judicial independence and big salaries were two inextricably linked principles. Pay us more and we are certain to be independent of the state. The judicial appointment czars then made such statements their own foundation garment when the judges’ pay came under public scrutiny– how will we ever secure qualified candidates unless they are well paid, perhaps to the levels that approach those available in the private sector? Who would ever apply otherwise?

 

There are two irrefutable lines that silence this bleating. The first is the sheer handsomeness of what judges are paid, salary and benefits combined. Every federally appointed judge receives about $225,000 as their annual stipend (indexed to inflation and subject to a quadrennial review). They have utter security of tenure; a judicial appointment is as impervious to fire as a house made of granite. They may retire to a full pension, itself fully indexed to inflation, after 15 years. They are entitled to 8 weeks of holiday, paid conferences and continuing education festivals. On death, the bereaved or even the cheerful survivors are entitled to their own pain easing annuity. There are many lawyers who have been practicing the requisite 10 years who could never approach such an income, including every Crown Attorney and government legal counsel in the country. A $50,000 raise at the least for a lot less work might be very attractive.

 

But best of all? A judge is accountable to no one once they leave the court room perch. Judicial independence is the freedom from the tyranny of a schedule, supervision, or any workplace rules when the judicial robes are hung at the end of a court room session.

 

Many lawyers seeking to be judges will undoubtedly take a cut in their take home pay packet if appointed. But isn’t that their choice? Is anyone making them leave the even more remunerative private practice of law? No; and who is likely to work harder, someone practicing in the confines of an environment with partners, overhead, lines of credit, client demands and all of the other constraints that are paradoxically constructed by ‘free’ enterprise, or the poor slave to judicial independence?

 

The team playing federal judges, we are breathlessly informed by the Globe, are giving up their non sitting weeks and chambers days to help out with the purported judicial crunch. Remember it is the judges, and no one else, who say that the current vacancies are a crisis, as opposed to simply a typically convoluted and poorly managed bureaucratic boondoggle. Has there ever been a true third party, transparent, and expert analysis of exactly how many hours a judge must work to typically discharge their duties? I have never seen one published. The well paid and insulated judiciary asks the public to accept their collective word. Perhaps they actually believe their own propaganda.

 

The government’s obstinacy in the filling of these judicial vacancies has also promoted a shibboleth that rivals that of ‘judicial independence’- more judges will mean greater access to justice for the public at large. We are told that lawyers are now so expensive that in some courts as many as 40% of the litigants are unrepresented, a circumstance that requires the presiding judge to take additional and very costly time to explain the law to these citizens. Newsflash to the judicial apologists – access to justice an inversely proportioned umbilical cord named legal fees. Legal fees are driven by market forces. Perhaps the various law associations can prevail upon their members to reduce fees, increase legal representation and thereby give the long suffering judges a break from the tedium and time consuming work of dealing directly with the public in their court rooms.

 

I do not question a well paid judiciary as a basic operating principle. Judges have great responsibility and work within an often tiny margin of error, live in the public eye like an acrobat performing without a net. The typical tax payer in this country is working more hours per week for about the same return as they did in 1990. Our federal judges seem to have nicely avoided that conundrum. How many judges can look themselves in their mirrors of their well appointed chambers, and say, “I am working harder now than I ever have in my entire career.”

 

 

 

 

The Irony of Condoleeza Rice

September 13, 2006

I have never met Condoleza Rice but I certainly admire her. She is the woman of the hotspots; I sense her to be a sometimes relectant emissary of President Bush, who pushes the agenda ahead regardless.

Rice was in Canada yesterday as a part of the honours accorded to Nova Scotia and its people in showing traditional Canadian decency to those air travellers stranded in the aftermath of September 11 five years ago. As part of the dark homage that will be the legacy of that day, Rice saluted Canada as one of the staunch partners of the United States in the war against terror.

She also applauded us for our role in the building of democracy in Afghanistan. She declared that our collective sacrifice in both arms and blood has achieved a tangible result. Girls, as an example, are now permitted to attend schools in that godless place, a step towards true freedom – or so Rice says.

As Rice spoke to her Canadian audience, the Royal Canadian Regiment had closed a vice around 1,000 or more Taliban fighters near Pashmul, only to have them shimmer away in the night as if by magic. Wars have been fought here for thousands of years, and history tells us they tend to all follow a pattern – invaders chase their Afghani prey across the rocks and the deserts, suffering until they feel compelled to seek a pathway out.

Our declared enemy the Taliban were once the government in Afghanistan, in the far off time of 1996, a fact ignored by George Bush and his strategists . The Taliban was officially recognised as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by only three countries -the United Arab Emirates (who undoubtedly saw an oil client), Pakistan (its nearest neighbour to the south), and Saudi Arabia.

If global geopolitics had a poster boy for duplicity, it would be the benevolent Saudis. The great American ally, the theocratic and regressive Saudis endorsed the Taliban for the five years they held rather tenuous power in Afghanistan. Condoleeza Rice would never be a Saudi political power figure – she wouldn’t even be allowed to drive a car.

Is there not more than a hint of irony in the fact that America’s bastion of Arab support in the Middle East (a) is the homeland of one O B Ladin (b) endorsed the now despised Taliban as a legitimate Afghanistan government and (c) have no interest in the American styled democracy that is the stated goal of the great Afghan campaign? I will wager that a person of the intelligence and the world view of Condoleeza Rice sees the irony in all of that.

 Canadians are dying on the dirt and the hard scrabble of Pashmul and Kandahar for this game of yesterday’s friend , today’s enemy. Who will be supporting whom when the worm turns 10 years from now?

Three disparate people flickered across the Canadian radar screen in the past few days. They are proof of the old line about 6 degrees of separation.

Pope Benedict held a conference with his regional cardinals who exercise spiritual responsibility for Canada last week. The Pope apparently expressed his dismay at the secularising of Canadian politics. His Holiness was critical of Roman Catholic politicians who did not vote with their Catholic conscience on issues such as same sex marriage.

The mainstream media uttered its predictable bleating about the Pope sticking his oar in our domestic politics. The consensus was that politics and morality were separate issues, and the Bishop of Rome had no right to comment upon how our elected House of Commons conducted its business. “Interference” was a common noun used in the reports.

The same media expressed concerns over the perceived slights directed at the Chinese diplomatic corp in Ottawa in recent weeks. The Globe and Mail in particular advanced the view that Canada’s failure to engage the Chinese in formal meetings was both a breach of diplomatic protocol and a possible slight that would compromise all efforts by Canadian business to stake its claim to a piece of the buoyant and ever expanding Chinese economy .

In a companion commentary, the extension of honorary citizenship by Canada in June of this year to the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet exiled for almost 40 years, was also characterized as an affront to China. The Chinese, who annexed Tibet in a less than friendly invasion in 1950 and who have clearly practiced various forms of ethnic repression of the Tibetan people ever since, are reportedly unhappy with Canada’s creation of this honorific, previously extended only to Nelson Mandela and Raoul Wallenburg. The Chinese see the Dalai Lama as a terrorist and a fomentor of insurrection. Fears were expressed in our media as to how this act would also impair Canadian business opportunities in China.

As these potential commercial repurcussions were considered by the press, it was reported that Huseyin Celil had been sentenced to a 15 year stretch in an undoubtedly cheerful Chinese prison for his role in the alleged murder of a Chinese government official in 2000. The Chinese have refused all Canadian diplomatic efforts to speak with Celil since he was arrested in March of this year, on the basis that he was a terrorist, full stop. If he has been tried, it was in secret. His family have been denied any access to him. Celil is being held at an undisclosed location. Other than one tepid discusison between our Foreign Minister and the Chinese officials in Ottawa in July, no high level effort has been made to secure the complete story regarding Celil, or what future plans the Chinese may have for him. Given China’s general treatment of Moslems in general and the Uighur people in particular (Celil is both), one wonders how he will survive a 15 year sentence.

Celil is a Canadian citizen, a national of a country where the rule of law is supreme. Are we so afraid of interfering in the stream of Chinese commerce that we would treat Celil and his family so disgracefully?

The spiritual leader of millions of Roman Catholic Canadians simply comments about our secular politics and he is roundly criticized in our national press.

A Canadian citizen is imprisoned in China, without a public trial and he is exposed to all manner of deprivations, and it remains business as usual with the wonderful people in Beijing.

I am ashamed to hold my passport.

The Freakin’ Marlins

September 9, 2006

I am reading Freakonomics now. I had read the generally rave reviews in the New York Times when the book was published early last year, made my requisite mental note to secure it without delay, and promptly forgot all bout it. My pleasure reading cycle is always a year or two out of sync with the mainstream. I never watch movies when they are first run and newly released in the theatres. On the positive side of the ledger, my cultural tastes remain about eight years ahead of my wardrobe.

 

Freakonomics proffers a host of economically rooted propositions in a devilish way. The best known and most controversial was the assertion that the crime rate in the
United States had fallen in the past 30 years due to Roe v. Wade. The authors advance the argument that women in the socio economic strata most likely to have children will later secure membership in the criminal classes have had a greater number of abortions. Why drug dealers live with their mothers was another Freakonomic brain expander. To quote every hackneyed book review, I could not put this one down.

 

Great writing should always encourage a reader to apply the tendered lesson to other problems of the world, and so it was with me, Freakonomics and the current September stretch run in professional baseball. Some teams, like the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and the Detroit Tigers seem a lock for the post season. By no coincidence in the economics of modern baseball, these clubs are near the top of the payroll chart; the Yankees not merely the highest paid players, but their salary outlay of  $194 M is more than $70 M ahead of the next biggest spenders. There would seem to be a correlation between payroll, team ability, and competitive success.

 

A Freakonomic-like approach comes into view on a closer analysis. The second highest spending team this season is
Boston – they will not make the playoffs, $120 M plus of kissing your sister in second place.

 

The lowest payroll in baseball is that of the Florida Marlins of the National League. Twice in the past 10 seasons successful and high payroll Marlins squad have been detonated by ownership intent upon salary dumping and payroll slashing, other players scattered to the winds of free agency The Florida fans were in an uproar, and voted with their feet; the pooh bahs of Major League Baseball were not amused, but ultimately powerless, as to how the Marlins ran their operation. The Marlins entered this season with a payroll of $14 M; four Yankees alone make more.

 

The Marlins are a .500 team, with a better shot at the post season by way of the National League wild card that many other teams with payrolls that approach $ 100 M. Freakonomics conclusion? Either spend ungodly Yankee sized sums on players, or get the cheapest players you can find, and see what happens.

 

The NBA this past season was also a Freakonomics study, in the opposite direction. The biggest spending team, the New York Knicks and $93M worth of supposed talent, were horrid on the floor in every facet of the game, one of the two or three worst teams in the league. Miami won the NBA title with a mid level payroll, the three lowest spending teams were Charlotte, Toronto, and
Atlanta, all more or less wretched by turns. The lesson? Seek to be a mid pack payroll team if you wish to be an NBA success. Less is more in the NBA, but too little leaves nothing.

The Ballad of Kandahar

September 5, 2006

The most recent installment in the sad folly that is Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan war played out in two parts this weekend. Four soldiers killed and 10 wounded when ambushed by the Taliban; another, a luckless RCR, was strafed and taken by an American A-10 Warthog, a victim of what is war’s most bitter and black humoured euphemism, ‘friendly fire’.

The Canadian media have used many expressions to avoid painting our place in Afghanistan for what it is. The common descriptor is mission, as if our soldiers were working with the cold and clinical precision of a surgeon in the inhospitable Afghan desert.

We are fighting a war, plain and simple, in this Godless and obscene place. the stated goal of our 2200 soldiers is to help plant the seed of a true democracy where one has never taken root, let alone cultivated. It is the poppy and the opium trade, not tolerance and democratic forces that are the abundant Afghanistan harvest.

On September 4 Christie Blatchford of the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote a long and passionate attack on the leader of our left wing party, Jack Layton of the NDP. She questioned the moral rectitude of Layton and anyone other Canadian who both opposed this war and who professed sorrow at the deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Blatchford wrote – “You can’t position yourself as a soldier lover when you loathe soldiering”

I respect passion and honest feeling where ever I see it, and as
Blatchford was stationed in Afghanistan for months as a Globe correspondent, where she observed this war from a front line position, she must surely feel a real kinship with our soldiers there.

Sadly, her honest sentiments have been twisted and tortured into stunning and peerless sophistry. Hers is the uncomplicated mantra of ‘are you are with me or against me?’ It has all of the subtlety of the kindergarten playground.

In the Blatchford world, it is only the true patriots who believe in our Afghanistan cause who are permitted to express their emotions for the dead and the wounded. The rest of us, it seems, are hypocrites and fakers. We are against the soldiers if we are opposed to war.

I am saddened on two fronts. The first is that Christine Blatchford and her passions could fall so readily into this man trap of false patriotism. I love my country too, so much that the waste of life and effort in such a bleak and featureless place as Afghanistan brings me near tears without my countrymen dying there. Our democratically elected government determined this course – I have the option of both emphatic peaceful protests and the ballot box. I honour our soldiers, who have no choice in this matter. I want my government to ensure their safety as best it can when they are deployed in this terrible place where the enemy is both seen and unseen. I demand that our men and women be properly cared for and protected by their commanders as best they can be during their tours of duty.

I find the concept of an Afghan war for democracy, or whatever other ideals are espoused thousands of kilometers from our own imperfectly constituted nation, as one that is repulsive in the extreme. I can love the soldier, one Canadian to another. I can despise the cause. I can mourn a tragedy, too. No one needs Christie Blatchford, or anyone else to dictate how they may make their withdrawals from their private bank of human feeling.

The second front in my personal conflict over Afghanistan? For the first time in his long and often quixotic political career, I found myself in agreement with a sentiment expressed by Jack Layton..Thank you, Christie Blatchford – there is a first time for everything..

Hockey’s Hoar Frost

September 5, 2006

In meteorology, sublimation occurs when water vapor in the atmosphere converts instantly into a crystalline solid, by-passing the liquid state. Hoar frost is the result, icy particles that first cling to and then cloak trees and other living things in its opaque and brittle shell. The features of all frosted growth is obscured, with only a stark outline visible, until the crystals are dissolved by the sun’s heat.

In the inevitable Indian summer of our glorious Canadian autumns, there are regular sequences of warm days and cold nights that produce hoar frost. In most instances, shaking a tree limb or brushing the stalks of low ice caked plants sends the shattered frost in thin jagged sheets harmlessly to the ground. In a rare case, when the hoar frost is thick and its adhesion acute, the living thing will fracture, torn from its trunk by the weight and the grip of the icy mantle.

There is a peculiar Canadian symmetry between these frosty evenings and the start of our hockey season. Youths are trundled out of the doors of their homes before dawn, heading to the rink for a practice, or arriving home late at night from an out of town mid week game, the crunch of the frost underfoot.

David Frost was arrested last week on a series of sexual exploitation charges in Napanee, Ontario. The former junior hockey coach, National Hockey League player agent, and target of a failed murder plot has been in the eye of a media hurricane powered by equal measures of outrage and titillation. The national sports press have predictably rehashed the bizarre and sexually tinged relationship between Frost and his former protege and latter day would be killer, Mike Danton.

Selena Roberts edged far closer to the real issue at the heart of the David Frost case in her excellent New York Times column of August 27 (Differentiating Between Coach and Predator, http://www.nytimes.com/sports). Roberts smoothly directed her analysis to a fundamental truth – Frost is not a one off, isolated Svengali of sport. His ilk are everywhere. Like hoar frost, when the atmosphere is conducive, the manipulative forces in sport will cling to living things, distorting their true appearance and rendering contact dangerous.

Ms. Roberts commentary can be taken one step further. Hockey still rules the Canadian sporting consciousness, although changing demographics that have largely resulted from our immigration patterns of the past 30 years have reduced hockey’s rule from that of sole despot to more of a chairman of the Party.

David Frost is a creation of the Canadian hockey environment. The hand wringing of hockey officialdom over Frost was both too late and irrelevant. So long as there are parents who are prepared to put their faith in the words of purported mentors who promise to take their boy to the promised land of the elite rep team roster spot, a Junior A club, the minor leagues, or the Holy Grail that is the NHL, there will be a frost forming in the atmosphere.