Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tocha Olímpica Tease

It may not be the biggest Olympic Torch Relay in history, but when the 2016 flame caravan touches down in the host nation in May next year, it will be the most Brazilian.

Today organizers at Rio 2016 announced a few, teasing details of their Olympic Torch Relay, which will begin roughly 100 days before the Opening Ceremony on 5 August.

By the numbers, the light brigade will include:
  • Visits to 250 cities and towns
  • Routes connecting urban and rural dots across 26 states and the Federal District
  • Capital cities to be visited: 27
  • Ten to 12 hours per day in transit
  • Proximity to more than 180 million of Brazil's nearly 203 million residents (about 90 percent
    of the host nation's population may see the relay in motion)
  • More than 10,000 torchbearers on foot
  • Over 20,000km driven by caravan vehicles (per vehicle)
  • At least 10,000 airline miles as the Olympic flame is delivered from Greece to Brazil
  • Tens of thousands of torchbearer nominations anticipated (process to be announced)
  • One amazing new torch design (to be unveiled later this year; press materials state the torch relay logo "hints" at the chosen torch design)
  • Three official presenting sponsors: Coca-Cola, Nissan and Bradesco (Olympic torch relay beverages, buggies and banking, respectively).
I'm excited by the possibilities afforded by this South American Olympiad.

Will the flame get pulled up an Amazon Basin hillside atop a 300 ton "Fitzcarraldo" steamship? (Wait, no, that took place in Peru.)

Will Wonder Woman and other Amazon women take part in the exchange of torches? (Only if they do so in Greece, where  that Amazon character originated.)

How will the monumental architecture of Brasilia get its due, along with São Paulo landmarks and those at Foz do Iguaçu? (Amazing torch-inclusive photo opps await!)

Stay tuned for updates!

Relay images via Rio 2016; Brazil map photo via @Rio2016. Fitzcarraldo photo via this blog.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Proof Is In The مهلبية

Many have heard "the proof is in the pudding."

For "American Sniper" fans, critics and anyone wondering the truth about the so-called "Olympic sniper from Syria" portrayed as "Mustafa" by the actor Sammy Sheik, the blog post that follows affirms the proof is in the mahalabiya (مهلبية).

And like variations of this Arab world recipe, the pudding du jour is both sweet and nutty while officially condemning the creative work of Oscar-nominated "American Sniper" screenwriter Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood.

The condemnation comes all the way from the president of the Syrian Olympic Committee, in writing and officially stamped by his staff.

On a hunch noted on this site last week, and from research completed by a fellow International
Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) member Brian Carberry and myself since seeing "American Sniper" in theatres, I took time to write a letter to the Syrian Olympic Committee to ask specific questions as to the facts surrounding their competitors -- specifically shooting athletes -- entered in the Olympics prior to the early 2000s.

In an email reply received January 25, 2015, the executive director of the Syrian Olympic Committee provided a formal response signed by Gen. Mowafak Jomaa, president of the Syrian Olympic Committee, dated 22 January 2015.

The complete email correspondence (formatted as JPEGs to suit this blog posting template and to protect privacy/emails/phone numbers for the writers) is included with this post.

But I'll take a moment to quote Gen. Jomaa here:
"... we herewith assure you that the claimed Olympic shooter in the 'American Sniper' who is named 'Mustafa' is just a fictional character since we have no Olympic shooter as you tracked and your research as well."           
Gen. Jomaa continues with some direct feedback about the creative process chosen by the Oscar-nominated screen writer Jason Hall for "American Sniper" (specifically, the invention of "Mustafa").
"... using such a hint is an attempt to ... involve sportsmen in politics and the current situation in Syria. We strongly believe that sport should be separated from politics and war."
The letter goes on to condemn Hall, Eastwood and the film's involvement of the Olympic Family:
"We reassure that none has contacted our office and this character is merely a media propaganda to distort the Olympic movement in Syria ... (a) matter that we condemn."
Now, once upon time in Atlanta, I actually ran into Clint Eastwood (as reported here) while he was in town directing another sports film (sadly, a lesser film than "American Sniper" -- for the record, I again state the latter film is excellent in this blogger's opinion).

Boy, howdy. It sure would be interesting and make my day to get Eastwood's two cents on this Syrian Olympic Committee letter (not to mention Hall's response). So I'll next be typing notes addressed to Hollywood. Does anyone have Eastwood's email address handy?

"American Sniper" publicity still via Fandango. Other images are screen grabs of actual correspondence formatted for this site by Nicholas Wolaver. These images are copyright Nicholas Wolaver and may be used only by written permission.

Jason Brown Delivers

The 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships concluded Sunday with the men's final.

It was fun to see 2014 Olympian Jason Brown rack up a score of 274.98 to win his first U.S. gold, while Adam Rippon achieved the silver and Joshua Farris won the bronze with 272.48 and 267.98, respectively.

The experience writing from the event was eye-opening and good fun. Got reacquainted with several Olympic reporters while making a few new friends with deep knowledge of figure skating. And the Greensboro locals and volunteers were courteous and helpful.

It was my hope to speak briefly with Tara Lipinski and/or Johnny Weir while in attendance. Unfortunately, Tara was busy as there was no Weir to be found except with her in the NBC booth overlooking the ice -- maybe next time.

I did, however, have the pleasure of spotting and introducing myself to Brian Boitano, an approachable and friendly Olympic champion. It hardly seems possible next month marks 27 years since his gold medal performance in Calgary.

There are still a few unanswered questions from the overall experience:

-- When audience members toss plush toys, flowers or other gifts onto the ice for competitors, why do the girls and boys who retrieve these items (to clear the ice) skate with their arms extended like Stretch Armstrong?
-- When will coaches and female athletes at last retire the music and costumes of "Carmen" from competitive figure skating? For this blogger, Katerina Witt was the first, last and only skater to pull this off, so why not honor her by not "going there" with lesser versions?
-- Speaking of music, why are so many of the long program tunes -- for men and women, and even pairs or dancing -- so somber? During the weekend I heard melodies from "Danse Macabre" and "Adagio For Strings" to "Schindler's List" and "Titanic" theme songs -- isn't the audience done with iceberg-inspired soundtracks by now?

Looking forward to future competitions including the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul and the 2016 World Championships in Boston.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Big Night In Greensboro

Saturday was a big day of driving and skating, and a bigger night for the ladies' final at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C.

The results are in and Ashley Wagner is on top while 2014 U.S. Champion Gracie Gold took the silver. Wagner's total score was 221.02 while Gold earned the silver with 205.54.

Karen Chen, who was sixth going into the final long program, moved up to third with a total of 199.79. Polina Edmunds ended the day fourth with 192.62.

It was a fun experience covering the #NC2015 event, with to highlights, one by the ice and one behind-the-scenes.

Rink-side standing room in the photo pit is better than a front-row seat. It was great fun to enjoy press room access to this area, and to snap a few shots during the ladies' final programs.

Wagner, Gold, Chen and Edmunds performed well under pressure to the delight of a nearly-full crowd inside Greeensboro Coliseum (11,416 was the official tally of ticket holders).

Following the medal ceremony the top three skaters took time for a press conference during which
USA Today's Christine Brennan posed a question to Wagner and Gold, inquiring about the likelihood their careers may take emerge as a high profile rivalry the likes of which the skating world has not seen since 1994 or 1988.

Gold responded she thinks the duo will maintain "the friendliest rivalry in skating," and she paraphrased a saying she read online stating "those who slay together stay together."

More responses appeared in Brennan's report, the local News & Record and other outlets in attendance. The Associated Press duo on site helped me get up to speed on skating.

Wagner was frank about the evening's results making a statement to those who started doubting the champion's abilities.

"This was my first competition with two solid performances (short program and long program), and I'm really happy with tonight," she said. "[The results] show every person who doubts me ... they need to shut their mouths and watch me skate."

Later during the Q&A, Wagner answered a question about her prep for Greensboro, and she mentioned a quote she keeps posted on her mirror that "passion has a way of trumping logic."

After the group session concluded, I was fortunate enough to speak 1x1 with Gold and ask the extent to which she also has similar mottos or keepsakes that inspire her.

"I have three pillows with sayings on them," said Gold. "My mom and I like to go to estate sales and garage sales, and I found them their [at a sale."

She explained the matching set has an organic, earthy feeling (the fabric and style) with related sayings, one of which was "... one day she woke up and she believed."

The prospect of bumping into an Olympian and champion skater at a garage sale seems like something worth believing.

Given Gold's recent hangouts with the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde, maybe more estate sales will pop up on Catalina Island.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Three Pairs

At the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships the pairs final just ended.

From press row on the far end of Greensboro Coliseum, it was great fun to witness skating duos Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, as well as Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea placing first, second and third, respectively.

I have a lot to learn about the skating lingo, but sitting near the Associated Press team and other veteran figure skating reporters, it's getting easier to tell when something special just happened or was a near miss on the ice.

For instance, when Denney/Frazier skated to a mix of music from "The Lion King" I thought one of their lifts achieved a lot of air (as shown below) but I'm told it was so-so (any air time on a thin blade cutting ice seems miraculous to this guy).

And the buzz in the press room is that during their skate to Gershwin's "An American In Paris" the gold medalists Scimeca/Knierim achieved the first U.S. quad throw twist (???) which must be difficult (I'm old enough to recall when many triples were the new big thing in skating).

At the post-final press conference, Knierim said he was "super shocked at the scores" while his partner said the "program was a nail-biter for me" (me, too, as my camera struggled to keep up with the quad).

In spite of their bronze finish, my personal favorite performance was Kayne/O'Shea as they skated to selections from the "Spartacus" soundtrack; graceful and emotional. And they seemed to be the most relaxed.

The certified scores: Scimeca/Knierim with 210.49; Denney/Frazier with 199.92; and Kayne/O'Shea with 185.31.

Looking forward to all the single ladies later this evening.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Breaking the Ice in Greensboro, N.C.

I'm not an uber fan of figure skating.
On par with seasonally tuning in to only championship events like the Super Bowl, Wimbledon or the World Series as touchstones for limited fandom, my attention for skating usually comes in tandem with the Winter Olympiad.

But the curious convergence of good weather, an open calendar and Atlanta's proximity to Greensboro, N.C. -- site of the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships underway -- brought a last-
minute opportunity to trek to The Gate City to see some top figure skaters in person.

Glad to be here; though not my first time in this part of the Carolinas, the experience at #NC2015 is going well considering I just drove five hours and got set up in the press room. The championship pairs free skate is underway, so heading to the media seating shortly.

I won't pretend to know the latest stats and facts on this year's favorites, though coverage by some of the media here (led by the hometown News & Record) helped me get up to speed that several Sochi Olympians including Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Jason Brown and others are poised for success in the finals later today and tomorrow.

More updates and photos from the experience to follow.

Logo via U.S. Figure Skating. Photo from 2013 by Nicholas Wolaver.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

American Sniper Puts Syrian Shooting Olympian In Film's Crosshairs

When I embarked to view the new Clint Eastwood film "American Sniper" -- which is excellent -- there was no expectation of an Olympic connection.

Much to my surprise, not long after Chris Kyle -- the Navy SEAL portrayed by Bradley Cooper -- reached the Middle East, the audience learned about a trained enemy sniper named "Mustafa" (played by Sammy Sheik) described as a skilled marksman who was once an Olympic shooter for Syria.

Eyebrows raised. Something did not seem right.

Then later in the film, as Kyle's team seemed to close in on the supposed Olympian at his clandestine residence, the Syrian athlete-turned-militant sharpshooter was portrayed as quickly loading rifles or packing other gear before barely escaping the U.S. forces in a Houdini-like departure.

During his urgent flight from home, the camera pauses briefly on a framed photograph with three flag-draped athletes on a victory stand presented like an Olympic medal podium and, you guessed it, the magical Mister Mustafa-lese posed on the top tier as though at attention for his national anthem.

Hmmmmm. Very odd.

Though my CV includes "lifetime member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH)" this status includes very little knowledge of Olympic shooting records.

But I was pretty sure the total number of Olympic shooting medalists from Syria was a "ZERO" bigger than the bull's eye on a Games target.

Emerging from the theatre, I checked the International Olympic Committee records and though there are three all-time Olympic medalists from Syria, none are Olympic shooters.

Fellow ISOH member Brian Carberry later did some quick research and found that there are a handful of Olympic shooting entrants from Syrian Arab Republic. But since this National Olympic Committee joined the Olympic Family in 1948, only one seemed age- and skill-appropriate for the film's early 2000s timing.

Carberry explained an athlete named Mohamed Mahfoud competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games as a rifle shooter. However, Mahfoud placed 53rd out of 53 athletes in the target shooting events, hardly the result painted by the filmmakers.

His online bio states he was in his 40s -- and Syria's oldest Sydney entrant in any sport -- during the post-9/11 decade portrayed in the book and movie. So it seemed a stretch this guy joined Iraqi or other forces post-Games.

Still in search of answers, tonight I trekked to a bookstore and planted myself in a chair to read the entire bestselling book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" from cover to cover.

The result: Not a single reference to any one specific target taken out by Chris Kyle. Notes on the editing process, provided by the author, indicate the Pentagon or Navy's review of the text likely prevented such specifics from making the final version.

Determined to find out "who was Mustafa" I started searching the usual places including IMDB, the film's official site (in search of an online press kit) and reviews of the film. Nothing.

Then a Time magazine report detailing fact versus fiction in the big screen "American Sniper" yielded some details that suggest that although a "Mustafa" might have existed or even survived Kyle's attempts to take him out, this person's would-be Olympic creds were not likely verified in the script writer's efforts to bring this character to screen. The Time story does mention some of the writer's feedback on this, but without mention of the Games.

For now, my take is that the five-ringed mention was only for dramatic effect. How better to quickly establish a character's shooting prowess than to elevate her or him to Olympian status?

That said, it does seem to this writer that the "medal stand photo" on view in that enemy combatant's home was a bit much. But hey, the trick worked and it got at least one viewer's attention.

Still curious, I do intend to attempt contact with the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jason Hall to ask specifically the extent to which the "Mustafa" character received O-ring research. I'm also sending an email to the Syrian NOC to inquire their point of view on this topic and the extent to which they were consulted.

Whether this outreach will generate responses or more clarification remains to be seen.

But it is certain that "American Sniper" will continue to turn heads and sell tickets; as of this post,
opening weekend in nationwide release brought in $90 million (!!!).

And the film is well made and Cooper does a fine job showcasing the range of emotions, concentration and stress experienced by Kyle. I enjoyed it more on screen than the book, though I do suggest folks read the updated text versions for the additional details provided by the author's widow and Hall.

Publicity stills via Fandango and ReelBrief.

January 29, 2015 UPDATE: After publishing this post, I did sent an email with questions to the Syrian Olympic Committee, which responded with a letter signed by the president of the organization. The complete correspondence, and letter -- in which the president condemned the film while confirming the "Olympic shooter from Syria" is fictional -- may be read on a follow-up post found here:

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