Nothing Pure about It

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

In the last few days, believe it or not, there was actually some good news in the world of sports.

But you had to go to the far side of the earth to find it.

In a soccer tournament on Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia, Iraq beat Saudi Arabia in the final of the Asian Cup.

Back home in Iraq, "weeping, shouting, horn-honking, flag-kissing, Kalashnikov-firing Iraqis" were ecstatic that their team, known as the Lions of the Two Rivers, overcame virtually insurmountable odds to vanquish the land of the Two Holy Mosques, as Stephen Farrell reported in yesterday's New York Times.

"It was one of the few unifying moments in the recent history of a perhaps fatally disunited country," the story said. It noted that, while the team is drawn from across Iraq's Sunni-Shia divide, sectarian killings have touched all 22 of its members.

"This is the happiest moment," soccer fan Ali Hassan told the paper. The Iraqi people, he said, "are thirsty to have moments of enjoyment."

On the same day, in Cooperstown, N.Y., 75,000 baseball fans turned out for another happy occasion, the Hall of Fame induction of Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres.

As my colleague Peter Schmuck put it in his column today in The Sun, the most obvious reason for the huge crowd was that Ripken and Gwynn "are two of the best-loved figures in the history of baseball."

You couldn't say the same for Barry Bonds, who is trying to supplant Hank Aaron as the record-holder in career home runs.

And here is where the news in sports gets ugly.

Baseball fans are booing Bonds' performances because they believe that for years he stuffed himself with steroids. When he does break the record, which could happen any day, all the joy will have been sucked out of the moment.

Illegal substances also put a serious damper on this year's Tour de France, which ended Sunday amid a rash of firings and suspensions.

Yesterday, the Astana team fired its leader, Alexander Vinokourov, who had started the race as a favorite to win. A test confirmed that Vinokourov, from Kazakhstan, had received an illicit blood transfusion.

The Times's Ian Austen reported today that the Spanish rider Iban Mayo, one of the sport's leading mountain specialists, tested positive for a blood-boosting hormone. Mayo was the third rider to test positive in this year's Tour.

And in basketball, as Dave Zirin explained in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, the FBI is investigating allegations that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games that he officiated to pay off large gambling debts to organized crime. "Much has been made of the off-court behavior of some NBA players: confrontations with police, arrests at strip clubs or firearms violations," Zirin wrote. "But an NBA referee possibly betting with real gangsters is something entirely different … because it directly threatens the integrity of the sport."

In football, we have Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who is accused of financing a vicious dogfighting operation. One of his co-defendants, Tony Taylor, says the operation was financed almost entirely by Vick. Apparently, he or his associates would bludgeon, drown, smother, shoot or electrocute dogs that were under-performing.

Amazingly, many sports fans seem not to be bothered when their idols stray.

As Jere Longman wrote in Sunday's New York Times,

fans "rationalize, even persist in willful denial about the transgressions of their heroes."

Longman quoted Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus of health policy at Penn State: "Don't give me any of that Chariots of Fire stuff; cut the box of Wheaties bull. There's nothing pure about it. The noble cause is all gone. These guys are entertainers, period, in the money sports. They're not role models."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

Photo of Tony Gwynn and and Cal Ripken, Jr at induction ceremony by Scott Ryan,



Nick Madigan