Un-Conventional Thinking

What could you get for $114 million?

Granted, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. But it still makes for an impressive shopping list.

You could pay for every home and building  lost to wildfires in Larimer County twice over. Or every home lost in the Waldo Canyon fire once.

You could buy three new Frederick High Schools with all the fixings.

With that kind of money, you might even be able to roll out fiber-optic service across Longmont AND redevelop the Twin Peaks Mall.

Or – wait for it – you could pay for two national political conventions.


Granted, I still don’t have the price sheets for this year. But in 2008, that’s what it cost to put on the Democratic and Republican national conventions, in Denver and Minneapolis respectively. A $114 million bill for, basically, two week-long political commercials.

Anyone feel that was money well spent?

OK, OK, maybe the chambers of commerce in those two cities would. Big conventions always make a splash in hotel spending and restaurant spending and local promotion. I get that. But leaving out the ripple effects – which often get debated for any big event – what did we actually get for that money?

We got to hear them announce the nomination of Barack Obama and John McCain. Which we already knew about anyway, even if Hillary Clinton did put up a fight until almost the end.

We got to hear a lot of speeches, most of which we probably couldn’t quote right now without a quick check on Google and YouTube.

We got the official platforms for each party, which typically get less attention than a five-day weather forecast and probably have less predictive power.

Oh, and we got to see a brief “bounce” in the polls for each presidential candidate. That’s nice, I guess.

The fact is, modern politics have made the national convention a ceremony without a function,a party-wide pep rally that even the networks feel less and less responsibility to cover anymore.

That’s a little sad.

It wasn’t always this way. Nominating conventions used to be the proverbial back room, the place where delegates would shout and bargain and deal to decide the man at the top of the ticket. In 1924, it took 103 ballots for the Democrats to nominate John W. Davis (who got thumped by Calvin Coolidge). As late as 1968, it was still possible for someone to win the nomination who hadn’t carried a single presidential primary.

They could be tense. Exciting. Not necessarily representative, mind you. But full of drama.

Now they’re about as predictable as a Gilligan’s Island rerun.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. It means the caucuses and primaries can actually mean something, that your voice and your vote really can be part of the process of picking a political champion instead of just being a commodity to be traded away for who-knows-what from who-knows-where.

But it does leave the convention without a real purpose. Other than being a chance to party and see the latest in Darth Vader gear on the local police.

We can do better. And we should.

Here’s a thought. Make it a one-day rally, centered on the candidate’s acknowledgment speech. Loose the balloons, shout the slogans, give your man or woman their time in the spotlight.

And then take the dollars that would have been spent on the larger political orgy and donate them somewhere. Anywhere. Cancer research, wildfire victims, space travel. Buy Girl Scout cookies with them if you must.

Deeds speak louder than words. And seeing where a party chose to give its “convention grant” just might say more than any political platform ever written.

Think about it. Please.

One hundred and fourteen million dollars. Not bad. There’s a lot that could do.

All it needs is someone willing to break with convention.

Faster, Higher, Sillier

Stop the presses. The International Olympic Committee may have learned what the words “common sense” mean.

Well, to a degree, anyway. This is the IOC we’re talking about.

For those who missed it, master gold-grabber Michael Phelps nearly had his medals stripped from him this week by the Olympic powers-that-be. Painful for any athlete, this would have been horrific for the all-time record holder, the most decorated Olympian in history.

So what did he do? Was he caught sneaking a joint? Did he fix a race, dope his blood, make a lewd proposition to Prince William’s wife?

No, no, no and no.

Instead Mr. Phelps, to the horror of red-blooded Olympic bureaucrats everywhere, appeared in an ad that … that … (gasp) did not involve an official sponsor of the 2012 London Games.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from the fainting spell.

That’s right. In photos leaked before the end of the Games, Phelps was seen advertising for fashion house Louis Vitton. In an act of magnanimity, Olympic officials decided that Phelps had no control over when those pictures would be released, and thus would not have to give his medals back under IOC Rule 40.

How generous. How kind.

And how come his medals were at stake at all?

Make no mistake, I understand that the Olympic Games have become big business. It’s been reported that the Games cleared over 1 billion pounds (that’s over $1.5 billion) in sponsorship revenue. Ads are no less vital for the athletes, many of whom depend on endorsements to see any kind of income at all from their sport.

Without some sort of exclusive guarantee, the money stays away. I get that. But let’s not forget what this is.

This is an athletic competition.

Medals aren’t based on your looks, your income or even how nice a guy you are. (And let’s face it, all of us can remember some real stinkers who brought home gold.) They’re based on what you did on the field, on the court, in the pool.

And they should only be taken away for the same reason.

If you cheated, if you doped, if you somehow compromised the competition, then by all means strip the medal. I’ll cheer the IOC on as they do it.

But this is just stupid.

I’m guessing the IOC wanted a threat that would get people’s attention. Well, they got it. Now it’s time to get a clue, too.

Levy fines. Big ones if it seems necessary. This was a monetary offense, so it should get a monetary payback.

But if you start invalidating on-the-field performances to feed the cash cow, people will start questioning the purpose of the Games in the first place. Is this for the glory of sport? Or simply the glory of McDonald’s?

Please don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know.

The IOC finally reached the right decision. Now it needs to reach the right reasoning as well. Review Rule 40. Please. And make the changes common sense requires.

Otherwise, we’ll be forced to conclude that Phelps wasn’t the only one going off the deep end.

Ad, and Subtract

There are worse things than pulling the muscles in your lower back.

For example, pulling the muscles in your lower back in the middle of a presidential campaign season.

No way to run. Nowhere to hide. No chance of straightening up long enough to see where the remote has gotten to. Just constant exposure to the drumbeat of political ads, to the point where you could create your own campaign Mad Lib.

“In (year), (presidential candidate) said that he would (incredibly mendacious/naive political claim). But what no one realized is that he would really (severe political crime), the first step in selling the nation to alien beings from the planet (name of celestial body). Don’t give (candidate) the chance to (even more severe political crime). Vote (opposing candidate). It’s for humanity.”

After a while, I wasn’t sure if my back or my brain was hurting worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy politics. Throughout my career, people have constantly asked how I can cover a city council week after week; I always reply that it’s the best soap opera in town. Once you know the characters and the ongoing stories, it gets pretty compelling.

More seriously, there’s something kind of fascinating in watching people try to pick their way toward a solution, whether it’s improving housing standards or figuring out how to replace an ancient, leaky swimming pool. Agree or disagree, whisper or yell, it’s being resolved with words, not fist fights, and that always gives me a little hope.

But the kind of dreck we get on our TV screens every four years doesn’t resolve anything. It rarely even tries.

Both major parties have done it. Both will continue to do it. Wildfires can’t stop it. Mass shootings barely slow it down. It’s like the psycho killer in a bad horror movie, lurching on relentlessly no matter what may stand in the way.

I know, it’s nothing new. Jefferson’s opponents accused him of wanting to confiscate all the Bibles in the country. Lincoln’s charged him with crimes up to and including murder. Mud and money have been part of the game since the earliest days and deploring it is a bit like deploring the common cold; you get a lot of sympathy but few solutions.

But does there have to be so much of it these days?

I keep three or four fact-checking websites close to hand these days, just to shovel through the worst of it. I know a lot of friends who do the same – and who argue about which fact-checkers can be trusted.

And a lot of it’s not even all that effective. I’ve heard political consultants before who estimate that 80 percent or more of campaign spending is wasted. The trouble is, no one knows in advance which dollars will be the waste, so the monetary shotgun gets loaded again, to spray where it will in hope of hitting something.

But what do you do about it?

I’ve had a fantasy for a while now. I know it violates all kinds of constitutional principles, that it’d never happen in the real world. But it has an appealing simplicity to it.

Set a spending limit per state, per presidential candidate. Every $5 over that limit takes a vote off your total. Go $1 million over, lose 200,000 votes in that state … and maybe, in a close race, lose the state itself.

I know, yeah, right. But it gets at the heart of the problem. The campaigns and their PACs have to want to rein themselves in. They have to see a situation where holding back gives more benefits than carrying on does.

Until that happens, we’re likely to see more of the same. And more, and more, and more.

Just thinking about it makes my vertebrae hurt.

Call it a spine of the times.

A Staggering Achievement

Hop. Hop. Hop.

The single leg pumped hard as Liu Xiang made his way around the track. The crowd cheered, not a medal, but an effort.

Hop. Hop. Hop.

Everyone had seen the fall. The pain. A dream dashed for the second time in four years, again on the first hurdle. Winning was no longer the goal. Simply finishing was.

Hop. Hop. Hop.

When he finished, a competitor raised Liu’s arm into the air. Two others helped him into a wheelchair. He had nothing to say. There were no words to give.

There often aren’t, on the dark side of the Olympic dream.

We celebrate the Olympics as a time of triumph and inspiration. Rightfully so. These are the best in the world, fantastically dedicated men and women who have given years of their lives for a chance at glory on the world’s biggest stage. Even those who miss a medal can still walk off with their head held high at their achievement.

But sometimes, you get a big break – and it gets broken.

Liu at least had climbed the mountain before. In 2004, he’d not only been the gold medal hurdler, he’d been the fastest ever. At only 21, a big future was ahead.

Now, at 29, people are asking if it’s behind. Two Olympics. Two torn Achilles tendons.

Too much.

Disaster in the Olympics is so public. As I watched the hopping hurdler, my own mind went to Dan Jansen. A world-class speed skater, he learned of his sister’s death from leukemia just hours before his start in the ’88 Calgary Games. Shaken (and who wouldn’t be?), he fell twice in two races.

A broken heart. A broken dream.

Jansen was lucky. He got a second act, got to reach triumph at last in Lillehammer in ’94. But not everyone does.

When the London Games started and teenagers claimed some of the early medals, I heard the same question from a lot of friends: “What do you do next? Where do you go when you’ve already reached the top so young?”

A legitimate question. But there’s a parallel one. Where do you go when the dream may be over? Maybe sooner than you thought?

Where can you go?

Most of us have never been on that scale. But we’ve been in that place. Hopes dashed. Plans destroyed. Opportunities shattered.

It’s a dark place. A hard one to leave.

Where can you go? Nowhere but on. That’s true of the brightest success and the most painful collapse. Time doesn’t stop like the end of a film. The story goes on and we have to go on with it as best we can.

If that means hopping, hop like hell.

And when you’ve met the moment with all the pride and stubbornness inside you, be ready. Other moments are waiting. They may be second chances. They may be different chances, ones you could never anticipate.

But they won’t just happen. They need to be claimed.

Eight years ago, in a Kansas column, I wrote about a high school classmate who knew that well. As a girl, she wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. As a teenager, a knee injury ended her gymnastics dreams early. And as a young woman, she channeled her will and ability into diving, going on despite four shoulder surgeries.

Now, Kimiko Soldati is a proud mom. A proud collegiate diving coach. And, oh yes, a proud national champion and Olympian, who qualified for the 2004 Games in Athens.

“I used the obstacles as stepping stones and fuel to my fire,” she told writer Darrell Hamlett then.

She grabbed the chance. Whatever it might be.

I hope Liu can do the same. And all the others like him.

After all, sometimes it’s only a short distance from “hop” to “hope.”

A Brush With Greatness

With a toothbrush in her hand, Missy becomes the next great Olympic marathoner.

“EIGHT! And we’re beginning to hear the sounds of the runners ahead … NINE! We can just barely see the pack … TEN! They’re drawing closer … ELEVEN! OK, we’re catching the runners at the back of the crowd …”

The commentary is from yours truly, counting off how long Missy has to keep brushing until she’s done. The count gives her a goal, the “race” makes it fun. Boy, does it – more than one sprint to the finish line has ended with a laugh of glee and an impulsive hug that would light up every camera at NBC if it knew.

We’ve done this as cars, as bicycles, even once as airplanes, but the track-star version seems to be the favorite. Despite her disabilities, Missy is a very competitive person, and this seems to get her where she lives. The ordinary mixed with the glorious.

Which actually isn’t too far off from the Games themselves.

It’s been fun watching London. At every moment, we get images of the fastest runners, the most agile gymnasts, the creepiest mascots. The best of the best are on display and all we have to do is drink it in and cheer.

But let’s be honest. It’s not the sports that do it.

OK, quick poll. Everyone who watches water polo more than once every four years, raise your hands.


How about judo?

Oh, I know there’s some. And that’s great. And the marquee sports – basketball, soccer, boxing and so on – certainly don’t have to defend themselves to anyone.

But when it comes to the Olympics, most of us are really cheering two things. One is a flag.

The other is a story.

I know, the networks do the “touching story” bit to death. But there’s a reason. It’s a bridge, a way of bringing out the human in the superhuman. We celebrate the exceptional, but we relish the ordinary, the reminder that these people are still like us.

Or that, maybe, we’re still a bit like them.

So we hear about Im Dong-hyun, the archer with the terrible eyes and the incredible aim.

We marvel at the abilities of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, and his lickety-split prosthetic feet.

We cheer the teenagers like Missy Franklin, who could almost be our own daughters. We see the oldest of the crew, dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, still doing what he loves at 71 and hope we’re as lucky.

We see the best. And we glimpse ourselves doing it.

Again, the glorious meets the ordinary.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to shrug that off. After all, we do it morally all the time. We see the dedication of a Mother Teresa or the viciousness of an Adolf Hitler and say “I could never do that.” As if they were some separate species that had never been, never could be human.

But what humans have done, humans can do.

That can be a terrifying thought. Or an exhilarating one. It’s one that puts the capacity for greatness – great good or great evil – within the reach of anyone willing to strain and grasp.

And for these couple of weeks, it’s a thought that makes us a family. A dysfunctional one, perhaps. But a family nonetheless.

It might even bring a smile.

In which case, your Olympic toothbrush routine had better be up to date.