Friday, August 19, 2016

Slammer Samba

“How much did they charge you bro??”
—Tweet from an angry Michael Conlan to President Vladimir Putin, after the Irish boxer lost his bout with Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin on Tuesday in a controversial judges’ decision
In the weeks leading up to the sporting world’s most highly anticipated quadrennial event, the Rio Olympics gave every indication of being a looming disaster. With such low expectations, it was probably all but impossible that Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa would not exceed expectations and all the hoopla about the Zika virus would mostly be forgotten. What we really did not see coming, though, was the way Brazilian law enforcement would turn out to be such a well-oiled crime-solving machine.

The cops very quickly got to the bottom of the scam by American swimmers to try to get out of a minor drunken vandalism spree. What was really impressive, though, was how the Brazilians nailed one of the most powerful figures in European sport and tossed him in jail. On Wednesday Brazilian police arrested Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). He is also a member of the International Olympic Committee and head of European Olympic Committees. According to the OCI, he has “temporarily” stepped down from all Olympic functions “until this matter is fully resolved.”

What was he arrested for? Scalping, say the police. A couple of weeks earlier another Irishman, Kevin Mallon, was arrested at a Rio hotel while selling OCI-registered Olympics tickets to a group of around 20 people. Police seized 781 tickets and said they were being sold at prices of up to 7,200 euro (more than $8,000). Mallon’s company, THG, is not an authorized seller for Irish tickets, but the authorized company, PRO10, said that Mallon was “distributing” the tickets as a favor. After Mallon’s arrest, the Irish government’s sports minister, Shane Ross, met with Pat Hickey to suggest that the OCI’s investigation into the matter include an independent outsider. That suggestion was haughtily batted away by Hickey, who insisted that the OCI was more than content to investigate itself with no interference. Things changed when the police arrived at Hickey’s hotel in the middle of the night and eventually found him in his son’s room after his wife had said she did not know where he was.

If he is charged and convicted, Hickey could face a punishment as severe as seven years in jail. Brazilians, in apparent contrast to the Irish, take the crime of ticket touting very seriously.

I have never been much of a sports fan, but there has always been something inspiring about the Olympics. Most of the athletes are quite young and are amateurs in the true sense of the word, i.e. they compete for the love of the sport. Who cannot be moved by the triumphs of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt or the U.S.’s Simone Biles? Ireland has taken justifiable price in the winning of two water-borne silver medals: Annalise Murphy for Laser Radial Sailing and the thoroughly captivating Cork brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan for men’s lightweight double sculls rowing.

The is, however, always a dark side. This year it was the near-total-banning of Russia because of systematic “state-dictated” doping. In the end 278 Russian athletes (out of 398) were cleared to compete.

The dark side for Ireland—apart from the ticket scandal—was in boxing. One middleweight boxer was disqualified for failing a drugs test. Previous gold medal winner Katie Taylor lost her bout in a controversial decision. And Ulsterman Michael Conlan lost his bantamweight quarterfinal bout in a decision so clearly wrong that the International Boxing Association subsequently pulled some of the referees and judges. Despite “winning” against Conlan, the Russian Vladimir Nikitin was so badly battered that he could not take part in the semifinal round. He still took home a bronze medal anyway.

When looking at all of this, it is easy to become cynical—especially when it comes to the greed of some of the Olympic officials. It just goes to show that there is always temptation when people secure in their positions get to handle lots of other people’s money.

Still, fair play to the Brazilians. They really have a thing for corruption these days. Not only did they nail the ticket touts, but the last I checked 352 out of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress are currently being investigated or facing corruption charges. Moreover, two ministers in Acting President Michel Temer’s cabinet were recently forced to resign for obstructing Operation Car Wash, an investigation into money laundering, kickbacks and bribery involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras. The investigation has also ensnared former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Meanwhile his successor, Dilma Rousseff, is facing an impeachment trial over manipulating government accounts.

It almost—I said almost—makes the current U.S. political scene look halfway normal by comparison.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Nixon's Ghost

“We professional journalists are freaking out over the fact that no matter how hard we try to explain to the public that Trump is unqualified, a lot of the public keeps right on liking him and his bold vision for America consisting of whatever happens to cross his mind at a given moment. We journalists are like, ‘What is WRONG with you people? Why aren’t you LISTENING to us?!? We’re PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS WITH VERIFIED TWITTER ACCOUNTS!!!'"
 —Serious journalist Dave Barry, reporting from the GOP convention in Cleveland, July 17
The name of Richard Nixon gets invoked regularly in American politics, but it has been a while since the late president’s name has been brought up as frequently as it is these days. The only question is, which of the two major presidential candidates is the more Nixonian?

Donald Trump certainly emulates the 37th president in his rhetoric. Whether he is talking tough about foreign policy or domestic law-and-order issues or secret peace plans or the American silent majority, it is downright eerie how he seems to be following the Nixon playbook. That is, to the extent that he seems to be following any playback at all. The two men also share a distinct antipathy for the press, which is and was amply reciprocated in both cases. How long until we finally hear The Donald bellow that the press won’t have Trump to kick around anymore?

Yet, when we think of Nixon’s penchant for secrecy and for hiding his communications and just acting plain paranoid, it is hard not to also see parallels with Hillary Clinton. Like the so-called Tricky Dick, she operates as though she assumes everyone is out to get her and takes excessive measures to cover her tracks—even when there seems to be no discernible reason for it. And, like Nixon, she is determined to keep going after the presidency until the voters finally just give up and let her have it. In the end Nixon was undone by a secret recording system he set up in the Oval Office. Clinton could yet be tripped up by a horde of email communications that were supposedly deleted but, because they were on an unsecured server in her own private home, may actually be in the hands of Wikileaks and/or the Russians.

While for many the Nixon name conjures up the worst of American politics, let us keep some perspective. Generally, when the considerable topic of the Watergate scandal is put to one side, the one-time vice-president of Dwight D. Eisenhower gets pretty high marks for how he performed as chief executive. On the world stage he reestablished relations with China, initiated the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and secured an anti-ballistic missile treaty. He wound down Lyndon Johnson’s huge escalation of the war in Vietnam and brought home the POWs. Domestically, he enforced school desegregation in the South and established the Environmental Protection Agency. He also presided the first human moon landing.

It just goes to show, even if you are a flawed human being and maybe even a corrupt one, it does not mean that you cannot also be an effective national leader. And maybe that observation is the closest thing we can find to a silver lining in this dark cloud of a presidential campaign season.

Despite all the comparisons we might make between Trump, Clinton and Nixon, the reality is that 2016 is a very different year than 1968. In the midst of domestic and world tumult 48 years ago, Nixon presented himself as a figure of stability. In this sense, as the candidate presenting herself as more stable and level-headed, Clinton would be the more “Nixonian” of the two nominees. This year, however, there is a large portion of the electorate that feels things are not working in the economy and in other areas. They want things to be drastically shaken up. And many of these people have settled on Trump as their change agent.

The smart money is betting that Clinton’s “stay the course” message will prevail, and so far the polls bear that out. On the other hand, the polls consistently underestimated Trump’s voter turnout in the primaries. Likewise, pollsters totally got it wrong leading up to the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum. There is a dramatic disconnect between, on one hand, the so-called elites in government and in the media (including the conservative media) and, on the other hand, the masses of people who are suffering in an economy that has left them behind—no matter what official government statistics may say.

Our best hope is that, regardless of who becomes president in January, she or he will perform much better than her or his campaign to date would suggest. And let us hope that the winner’s presidency ends more happily than that of Richard Nixon. He remains to this day the only U.S. president to have resigned from office. By doing that he avoided impeachment. That means the only president to have been impeached in the last 147 years is one who bore the name Clinton.