Sports and Asterisks
It used to be that you could just follow a sport and simply enjoy it. Now, it seems, you have to be able to read the footnotes too. This year especially, there seems to be little but sports with asterisks.
Take, for example, the saga of Barry Bonds trying to beat the great Hank Aaron's career total of 755 home runs in baseball. Sometime in the next few days, Bonds will first equal and then surpass that great number -- but who cares? Everyone knows (or assumes they know) that Bonds has taken drugs to enhance his performance; and everyone knows (or assumes they know) that Hank Aaron was a clean-living athlete of the old school. Therefore, whatever number of homers Bonds hits until the end of his career, that number will forever have an asterisk beside it, while the magic of 755 will stay sharp and clean.
In Europe, the Tour de France -- one of my favourite events of the year -- just wrapped up. The brilliant Spaniard Alberto Contador took the yellow jersey in one of the tightest finishes for years. Contador became the youngest winner of the maillot jaune since Jan Ulrich's victory in the 1997. Ulrich's career has since crashed and burned over allegations of substance abuse, and even Contador has been touched by the Fuentes drug scandal in Spain. But Contador's victory in the 2007 Tour will wear an asterisk because of the bizarre elimination of the Danish rider Michael Rasmussen. Just two days before the end of the race, and with a seemingly insurmountable lead after fabulous performances in the mountains, Rasmussen was fired by his own team for, apparently, lying to the management about where he had trained earlier in the year, following strong rumours of potential substance abuse. Contador was several minutes behind him in second, inheriting the jersey only upon Rasmussen's withdrawal. The Spanish rider is very young yet, and hopefully can achieve another Tour victory in better circumstances in years to come.
In Japan, the staid old Sumo Association has determined that the next two basho (or tournaments) will need to have asterisks against their records because they have banned Asashoryu, the greatest wrestler of our age, from participating. This is the first time in the 2,000-year history of sumo that a yokozuna has been sanctioned in this way. The Mongolian champion had told the Association that he couldn't participate in this Summer's regional tour (a major PR event in support of sumo) because he had severe injuries that required rest and treatment. However, he was televised in Mongolia energetically taking part in a soccer game, and the bosses were gravely upset. Five month's suspension and a fine equivalent to a 40% pay cut was the ultimate result. Now, Hakuho, Kotomitsui, Homasho, Chiyotakai and the other contenders will have two chances to compete for an Emperor's Cup without worrying about having to face the very best of all. Sumo with an asterisk.
Asashoryu the Great
Those of us who have a passion for sumo, we are truly blessed to be witness to the age of Asashoryu, perhaps the greatest yokozuna of all time. Last night he won his 19th Emperor's Cup with a perfect basho score of 15 bouts and no losses.
The Mongolian was truly awesome this time out. And his 15-0 score was in a highly competitive basho where all three of the ozeki managed at least 10 wins, and the next-great-Japanese-hope Hamasho captured 12 wins and two of the main prizes.
Connosieurs of the sport say that the November basho in Kyushu is a throwaway, without the interest of the spring and summer tournaments. It is true that the arena seating and back corridors seemed somehow provincial and temporary -- especially when compared to the temples of the sport in Tokyo; but last night seemed very real. Real and unstaged. Everyone tried hard and the audience was into it. I enjoyed it more than I have some others recently.
If you are not into sumo, then just bear with me. Or, better, give it a try. The next tournament (basho) is in mid January and good cable operators should be able to hook you up to Japan TV for a premium. It's worth it.