Commentary

Athletes? Roundtables? Team handball? Making sense of the summit

Updated: April 15, 2008, 8:09 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

The U.S. Olympic media summit is an odd gathering.

To publicize its athletes, the United States Olympic Committee brings many to a large hotel in the run-up to every Summer and Winter Games. The athletes are then sent through a car wash of interviews with many dozens of newspaper, Internet and broadcast reporters. Some of these athletes are quite famous -- Marion Jones and Michael Johnson were brought in before the 2000 Games, and Michael Phelps was here this week -- but the majority are relatively unknown.

Jessica Mendoza
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenOutfielder Jessica Mendoza is trying to bring awareness to the Darfur conflict during USA Softball's current "Bound 4 Beijing" tour.

For instance, does anyone other than Phillip Dutton's family and friends know about his Olympic hopes in equestrian?

It's a bit of a training session for the reporters, whose knowledge of the individual sports and athletes ranges widely. Basketball we know. Track we're familiar with. Modern pentathlon, eh, we're not exactly experts. Over three days, up to a dozen athletes at a time are spread around at podiums in a large banquet room. It's pretty common for writers to edge up knowing absolutely nothing about the athlete and get up to speed as quickly as possible by listening to other questions and asking some of their own.

This is not unlike the Olympics themselves, where you go to cover a sport in which you have almost no experience -- team handball, for example -- and two hours later are authoritatively writing an account in which you praise the winners for their fine performance, criticize the losers for their play and rip the officials as woefully inept.

A flavor of these sessions …

• A constant line of questioning is what athletes think about China's policy toward Tibet and Darfur, though it's unclear why young athletes are supposed to take a stand on this issue when the rest of the country doesn't think twice about maxing out their credit cards on Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart. Many of the athletes do their best to address the questions, but a lot simply want to get to the Olympics.

One athlete who is very outspoken is Jessica Mendoza. The softball player is part of Team Darfur, a group of athletes working to raise awareness about what is happening there. "I want people to know that 400,000 people were killed there since 2003, that it's been defined as genocide, that women have been raped. To me, it's unfathomable."

But even Mendoza says she holds back a bit because she doesn't want to be a distraction from the team. Nor, she says, has she thought about any sort of plans for a statement in Beijing. "I don't think it's my place to tell China what to do," she said. "It's more my place to tell people what's happening. Hopefully, the more they know what's happening, the more they'll hold the people responsible accountable."

Mendoza said USA coach Mike Candrea jokingly told her before the press interviews, "I don't want to see you in any headlines."

"That made me laugh," she said. "Because he knows I'm very passionate. He also gets upset when I get on the bus and I get the team going. I'll say, 'OK, how do people feel on this? We've got Barack supporters over here, Clinton over here and McCain over here.' I get everyone talking, and the next thing you know, we have fights breaking out all over the bus."

• Cullen Jones is a strong candidate to qualify for the Olympics in swimming. He's fast -- he set a meet record in the 50-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific Championships two years ago. He has a Nike contract reportedly worth seven figures.

Most notably, though, he's black, making him a definite minority in elite swimming. And he wants to change that.

"Black people do swim," he said. "[But] getting to the level of being in college, the level of being professional, that's where it's kind of limited. That's going to take awhile to get there. I want to get the ball rolling and get kids into the program and talk to kids. It might not be until I'm long gone, but as long as I get the ball rolling, that's my goal."

And a big part of that would be winning a medal in the Olympics.

"What I want to do is just to be present, to just be seen," he said. "A lot of people in the African-American community need to see there is an African-American athlete that has been successful in a sport where they normally aren't. … It shows kids there are other mainstream sports they can go into besides basketball and football."

• One of the big stories in swimming is the new Speedo LZR Racer fastskin swimsuit, which the company and the swimmers it sponsors say drop times. Because the suit is so tight and thin, promotional images of swimmers wearing it were almost pornographic.

"We have had a few comments in the locker room about the suits showing some, um, I'll call it side boob," 2004 Olympian Tara Kirk said. "I can't believe I just said that on a microphone."

Kirk said the suit she wore at a competition turned almost transparent when wet, making a mole on her hip visible. "But it's a swimsuit. And it has a lot more coverage than a lot of the stuff you see at the beach."

[+] EnlargeCullen Jones
AP Photo/Mike DererU.S. hopeful Cullen Jones recently started a program aimed at teaching urban youngsters to swim.

• One athlete who isn't at the summit is Roger Clemens. Clemens expressed a desire to compete in the Olympics five years or so ago, but don't look for him to play in Beijing. Bob Watson, general manager of the U.S. baseball team, said he will consider recently retired players for the roster (which will be almost all minor leaguers), but, "One guy who's not on my radar is Roger Clemens.

"And I say that not because of what's happened off the field, but what's happened on it. His last four or five starts in the majors last year were a struggle for him. He took shots in the elbow; his hamstring and groin were problem issues. We have a 24-man roster, and once we get over there, if there's an injury, we can't replace anybody.

"I just don't think he'd be very effective when I could have a young prospect instead."

• USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth and CEO Jim Scherr both promised the U.S. will be sending a drug-clean team to Beijing. It's not like they were going to say the U.S. is sending a dirty team, but given all the recent athletes who have been caught doping, it's a bold declaration. But Ueberroth says this is a new era, and athletes have gotten the message.

"They've seen the penalties, whether it's dignity loss or jail time," he said. "All those factors are coming together, plus we've launched a research collaborative and [are] trying to get ahead of the problem. There are more resources."

• Pentathlete Eli Bremer may not be a household name, but his uncle is somewhat better known. He's L. Paul Bremer, who was in charge of the U.S. postwar mission in Iraq from 2003-04.

Eli said his uncle played a significant role in his Olympic career by paying for his flight to compete in a junior competition in Taiwan and a trip to watch the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

"A little-known fact is that the first free election in Iraq was the Olympic committee elections," Eli said. "Because the IOC wouldn't let Iraq back into the Olympics until it formed an entirely new committee. My uncle had seen how much the Olympics meant to me and how the Olympics brought people together, and he felt very strongly for the Iraqis to have the opportunity to rally around their flag.

"It was the only thing they could agree on at the time. Shiites, Sunnis, Chaldeans -- it didn't matter who you were, you supported the Iraqi soccer team. He was adamant; he literally risked his life to get those elections off the ground so the IOC would recognize the Iraq Olympic committee and they could get back in the Olympics."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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