Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pelotons and Center Courts

I can’t claim to be much of a sports fan, at least not an “everyday” sport fan. I tend to pay attention only to the big marquee events, like the Olympics, or soccer’s (sorry, football’s) World Cup that dominated the sports viewing in our house for a month earlier this summer. 

Even here in the land of serious hockey mania, I don’t follow regular-season Finnish league games and get really interested in the sport only during the World Championships, when the Finnish national team strives to win a gold medal. Worse, I still don’t understand all of the rules of hockey (my wife has to explain some finer points to me) and surely can’t appreciate the different styles of play. 

Of course, I could be excused for being a hockey dimwit since I was raised in the less-than-frigid, and American football-addicted, landscape of Georgia. Still, I did have a college roommate who was a big fan of the Atlanta Flames, back before that NHL team deserted Dixie for the friendlier climes of Alberta, so it’s not as if I had never heard of the sport before deserting Georgia myself. 

I do have a soft spot for baseball, “America’s pastime”. And though I’ve never been an ardent fan, not like the archetypical American, it is still the only pro sport I’ve ever watched in person. 

Once was as a kid in the 60s when we traveled the 80 miles to Fulton County Stadium to watch the Braves lose (as I seem to recall) to the Mets. A highlight of that game was seeing in action the catcher Joe Torre, then my favorite player for the Braves. Later, as a grownup, I managed to take my own young sons to a couple of major league games in Baltimore and Montreal during summer holidays. 

That’s the sum total of my experience attending live ball games, though the slow unwinding of nine innings of play, half-muted in the background on my parents’ TV, are a comfortable fixture in memories of evenings spent on summer visits home from Finland. 

A couple of years ago I started to recapture that nostalgic languid mood after discovering that I could watch major league games at home in Helsinki on ESPN America. That was until we replaced our satellite TV subscription with Elisa’s Viihde last year and lost all four ESPN channels in the process. Now we get only one cable sports channel, Eurosport. Obviously, we’re not big enough fans to pay for the half a dozen specialized sports packages that are available at extra cost. 

Anyway, there are two sports that I really do like watching and that in my mind somehow epitomize the mood of summer. Maybe that’s because they span the entire season of warm weather, following a convenient “tag-team” schedule. These sports are cycling and tennis.  

This year, it all kicked off in early May with the Giro d’Italia, a three-week cycling tour around Italy, similar to the better-known Tour de France. As with the Tour, one of the most alluring aspects of the Giro is the landscape that the race weaves its way through over 20-odd stages, a route that varies every year. 

That landscape is surely as much of the appeal for TV spectators as the competition itself. At least, for me. To be honest, I don’t follow the riders or teams so much. I just enjoy the scenery. Maybe that’s just as well, since the commentary describing the action on Eurosport is only in Swedish, giving me a chance to brush up on my Swedish comprehension (please note, I in fact have NO Swedish comprehension). 

Scenes of the peloton (the often tightly packed herd of dozens of cyclists), up close or filmed from the air, as it snakes through quintessential Italian villages and countryside seem made to order for national tourism campaigns. 

Of course, I like best the stages that pass through the mountain districts of the Alps or the Dolomites, whose narrow, twisty roads I can say from first-hand experiences can be crowded in summer with amateur cyclists who seem to harbor Giro fantasies of their own. 

The Giro overlaps a bit with the next big event on the calendar, the two-week French Open, the first Grand Slam event of the summer. Eurosport often uses English commentary, which is nice, though tennis is a sport I actually do understand anyway. I’m even a very casual (that means poor) and infrequent player. I first played back during my high-school days, when my hometown in Georgia built some tennis courts in a brand-new recreation park alongside the river that ran through our town. It was a novelty at the time. 

As I recall, my buddies and I always had the courts to ourselves, so unknown was the sport to most locals back then. Nowadays, the few times a year that I manage to play in Helsinki (as I said it’s “casual”), it’s usually possible to find space at one of the free public courts near my home (Oulunkylä, Siltamäki, for example). In summer, that is. Winter is another matter. 

I’ve often thought that tennis is a good example of how random the “national” nature of sports can be. In other words, how some countries excel in a sport, while similar countries don’t. Some nations, even relatively small ones, seem to be tennis powerhouses. Think how many world-class players hail from Serbia, Russia, or Spain. (After visiting Dubrovnik this summer, I can see why Croatians do well at tennis – people are freakishly tall there.) Meanwhile, other nations have practically no presence in the sport at all, for example, Austria and, well let’s be honest, Finland. 

Neighboring Sweden has in the past produced at least two household names in tennis, Mats Wilander and Björn Borg, yet tennis apparently has never reached a critical mass for sports-minded Finns. The only Finnish player of note is Jarkko Nieminen. 

We happened to catch Nieminen practicing a few years ago in the Finnish seaside resort of Hanko, which was hosting the Davis Cup one weekend when we were there. Nieminen is currently ranked 52nd, eight years after reaching a very respectable career high of 13th seed. He has made it to the quarter finals in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, but not in the French Open.  

This year the French Open ended on the same day that another French event began, the Criterium du Dauphine. To be honest, I had not even been aware of this short (8-stage) cycling race until I stumbled upon it while channel surfing in June. Taking place in the Dauphine region, which includes the western part of the Alps, the Criterium is a nice warm-up to the Tour de France with even slightly more mountain stages. And you can’t complain about the scenery. 

Next in the interweaving schedule comes Wimbledon, the mother of all tennis Grand Slams. Unfortunately, Eurosport didn’t broadcast the tournament at all this year, but luckily the BBC broadcast of the finals was relayed by YLE’s Mondo radio channel. 

While painting our newly built sauna-cabin the weekend of the finals, I was able to follow as the Czech Petra Kvitová decidedly beat 20-year-old rising star Eugenie Bouchard from Canada in an unseemly brief two sets. The next day – while still sloshing mold treatment onto almost inaccessible roof beams – I listened as the audience at the All England Club’s center court got their money’s worth with the five long sets it took for the current men’s top-seeded player, Serbian Novak Djokovic, to beat the Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer. 

That weekend coincided with the start of the Tour de France, an event I’m especially fond of, despite the rampant doping scandals that have marred its reputation. Again, the pleasant background of French countryside and sweeping alpine scenery makes watching the peloton navigate its way along narrow roadways a pleasant enough viewing experience. And the race is, after all, a French institution. 

I once spent a week in Chamonix valley while the Tour was taking place (sadly, that week in another part of France). In a tiny shopping center in the village of Argentière where I was staying, two rival sports stores adjacent to each other had set up a portable TV between their storefronts, so the staff and customers could watch the peloton progress through some idyllic village in Normandy, or Provence, or the Pyrénées. I forget where exactly, but certainly not Chamonix.  

This year, I was intrigued to hear that the first stages of the tour were to take place in Yorkshire (a previously overlooked part of France, it seems). In truth, the Tour often begins in other countries, and given the race’s popularity that’s not a bad idea from a marketing point of view. I got my hopes up that the course might even be routed through my ancestral home, a little village called Tankersley not that far from Sheffield. It’s apparently not a big (or famous) place. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as consisting of only six households, and my sense is it hasn’t grown much in the 928 years since. 
Credit: Andrei Loas

I don’t necessarily feel a close connection to the village, since my branch of the family left England some 300 years ago, and I’ve never visited Tankersley myself (though my wife has). Still, I was hoping I might get a glimpse of the place from the air as the Tour helicopter chased the pack of riders, hunched over their handlebars, whooshing through the cradle of my forebears. As it was, the Tour went no nearer than some place called Grenoside, a tantalizingly close 6.5 kilometers from Tankersley. 

The cycling/tennis season closed off with the mostly overlapping US Open and La Vuelta a España. I haven’t often gotten around to watching much of the 21-stage Vuelta, but in the past I’ve followed the tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows fairly closely, even with the seven-hour time difference between here and New York. 

Not this year. By August, there was too much going on. On Eurosport’s next-day replay I did see a bit of the faceoff between favorite Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in the women's final. And I totally missed Marin Čilić, a six-foot-six Croatian (like I said), dousing the championship dreams of Japanese fans by beating Kei Nishikori in straight sets in a first-time Grand Slam final for them both. 

The summer was already winding down by then anyway, and the unusually early snowfall in central Finland this week is a reminder that the real season for sports in Finland is soon upon us. Before long, there will be plenty of ski jumping, downhill, and cross-country to watch, or half-watch, or, if nothing else have on the TV, in the background, while engaged in the everyday sport of surfing the net. 


  1. I never was a big fan of tennis. Or cycling. I appreciate them, but they just don't float the old boat. In fact, these days I'm not much of a sports fan at all. Not like the days when I was a kid. I used to love American football and baseball. I also really got a kick out of watching track & field events, and gymnastics and swimming. But now I just don't watch them. The part of me that used to adore that kind of thing has just shut down, I suppose. I did go see a pro baseball game this year (well, Triple-A), and I went to see a pro football game during last season (Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons). But I wasn't really into it. I mainly went because the tickets were cheap (the Falcons sucked last year and no one wanted to see them play), and I had never been to see the big stadium that they built here in town.

    My dad was a big fan of baseball and he taught me how to appreciate the game. He called it "the chess of sports", and saw it more as a duel between two managers than as one team against another. I kept up my enjoyment of that game until this past year. I just got tired of it all.

    Also...and this has nothing to do with your sports thoughts today...but should your subtitle be changed? Now that you're a full-fledged citizen of Finland, you're not precisely "an American in Finland" anymore.

  2. "the commentary describing the action on Eurosport is only in Swedish"

    Are you sure you haven't accidentally made the preferred audio language Swedish?

    1. I don't think so. Actually, sometimes the commentary on Eurosport is in English, or even Finnish, depending I guess on the sport in question. But mostly for tennis it's in Swedish. Same is true for ski-jumping.

    2. So, you've managed to get hooked on sports they can't find even sports-crazy Finns willing to do a commentary on then, huh?