Monthly Archives: August 2009

In Praise of High School Sports: Part 2 – Little League

Matt Correale

A couple of Sundays ago I awoke and saw that the Little League World Series was on ESPN. It’s 7am, no one else is around. All sane and sentient human beings are asleep. So what are you gonna do? You watch the young boys play…

Little did I know I was about to watch one of the great battles be fought, and witness the damnation and redemption of a 15-year-old man named Austin Batchelor. It was the New England regional final of the Little League World Series, fought between Massachusetts’ Peabody West and Rhode Island’s Lincoln. Rhode Island dominated the larger state for much of the game, thanks in large part to the actions of Austin Batchelor, who I’ll almost certainly never see on a TV screen again, but will never forget for the way he recovered.

Batchelor is 15 years old, which made him one of the oldest kids on the team, and the most visibly scarred by adolescence. He was surly, terse and spat almost constantly. He also had a father coaching the team, and was the main pitcher and go-to guy with the bat, so was carrying the team on his broadening shoulders.

He batted beautifully all afternoon: two homers from two at-bats, and he was the only thing standing between his team and oblivion. Unfortunately, he was also the reason oblivion threatened in the first place. His pitching, which had started out mean and whippy, completely disintegrated in the third inning. He was firing the ball all sides of the plate, and shaking with horror at the results, while his father alternated between glowering and adjusting his cap and pointlessly shouting instructions.

Rhode Island scored five runs in that horror third inning for Massachusetts, and the game looked lost. At 5-2 up they started to look cocky, grinning and fooling around while their opposition, who had gone 15-0 prior to the game, were visibly falling apart. But Batchelor stepped up and whacked one over the right centre fence, to cut the lead to 6-4, and suddenly the game was tightening up.

Peabody hit another two to RI’s nothing in the fifth, and suddenly the game was tied at 6-6, with Batchelor being walked due to the fear he now struck into the opposition’s pitchers. After their final inning Rhode Island got a runner home on a long drive to take a slender 7-6 lead, and Massachsetts were masters of their own destiny. They tied the game early, but were having a hard time closing it out. Through a combination of bunts and drives they loaded the bases, and brought Matt Hosman to the plate. The teenaged mess of wire-framed spectacles and gleaming braces didn’t look like a hero…

A grand slam home run to send them to the World Series (which in Little League is actually against the world, Peabody are playing against powerhouses like Mexico and lepers like Europe). It’s a massive moment, and the whole team knows it. And something about the way this plays out, on national TV (some of these games go out on ABC!) gives it extraordinary gravity. These are children, for the most part,  – 4’6″ and 12 years old, favouriet actor: Adam Sandler – and there’s drama here, unencumbered by money and all the rest, which you just don’t get in pro sports.

I’d like to see more of it, is what I’m trying to get at. Next weekend the four best High School rugby sides in the country play for glory in Rotorua. I just checked Sky Sport. None of the six sports channels is showing it. TVNZ neither. You think there isn’t gonna be drama fit to match the above? You know there is. We really need to step our game up in New Zealand. There were twice as many people at Eden Park last weekend watching MAGS destroy AGS than were there a week later to see Auckland defeat the table-topping Bay of Plenty side. The interest is there, Sky. Just exploit it.

– Duncan

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Guest Post: The Cavalry Arrives (Too Late?)

Big time

It was a win born of necessity, rather than of the All Blacks’ tactical and physical supremacy, but in the context of this year’s Tri-Nations, it will just about do, and the obvious glee with which Graham Henry greeted the victory in Sydney after a bloody battle was plain for all to see.

Despite protestations from Wayne Smith (and the man himself) that Daniel Carter was not the cavalry coming over the hill to save the All Blacks from the worst start to a season in living memory, that in fact was almost exactly what he was – the 14 points he carved off with his boot, coupled with his deft and astute tactical kicking was by and large the difference between the two teams, particularly with his opposite Matt Giteau having a curiously quiet night. It also highlighted just what the AB’s have been lacking in terms of direction and control in their backline. Yep, sorry folks – he really is that good.

The contentious selection of Luke McAlister at second five amounted to very little in the end, particularly after he seemed dead set on showing just how badly knocked about you can get with poor tackling technique, and he was replaced by the man he usurped, Ma’a Nonu. Sitiveni Sivivatu again looked dangerous with ball in hand, while his wing partner and cousin Joe Rokocoko yet again offered precious little that Cory Jane, Hosea Gear or a number others would not have.

The rules again conspired to reduce the spectacle of the match to a one-try affair, and (usually excellent) referee Jonathan Kaplan gave a peculiarly home-team biased display that saw him overruling All Black tries to Jimmy Cowan (obstruction, a 50/50 call at best), and Dan Carter (a very questionable forward pass), as well as being every bit as whistle happy at the breakdown as his Northern Hemisphere contemporaries.

Most curious were some of Robbie Deans’ tactical decisions. Firstly, George Smith is unconvincing as a captain in Stirling Mortlock’s absence – it really seems to affect his ability to do his job at the breakdown, as though he is reluctant to draw the referee’s attention to himself – he also had a quiet match. Perhaps Nathan Sharpe, who has deputized for George Gregan in the past, may have been a better choice.

Secondly, playing Adam Ashley-Cooper at centre to accommodate teen sensation James O’Connor at fullback left the relatively inexperienced Wallaby three-quarters without much by way of direction – he would perhaps have been better left at fullback with league convert Ryan Cross in the midfield. And finally, pulling tighthead prop Al Baxter after just half an hour reeked of desperation – if you were going to pull him for doing exactly what he has done expertly for most of his career (folding in and collapsing when the Wallaby scrum is under pressure), why bother picking him in the first place? This in particular must have had the All Black forwards licking their chops, and the sight of Australian hooker Stephen Moore mopping up gallons of blood from the nose that was spread across his face was hugely symbolic.

The first forty minutes of this match did very little to allay the fears that the clumsy handling and inaccuracy that plagued the All Blacks South African visit were still a problem – they spent most of the game playing catch up rugby, and conceded far too many kickable penalties. That the win was secured, albeit right on the cusp of 80 minutes, and by a solitary point, is a testimony to the steely resolve of a hugely improved second half effort from the tight five, and of returning superstar Carter, particularly after his horribly flubbed drop goal attempt.

Rather than falling apart when he does things wrong (as Donald has, as Carlos Spencer did), Carter has the ability to pick himself up, dust himself down and play the cards he is dealt; in this instance a superbly judged kick into the corner that left the Wallabies scrambling in defense that drew the match winning penalty, which he slotted with clinical precision. His return to the side has had the same effect as McCaw’s did to the 2008 All Blacks, and with the Springboks on the road now, NZ supporters will be willing Deans’ Wallabies to lift themselves from these defeats and do the business against the Africans in either Perth or Brisbane. Or preferably both.

The All Blacks do have some problems of their own though – injuries to both starting midfielders Luke McAlister (broken cheekbone) and Conrad Smith (recurring hamstring injury) means we are in need of a fresh midfield combination for the all important match against the Springboks in Hamilton. It will be interesting to see whether the selectors persist with a kicking option at 12, which could see the much maligned Donald given a chance to prove himself in tandem with Carter, and Nonu moved to centre; or if the fragile confidence of Isaia Toeava is to be given another shot.

One thing is for certain, however – that Carter was more than ready to return to the international stage, and would be the first name you would write on the team sheet so long as he is fit.

– Jeremy Taylor

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In Praise of High School Sports, Part One

Mount Albert Grammar vs Auckland Grammar 2009

All Blacks aside, the two most compelling matches I watched over the past week involved players aged between 12 and 19. On Saturday some friends and I trooped along to Eden Park to watch my old school, Auckland Grammar, be soundly thrashed by Mt Albert Grammar in the final of the Auckland Secondary Schools rugby competition.

Because of the well-documented suspensions Auckland Grammar were just steamrolled by MAGS, in part due to the suspended foursome being replaced by tiny little children, and thus the game lacked a little tension and perhaps skill level. But there are things you see in a game like this, audacious manoeuvres and raw-boned talent, which are mostly trained out of elite adult sports teams.

The crowd was fantastic, too, around 6000 crammed into the ASB stand (Eden Park is a total bombsite right now, but the skeleton of what’s coming looks exciting), with the AGS boys on one side and the MAGS supporters on the other. The contrast couldn’t have been more overt, and was oddly reflective of way the teams approached the game too.

AGS were dominated by the shirt-and-tie obligation of the Tibbs House (the boarding section of the school) contingent, who are required by some arcane school bylaw to attend every first XV game and support their troops. They sat at the front and were most quiet and emotionless, setting the tone for all who sat behind them. This despite AGS being in the game for large stretches – they scored the first try, and got back to within ten points after the opposition had threatened to run away with it.

Mount Albert’s crowd, by contrast, were young, multi-ethnic and, as befits a co-ed school, with seemingly as many girls as boys. They were loud and dressed in school colours and a large chunk had generated a full-blown Wellington Sevens atmosphere down front, replete with chants of ‘you fucked up’ whenever the hapless AGS kids dropped the ball. Far be it from me to endorse anything associated with our trumpets-n-bucket fountain-toting capital, but that particular sporting event does seem to have a pretty reasonable atmosphere, and the MAGS kids dominated the off-field competition as completely as their peers took out the on-field one.

MAGS played with a spirit, freedom and unpredictability which AGS had no answer for. Admittedly it looked from on high like the Gold Coast Titans (whose uniforms MAGS’ own closely resemble) were beating the shit out of an under 12s side, so marked was the contrast in physical size of the two teams (just look at the scale differences in the admittedly terrible photo above). But more than that, the suburban team allowed creativity room to grow and prosper on the field. The team were having fun, and trying things. Periodically they came off, at other times they turned the ball over. But they played with an elevated intensity as a result, rarely missing tackles and dominating possession for huge chunks of each half.

Auckland Grammar might be the most successful school in New Zealand rugby history, but they looked weighed down by that knowledge on Saturday. They played a very structured, traditional game, intelligent and buttoned down and got completely slaughtered. Their supporters were as conservative and subdued as their school’s play, and in the end they were embarrassed by the scoreline. For a lot of the team this was the biggest match of their career (which is why I have no problem with the disparity in sentences handed down to the Kelston and AGS players by the tribunal over the weekend), and they went down limply.

So it was nothing like a classic, but I enjoyed it more than any super rugby I saw this season. It wasn’t perfect, professional sport, but it was very high level, and refreshing in the unknowns and enthusiasm evident throughout it. In the US a game like this would be televised, with pre-match analysis, and the players involved would be famous, on some level. While that introduces some very distasteful elements into the athletes’ lives, it also produces benefits for them, their schools and the audience. I feel like high school sports should be given far more prominence than they are here, particularly rugby and cricket, where you’ll be seeing players who are clear future stars.

Instead we waste time on irrelevances like sevens (seriously, no one outside Wellington cares) and ‘grass roots rugby’ (translation: players nowhere near good enough to play professionally). If high school rugby was televised from, say, quarter finals on, and had a national tournament which took the best four teams from each island and pitted them against one another in a seeded, sudden death format, it could become our version of March Madness. You know you’d watch it.

– Duncan

PS – Tomorrow I’ll be writing a sequel of sorts to this, about the game of Little League I saw on ESPN last Sunday which inspired me to thinking about the topic. It was beyond sublime. If you want to know why, this guy was a key protagonist.

Austin

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DeadBall Reader

In DeadBall Reader I’m going to throw up a bunch of links of what’s been causing me pause or just blowing my mind. Maybe I’ll (/we’ll) do it every once in a while, if for no other reason than a fuel for spirited conversation with Justin and Dave at the bar.

1. Basketbawful’s Word of the Day: Retired Legenditus, which featured this this little piece of genius (yes that’s trailing behind a plane across the Californian sky):

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*** Continue reading

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Guest Post: Dance of the Desperates

abs

This week’s Bledisloe showdown in Sydney is shaping up as a huge matchup, in which a number of reputations may be salvaged or irreparably damaged – not least of which those of head coaches Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.

Both are coming off a pair of losses, and while their jobs are both (theoretically) safe through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, neither’s paymasters (or public) are likely to be overly thrilled with the way the Tri-Nations has been going for them thus far. Whilst both may protest that they are now starting to build towards 2011, both will be conscious that losses don’t put bums on seats at a time when rugby is struggling to hold people’s attention, and competing for a tightly stretched entertainment dollar.

For the All Blacks, the first step on the road to recovery is the thoroughly warranted return of star playmaker Daniel Carter. Quite aside from the obvious appeal of his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour and underwear modeling credentials, Carter is a superlative footballer who in the past has been able to step straight back into the highest level of international competition after recovering from some serious injuries.

He has looked in fine fettle in a couple of outings for Canterbury, and despite accusations of panic in the All Black camp in rushing him back, this was a decision that had to be made. Carter should be able to exercise a level of control over the backline that Stephen Donald has been unable to muster, although Luke McAlister’s selection outside him at second five is perhaps the most perplexing of Henry’s changes to the starting XV that was so comprehensively beaten in Durban.

Whilst it may be true that McAlister adds a hefty right boot to complement Carter’s left, I am with former All Blacks prop Richard Loe when he states that he has seen nothing from McAlister since his return from England that would have warranted All Black selection, and that kicking seems to be the only aspect of his game that has improved during his time at Sale. To be fair, his path back into the black jersey was to have been via some game time for the Juniors, but with the season ending injury to Richard Kahui, and Carter’s absence leaving the AB’s short of goalkicking inside backs, he was rushed back with what has been called ‘indecent haste’. The jury’s out.

By far the luckiest and unluckiest of those selected (and not) are wing Joe Rokocoko, and stalwart number 8 Rodney So’oialo. Both had good Air NZ Cup outings for their provinces in the weekend, Rokocoko scoring a brace in helping Auckland defeat Northland, and So’oialo coming off the bench to spark a Wellington second half revival that nearly got them over a spirited Bay Of Plenty after a perfectly awful first 40. Rokocoko’s form has been consistently terrible this year; So’oialo on the other hand has been merely adequate – Rokocoko gets picked, So’oialo gets benched in favour of young Cantab Kieran Reid. One also feels for Cory Jane, denied a chance to sharpen his chops with an outing for Wellington by a staunch Jamie Joseph’s refusal to kow-tow to the national selectors.

My ‘Southern Man’ friend will be thrilled with the excising of most of the Wellington contingent – Weepu (injured, but gone), Tialata (too fat, gone), Nonu (can’t kick – benched), So’oialo (umm… benched), Jane (umm…gone from the bench entirely) – in fact, only centre Conrad Smith has survived the cull. When the All Blacks lose they often resemble none so much as the Hurricanes losing yet another game against the Crusaders, and in ditching most of his Wellingtonians, Henry is perhaps seeking to eliminate this comparison – maybe this spells an end to the harem scarem histrionics that failed so dismally in Durban.

In its place, look for an improved set piece; a lot of territorial kicking and a significant improvement in accuracy at the breakdown. Helping this will be the presence of the world’s finest referee, South African Jonathan Kaplan, who shouldn’t have nearly as much problem finding the advantage line as his Northern Hemisphere colleagues, and with whom Richie McCaw has an excellent rapport. The fate of the Tri-Nations may now be out of our hands – to keep it we would need to win all our remaining matches, and for the Wallabies to beat the Boks in Perth, but like I said at the start of the tournament, I think that retaining the Bledisloe means more to most Kiwis anyhow.

– Jeremy Taylor

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America's Next Top Model Power Rankings 1

Photo0104

The competition proper began in cycle 11, and already one of the Britneys has gone to a less insane place. Re-dubbed Sharaun because having more than one person with the same name made Tyrabot’s brain malfunction, the former Brittney B’s wide-eyed proclaimation “I am America’s Next Top Model” looked extra sad and desperate after her elimation. The comments she got (a fave: “you love to spread your legs!”) were pretty classic, and the way she assuredly declared of Isis “America’s next top model is not gonna be a dude” helped ease her out the door pretty painlessly.

Elsewhere in the episode we were treated to an overt testament to just how old this cycle is, with all the talk of an upcoming election, and Nigel joined the show via a magician’s box, which was nice.

In the contestants’ new home there was a walk of fame for models of yesteryear, and they soon descended on Isis, to get the skinny on the first man to join the party. What with the political theme, there were plenty of opportunities to reveal cheery ignorance/indifference, so let’s get to the rankings.

1. Isis (Ranked on show: 2)

They ranked her second, but that was clearly an over-compensation to avoid accusations of tokenism. Her prior experience as a model lead to her monstering the photo session, and a maybe too curious Nigel Barker seemed particularly taken by her (admittedly enthralling) backstory. She was given the subject ‘privacy’, and given her special situation, it was a doozy. Still she dominated the shoot, and in so doing created a wall of enemies who were ultra-pissed at coming second to a set of testicles. It’s a scenario they’re going to have to get used to in the coming weeks, because Isis is the total package.

2. Marjorie (RoS: 1)

She got immigration, and draped herself prettily over a barbed wire gate. She looked a little lost, but also very striking, and with the competition (with one very prominent exception) generally filling out American archetypes, Marjorie’s strange, detatched beauty looks a good bet for the title. I normally hate all French people and things, but this girl lacks the customary sleazy confidence they display, and hasn’t worn berets or strings of garlic once, so she gets a better than pass mark for the week.

3. Alina (RoS: 5)

Not just because she’s a vegan bisexual with her sights set on the most conservative vegetable in the patch, but because she legitimately nailed the photo. Foreign Policy is a pretty amorphous, centreless subject, but against the backdrop she looked very Miss World, not really like a model, but super hot. Kinda like those ’40s girls they used to have performing for sailors about to go and die for their country so they’d be able to dream of a better world as the torpedoes hit.

4. Joslyn (RoS: 4)

Her subject: Unemployment “somethin’ that I am. Un-em-ployed!”. “Well you look like you about to get some work,” said Miss J, drily, and it was tough to argue with hookery designation. She does have a strong crack-addict look on TV, but sloughs it off in photos, where she somehow flips it and becomes pretty stunning. There’s just something about her good humour and general attitude which is very infectious, particularly against the conservatism and self-obsession of many of her companions, which makes you think she’ll survive a while. Plus her shots utilise her gangly limbs to great effect.

5. McKay (RoS: 3)

She’s one of the five most irritating models, what with the totally forced Mixed Martial Arts angle they’re pushing (seriously, that faux fight she had in ep 1 with Jay Manuel was retarded), but she did turn in a fine photo. She got the Enivironment, and predictably used a boxing stance, which works a little I guess, like, she’s fighting to protect it or some such nonsense. But she also looks extremely gormless in the pic, and when they make her do something other than her one lame trick we’ll see what she’s got left in the holster.

6. Sheena (RoS: 8)

“She’s big, black and lovin’ it!” Sheena has no idea she’s Asian. it’s very cute. I thought her Harlem schtick would get tiresome, but actually it’s catching. Pretty sure “I thought it was gonna be too hooch or somethin’!” is going to become a new catch-phrase of mine, and the way she’s shot through with adrenalin just to be on the show is awesome. Not sure if she’s actually good looking, and she definitely isn’t a model of any description, but she’s too much fun to get kicked off early.

7. Samantha (RoS: 6)

She’s an all-American blonde, and looked 100% stunned and for most her time on screen. She was given the economy, one of the most ridiculously executed of all the conceits, and sorta threw a shape out in front of it, which was fine, but nonsensical too. She has a cool ’70s Playboy vibe, which we haven’t seen in a model in a while, and while she’s not perfect for the role the fact they’ve cast her in it suggests they’ll make it work.

8. Annaleigh (RoS: 9)

Cute as a button, but very FHM in her healthcare pose. Her and Hannah are filling the girl-next-door/American-as-apple-pie slots, and she just edged out her Alaskan counterpart this week. Ultimately, what she did had nothing to do with healthcare (it was more sexy_nurse.avi), but she has this distance and aloofness which suggests maybe she can parlay cutesie into something more substantial.

9. Lauren-Brie (RoS: 11)

Was just arbitrarily posing for education, which shoulda been a no-brainer, and had a very quiet episode. But she has a definite now look, and they’ll teach her a few rudimentary facts of (modeling) life that’ll have her utilising that big ol’ forehead of hers and tan waifiness far better than she did this week.

10. Brittany (RoS: 7)

They obviously have raps on this gyal because only she of the Britney 3 got to keep her name, and she was given the military, which is easily the best assignment of the lot, except maybe bureaucracy (there’s a catch there though, which is coming). The judges loved her, and she has a pretty smile, but given the material there was precious little on show, and she seems fairly uncertain of herself, like she’ll crack under the pressure you know is coming. I’m not at all sold that her exotic looks will amount to anything much when the blowtorch comes on.

11. Nikeysha (RoS: 13)

She talked back to the judges, so got in big trouble for trying to defend herself, in a typical scapegoatin’ style. But the shot was fine. Great even, from the waist up. Sure there were some strange things going on with the mirror and the legs, but there were far worse errors committed, and I think the reason she ended up in the bottom two was more accurately that the judges need a whipping girl, like Ruby was in NZNTM. And Nikeysha, with her scrawny arms and exaggerated features, is every inch a model. Watch for her makeover to change the game, and her to persist a good while in this comp.

12. Hannah (RoS: 12)

Palin’s daughter got nukes, which shoulda been the cue for some dangerous poise and scarcely contained firepower. Instead we got a regular angular pose and no sense of anything. She claims to “not know how [she] feels about them,” which is fine, but this wasn’t a test ban treaty, it was a photo shoot, and her abdication of sentiment cost her dearly. She’s also overplaying bumpkin card entirely, and chumming up with raw sewage (see below), so the jury is still out on this particularly missile.

13. Clark (RoS: 10)

She’s just the worst kind of American, strong opinions (“if she walked around like that in a small town she’d be shot. And not because they’re smallminded, it’s just tradition.”) allied to soul-deadening witlessness. So she’s gonna be sicc-ed on Isis in the weeks ahead, and unless some of hese girls have spines as well as moony eyes it could get real ugly. The banal thing about Clark is she really doesn’t have the looks to try and get away with it.That long straight nose gives her a bit of a Richard Dean Anderson vibe, which ordinarily I’d love, but when she’s confusing bureaucracy for communism (SERIOUSLY! How stoked must the producers have been to hear that pearl drip from her tongue?) and looking horsily confused in her shoot it’s hard to think there’s much going on beyond reactionary homophobia. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for good TV’s sake) she’ll be here a while yet, but she took a shit photo when there was every chance to get tangled up in sexy red tape. So Clark’s our resident evil. Have fun with her while she lasts, because this troll ain’t winning.

– Duncan

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DeadBall At The Movies: Bigger Stronger Faster*

Greg Valentino biceps

This is Gregg Valentino, and I’m sure you won’t argue with his assertion that he has the world’s biggest biceps. He’s part of the cast of last year’s acclaimed documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger*, a group of people who vary in musculature but cumulatively make a pretty powerful case that, bacne aside, steroids are one of the most harmless substances to be demonised in the War on Drugs.

Directed by Chris Bell, a former writer for the WWE and part of a trio of steroid using brothers, the film is a quiet marvel, putting its director front-and-centre a la Michael Moore, but never once stooping to polemicism of the latter, and as a result his film is far more effective.

Which is not to say that it lacks for raw entertainment. Valentino is a freak of nature, of that there’s no doubt, but he’s also funny and surprisingly self-aware: “Do you think girls look at me and go ‘oh my God, that’s hot!”. He’s not alone either. The film is predominantly composed of talking heads and vintage film footage, and is wildly successful on both counts.

The clips are pretty amazing. Particularly Ben Affleck pre-fame from an HBO show called Lifestories: families in Crisis, hamming it to the hilt as a ‘roid raging high school football player.

Acting, readers. It is an art form. But the clips, including plenty of classic Hogan, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, are only window dressing to the ‘roided up acolytes, rogue medics and self-serving politicos (expected: W, the Governator. Less so:  Biden) who make capital out of the issue.

As Bell points out, steroids aren’t in the top 150 substances for drug-related hospital admissions (below vitamin C), yet are in the same law enforcement class in the US as crystal meth, courtesy of the proven-fallacious ‘roid rage scare of the late ’80s. This was the same era and climate that produced Tipper Gore’s PRMC, and three Republican-controlled houses were on a criminalising-anything-to-protect-the-children frenzy. So as a result, a whole bunch of little dudes (seriously, it’s an issue in the doco) who wanted big guns became default crims.

There’s plenty of great comedy amongst the serious issues. Gold’s Gym and Westside Barbell, the epicentres of ’80s and ’00s musculature respectively, are pretty much bottomless pits of weird laughs, especially Louie Simmons, the king of powerlifting (like weightlifting but with no drug testing!) and a lifelong steroid user, and congressman Henry Waxman is the ultimate political stooge, all moustaches and ‘who, me?’ smiles.

Maybe the best part of the movie, though, is the way it shines a light on America’s cultural complicity in the plight of the Bell family and the wider gym rat community’s obsession with size. A professor stacks up the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s versions of the GI Joe action figure, and you watch its physique evolve from lean and purposeful to The Ultimate Warrior. It’s a pretty irresistible argument that an unnaturally muscled form became the definitive masculine American archetype, and Bell makes it with aplomb.

And then he hits cheating, nailing it even better. Interspersed with shots of the Bushes Jr and Sr railing against the treasonous athletes, and Maria Shriver interviewing the cancerous and nearly dead defensive linesman Lyle Alzado, he points out the dichotomy between America’s win-at-all-costs philosophy and the sanctimonious approach to drugs.

There are some fantastic quotes along the way, when his subjects talk about about performance enhancing drugs in combat: “In sports, you should play fair. In war, you shouldn’t play fair at all” and adult entertainment:  “we’re in the porn business. There’s not a lot of morals to begin with.” All that sorta pales into insignificance when you see actual living cows (gene doping looks like the final frontier on this set) which look like this:

Cow muscles

“The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans,” says one of Bell’s incredible subjects, and he’s right. Think about the fact the draw has no history in any of the big four American sports, and the way the relentless focus on the American Dream has meant the curdling nightmares of those left outside of welfare and healthcare can be set aside. There are revealing interviews with Ben Johnson, who (correctly) posits that since everyone was cheating, why should he be ashamed, and Carl Lewis, who circles and obfuscates and ends up looking a damn fool.

In the end, the great thing about Bigger, Faster, Stronger* (the asterisk is for every record breaker or hall of famer who’s tested positive) is that it draws no conclusions. It barely even suggests you draw your own. It’s as much entertainment as it is journalism. Bell just wants you to think about some subjects which maybe don’t get a lot of real, serious air in sports. Idols and heroism, villains and failure, sportsmanship and politics. It ends just asking you to think, and the true poignancy has only come beyond the end of the film.

Late last year Mike ‘Mad Dog’ Bell, the younger brother of the director and probably the subject on camera the most in Bigger, Faster, Stronger*, died in a Cosa Mesa rehab centre (SEE CORRECTION IN THE COMMENTS BELOW). He left behind kids and a wife and an indelible imprint on anyone who sees the film. It doesn’t change anything, but something about his quest makes this documentary all the more keenly felt. You should watch it.

– Duncan

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