Sunday, February 16, 2014

If I Were An Olympic Athlete, I'd Boycott Sochi for Killing Stray Dogs

History is replete with instances of sports and athletes breaking barriers, changing the way people think, and bringing people together in solidarity.  In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, dispelling the notion that women were "the weaker sex."  In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play in a major league baseball game.  In 1954, Roger Bannister defied what were believed to be human limitations by becoming the first runner to break the 4-minute mile.  And in 2012, 78-year-old Harriett Anderson became the oldest woman to ever finish the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii, which she did this after flying over a guard rail on her bike, injuring her shoulder.

These are just a few examples of how sports have defied expectations, pushed our limits, and caused a sea change in people's beliefs.

So why hasn't the killing of thousands of stray dogs in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics caused a similar sea change in how the world - or at least Americans - view and treat homeless dogs?  

You've probably heard by now about the thousands of homeless dogs that have been ordered to be killed by Sochi's City Hall.  The purported reason for this mass slaughter is "so they don't bother Sochi's new visitors."   I find this "justification" to be bullshit.  While there may be some health issues associated with homeless dogs (such as rabies) or random incidents, many people are reporting that most of these stray dogs are extremely friendly, affectionate, and healthy, as seen in these photos.

One of the dogs from The Scruffy Faces of Sochi website who looks like he could be really threatening...NOT!
So why is Sochi continuing their practice of killing as many homeless dogs as they can find, despite the city being in the limelight right now?  My speculation is that there are several reasons.

First, the homeless animal population in Sochi is out of control and, sadly, seems to be indicative of the problem throughout Russia.  In Moscow in 2012, it was estimated that there were tens of thousands of homeless dogs running Moscow's streets, with another 17,000 in private and state-owned shelters.  With such an overwhelming homeless animal population, the poisoning and shooting of massive numbers of homeless dogs is common practice in Russia.  Yes, that's correct:  Sochi and other Russian countries have been engaging in this type of mass killing of dogs for years.  Moreover, this is not a practice developed just for the Olympics, nor is it a practice specific only to Russia.  National Geographic reports that other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, much of eastern Europe, and the Baltic countries have "mass dog-killing programs."  Moreover, the "stray dog problem" also was an issue in the Beijing and Athens Olympics.

Second, the vast majority of Russians don't have the mentality about dogs that Americans or other Westernized countries do, nor do they have the animal shelter infrastructure that we do in America.  One organization in Moscow - Moscow Animals - reports that "there are few western-style societies that aim to protect the interests of animals in Russia."  It seems that like many things in Russia, the few state-owned shelters that exist actually are rife with corruption and bribery.  

Third, Sochi officials apparently think it's easier to kill the dogs than to sterilize and vaccinate, or even to sponsor legislation that would fund a better shelter network.  Russia, like other countries with an extreme homeless animal population, doesn't have programs for the mass sterilization and vaccination of dogs.  Why?  Because killing them is less expensive and/or more efficient.  Interestingly, in April 2013, when it was first learned that Sochi would institute this mass killing to "beautify and sanitize" for the Olympics, the Humane Society of the United States offered to help Sochi with a mass sterilization and vaccination program to discourage the city from following through on their killing program.  Initially, Sochi agreed last year to forego their mass killing plan.  Clearly the Russian city didn't keep their word.

As a consequence of all the media coverage of Sochi's massive dog-killing program, Americans and others throughout the world have become outraged, with many people saying they will not watch the Olympics.  As an athlete and an animal lover, I have a bit of conflict or confusion over this move to boycott watching the Olympics on television.

Although I commend and respect the sentiment behind such an approach, I think it inadvertently hurts the athletes who have worked for years to compete in the Olympics, and is too passive of an approach.  First of all, neither Sochi nor the IOC cares if you sit in front of your t.v. and watch the Olympics.  Granted, I don't begin to understand the moneymaking aspect of the Olympics, but the only thing a boycott on television watching seems to do is hurt NBC's ratings, which has no impact on or relevance to Sochi's massive dog killing program.

Second, what such a boycott really does is weaken the support for American athletes.  Although I am not nor will I ever be an Olympic athlete, I have a good idea of what it means to commit yourself to an athletic goal, train hard for years, and pour your heart and soul into that goal.  These athletes have committed their lives to this one goal.  They have trained countless hours.  They have shed tears, blood, and sweat that could fill an ocean.  Their families and friends have stood behind them at every turn.  They've made extensive efforts to obtain fundraising and sponsors to support their journey.  If you are an American who loves sports, you must feel compelled to support these athletes through something so simple as watching them on t.v.  After all, isn't that what we Americans do when it comes to major sporting events?  Professional baseball and football players don't know that you are watching the World Series or SuperBowl to cheer them on.  But you know it, and you feel a certain solidarity with the rest of Americans who also are huddled up in front of their televisions to support our American athletes.  So while the athletes may not know that you are watching them on t.v., they know that their country as a whole is watching.

Third, boycotting the Olympics by not watching them on t.v. is too passive.  If you really want to have an impact, then be active.  Again, I completely understand the motivation and sentiment behind boycotting the television viewing of the Olympics and I respect that decision.  If, however, you really want to put some meat on the bones of your intention, then make your actions more active.   Find an organization to which you can donate to help save the Sochi dogs.  (I am not personally recommending any particular organizations here because I cannot vouch for their veracity, so that decision is left to your judgment).  Or, if you want your actions to have a more local impact, donate to or volunteer at a local shelter where you'll be able to see first-hand the impact your actions can have.

At any rate, taking some action is better than nothing.  And what may seem like small actions by just one person, can collectively create a significant impact.

Which leads me to wonder why more Olympians haven't taken a stand against this massive killing of homeless dogs.  These athletes have the world's attention right now, so think of the incredible impact they could have on the collective conscience of millions of people if individual athletes stood together to speak out against this horror.  It has warmed my heart to see athletes like American Olympian Gus Kenworthy and Russian Olympian Oleg Deripaska take a stand.  Kenworthy found a group of stray puppies and their mom, and immediately took to social media to announce that he'd brought them food and made vaccination appointments for them.  Even more inspiring is Deripaska, who reportedly is taking action to build shelters just five miles outside Sochi in Baranovka.

There's also former American Olympian Tom McMillan (1972 U.S. men's basketball team), who has written a letter to the IOC urging the governing body to intervene to stop the killing of Sochi dogs.

It's individuals like this who are using their status as current and former Olympians to stand up and bring awareness to this issue.  Individually and collectively, their actions are making a difference - both on the ground at Sochi and around the world as other individuals are inspired by their actions.

That's why I can say, with 100% confidence, that if I was an Olympian in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I would boycott my event because of the government's decision to kill thousands of dogs and the IOC's blessing of that action.  Now granted, I will never qualify for the Olympics, so maybe that seems easy for me to say.  But not so fast.  Although I may never be an Olympian, I am an avid athlete and an even more avid animal lover and animal welfare activist.  So while I've never devoted the effort and resources to training for the Olympics, I have done so in training for other events like Ironman Arizona and Ironman Lake Tahoe.  I was fully committed to each of those events.  I'd poured my heart and soul into training for each of them.  I was obsessed with making sure that I finished each one and was determined not to fail.  And when I came so close to not making the bike cutoff for Ironman Lake Tahoe, I started to panic over the thought of being pulled from the race.  All those hours of training would be down the drain.  All the people who came to support me would be let down.  I would have done it all for nothing...(thankfully I did finish Ironman Lake Tahoe!).  

Yet, despite all of that, if I'd arrived in Tempe, Arizona or Lake Tahoe, and discovered that the Ironman Corporation had decided it needed to "clean up" the town by ridding it of any animals - dogs, cats, deer, birds, whatever...I would have refused to participate in the event that I'd devoted so many months, hours, blood, sweat, and tears to.


Because I would want to show the world how important the issue of animal welfare is to me; how important it is to be kind and compassionate to all living creatures; and how important it is to recognize that at the end of the day, no sporting event is worth killing any living creature.

I simply would not want to be a part of something that resulted in the massive death of any creature.  It's how I live my daily life, and I would expect nothing less of myself just because it's a "big race."  At every race I do, I show up hoping that on that day, I will be the best version of myself -- the strongest person I can be, both mentally and physically.  If I participated in an event that was the impetus for the massive killing of animals, I'd be turning my back on that.  I'd become the worst version of myself all in the name of that one event.  All in the name of my personal glory.

I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror.

So instead, I'd want to send a message that no matter what the event or situation, your belief system should always be at the center of what you do.  Sometimes that will require you to make an awkward decision that may make you unpopular or the outcast.  But at the end of the day, if you compromise who you are, what kind of message are you sending?

I certainly don't expect any other athlete - professional or amateur - to feel the same way or take the same action.  Nor do I think that the Olympic athletes at Sochi have compromised who they are.  I just think that they could all send a much stronger message - one stronger than "what it takes to be an Olympic athlete" - if they stood up for creatures smaller than them.  These athletes who are on the world's center stage right now could stand together to send a message that homeless pets are an issue throughout the world - not just in Sochi - that can be addressed through spay/neuter programs, vaccinations, education, and better shelter systems rather than massive killing.  These athletes don't necessarily need to boycott their events - just standing up on a different podium to speak out against this injustice would be a wonderful step in the right direction.

The power these athletes have is the same power that Jackie Robinson had to change an entire country's view of African Americans.  It's the same power that Gertrude Ederle had to defy all notions of women's strength.  And it's the same power that Roger Bannister had to change all understanding of what the human body can accomplish.  These Olympians have the power to change the world's view on how to treat homeless pets.  These Olympians have the power to shed light on a homeless pet problem that permeates so many countries.  Yes, these Olympians - like Gus Kenworthy and Oleg Deripaska - have the power to teach people all over the world that compassion, love, and kindness should transcend all boundaries, including those of an Olympic sports pavilion.

I only hope that the world follows in Kenworthy's and Deripaska's steps and learns from these Olympics not only what it means to have the spirit of an Olympic athlete, but what it means to have the spirit of a compassionate human being....

What would you do if you were a Sochi Olympian?  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stop Trash Talking About Each Others' Sports

(**WARNING:  this post contains explicit content not suitable for under people 18)
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.  Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
-- Mark Twain
Seriously, the trash talk needs to stop.  It seems like every day I read or hear something bashing CrossFit, triathlons, ultra marathons, or cycling.  I'm not talking about the "scientific studies" out there taking issue with each of these - that's a topic for another day regarding how you can find a "study" to criticize anything you want.  I'm talking about the personal attacks and criticisms being made by people in one sport against another sport.  Now I have no problem with friendly jokes between athletes in different sports in the spirit of a little competitive ribbing, like the YouTube video below between Ironman and Ultraman.  What I take issue with are the gross generalizations and personal attacks that people are making against their fellow athletes from another sport.

Here are very few examples of some of the ridiculous trash talk to which I'm referring:

Comments like these from online blogs, forums, and articles are only part of the problem.  Personally, my bigger problem is with the statements and Facebook comments I hear and read from friends and fellow athletes.  Comments along the lines of how "trail running is just too slow," "CrossFit is just a bunch of beefed up dumbasses," "triathletes are a bunch of Type-A snobs," or "cyclists are self-righteous assholes who think they own the road."  To the people out there making these comments - you know who you are; but, in case you don't know this, the only reason you feel compelled to make critical generalizations about athletes from other sports is this:  to compensate for your own insecurities.

It's not rocket science; in fact, it's psychologically simple.  The only reason we gossip about, criticize, or put down other people is to make ourselves feel more important, more powerful, or "better than."  So it's not puzzling why some triathletes, ultra athletes, cyclists, runners, and CrossFitters feel the need to criticize and trash talk each other:  the athletes who engage in this type of negative behavior are insecure about something.  Maybe she felt snubbed by people in the other sport.  Maybe he wasn't good enough at the other sport.  Maybe she feels like her sport is the only "answer" and everything else is inferior.  Maybe the only way he can feel validated through his sport is to put down other sports.

Whatever the reason for your insecurity, knock it off.

Now before you get your tri-shorts or cycling shorts in a wad, let me be clear on two things.  First, all sports -- hell all areas of life -- have assholes in them.  There are asshole triathletes, CrossFitters, cyclists, and runners, just like there are asshole lawyers, doctors, police officers, and teachers.  Believe me, there are triathletes who make me ashamed sometimes to be a triathlete.  These "sportholes" are the ones who seem to be the fodder for the  negative generalizations out there.  They are the bad apples that spoil the whole bunch.

Second, not every athlete engages in this negative, cross-sport trash talk.  Although I don't have any numbers to back this up, I bet it's safe to say that the vast majority of athletes in all these sports do not engage in that behavior.  So I'm not talking to them.  I'm talking to the few insecure athletes in each group who engage in this behavior on a regular basis....and you know who you are (although right now you're probably taking issue with the fact that you have any insecurities...but trust me, there's no other reason to justify that kind of behavior).

In addition to the trash talking, these insecure athletes often have the tendency to push their sport on other people by claiming that his/her sport is the "only answer" and all other sports have various flaws.  I'm not talking about the enthusiastic people who have pure joy from their sport and try to spread that joy through positive, non-confrontational messages.  Rather, I'm talking about the athlete who posts about their sport and how awesome it is in 95% of his/her Facebook posts.  The athlete who (in response to anyone who wants to lose weight, become healthy, or address an injury) claims that the athlete's chosen sport is the only answer.  The athlete who dominates 90% of the conversation with talk about his/her chosen sport, how wonderful it is, how people in other sports suck, and how other people must do this sport.  

You know who you are...and you need to knock it off.

Why do you need to knock it off?

First, and most obvious, is the fact that it's negative.  It's soul-sucking negative behavior for both you and the person at whom it's directed.

Second, it's ignorant - as all gross generalizations are.  Maybe you think that calling triathletes "elitist snobs" or CrossFitters "stupid meatheads" isn't that big of deal.  But tell me this:  how is that mentality any different from saying that pit bulls are dangerous?  Or children are brats?  Or, worse yet, any particular ethnic group is lazy or a bunch of criminals?  Mentalities that lump any group of people together under one umbrella are ignorant.

Third, if your sport really is that awesome and all the others suck so bad, why are there thousands (if not tens of thousands) of athletes engaged in the other sports?  Why isn't everyone gravitating to your sport?  The reason is that no one sport fits all and, thus, no particular sport is that awesome for everyone.

Fourth, your insistence on criticizing other sports stems solely from your insecurity, and unless and until you find the underlying source of that insecurity, you will continue to be a small person who can feel big only by belittling matter how awesome you think you and your sport are.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to realize that you're not that special.  What gives you the right to criticize another athlete's chose course for physical health?  Presumably it's because you think you are that special....that you have been enlightened and everyone else is in the dark.  But you don't live in someone else's body.  You don't have someone else's schedule.  You don't have all the answers.  If you did - if you really were that special as to have "earned the right" to bash other sports - you wouldn't be an amateur athlete.  If you were that special at your chosen sport, you'd be able to quit your day job and become a professional...and even some professionals aren't that special.

If you really want to show how awesome your sport is, do it by being a humble ambassador...not by bashing other sports.  If you really want to "help" someone by convincing them to join your sport, don't push it in their face like the athlete equivalent of a Jehovah's witness espousing, ad nauseum, about the virtues of your sport (sorry to any Jehovah's witnesses out there).  In other words, don't be like the nauseating "enthusiastic guy" played by Alec Baldwin in Friends who couldn't shut up about everything wonderful little thing in life:

If you sound like Alec Baldwin as you blabber on about how awesome your sport is, you need to knock it off.  Why?  Because, again, if you and your sport really are that awesome, you shouldn't feel the need to be so "in your face."  Your sport should speak for itself, with just a little positive reinforcement from you.

Bottom line:  The negative trash talk is helping no one, including yourself and your sport.  In fact, you're doing a tremendous disservice to both.  And your overly enthusiastic, "in-your-face," self-promotion isn't helping either.  Both mentalities serve only one purpose:  to show how insecure you actually are.  So spend your time working on that, rather than working to rip apart other people who are out there working just as hard as you are to have a healthy lifestyle.

After all, isn't that what's really important?  Isn't it more important for the triathlete to support her overweight friend who has decided to try to lose a few pounds with CrossFit?  Isn't it more important for the CrossFitter to recognize how hard the triathlete has worked and the hours of training the triathlete bas devoted to becoming an Ironman?  Isn't it more important for the triathlete to realize that ultra runners want to appreciate nature and slow down the chaos of life?  And isn't it more important for the ultra runner to realize that short distances can require hard effort and training in a different way than long distances?

At the end of the day, the one generalization that can be made about all athletes is that we're all trying to find a healthier lifestyle, to find an outlet for our stress, and to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.  That noble goal shouldn't be tainted by small people who feel the need to belittle  another person's ambitions...

So knock it off....