Winter Olympics: All About the Luge

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is going to run a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled Skeleton and Bobsled.

All About the Luge

The luge is in that set of Winter Olympic sports that take common place winter past-times and turn the intensity up, up, up. Luge is basically sledding on a combination of speed and steroids. Luge is sledding after years of evolutionary change.

How Does Luge Work?

Luge is sledding on speed and steroids.

Luge racers ride on a minimalist sled that consists of not much more than two metal runners and a seat. There are no steering or braking mechanisms. They get up to speed by sitting up on the sled and propelling themselves down the first part of an icy track with specially made spiked gloves. As soon as they swooshing along, they lie back on the sled to become as aerodynamic as possible for the rest of the ride. Their equipment: skin-tight rubber suits, rounded helmets, and even specialized luge shoes are all designed to reduce wind resistance. From their backs, luge riders hurtle down their evolutionary sledding hill which has become a steep, skinny, and deviously winding concrete U covered only by a thin sheet of slick ice. The athletes, lying flat on their backs, can reach speeds close to 90 miles per hour and through turns can impose up to 5 Gs of pressure on their bodies.

Here is a first-person video shot of a luger practicing on the Olympic track:

Why Do People Like Watching Luge?

  • Speed: it’s one of the fastest events and some people just like speed
  • Danger: the crashes are spectacular and violent. If you watch car racing hoping there might be a crash, this sport is up your alley
  • Questionable sex appeal: If skin-tight full-body rubber suits are your thing, you’re in luck, although I must warn you, aerodynamics is key, so don’t expect any curves or lumps to show on for male or female ogling.
  • Disbelief: this is probably the most common reason why people like watching luge. It’s just hard to believe that people have spent so much of their lives becoming so incredibly accomplished at sledding down an icy track.

What Are the Different Luge Events?

Olympic luge has Men’s single races, Women’s single races, and gender-neutral doubles races that basically always consist of two men because weight is an advantage. This year the Olympics will add a new luge event — the team relay. This race combines all of the previous races into one. Each country gets one men’s single, one women’s single, and one doubles sled. They are sent down the track in succession with the next sled only being allowed to start when the previous racer has reached the finish line and hit some kind of electronic sensor with their hand (or foot or elbow, or head, or whatever is fastest, I would imagine.)

How Dangerous is Luge?

It’s one of the more dangerous Olympic sports. Traveling at almost 90 miles an hour down an enclosed track of concrete reinforced ice turns mistakes into tragedies all too easily. The last Olympics in Vancouver were marred by the death of Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run. Kumaritashvili’s death sparked a dialog about how the designers of luge runs are leading the sport into faster and more dangerous territory for the sake of gaudy speed figures.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Luge?

Moderately okay. On paper it looks a little better than it really is. Men and women’s singles events are the same number of runs (four) but they start at different heights and are therefore different lengths. The doubles competition is officially open to any gender but invariably is stocked with male athletes.

What Are Some Fun Olympic Luge Stories?

Well, okay, we all saw the movie Cool Runnings about the first Jamaican bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics. We laughed, we cried. In 2014 the parallel story is about Shiva Keshavan who became the first Indian athlete to represent his country in the Winter Olympics by qualifying in luge. He’s being called “Spicy Runnings” and this video of him training on a Himalayan road is incredible.

Important Links:

The official luge schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.


What Does it Mean to be Mathematically Eliminated?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean to be “mathematically eliminated” from something?


There’s nothing worse as a fan than having your team mathematically elminated

— — —

Dear Will,

“Mathematically eliminated” is one of those phrases that you hear often in sports but not in too many other contexts. A team or player that is mathematically eliminated cannot win or qualify for something in any of the possible permutations of future outcomes. This can happen within a game, within a season, or within a tournament or playoffs. You’re probably hearing it a lot now because the NFL season is in its 16th of 17 weeks and teams are being mathematically eliminated left and right. Let’s explore some of the common forms of mathematical elimination.

Mathematically eliminated from qualifying for the playoffs

A team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when no possible permutation of wins and losses in all the remaining games in a season result in them qualifying for the playoffs. This is a surprisingly high bar. For instance, with only two games remaining, the 6-8 Pittsburgh Steelers are still alive for a playoff spot according to CBS. What would have to happen for them to qualify? According to the Altoona Mirror, the Steelers need “about 10 things to happen” and the chances of them all happening are around 100 to 10. They detail all of the necessary dominoes here. Stranger things have happened, for sure, but it certainly stretches the imagination to think that all ten of the items are going to happen just the way the Steelers need them to to make the playoffs. One could say they have been plausibly eliminated but as long as there is a single path for them to make the playoffs, the team and their fans will keep hoping.

Other forms of mathematical elimination — shootout edition

Although the phrase “mathematically eliminated” is almost only ever used about the playoffs, as explained above, there are other types of mathematical elimination in sports. A shootout is one example. In many hockey and soccer leagues, if a game is tied the teams play timed overtime periods. If it is still tied after that, the game is decided by a series of one-on-one contests between a player and a goalie. This is called a shootout. The shootout is arranged like you or I would play odds-and-evens or rock-paper-scissors. In the NHL it is a best of three, in Major League Soccer and international soccer, it is a best of five. Both of these contests work in frames — first one team goes, then the other, repeat. This leaves the door open for mathematical elimination within the shootout. If a team has scored more goals than the other team has remaining shots (in hockey, a team would have to score the first two with the other team missing the first two. In the longer soccer shootout, there are more ways for this to happen,) it’s impossible for that second team to win. In this case, the game is over. The final shots cannot possibly have an effect on the outcome of the game, so they aren’t taken.

Other forms of mathematical elimination — playoff edition

The same logic found in the shootout is also used during the best out of five or seven game series found in the NHL, NBA, and MLB playoffs. Earlier this year, we answered the question, “what is a sweep?” A sweep is when a team wins the first three games of a five game playoff series or the first four in a seven game series. In either case, this is a decisive victory because the winless team doesn’t have enough games in the series left to have any chance of winning the majority of games. They are mathematically eliminated from the playoff series. Like the shootout, the final games of the playoff series are not played because they could not possibly have any affect on the outcome.

Other forms of mathematical elimination — end of game edition

Mathematical elimination can also happen during a game in some sports. Baseball games and tennis matches are organized like little miniature playoff series or shootouts. Tennis matches are organized into best-of-three or five set contests. Each set is organized into best of thirteen game contests. In each of these layers, if a player mathematically eliminates their opponent by winning seven games or two or three sets, the theoretical remainder of the set or match is not played. Baseball is roughly the same. The contest is divided into innings that each have a first half (or top as it’s called) and second half (bottom.) The away team bats in the top of the inning and the home team in the bottom. In the ninth and final inning, if the home team is winning at the end of the top of the inning, the game is over. There is no way for the road team to score any runs in the half of the inning when they are in the field, so there is no reason for that half-inning to be played. They are mathematically eliminated from the game.

Football is perhaps the most curious sport when it comes to in-game mathematical elimination. Football isn’t organized into innings or frames or sets and matches. It’s one continuous game but a wrinkle in the rules makes it possible for a team to (more or less) be mathematically eliminated. In football, the clock either runs or doesn’t run between plays based on the outcome of the play. If there is an incomplete pass, a player runs out of bounds with the ball, or there is a penalty, the clock stops. When a player is tackled with the ball within the boundaries of the field, the clock keeps running, and only a time-out can stop it. If a team is winning AND they have the ball AND the opposing team has no time-outs left, the team with the ball can simulate being tackled on the field by snapping the ball to the quarterback and having him kneel down. This keeps the clock running for up to 40 seconds between each play and a team with the ball can do this three times consecutively. Teams use this strategy as a form of mathematical elimination. If there is less time left in the game (40 x 3 = 2:00) than a team can waste by kneeling, the game is effectively over.

This is really only an almost mathematical elimination because the team with the ball could mistakenly fumble the ball during the snap and if the other team picked it up, they could have a chance of winning. Teams on the losing side of the football game almost never even try to make this happen because it’s so unlikely that it seems lacking in common and professional courtesy to shoot for it. In my memory, the only coach to instruct his team to go for this was former Rutgers head coach, Greg Schiano. Trust my alma mater to foster this type of radical (and rude) thinking! All jokes aside, mathematical elimination is a tricky thing for sports leagues to figure out because it undermines a basic motivation for teams and players: once you have been mathematically eliminated, what is the purpose of continuing to try? This problem is most common when teams have been eliminated from the playoffs during a season and, because the order they get to draft players for next season in is set in inverse (or roughly inverse) order of their record in this season, they have an incentive to lose as many games as possible. This is called tanking and is a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.

It’s a scourge for another post though, so until then, happy holidays!
Ezra Fischer

How Difficult is Running a Marathon?

Dear Sports Fan,

I live in New York along the path of the Marathon. I enjoy cheering the runners on as they go by but I’ve never been tempted to train for a marathon myself. I’m wondering, how difficult is running a marathon?

Curious in Queens,

NYC Marathon
A lot of people run the NYC Marathon each year but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult.

— — —

Dear Carl,

That’s so cool that you live on the route of the New York City Marathon. I’ve heard from friends who have run it that they really appreciate the people on the route who cheer or set up their houses as giant stereo systems or in some other way enliven the long slog to the finish-line. I’ve never run a marathon, so I can’t write from personal experience, but it seems like a marathon is very, very difficult but accessible to most people who want to run one.

A marathon is a 26 mile, 385 yard race run by over half a million people each year. 48,000 people will run in the NYC Marathon alone! Most of these people are amateur runners, people like you and me, except that they for any number of reasons decided to train for and run in a long-distance race. Most of the runners don’t treat the marathon like a race; at least, not the kind of race you might have had as a kid when you and a friend ran to see who could reach the end of a path the fastest. For one thing, there’s no way that 48,000 people can start at the same time. The start of the race is highly regimented and staggered event[1] where the relatively small group of professional runners who actually have a chance to win start 25 minutes before the next wave of slower runners. No, most of the people who run a marathon are trying to beat only a personal goal they’ve set. Data, put together on by Rueben Fischer-Baum suggests that many are successful in this; instead of a smooth curve of finishing times, there are little spikes at even ten and thirty minute marks.

Almost all (98%) of the marathoners who start the race, complete the race. That’s very different from what would happen if amateurs tried to complete other professional sporting feats. An amateur, even a trained amateur, would have almost no chance of hitting a major league fastball, finishing a shift in hockey, scoring more than a fluke basket or two in an NBA game, or even just making it through a football play without a major injury. Then again, a layperson might have less chance of hitting a baseball than completing a marathon, but they’d certainly be less sore after trying. Just finishing something doesn’t mean that it wasn’t difficult to do.

The curious distance of the race and its history speak eloquently, if somewhat unreliably to how difficult it is. The marathon was invented as an athletic event in 1896 by some of the architects of the first Olympic Games who were searching for an event to catch the imagination of spectators and journalists. They recalled the Ancient Greek story/myth of an Athenian soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens to spread the news of a victorious battle over the Persians. The legend ends with the runner’s end as he dies of exhaustion after successfully delivering his message. There’s a lot of conflicting reports of this story — had he fought that day? did he follow the path of the road that was measured in 1896 to get the figure of 26 miles, 385 yards? or was it a shorter road? had he just run a 150 miles on another mission when he left on the 26 mile run that killed him? did he really die?

A very small percentage of runners these days die. There was an article in Time magazine entitled “Running a Marathon Won’t Kill You” that stated the death rate of marathoners as 1 per 259,000. Of course, that’s consistent with the 1 per 1 of the legend but I would suggest we just take that whole story with a grain of salt. Talking about salt, marathon runners today keep themselves fresh by eating and drinking all kinds of things during the race. The Huffington Post’s recent article on marathon nutrition suggested everything from specially created and marketed runner’s gels to gummi bears and marshmallows. Counter-intuitively, one thing that actually kills a marathoner once every other year or so is too much water, according to this article in the Washington Post. If you see someone in distress tomorrow, make sure to check how much water they’ve had before you offer them some more.

The popularity of marathon runners has brought on a slew of articles minimizing the difficulty of running a marathon. The New York Times ran an article a few years ago with the mildly obnoxious headline, “Plodders Have a Place, but is it in a Marathon?” In it they quote an experienced marathon saying, “It used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’” This past spring the Running Blog of the Guardian surveyed runners trying to distinguish themselves from the increasingly common marathoners by performing feats like running seven marathons in seven days or running across the continental United States.

I don’t think the fact that many people can run a marathon suggest it is anything other than an extraordinary feat worthy of congratulations. Here’s two suggestions on how to show people just how impressive marathons are. First, have them tune in to ABC at around 11:30 tomorrow morning. The professional men’s runners will be nearing the end of the race. After 24 or 15 miles of running at a pace of under five minutes per mile, the runners will begin to sprint, raising their pace to around four and a half minutes per mile. After that, ask the skeptic to go run a single mile with you. If even that doesn’t work, you can break out my favorite fact about marathons, and one that I once lost a bet on. Ask your friend if they think a runner could ever beat a person on horseback in a race of this distance? Then show them the Wikipedia page for the amazing Man vs. Horse Marathon run each year in Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells which was won by a runner twice in the last ten years.

Happy running and happy cheering,
Ezra Fischer



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. As opposed to the finish, which sees many people staggering to the finish line, exhausted but victorious.

How Does Scoring Work in Bowling?

One might ask why, on a day full of incredibly exciting sporting events like the U.S. Open men’s semifinals and the second full Saturday of college football, I am sitting on the couch writing about bowling. Let me explain.

There is a great bowling alley about 20 blocks from my apartment. Unlike most of the bowling alleys in New York city, this alley has remained true to the bowling alleys of my youth. It is slightly tawdry, mostly empty, and absolutely comfortable. My birthday was a few weeks ago and I decided to invite a few friends to join me for an afternoon of bowling and general tomfoolery. It was great fun but I was frustrated by my lack of bowling skills. I told myself that I would return some day when I had nothing else to do and bowl by myself to see if I could improve my score. I did this the other day and bowled by far the best game I’ve ever bowled! I scored a 163! This made me realize that I didn’t really understand how scoring works in bowling. While watching tennis and football today, I did some research…

I’m not the only one who spends most of his time trying to find the perfect ball?

It feels like the hardest part of bowling is understanding the score but it doesn’t need to be so complicated! Scoring in bowling[1] is simpler than it seems. The point of the game is to roll the bowling ball down the lane and knock as many of the pins down as efficiently as possible. A game consists of ten standard frames. In each frame the bowler is given two chances (like downs in football) to knock the pins down. If the bowler knocks all the pins down his or her first attempt, the second attempt or ball in that frame is discarded. At the end of each frame, no matter what has happened, the pins are reset to start the next frame. In a standard game, if the bowler never is able to knock all of the pins down in a frame, the score of the game will be exactly the number of pins knocked down.

So far, so good; two pins knocked down equals two points scored. Here’s where things get a tiny bit tricky[2] Knocking down all of the pins in a frame earns the bowler more chances to bowl. If the bowler knocks all of the pins down in their first roll (a strike) they get two bonus chances. If the bowler knocks all ten pins down but it takes two attempts to do it (a spare) they get one bonus roll. Bonus rolls are taken right after they are earned. Here’s how it works for a strike:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — 10 pins knocked down (strike!) || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

And here’s how it works for a spare:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — any number of pins knocked down less than 10 || Ball 2 — all the remaining pins knocked down for a total of 10 || Only Bonus Ball

The score for the frame in both scenarios is simply the total number of pins knocked down in the standard frame and the bonus balls. Another way to think about this is that knocking all the pins down in a frame means the score for that frame will be made up of three rolls instead of two. Note how this is true for strikes (one standard plus two bonus) and spares (two standard plus one bonus.) This concept is important because it means there’s really only one rule to learn, not two!

This seems to suggest that a perfect game (a score of 300) would be achieved by throwing 30 straight strikes. That’s not true. Actually it only requires 12 straight strikes. That magical shrinking effect is created by transposing one frame on the next within the standard ten frames. Instead of this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 3 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

Bowling follows this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2               || Strike            ||
Frame 3                                         || Strike 

The next roll after a strike counts as both the first bonus roll AND the first roll of the next frame. The second bonus roll after a strike will either be the second roll of the next frame OR the first roll of the one after that if the second frame is cut short by a strike. The single bonus roll after a spare is always the first roll of the next frame, regardless of the outcome of that roll.

If a bowler throws a strike in the last frame they are owed two bonus rolls but there is no standard next frame to overlap with. Instead the game reverts to how we originally explained it and the extra rolls are counted in the tenth frame regardless of their outcome. If there is a strike in the first bonus roll, the pins are reset before the second bonus roll.

Phew! There it is. There’s no multiplication, division, or subtraction[3] in bowling, just addition and one particularly tricky transposition.

Thanks for reading and if you’re ever in Queens, let’s bowl!

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. My Boston-proud girlfriend would want me to specify that this is Ten-Pin bowling and not any of the other regional variants of the game like Candle-Pin. For most of us, Ten-Pin is the only kind of bowling we know.
  2. If you know how bowling works, bear with me — I’m about to describe it in what I think is a very clever way… but which is going to seem wrong-ish initially to experienced bowlers.
  3. I hope!!

Diana Nyad Swims from Cuba to Florida — But at What Cost?

Nyad's shows off her guns and the marks that jellyfish left on her body.  Photo by Catherine Opie
Nyad’s shows off her guns and the marks that jellyfish left on her body.
Photo by Catherine Opie

Yesterday when I read that Diana Nyad had finally succeeded in her quest to swim from Cuba to Florida, my first reaction was “but at what cost?”

Nyad completed the 100 to 110 mile swim from Cuba to Florida in almost fifty three hours of continuous swimming. She is the first woman[1] to complete this feat without a shark cage. This may seem like only a safety concern, but when swimming in a shark cage, the swimmer benefits enormously from the drag or current in the water created by the boat towing the cage. Nyad had a large support team including a team of shark divers who swam ahead of her with shark repellants and a support boat which she did not hold on to at any time. It was her fifth attempt at the swim. The first attempt was in 1978. Diana Nyad is 64 years old.

It’s an inspirational story of age and determination overcoming youth and vigor. Nyad herself said when she reached the shore:

“I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”

President Obama congratulate her on twitter, “Congratulations to @DianaNyad. Never give up on your dreams.” Terry Savage of the Huffington Post proclaimed Nyad a hero who reminds us to “never give up” and that “persistence pays.” So why was my reaction “but at what cost?”

My reaction was informed by memories of a New York Times magazine article I read about Nyad in 2011, shortly before her fourth attempt. The author, Elizabeth Weil, did a wonderful job of characterizing Nyad and her quest. What stuck with me was the relationship between Nyad and one of her friends and lead handler, Bonnie Stoll:

Whatever the case, in early November Stoll decided she could no longer abide Nyad’s “Groundhog Day”-like optimism. If she was going to discuss another swim with Nyad — let alone, train her for one — Stoll needed Nyad to watch a video of her jellyfish stings. So one Wednesday morning, Stoll drove over to Nyad’s house, where Nyad’s nephew, who’s making a documentary about his aunt’s swimming, cued up a six-minute clip. The two women sat close on the couch, hunched toward the laptop on the coffee table. The footage was gruesome. Gone was the swimmer’s strong, confident, singing, counting athletic self. Nyad’s eyes looked desperate, terrified. “Wow wow wow,” she said on the video, treading water, trying to manage her pain. “Are we all the way across?” she asked, attempting to orient herself. “This can’t be all the way across.” Back on the couch, Stoll flinched. Nyad’s eyes teared up. The body in the water — Nyad’s body — was going into shock. “It’s under my arm, the armpit. . . . It’s paralyzing my back.” Stoll’s voice on the laptop strained for control. “Diana in, out. Diana in, out! Breathe!”

For a few moments after the video ended, Nyad seemed cowed. “That’s the first time I’ve seen what you were living through,” she said to Stoll, wiping away a tear. “I look like a child who is scared.”

But five minutes later that fear was gone. Nyad has a rare gift: muscles and a psyche that can swim for days straight.

We sports fans celebrate the outliers. Diana Nyad has rare gifts that allow her to swim and swim and swim, forgetting past failure and current pain. We marvel at how Michael Jordan could overcome the flu (or food poisoning… or a horrible hangover depending on who you ask) to score 38 points in 44 minutes during the 1997 NBA finals. We lionize “genius” coaches like Mike Leach whose eccentricities are matched only by their winning.

Nyad’s, Jordan’s, and Leach’s performances are all admirable and inspiring, but is there a necessary downside to athletic achievement? Jordan competitive drive led him to gamble compulsively and psychologically terrorize his lesser teammates.[2] Leach’s try anything attitude ended his employment at Texas Tech when he ordered a concussed player to stand in a dark closet. When Nyad walked up the beach in Key West, Bonnie Stoll was there to hug her but I have to ask: Was it worth it? What was the cost of success for her life? For her friend’s life?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. It’s a little hard to tell if a man has done this. A long-distance swimmer named Walter Poenisch claimed to have, also in his sixties, but there are doubts about the veracity of his claim.
  2. And they were all lesser.

How Does Overtime Work in Different Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,
How does overtime work in different sports? I’ve been watching more hockey this year and I know that overtime in the playoffs is different from overtime in the regular season. Are other sports like that too?

Dear Sonja,

To quote the great Kanye West in honor of his latest album, “like old folks pissing, it all Depends.” Each sport has its own approach to how to proceed with competition if the score is tied after regulation time has expired. Like you say about hockey, even within each sport it can differ depending on whether the game takes place during the regular season or the playoffs. So while it may seem like I’m getting paid by the number of times I write “sometimes” in this post, that’s just the way overtime works.[1]
In general, extra time formats in sports (overtime)  fall into a few buckets:
  • Sudden Death: the most exciting two words in sports. This format is so dramatically named because the first team to allow their opponent to score loses the game immediately. This adds a heightened layer of tension that’s pretty much unparalleled. Sudden death doesn’t necessarily mean
    Sports: hockey, soccer (sometimes), football (sometimes), baseball (kind of), golf (sometimes).
  • Extra Period: This is essentially when an extra period of time is added and whoever is leading at the end of that extra period wins. It still involves added tension but doesn’t quite have the audience on a knife’s edge, since a single score doesn’t necessarily dictate the outcome.
    Sports: basketball (always), baseball (again kind of. In baseball they play a full inning, so essentially the team that has its turn to hit first in the inning is playing Extra Period but the team that hits second can be in a Sudden Death type situation.)
  • Shootouts: The ultimate Mano a Mano sports showdown. Each team picks its best payers (five in soccer, three in hockey) and each one gets a chance to score on the opposing team’s goalie. Some dismiss it as a gimmick but – for the viewer – there are few things more dramatic than seeing an athlete alone on the field or rink with the weight of the entire game on their shoulders. Of course if the shootout is tied after the allotted players have shot, you get a sudden death shootout, where the first player to miss costs his or her team the game.
    Sports: Hockey, soccer (in both cases this assumes you make it through the extra periods with neither team scoring and in the case of hockey that the game is during the regular season)
  • None: Although increasingly rare, there are some situations in sport where if a game is tied at the end of regular time the two teams shake hands, walk off the field, and neither team wins. It’s a tie! In the old days in soccer two teams that ended the game in a tie would go home, rest up, and play again in a few days in order to get a result.
You may have noticed that we haven’t covered football at all in this post. That’s because football is so absurdly complicated in its overtime rules that it is deserving of its own post. The college football rules are different than the professional ones… which differ from the regular season to the playoffs.
Thanks for your question and look out for a football overtime post soon,
Dean Russell Bell
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Editor’s note. Mister Bell is not being paid at all for this post.

What does being "on the ropes" mean? What about "rope-a-dope?"

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for someone to be “on the ropes?” I heard it the other day during a hockey game but I think it’s a boxing term. While you’re at it, what is “rope-a-dope” and are they related?


Dear Morgan,

You’re right, they are both boxing terms although they get used in the context of other sports as well as just in normal conversation. We’ll define what they mean and how you can use them in this post.

They call boxing the sweet science for a reason: because despite the fact that it may look like two sweaty combatants flailing away at each other – or running away from each other – in reality boxers enter the ring with deliberate strategies and do their best to execute them.

Still at some point in a fight, one boxer may get the upper hand and land a few devastating punches, leaving his opponent senseless and barely able to stay on his feet, let alone defend himself. In such cases, a boxer has two choices to keep himself upright: leaning into and grabbing his opponent (known as “clinching”) or leaning back on the ropes surrounding the ring and using his gloves and arms to cover up as much of his body and head as possible. When a fighter does this, and his opponent pummels him endlessly in search of a knockout, the fighter covering up is said to be “on the ropes.”
But remember – they don’t call it the sweet science for nothing. A boxer who sees his opponent cowering and leaning on the ropes,  seemingly defeated and therefore posing no threat, may become overconfident – and in his quest to finish his opponent he may exhaust himself by throwing bunches of punches that don’t actually do damage.
Thus a particularly clever and gutsy boxer may pretend to be more injured than he is, encouraging his opponent to throw too many punches in a vain effort to knock him out – and then, turn the tables and go on the offensive when his opponent has punched himself out (ie, exhausted himself by throwing too many punches).
The most famous example of this strategy being put to use is known as the “rope-a-dope” – when Muhammad Ali lured an aggressive George Foreman into attacking relentlessly for the first seven rounds of the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Ali did this not only by seemingly letting Foreman dictate the action, but by taunting Foreman mercilessly. Foreman wore himself out and Ali seized the initiative and knocked his drained opponent out in the eighth round.
Today, the term “rope-a-dope” is just as likely to be used to blithely describe political or business strategy as it is to describe a fighter’s approach in the ring. But it’s worth remembering the original principle: being willing to absorb potentially devastating punishment with the knowledge, or hope, that you ultimately have the ability to outlast your opponent.
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

How Do the Shooting Space and Checking Rules Work in Girls Lacrosse?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve played on a U-14 girls lacrosse team for 2 years, but I’ve never really understood rules on shooting space, and checking (un-modified), mind helping me out?



Dear Alana,

Great questions! It’s kind of thrilling to know that the feeling, familiar to many viewers, of watching a sport and being unclear about the rules is even a feeling some of the players have! There’s nothing to be ashamed of — even professional athletes are sometimes confused about the rules, like Donovan McNabb, a quarterback in the NFL who famously did not try very hard at the end of overtime because he thought that if the game was tied at the end of one overtime, they would just play another instead of the game ending in a tie… which it does.

Anyway, I did some research on the two rules you asked about and there is a theme that runs through both rules. Both rules are about keeping players safe. The shooting space rule is an attempt to avoid having players put themselves in danger and the checking rule is put in place to keep players from endangering each other. Let’s dig into them.

A shooting space foul according to is called when “a defender moves in at a bad angle on the offender while shooting in the 8 meter arc. This is a dangerous play by the defender.” Well okay, what is a bad angle? Let’s go to Wikipedia which clears it up a bit. Wikipedia explains that this bad angle is one that “makes the defender at risk of being hit by the ball if the offender were to shoot.” Basically, it is illegal for a player to put themselves in a situation that makes them very likely to be hurt. Other sports have similar “dangerous play” rules. In most soccer leagues, there is a rule against any play that endangers the person doing it or anyone else on the field. This is most often applied when a player lies on top of the ball which prevents an opponent from “playing the ball [for] fear of injuring the player lying on top of the ball.” Ice hockey seems to be governed by the exact opposite spirit. Players who endanger themselves or their teammates are open to being hit with pucks, sticks, shoulders, fists, etc. in all sorts of completely legal ways. Hockey players who are hurt in these situations are often also subjected to fierce criticism in the media for not protecting themselves.

If lacrosse goes to such a length to prevent players putting themselves at risk for injury, you would imagine they are at least as concerned with players endangering each other. They are! There are a set of rules that control how a player is allowed to check (try to get the ball from) another player. A player can only use the side of their stick, not the flat part of the head. Players can not wind up to check another player, instead checking should be done with “controlled, short, quick taps.” The last bit, and this is probably the hardest to judge and control is that a player “may only check if the check is directed away from the ball carrier’s head.” This all makes sense if the goal is to avoid injury. Allowing players to wind up would surely lead to sticks being swung much harder at one another. Mandating that checks only be directed away from the body of the person being checked means that even if someone were to really swing their stick with a lot of force, that force would carry their stick, their opponents stick, and the ball safely away from the person being checked as opposed to right into them.

Modified checking which you mention in your question, is a rule used usually with younger kids that makes it illegal to attempt a check at head level. This seems moderately wise if you’re going to give 12 year-olds weapons. The advantage that this creates for the offensive player is offset by requiring them to pass or shoot the ball within three seconds if a defender is covering them closely enough that they could check them if it weren’t for the modified checking rule.

Good luck playing! Remember to check with the side of your stick away from your opponent’s head. And don’t try to block a shot within 8 meters of the goal!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

When Will People Stop Playing Violent Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Someone died in an Indy Car race today? Why do people do this to themselves? When will they stop?

Seriously, this is crazy,


Dear Fernando,

It does seem a little crazy, doesn’t it?

Dan Wheldon who was a former Indy 500 champion died today during a race in Las Vegas  in a crash that involved 15 cars traveling at over 200 miles an hour. I don’t know what makes people do risky things. In sports there are obvious dangers — car crashes, broken bones, and torn ligaments. Taking a stick, puck, elbow, or fist to the face leaves a visible and sometimes permanent mark of the perilous life of an athlete. We now know there are less visible but still insidious dangers that lurk in the repeated collisions that take place on every play of every football game and practice. I’m not sure what attracts us to sports. Are we attracted in spite of or because of the danger?

When it comes to injuries short of death (and to an increasing extent, brain injuries, but that’s another story…) sports cultures tend to build off the courage and intolerance to pain that are a necessary part of doing anything as physically challenging as playing a sport to create an intolerance to the admission of pain. There is a cliche that there is a line between being hurt and being injured. You can play hurt. You can’t play injured. The line moves a little from sport to sport, but reasonably bizarre things are often on the line of hurt. How far you are willing to push that line for your own body generally has a lot to do with how your teammates and coaches think of you. I played soccer for about 10 years growing up and I am still proud to say that I never missed a game with a “hurt.” Sure, I dislocated each of my kneecaps twice… but those were “injuries.” At the level (low) that I was playing at, this is usually a fairly innocuous attitude to have, but at higher levels, it leads to people pushing their bodies into all sorts of situations that are likely to have long-term effects on their health. This Malcolm Gladwell article made a big splash for its revelations about concussion, but when read carefully, it suggests something else — that willingness to put ones own health at risk for the good of the team is basically selected for throughout youth sports, so that by the time you get to the highest levels of competition, basically everyone is like this.

One would think that death cannot be an extension of this attitude towards your own body. And in fact, I imagine it’s not. But risk of death might apply. There is some risk of death inherent in every sport. It’s certainly higher in sports like football, hockey, cheerleading, boxing, and racing than in sports like baseball, soccer, and basketball. I can’t speak for drivers, but I imagine that like with injury in other sports, people who do not have the quality of being willing to risk their lives in their sport are weeded out long before we ever see them on television.

I don’t know why there are people willing to risk their bodies and their lives for a particular activity, but I do know that for the most part, these are the people who are successful enough to make it to the professional ranks of each sport. It’s almost a catch-22, but the reason drivers are crazy enough to get in cars and risk their lives is because only people that crazy can drive professionally.

Let’s hope risk doesn’t turn to loss again for a long time,
Ezra Fischer

When Did Kickball Become a Sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

When did kickball become a sport?

Just saying,


Dear Sarah,

When did Pabst Blue Ribbon become a good beer? When did trucker hats become stylish accoutrement? When did jeans start requiring a surgical procedure to be put on and taken off?

That’s when kickball became a sport. Yes, I’m blaming the hipster for the revolution in kickball. Kickball, as I remember it, was a really fun game you played in elementary school gym class. It has basically similar rules to baseball, except instead of involving the skill and hand-eye coordination required to swing a bat into a small ball, it requires roughly the coordination required by everyday tasks like walking down a steep set of stairs, cooking an omelette, or shaving. Then again, you generally don’t do those things drunk… which is definitely a requirement for kickball, whether it’s a championship game or an early season practice.[1]

My theory is that kickball was one of the more accessible sports to play in fourth grade. It was something that not only the future jocks enjoyed. The future jocks became current jocks and ventured off to play football, basketball, baseball, or soccer. Now in their late twenties and thirties, these current jocks have become over-the-hill jocks but they still enjoy playing the sports that they played when they were on top of the hill. The people who didn’t become jocks never really got into any other sports, but they retained happy memories of playing kickball in gym class.

Fast-forward 20 years or so and these people are looking for a good way to get a little exercise, meet people, and socialize with friends. Voila — kickball comes back into the mix and it becomes a sport!

One last note on hipsterism and kickball — I think that the relationship has something to do with irony. Irony is “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Many of the former non-jocks grew to feel alienated by and some amount of dislike towards sports and the ‘go-all-out’ mentality that abounds in sports cultures. Playing a game like kickball provides a layer of opposite language to shield the players from what they are doing. Kickball players go all out, but because it is in the context of a sport that’s normally associated with a pre-sport obsessed time in people’s lives, going-all-out is permissible in a way that it wouldn’t be within the culture of the players if the sport being played was a more standard sport.

Confused? Angered? My good friend and attentive Dear Sports Fan reader Theodore Gicas (the Gicasaurus) may be able to shed some more light on the kickball scene. He’s been a member of several championship kickball teams! Write a letter to the editor Ted — we’ll publish it!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Hey, if you want to play drunk you have to practice drunk! And yes, kickball teams have been known to hold practices!