Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ricky Berens unexpectedly retires after winning gold

Charlotte's Ricky Berens told me tonight in London that he was retiring from the sport of swimming at age 24.

This was moments after Berens won a gold medal, swimming a great third leg on the American men's 4x200 freestyle relay team. He was part of Michael Phelps' record-breaking 19th Olympic medal -- Phelps was the anchor leg, diving into the water right after Berens and the earlier U.S. swimmers had handed him a huge lead.

Berens said flatly, "I'm done." He said he loved the sport of swimming but that he hadn't had more than two weeks off from it since high school, and he wanted to find out what else there was in the world.

Berens has a degree from the University of Texas and said he might go back to school to get a Master's in sports management. He and U.S. Olympic swimmer Rebecca Soni have been a couple for quite some time, and both of them currently train together in California.

I suppose there is always a chance Berens will come back. There are a few swimmers every year at the Olympics who retired and then "un-retired" -- Brendan Hansen and Anthony Ervin on the U.S. men's team, to name a couple.

But Berens certainly sounded serious Tuesday. When a U.S. swimming official moved to cut off our interview, saying Berens needed to go "warm down" in the pool as is customary for all swimmers, Berens waved her away. "I'm finished," he said.

He also said: "I couldn't have picked a better way to go out," noting the gold medal. He told his relay teammates after the race that he was leaving the sport as well. He grew teary-eyed when holding his medal and the U.S. flag during pictures after the medal ceremony.

If his career is over for good, Berens will leave swimming with two Olympic gold medals and one silver. And personally, I've never had an unpleasant moment with him, covering him on and off since before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He's about as nice a guy as you will meet.

Berens said he was going to give himself until Jan.1st to decide what his post-swimming plan was and then start seriously pursuing it.

And I should note this: at one point in our interview, he said he was "pretty positive" he was retiring. What's clear is he needs a long break to think it over. But based on what he said Tuesday night -- and things can always change, of course -- he's done.

Another good morning for NC swimmers

LONDON -- Three North Carolina swimmers had some success in the Olympic pool in London, as Raleigh's Charlie Houchin and Charlotte's Davis Tarwater and Cullen Jones all were in the pool and advanced to the next round of competition.

Houchin and Tarwater swam two of the four legs of the men's 4x200 freestyle relay preliminary. The U.S. won the race rather easily, but it will be contested tonight once more in the final. It is likely Houchin and Tarwater have finished their meet, as the U.S. will probably bring in Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Ricky Berens for the relay tonight. Since Conor Dwyer had the fastest split time of the morning group, it is likely he will be the fourth swimmer. (UPDATE: That was indeed the order, and the U.S. won gold -- Tarwater and Houchin also get a gold for doing the preliminary).

But by virtue of swimming in the morning, Tarwater and Houchin are guaranteed whatever medal the U.S. gets. The U.S. traditionally has won gold in the 4x200, including in 2008, but France and Australia should provide strong competition.

"I was just kind of internalizing before the race that this was my dream coming true," Tarwater said. "I've swum this race a million times in my head over the past 20 years."

Houchin, who led off in the relay, wasn't that happy with his time but said the experience was great. "It could have been a better time, but it was fun," he said. "I've been waiting for this day for a long time."

Cullen Jones, meanwhile, will also swim tonight in the 100 meter semifinals. He qualified for that -- the top 16 make it -- rather easily in a morning swim in which he was obviously saving something for the evening. (UPDATE: Jones did not advance to the 100 final, but still has his best event -- the 50 freestyle -- later in the Olympic meet).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nick Thoman wins silver in 100 backstroke

LONDON -- So far today I've watched two young men named Nick who live in North Carolina in the Olympics, and both have ultimately won medals.

Diver Nick McCrory was the first one (read the blog excerpt just below this one for that story). And now Nick Thoman -- the backstroke specialist who trains at Charlotte's SwimMAC Carolina -- won a silver medal in the 100 back.

Thoman, in fact, was part of the most successful swim event for the U.S. so far. His teammate Matt Grevers was the only person to beat him, winning gold (it went the same way in Omaha at the U.S. Trials). So the U.S. went 1-2 in the event, which it had not yet done in these Olympics.

Thoman was tied for third at the halfway point but then sped into second with a strong back half of the race. He wasn't too close to catching Grevers -- Grevers had about a half-body length on the field and swam the race in 52.16 seconds, while Thoman finished in 52.92.

Thoman was ecstatic after the race, shaking his fist exultantly and then swimming over three lanes to hug Grevers and exchange a high five.

U.S. swimmer Nick Thoman is seen after the men's 100m backstroke heats swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Monday in London. (AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINIFABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages)

Duke's Nick McCrory wins diving bronze

Nick McCrory, who grew up in Chapel Hill and goes to Duke, won a bronze medal Monday in men's 10-meter synchronized diving along with partner David Boudia.

The Americans had their best score on the last of their six dives to hold onto third place, just ahead of a Great Britain pair that was being exhorted by the crowd in London.

The Chinese team finished first -- China is diving's dominant force -- and Mexico was second.

"This is incredible," McCrory said. "I don't think it has sunk in yet."

The Americans were third or fourth throughout the competition, never missing on any dive. Great Britain led the U.S. until the fourth dive, when the British duo flubbed a dive to the groans of the crowd.

It was the first medal at a world event for McCrory and Boudia. The U.S. came into these Olympics having not won a diving medal since 2000 in Sydney. Now they have won two in two days -- Abby Johnston, another Duke diver, was part of a silver-medal winning team in 3-meter synchronized diving Sunday.

"It's been a great two days," said Drew Johansen, who is Duke's head diving coach and also the head coach of the U.S. Olympic diving team.

McCrory and Boudia will compete against each other in about a week in the 10-meter platform diving individual competition.

Also on Monday, Davidson College's Caroline Queen did not advance to the next round of the women's whitewater kayaking competition.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jones wins silver but US freestyle relay team loses gold to France

Cullen Jones (second from right) shows his silver medal to photographers along with his relay teammates. (Photo courtesy of David Marsh)
LONDON -- In a dramatic 4x100 freestyle Olympic relay that was almost the exact opposite of one that had occurred at the 2008 Olympics, France chased down the USA in the final 50 meters to win the gold medal Sunday.

Ryan Lochte had a 0.55-second lead when he began the anchor leg of the relay after Charlotte's Cullen Jones had swum the third leg. But Lochte couldn't hold it against France's Yannick Agnel, who blazed to a time a full second faster than Lochte to win by 0.45 seconds. Agnel's time of 46.74 seconds was the fastest of the 32 relay swimmers in the race.

In 2008 in Beijing, France had led in the final 50 meters in the same event before anchor leg Jason Lezak chased down the lead in the last few strokes of the race.

Sunday's result meant Jones got his second Olympic medal -- he was on the 2008 relay, too -- but this time it was a silver. Jones said later he was happy with the time he had swum but that he felt sorry for his close friend, Lochte.

"He's beating himself up, I know," Jones said, "and he doesn't need to. That French guy swam a superhuman race."

Two other N.C. swimmers were in the water in London Saturday night, too. Nick Thoman qualified for Monday night's final in the 100 backstroke by finishing fifth in the semifinals. Ricky Berens did not qualify for the 200 free final -- the top eight advance out of the semifinals, and Berens was ninth.

However, Berens also gets a silver medal for his work Sunday. He was part of the U.S.'s preliminary 4x100 relay in the morning, and everyone who swims either in the prelim or the final gets the same medal. The entire team was switched out between morning and evening, with Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps, Jones and Lochte swimming for the U.S., in that order.

A good Sunday morning for Charlotte swimmers

Here’s a snapshot of what the Olympic swimming pool looks like. With a roof that hangs down low over the pool, the place gets rock-concert loud at the end of every race.
LONDON -- Two swimmers from North Carolina had a nice Sunday morning here in London, as both Ricky Berens and Nick Thoman advanced out of their preliminary rounds.

With both needing to make the top 16 in their individual events to qualify for tonight’s semifinals, Thoman finished third in the 100 backstroke and Berens was eighth in the 200 freestyle.

“It was good to get that first one out of the way,” Thoman said.

When asked if he was nervous before his first Olympic individual race, Berens said: “It was more than butterflies. I felt like I had a brick in my stomach.”

Berens then came back and swam the third leg on the 4x100 men’s freestyle relay team, which easily qualified for tonight’s final where it will defend its 2008 gold medal.

It is unlikely that Berens will swim that 4x100 event again tonight in the medal round – he admitted as much himself -- but it’s very likely that Cullen Jones will be on that night relay. Jones, who finished second in the 100-meter freestyle at U.S. Olympic Trials and was on the gold-medal relay in Beijing in 2008, was held out of the morning relay.

By virtue of his morning relay swim, however, Berens is guaranteed whatever medal the U.S. wins in the relay tonight. Australia and the U.S. are the two favorites.
Berens and Thoman will both swim again later Sunday trying to make the final, when the field is cut from 16 to eight.
Germany's Helge Meeuw, left, and Nick Thoman react after a men's 100-meter backstroke swimming heat Sunday.

A few other notes from London:

-- I have long loved tennis – both playing it and watching it – so Wimbledon was always on the bucket list for me. I’ve been watching it on TV since before that famous Borg-McEnroe tiebreaker, but I had never been to tennis’s most famous facility.

So I did Wimbledon Saturday, on the first day of the Olympic tennis tournament – albeit in a strange way.

Gone were the crisp whites, replaced by players wearing all sorts of colors to represent their homelands. Gone was much of the sedate atmosphere. Still standing were the small signs reading “Centre Court,” but they were usually dwarfed by enormous Olympic signage in the odd mauve/purple/magenta color that Great Britain chose to define these Games.

But it was still Wimbledon. Roger Federer, only 20 days removed from beating Andy Murray in the men’s single final of the Wimbledon tournament, looked graceful as he dispatched his first-round opponent in a tough three-setter.

-- American (and Greensboro native) John Isner – a huge Panther fan who is friends with Steve Smith and regularly follows the team overseas on The Observer’s website -- was a rare dose of good news on a mostly bad day for American tennis players. Isner won his first-round match in straight sets but he and Andy Roddick were quickly eliminated in men’s doubles.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Phelps shows his vulnerability

The expected rivalry between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps never really materialized in London Saturday, as Lochte whipped Phelps and the rest of the field by more than three seconds in the 400 individual medley to open the Olympic swim meet.

The biggest news, though, was Phelps finished fourth -- off the medal stand for the first time in his last 17 Olympic events.

Here's a sneak peek at my column from England:

LONDON – Michael Phelps showed his vulnerability in the very first race of the Olympic swim meet Saturday night, finishing fourth as U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte easily won the 400 individual medley to earn America its first gold medal of these Summer Olympics.

What was supposed to be a rivalry turned into a rout, with Lochte leading the field by about three body lengths when the race ended. Phelps, who nearly missed qualifying for the final, was never in real contention and was out-touched at the wall for third.

The moods of the two best male swimmers in the U.S. couldn’t have been more different afterward. “I’ve said this before – this is my year,” Lochte exulted.
“Frustrating,” Phelps said. “It was pretty upsetting. But the biggest thing now is trying to get past this and move forward. I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish a lot better than how we started.”

Brazil’s Thiago Pereira and Japan’s Kosuke Hagino separated Lochte and Phelps by finishing second and third, respectively. Phelps’ world record of 4:03.84 set in a high-tech swimsuit in the 2008 Olympics was not seriously threatened by Lochte (4:05.18), but Phelps was nearly six seconds off his pace from 2008. Lochte led almost wire-to-wire, winning by more than three seconds in what is generally considered swimming’s most grueling race.

Phelps called it “a crappy race” afterward while Lochte alternated between celebration and surprise. “When I touched the wall, I guess I was in shock,” he said. “I think I still am – that I finally won.”

As for not having Phelps with him on the medal stand, Lochte said: “Tell you what, it’s weird.”

More to come online and in Saturday's Observer.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A thrilling Opening Ceremony in London

This is a picture I took from my seat at the stadium after the torch was lit, with the fireworks going off.

I just finished writing my column for Saturday about the Opening Ceremony in London, which overall I thought to be pretty thrilling and surprisingly funny at times. It had its dull moments, sure -- who knew there were 19 countries that began with a "B" that would all be in the parade of athletes? -- but in general was quite a show.

Here's a preview of the first couple of paragraphs. The rest will be online in not too long and in the newspaper Saturday (SPOILER ALERT: Don't read this if you're watching NBC's tape-delayed broadcast of the ceremonies and don't want to know anything about it.)

LONDON – The 2012 Olympics officially began Friday night with a visual feast – a jaw-dropping, confounding, surreal and spectacular show of almost four hours that was its opening ceremony.

“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle spent $42 million trying to squeeze all of British history, pop music and culture into one evening, and for the most part his show was a resounding success even when it didn’t make a lot of sense.

It ended at 12:45 a.m. in London after seven young British athletes lit a torch that had been hidden in plain sight. Paul McCartney then wrapped it up with “Hey Jude,” letting the stadium joyously serenade itself with the “Na-na-na-na” chorus.

With inspired pre-filmed bits like the one with James Bond and the Queen (yes, the real Queen Elizabeth II, playing herself) to live action sequences where a horde of Mary Poppinses flew in on umbrellas to vanquish a group of nightmarish villains from children’s literature, this opening ceremony was rarely understated.

But that’s OK – they aren’t supposed to be. While in magnitude it was not to the scale of the overwhelming opening ceremony China showcased in Beijing four years ago, this lid-lifter did have something that one lacked: a sense of humor.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On USA's swimming viral video, Steve Smith's great gesture and the swimmer LeBron wants to have dinner with

Three quick thoughts as the clock nears midnight in London:

1) The USA Olympic swimmers had a cool idea to deal with some of their downtime -- they made a spoof of "Call Me Maybe." This one has a lot of potential to go viral, given the play NBC will undoubtedly give it. Plus, it's just well done, and for the screaming teenage types, it's got heartthrobs from both genders.

Be on the lookout in one of the scenes for Charlotte's Ricky Berens and Rebecca Soni, a longtime couple. They are about to kiss when broken up by another swimmer.

2) What a gesture by Steve Smith to pledge $100,000 to the survivors of the Aurora, Colo., shooting. If you've been around Smith for any length of time, you know he has a huge heart. He showed it again with this. Lots of athletes go serve turkeys for a day on Thanksgiving or whatever? But $100K?! And Smith has no connection with the victim or the Colorado area, either.

3) One last thing: Olympic swimmer and UVa (and Greenville, NC) product Lauren Perdue certainly is enjoying her first Olympics. She tweeted out Thursday night that LeBron James had asked her to dinner after the men's basketball team visited with the swimmers for awhile in the Olympic Village.

Planes, trains and double-decker buses in London

Double-decker buses look cute unless you step off the curb right in front of one, as I've done a couple of times already. Here's one I photographed from a safe distance near my hotel.

LONDON – Flying to London was easy. The rest of it is a little harder.

I arrived in London Wednesday on the one non-stop flight USAirways offers from Charlotte. It was a great flight. After that, the logistics have been a bit more challenging.

So far I’ve taken planes, trains, automobiles, the subway and several double-decker buses. London sprawls so much (it's a lot like New York with different accents) that you don’t get anywhere too fast. The best bet is to go below ground to use the “tube” (the subway) or the high-speed “javelin” train, which can get up to 140 mph.

While I’ve ridden several double-decker buses, I’ve almost gotten run over by several more. You just don’t realize how deeply ingrained it is to step off a sidewalk and look left first, like you do in America. This will get you plowed over in England, where they drive on the left and the double-decker buses always seem to be coming from the right.

-- Among the Olympians I’ve spotted here before their competition: French basketball player (and former Charlotte Bobcat) Boris Diaw. Diaw, who suddenly became a far better player when he joined the San Antonio Spurs for their playoff run, was walking through a subway station with some of his French teammates. His French team debuts Sunday against the U.S. in round-robin play (9:30 a.m. Eastern).

-- Have you ever seen a flying squirrel? You’re about to see two if you watch NBC’s coverage of the Olympics closely enough.

There are two different U.S. Olympians who have laid claim to the “Flying Squirrel” nickname – women’s gymnast Gabby Douglas (for her leaps) and Greco-Roman wrestler Ellis Coleman (for his signature move, which you can see here).

Although Douglas will get far more airtime, Coleman has embraced the nickname so thoroughly that he now has a pet flying squirrel, which he says costs him $500.

-- If you haven’t had a chance to check out The Observer’s coverage of the Olympics yet, I hope you will. We published a ton of preview stories today and you can see those as well as up-to-date coverage throughout the games at charlotteobserver.com/olympics.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You gotta love Kalil for so publicly predicting a Super Bowl victory for Panthers

Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that you can see here in which he out-and-out predicted the Panthers were going to win the Super Bowl this season.

I absolutely love that, for several reasons. First of all, Pro Bowl center Kalil is stepping out on a limb here in a very public way, issuing a call not just to the fans to support the team but also a reminder to the veteran players about what they better be doing in training camp.

I've heard many Panthers over the years more or less predict that the team was going to win the Super Bowl. It's a common story in every NFL training camp every year. It's natural to be optimistic, just like it's natural for every Olympian to think a gold medal is in their grasp right about now. The games haven't started yet. In the NFL, no one has lost a game in at least six months.

So naturally optimistic players like a Jon Beason or a Thomas Davis or a Muhsin Muhammad are always going to think their teams can run the table.

But to put it in a full-page ad? To put text with it, going back nearly 20 years to when Panther fans first financed the stadium with PSLs?

Kalil took this to a whole different level. This was the NFL center's version of Joe Namath sitting by the pool guaranteeing a Super Bowl III win, or Muhammad Ali spouting poetry to predict in which round he was going to knock out his opponent.

Also, another reason I love it: Full-page ads cost a lot of money. The newspaper can always use ad revenue -- that pays the majority of the salaries around here, including mine. Thanks, Ryan! Come back anytime!

Do I think the Panthers will actually win the Super Bowl this year? Well, no. But I think they have a shot, if the defense gets up to the offense's level of play in 2011, to be really good. And really good always gives you a chance.

Bottom line: This is a no-lose for Kalil. OK, if the Panthers go 6-10 again, he'll be very publicly wrong. But no one's going to say it was a "Kalil Jinx" that did the Panthers in.

And if he happens to nail it?

He'll be legendary.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Good riddance on Otah

The Carolina Panthers made a wise move today when they shipped offensive tackle Jeff Otah to the New York Jets for an undisclosed conditional draft choice.

Otah is gone? Good riddance. There are some players who look great coming off the team bus and end up being nothing much. Otah was one of those. (The opposite is also true -- there are guys who you wouldn't look twice at coming off a team bus if you didn't know who they were and they end up being incredible. Steve Smith is one of those).

At 6-6 and 330 pounds (at least), Otah could block out the sun when he was in your midst. I'm 6-foot-2, and Otah is the guy I feel smallest next to in the Panther locker room.

But he absolutely could not stay healthy. In the past two seasons, Otah has missed 28 of a possible 32 games due to knee problems. That is not a guy I'm going to trust to come back and guard Cam Newton's right side (the way he prefers to scramble) if I'm the Panthers.

When Otah played -- and he started 29 of a possible 64 games for the Panthers all told in four seasons -- he was decent. He would occasionally steamroll somebody and was better as a run-blocker. But I never thought he was nearly as good overall as left tackle Jordan Gross (who, like Otah, was a first-round pick but has turned out a whole lot better). And his work ethic was questionable as he attempted injury rehab.

I'm not saying it's Otah's fault he got hurt. Big guys' knees sometimes simply break down (Kris Jenkins was another example, although he had some great years for the Panthers before that happened).

So best to cut bait with Otah. Because of the injury problems, he was one of the Panthers' few misfires in recent years with No.1 draft picks (Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Jon Beason being some of the bull's-eyes).

As for the other trade the Panthers made Monday -- and weren't they busy! -- I can't honestly say I know a lot about WR Louis Murphy, who once was Newton's teammate at Florida (the Panthers gave up a late pick to get him). But adding some depth at wide receiver seems like an OK idea since it didn't cost much. Murphy has never had an enormous year, but has had a couple of nice ones. I think Brandon LaFell still ends up starting at the No.2 receiver alongside Smith, but if I were David Gettis or Armanti Edwards, I'd be a little worried right now.

Ultimately on Monday, the draft picks were pretty much a wash. The Panthers basically gave up Otah for Murphy and I'm fine with that deal.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Penn State must take down Paterno statue

Jenni Kahler, right, holds her daughter, Emma, 4, as they have a photo taken with the statue of Joe Paterno located outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., Friday July 20, 2012. (AP Photo)
There have been conflicting reports today about whether or not Penn State is going to take down the statue of Joe Paterno that, for now, still stands outside its football stadium. Apparently, the latest is that the decision has not been made as of yet.

It needs to be made, though, and soon. The statue needs to come down.

For all that Paterno didn't do to stop child molester Jerry Sandusky, that statue needs to go. It is no longer a reminder of all the good that Paterno did. It is a symbol of the Sandusky era, too. The fact that Paterno is called a "humanitarian" in the words that are linked with the statue can either make you sad or make you furious when you think about Sandusky's victims, but it certainly doesn't make you think of Paterno's charity work.

I won't go into a long argument here for the statue's removal, as every time I write anything about Sandusky I feel sick inside. But if you're in the mood to read such an argument, CBSSports columnist Gregg Doyel (a former Observer colleague) offers a good one here.

Gregg and I have disagreed on a number of sports issues over the years. But he's undeniably a gifted writer, and on this point we are in total agreement. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden has also opined that the statue should be removed (some Penn State students are apparently "guarding" it to make it harder to do so).

Bottom line: The statue needs to go. It doesn't need to be destroyed -- if the Paterno family wants it, let them have it. But it doesn't need to be in front of the Penn State football stadium, symbolizing an era that now turns people's stomachs.

(UPDATE: By order of Penn State's highest-ranking official, the statue was removed on Sunday, July 22nd, in the early morning and for now will be stowed in an undisclosed "secure location.")

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Cam, Ralph Lauren and my new comments policy

Hi, everyone. A couple of quick "Scott Says" updates:

1) My Cam Newton autograph column sparked quite an outcry last week, with mail, online polls and the comments that I read running about 50-50 as to whether Newton should have done a for-profit, $125-and-up autograph signing at SouthPark Mall. (Other NFL QBs do similar things and have for years, although usually not in their home market -- the issue was discussed following my column on a couple of ESPN talking-head shows and NFL radio).

Cam's signing went on as scheduled -- Joseph Person's story on the signing is here. As for the Panthers, the rookies report for camp on Monday, July 23rd, with the rest of the team following on July 27.

2) Ralph Lauren has done an about-face and will now start manufacturing U.S. Olympic uniforms in America -- but not until 2014. The company came under heavy criticism (check my blog item just below this one if you want to know more) from both political parties and many other pundits (including me) for having this year's uniforms made in China.

3) I have changed the "comments" policy for "Scott Says" so that I now will individually moderate and approve comments from readers, which is the way a number of Observer blogs already work.

I will still publish every negative comment I receive as long as it doesn't contain excessive profanity or things like that. This isn't to make every comment read "Oh, I totally agree with you, Scott" -- far from it.

However, in recent months self-policing hasn't worked -- I keep getting a few folks who post vicious, expletive-filled attacks that I just can't let get into the comments. Kids read these pages, too. The offensive comments kept irritating many regular readers who visit the blog for intelligent discussion and disagreement.

We're not going to be anonymous flame-throwers here; that's not what this blog is about. I do appreciate the 99 percent of you who never do that, and of course your comments (positive or negative) will still be approved by me at all times (although sometimes it will take me a few hours to get to a computer to do that, and I'm sorry in advance for any such delay). You can also email me directly at sfowler@charlotteobserver.com and I always answer those.

Friday, July 13, 2012

USA Olympic uniforms made in China?! That is wrong

It turns out the uniforms for Team USA's 530-member athlete delegation it will send to London for the Summer Olympics starting July 27 are made in China. Here's a story that explains the controversy in some detail and includes some angry words from U.S. politicians.

US Olympic Committee sponsor Ralph Lauren made the duds, and they apparently sport "Made in China" tags.

Now I understand outsourcing and I certainly am not a "Made in America" zealot, as I drive a Honda.

But seriously? The American Olympic team's uniforms weren't made in the USA?

Somebody at the USOC and at Ralph Lauren had to be really tone deaf not to think this was going to come back and bite them.

A USOC spokesman called the controversy "nonsense" on Twitter. I don't agree. My Dad worked for an American textile company for 24 years. So much of that work has been shipped overseas now, and the entire industry is struggling.

This was an unintentional slap in the face to the American textile industry, I imagine, but it's a slap in the face nonetheless. (Parts of the U.S. athletes' outfits have been manufactured out of the country before -- I remember in 2002 when the U.S. Winter Olympic team sported berets made by Roots, a Canadian company, and that was the hot item in all the souvenir stands).

As a gesture of courtesy, Ralph Lauren should offer to have the uniforms remade in the USA. At the very least, the company should make amends by adding something to the uniform that was very obviously made in the U.S.

The Chinese are likely to be America's biggest competition in the overall medal count at these Olympics. I covered the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, and that was a fantastic experience. It showed me in person how serious the Chinese are about sports.

The Chinese are a major international athletic force, and they will be trying to undress American athletes on the world stage.

They really don't need to be dressing us, too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why is Cam Newton signing autographs for $125 and up Saturday in Charlotte?

I wrote my column today about Newton signing autographs for Saturday at SouthPark Mall in Charlotte – for a fee that goes from $125 and up depending on what you want signed and what you want it to say.

Charging for autographs is a common practice in the sports world, but I still don’t like the idea of Newton doing it in Charlotte for a fee. He has already done three shows like this in Alabama and two others in New Jersey over the past year or so, but for some reason that doesn’t strike me the same way as having one in his backyard. (In the column, I also quote the man who is running this autograph show and Newton’s marketing agent for their perspective on why they believe this is a good thing).

Newton, of course, will continue to sign free autographs by the hundreds – the best chance to get him that way is at training camp in Spartanburg, where at the last camp he was often the last player off the field because he was signing so many things. The problem, of course, is even if Newton signs 100 autographs after every practice, the 101st person waiting is always miffed. There’s truly no way to satisfy everyone.

In my research about autographs, I found out a few things that didn’t fit in the column I thought I’d share with you.

-- I talked for quite awhile with Gary Takahashi, whose Hawaii-based company has Newton under a multi-year contract for autograph shows. His company will run this “for-profit” show at SouthPark.

Takahashi has about 20 elite athletes under similar contracts and is one of the industry leaders. He said Newton’s autograph costs more for fans to purchase than for some quarterbacks and less than others. “To put it in perspective,” Takahashi said, “he doesn't get paid as much [per autograph at a show] as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning. But he gets more than Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton.”

-- The best magazine story I believe that has ever been written on the practice of getting sports autographs was this one, by Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum in 2005. Here are just a couple of excerpts:

-- (From Sports Illustrated, 2005): People have been collecting signatures for centuries. In ancient China an autograph from an emperor was considered priceless, though selling an item bearing the signature was a crime. Somebody knew enough to save the signatures of William Shakespeare and John Donne, which are preserved in the British Library. In 1857 the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary that he had answered 70 autograph requests in a single day. The billionaire industrialist J.P. Morgan was an inveterate hunter of autographs, scouring Europe for the signatures of kings and queens and generals; he was particularly proud of acquiring Napoleon's. A 1939 Disney cartoon called The Autograph Hound shows Donald Duck running afoul of a security guard as he seeks signatures at a movie studio. Pancho Villa reportedly had a baseball autographed by the New York Giants.

-- In 1995, when linebacker Kevin Greene was a Pittsburgh Steeler (Scott’s note: this was before he became a Carolina Panther), he was stopped by a youngster seeking his autograph on a football after a preseason session at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Greene took the football and, in a variation of the little-used quick kick, punted it over a hill. The kid brought the ball back, and Greene promptly punted it away again. The father of one of the kid's friends complained in a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Greene was ripped by fans. He explained his actions by saying that the kid should have been more respectful, asking for an autograph instead of demanding it. Greene may have been correct, but two punts on the same set of downs seems a little extreme.

In any case, feel free to leave your comments about this issue below and Newton’s signing Saturday (more info on that here, if you want to go). But please keep the comments clean. I appreciate very much the 99 percent of you who do.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

London calling for Coach K and more thoughts on the Olympics

My column today is about Coach Mike Krzyzewski putting his legacy on the line to direct the U.S. Olympic team one more time.

As you may have noticed from my recent blog posts and stories, I'm gearing up to cover the Olympics for The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News and Observer. I leave for London in about three weeks (the opening ceremonies are July 27th).

My extensive coverage of the U.S. swim trials -- the swim team is where North Carolina will have its largest representation of athletes -- was part of that run-up (see the blog posts below this one -- eight swimmers with N.C. ties ended up making the U.S. team). I will also cover some men's basketball, some track and field and a variety of other things while in England.

One thing about covering the Olympics is that it's an inexact science. Literally hundreds of athletes will represent the U.S. My primary job will be to tell the stories of those with connections to the Carolinas. It's always possible that someone will slip through the cracks, though.

So if you know of an Olympic athlete (competing for the U.S. or for another country, like the J.C. Smith track athletes who will compete for Jamaica) who has a Carolina connection, please let me know by e-mailing me at sfowler@charlotteobserver.com. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Berens -- and Tarwater -- get surprising good news via Twitter

Charlotte swimmer Ricky Berens is one of the most active Olympic athletes on Twitter, so perhaps it's fitting that he got a really good bit of news via that social media on Monday. (And so did Davis Tarwater -- read on to find out about how he's going to have to "un-retire."

Michael Phelps announced via his coach, Bob Bowman, on Monday in Omaha that he would cut his Olympic program from eight possible events to seven to reduce his workload a bit in London, where the Summer Olympics start July 27th.

The event that the 14-time gold medalist Phelps dropped: the men's 200 freestyle. That means Berens, who finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200 -- good enough for the 4x200 relay, but not good enough to swim the race individually -- suddenly got another race on his own Olympic schedule.

Bowman put that news out on Twitter, where Berens quickly read it before anyone from USA Swimming had officially contacted him with the change in plans.

"WAIT WHAT!" Berens responded via his own tweet.

Bowman wrote Berens back shortly afterward on Twitter, saying "Happy Monday!"

Berens had already made two events at the U.S. Trials, but both were relays. "I guess I'm a relay swimmer," he said, a bit of disappointment in his voice, after he couldn't make the top two in either the 100 or 200 freestyle.

But now Berens will swim an individual event in London as well, which was his goal all along. Berens and former N.C. state star Cullen Jones will be the two busiest swimmers among the six swim Olympians with connections to the state, each swimming three events in London. Jones has been huge in the trials, finishing second in the 100 free and winning the 50 free.

The Phelps scratch also had wonderful repercussions for Davis Tarwater, the hard-luck SwimMAC swimmer who made three finals at the Olympic Trials, only to barely miss the Olympic team in every event.

Tarwater told me he was retired Sunday night after his last event. Surprise -- he's got to "un-retire" now. Phelps' scratch means one more swimmer also is added to the 4x200 relay, and that place goes to Tarwater, who was first alternate.

That gives N.C. seven Olympians -- four from SwimMAC -- heading into the final event.

And for Tarwater, this is huge. He has been so close so many times. And now, just when he was ready to retire at age 28, he gets one final meet:

The Olympics.