Monday, February 5, 2018

What Price Glory?

With the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics about to commence in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this is as good a time as any to talk about the monetization of athletes whose triumphs can attract richly rewarding corporate sponsorships. In his recent article in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter entitled "Jock Talk: Putting the 'Flame' in the Olympic Flame," sports columnist Roger Brigham noted that skier Gus Kenworthy "will be bringing something else to Pyeongchang that has been rare for gay athletes: endorsements. Since coming out, Kenworthy has been signed by Visa, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Deloitte, and 24 Hour Fitness, and has made a commercial for Head and Shoulders shampoo that features a rainbow flag."

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has won the bid to host the 2022 Gay Games (the first time the Gay Games will be held in Asia). With social media at their fingertips, prize-winning athletes no longer have to rely solely on publicists (or the Devil) to keep feeding the flames of fame for them.

One of the most successful young athletes at building a personal brand is British diving champion Tom Daley. whose victories in 10-meter platform events include the 2009 and 2017 FINA World Championships; 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 British Championships; 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2016 European Championship, as well as the bronze medal in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. His medals for synchronized diving events include third place in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, second place in the 2016 European Championships, and first place in the 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2016 British Championships.

An openly gay athlete, Daley married Oscar-winning American screenwriter, director, producer, and activist (Big Love, Milk, J. Edgar, When We Rise) Dustin Lance Black on May 6, 2017. Both men rose to fame during the rise of social media and have worked assiduously to build and diversify Tom's brand on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. In addition to showcasing his interests in photography, videography, and cooking, Daley has written two books (2012's My Story and 2016's Tom’s Daily Plan: Over 80 Fuss-free Recipes For a Happier, Healthier You. All Day, Every Day).

Over the years, Daley has become quite adept at using his multiple social media platforms to keep fans abreast of his personal life, professional training, and travel to competitive sports events with videos that offer tips on workout techniques and nutrition.

Whether sharing his relationship with his husband or having fun in the kitchen with friends and relatives, Daley's good humor and playful, puppy-like personality have built a loyal following of more than half a million YouTube subscribers who show up for book signings and (with electronic subscriptions just a click away) happily follow Tom's adventures throughout the year.

Ironically, two Bay area cultural events have a strong tie-in to the topic of a professional athlete's marketable shelf life and what happens when athletes decide to step away from the pressures and responsibilities of hawking someone else's brand.

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Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting the Bay area premiere of Lucas Hnath's controversial Obie Award-winning play, Red Speedo. Directed by Markus Potter on a stark unit set designed by Dipu Gupta, Hnath's play crams a lot of emotional conflict into its starkly staged 80 minutes.

The play's protagonist is Ray (Max Carpenter), a young swimmer who aspires to be chosen for the Olympic swim team. Having recently acquired an impressive full-body length dragon tattoo, Ray spends a good part of the evening quietly munching on baby carrots while struggling to assert himself against the dominant personalities of his coach (Michael J. Asberry) and his older brother, Peter (Gabriel Marin).

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Gabriel Marin (Peter) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As the deadline approaches for Ray to qualify as an Olympic athlete, a scandal threatens to erupt when performance-enhancing drugs are discovered in the locker room refrigerator at the pool where Ray's team meets for swim practice. Not only is the coach concerned about reporting the presence of drugs to his bosses, it seems as if a swimmer named Tad is being targeted as the likely user -- until Ray confesses that the drugs are his and his alone.

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Gabriel Marin (Peter) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ray's revelation throws Peter into a frenzy. An aggressive, fast-talking attorney who hopes to cash in on his kid brother's potential fame, Peter has been pouring all his energy into getting an endorsement from Speedo and setting up other potentially lucrative deals. When Ray explains why he started using drugs to boost his performance, Peter is less than thrilled to learn that it was at the suggestion of Ray's ex-girlfriend, Lydia (Rosie Hallett).

Rosie Hallett (Lydia) and Max Carpenter (Ray) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Part of the conflict in Hnath's drama is that Peter despises Lydia and went out of his way to make sure that she lost her professional license as a sports therapist. Ray, however, misses her and considers Lydia to be the one person who has ever truly been kind to him. Although his coach has always worked to mold Ray (who handsomely embodies the stereotype of a dumb jock) into a competitive swimmer and his brother has always tried to make things happen for Ray, Lydia is the only person in the swimmer's life who has not treated him as a piece of meat or the goose that might start to lay golden eggs.

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Michael J. Asberry (Coach)
in a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Hnath's swimmer knows he's a lunk head with no skills other than swimming. Easily manipulated by people who are smarter than him, Ray nevertheless is able to comprehend that others are desperate to cash in on his earning potential regardless of the risks that might result from their decisions. Through a curious plot twist, Ray discovers that he may not have needed the performance boosters to make it across the finish line ahead of his competitors. However, once he has proven that point to himself, he also realizes that he's tired of winning and would just as soon remain anonymous -- even if it means a lifetime of getting fired from meaningless jobs (which would sabotage all of his brother's and coach's efforts on his behalf).

Intensely directed by Markus Potter, Center Rep's production features costumes by Christina Dinkel, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and sound by Cliff Caruthers. It would be easy to think of Ray as mere eye candy, but Max Carpenter brings a poignant level of vulnerability to the carrot-chewing muscular hunk who still clenches his fists like a little boy when the adults in the room argue above and around him. While Rosie Hallett and Michael J. Asberry make strong contributions in supporting roles, Gabriel Marin delivers an astonishing bravura performance as Peter in a fully-developed tour de force which leaves the audience convinced that, even if the fast-talking Peter loses his license to practice law, he will be able to survive as a used car salesman.

Max Carpenter (Ray) in a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Red Speedo continue through February 24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts (click here for tickets).

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The 1960s are known for many things (the Vietnam War, the Stonewall Riots, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the rise of the counterculture and the birth of two water-centric film genres: cheesy beach party movies that featured Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and jaw-dropping documentaries about surfing. I have never surfed a wave in my life, but can still remember how thrilled I was after seeing Bruce Brown's first surfing documentary (1964's The Endless Summer), which was shot along the beaches of Australia, Hawaii, islands of the South Pacific, and the west coast of Africa.

Numerous surfing films have followed in its wake. Whether one prefers 2003's Step Into Liquid (which featured the beaches of Vietnam, Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline, and Cortes Bank off the coast of Southern California) or 2004's Blue Horizon, the sight of intrepid surfers risking their lives against the ocean's power never loses its ability to shock and awe viewers.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

What happens if a surfing documentary doesn't include a superstar surfer like Laird Hamilton or any of the sport's younger hotshots? What if the big waves are not located near some tropical island but off the forbidding west coast of Ireland near Lahinch in County Clare? Recently screened at the 2018 SFIndieFest, Ross Whitaker's new documentary, Between Land and Sea, follows a year in this tiny surfing spot in the North Atlantic where the water and weather are cold, the waves are formidable, and in order to get to the beach, one must often carry a surfboard down a steep, winding trail along the side of the imposing Cliffs of Moher.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

Unlike surfing documentaries which concentrate on young surfers who follow big waves from one popular surfing spot to another as they travel around the world, Between Land and Sea is about older surfers who have abandoned the chase after championship titles and corporate sponsorships and opted instead to build a life in which surfing is secondary to family responsibilities.
  • Fergal Smith is a farmer who acknowledges that he's getting too old to hope for celebrity endorsements. After losing his lease as a tenant farmer, he and his wife are seen building a yurt and trying to work a new patch of land so that they can build a vegetable farm which will sustain their lifestyle.
  • Another man is running a tourism-oriented business in which he rents wetsuits to tourists who come to town for surfing lessons taught by local coaches.
  • A local celebrity is a 60-year-old man who does a yearly charity swim.
  • Another man is now in his 40s and hopes to return to surfing after having raised several children and found Jesus.
A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

Unlike the warm and friendly waters of the Pacific Ocean, the North Atlantic produces a great deal of angry surf that breaks up on rocks, rather than sandy beaches. Whitaker's documentary follows a group of surfers over the course of a year as they enjoy the summer waves but struggle to stay afloat financially during the winter months.

What sets this film apart from so many others is a combination of the steep topography (there are frequent shots of the stone ruin of the Moher Tower, a watchtower atop Hag's Head) and the extensive of use of drone photography to capture some stunning shots of ocean swells as they head toward shore. Despite a cameo appearance by Hawaiian surfing legend Shane Dorian, the pulse of this film has a lot less to do with any kind of macho sports ethos than it does with the close relationships between surfers living in a small seaside community that depends on tourism to strengthen its economy.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

With some stunning camera work and editing by Andrew Hearne, Between Land and Sea is far from the standard surfing documentary. Although it's often hard to understand some of the thicker Irish accents in the film, Michael Fleming's subdued musical score has a unique charm. Here's the trailer:

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