A Scandinavian ski fest in the City of Lakes

Under Lake Street BridgeIt just didn’t get any more Scandinavian here in Minnesota than during this weekend in Minneapolis, at the City of Lake Loppet Festival – the urban cross country ski festival — with perfect winter weather, clear blue skies, a warming sun, deep snow, and with over 10,000 cross country skiers of all ages on perfectly groomed trails racing through the city, from park to park, from lake to lake, to the welcoming finish line at Lake Calhoun.

There, among all the spectators, former long-time Minneapolis mayor R.T Rybak and one of the founders of this over decade old tradition applauded the arrivals, whether they had just completed 10 kilometers or a marathon at 42 kilometers. Rybak, himself, started off the Luminary Loppet (by the way, “Loppet” is Swedish and means the race) on Saturday night on trails lightened by hundreds, if not thousands, of ice lanterns. The Luminary Loppet was sold out — 7,000 participants — one of 21 events, which included dog sledding, a snow sculpture contest, ice-bike racing, and more.

All funds from all the racing fees go to the non-profit Loppet Foundation’s youth activities, encouraging skiing and other outdoor activities among, so far, 6,500 children in the North Minneapolis schools.The Loppet Foundation

Luminary LoppetThe night was cold and all the stars were out night during the Luminary Loppet with ice lanterns showing the way as the thousands of skiers went around the lake, stopping now and then to taste the hot chocolate distributed by hundreds of volunteers by the warming bonfires on the frozen  Lake of the Isles.

It was all pretty special, especially for a Swede who grew up skiing in the old country and whose father lived and loved this sport more than anything — the best form of exercise in the world, he used to say.

Finish Line in City of Lakes LoppetI remember going with him to Swedish cross country championships and the World Championships in Falun way back in 1954, when it was minus 20 (Celsius) and a skier named Vladimir Kusin from the Soviet Union won two gold medals. My father skied until he was almost 90 years old, and my older brother successfully finished the classic 90 kilometer long Vasaloppet in Mora in Dalarna, the mecca of Swedish cross country skiing.

They would have loved this past weekend in Minneapolis just as much as I did. I only regret I didn’t bring my skis. Next year, maybe!

Advertisements

For Pittsburgh, a new future without steel

On the road again…

…and once again to Pittsburgh, the old steel city among the green hills of western Pennsylvania, where old friends live in a city of optimism and hope.

From Mount Washington, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers come together and become the Ohio River, the view of downtown Pittsburgh from the steep mountain as dramatic as in any other American city. Below, some twenty bridges in all directions cross the rivers between the city’s many neighborhoods. Among the skyscrapers downtown are some of America’s finest buildings, from the days of Carnegie, Heinz, and Mellon to modern masterpieces by Philip Johnson and others, and to native sons Andy Warhol’s and August Wilson’s museum and cultural center, respectively.

And across the rivers lie the splendid ballparks for the Steelers and the Pirates, important landmark in a city of passionate sports fans.

Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s south side reminds me of Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s old hippie neighborhood, with its galleries, rock clubs and small shops. Old mixes with new, former philosophy professor Edward Gelblum’s lovely old bookstore “City Books” with young Jake Nickman’s “Buddy’s Brew on Carson” – the finest of beer stores.

Coming into the city, along Monongahela River in Mon Valley, where the steel mills lie as giant monuments to a bygone era, side by side, mile after mile, in the small towns of McKeesport, Braddock, and Homestead, with furnaces long since cold and chimneys without smoke, the optimism and sense of hope might be a bit hard to understand. At its peak, the steel mills employed well over 100,000 workers, but in the crisis of the 70s and 80s, most of them lost their jobs, and Pittsburgh’s steel industry is only a fraction of what once was.

Today, Pittsburgh is the prime example that the old industrial cities in the “Rust Belt” can come back. But the recovery is based on something completely different than the steel, on distinguished universities and hospitals – biotech, green technology, health care, finance, and research. Today, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) logo is seen on top of what once was U.S. Steel’s 64-story headquarters, and with its 50,000 employees, the university hospital is western Pennsylvania’s largest employer.

It’s a city of history and character, and of excitement. I will return, again.

A glorious evening of big time soccer

I went to a big time soccer game last night, of which there are not, alas, many on a regular basis in America. I was there, at FedEx Field where the Washington Redskins usually rule, with 67,000 other people, including an American friend, who had not seen much soccer before last night, but who came home a fan.

How could he not be? The evening was soft, the atmosphere exciting, joyous and friendly. In the stands were Americans, Brazilians, Latinos, soccer moms and soccer dads with their sons and daughters, coaches with their young players. In 90 minutes, it was all done — not an eternally long, and constantly interrupted game, like in baseball or American football.

Yes, Brazil beat the United States, 4 -1, what else is new? Brazil is just the best, and the American side was never close to winning. It seemed, in fact, that in spite of all their big game experience with the national team around the world, and with their clubs in Britain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Holland, the Americans were intimidated by their opponents, at least in the first half. They lacked resoluteness, speed, toughness, even energy.

But it was a glorious evening anyway, a big night for American soccer. As this sport continues to grow in this country, I have no doubt that the United States will be a true power house in the world’s biggest sport.

Want to read more? Here is Sam Borden’s excellent piece in today’s New York Times.

Go Caps — Go Sweden!

Tonight, the National Hockey League’s playoff for the Stanley Cup starts for me, with my home team, the Washington Capitals, facing the Boston Bruins in Boston.

“Go Caps!” But I also want to add: “Go Sweden!”

Like millions of NHL fans around the world, I have two loyalties: the team itself and those team members from my home country. In my case, they are Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, two of a total of 59 Swedes all around the NHL — more, even, than the Russians (42), Czechs (40), Finns (21), Slovaks (10) and the handful of German speakers.

Yes, the Canadians and the Americans still dominate – you only hear two national anthems before each game – but the internationalization of the National Hockey League is a fact and in full view on its website, the only truly multilingual site of any major sport, with eight language versions: English, French, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Czech, Slovak, and German.

The Major League Baseball website has only three foreign languages, Spanish, Japanese and Korean, while the National Basketball Association, with its huge international following and all the players from Europe, Latin America, and Asia, is only in English.

Now, Sweden has only one player in the NBA, Jonas Jerebko of the Detroit Pistons, so I can understand the lack of a Swedish language site, but come on…Spanish, Chinese, Serbian, Croatian, Russian, Turkish, German.

We all really wish our country men to do well, so now you understand: Go Caps — Go Sweden!

Boston, beware…

Klinsmann takes over U.S. soccer team

Tonight is friendly game of soccer, but it’s not any friendly, and maybe it won’t be very friendly … that is at least what the 82,000 in sold-out FedEx Field just outside Washington DC are hoping.

Barcelona against Manchester United. The world’s two soccer clubs meet again after the final of the Champions League in May, when Barcelona was clearly the superior team. Maybe Manchester is thirsting for revenge, and perhaps there is a chance now when Lionel Messi — “The Boy Genius” — still has the summer off after a busy international match schedule.

The sold-out FedEx Field underscores the huge business interests of both clubs here in the United States, where they have millions of fans which they want to retain and build upon, as soccer continues to grow in interest and importance even though American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey all are still more popular.

The big soccer news here is otherwise that former German star player and coach, Juergen Klinsmann, has been put in charge of the U.S. national soccer team. He is taking over from Bob Bradley, who was fired last week after two big disappointments: the U.S. loss to Ghana in last year’s World Cup and this year’s loss in the Gold Cup final against Mexico by 2-4, after leading 2-0.

America’s soccer federation has tried several times before to land the now 47-year-old Klinsmann, who lives in Southern California and is married to an American. George Vecsey gives a good insight in today’s New York Times as to what challenges Klinsmann will be facing in his new job.

 

New York Times on “Boy Genius” — best in the world

We all know that the international version of football, which Americans call soccer, is steadily gaining popularity in America, not least women’s soccer, where the U.S. has been one of the top teams for many years — I still recall the wonderful experience from the World Cup finals in Los Angeles in 1999 with 100,000 spectators all around me in the Rose Bowl, watching the U.S. defeated China after penalty kicks.

But it seems that it is only then, every four years with the World Cup, that America  wakes up and realizes that something big is happening, something that the rest of the world follows intently and passionately.  Major League Soccer (MLS) has pretty good crowds at the games, but true passion is limited to a rather narrow audience, often to be found among the large immigrant communities from Latin America, Europe or Africa.

The current playoffs in basketball (NBA) and ice hockey (NHL) as well as the first months of the baseball season completely dominate the sports coverage.

Huge tournaments, like the European Champions League, is attracting very little interest. The final is played on Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London between Barcelona of Spain and Manchester United of England, and hundreds of millions of people, maybe one billion or even more, will watch the game, all over the world.

Therefore, today’s New York Times should be noted. Better late than never for an American audience to read about this great athleete! The paper’s sports section contains three pages on the “Boy Genius” – Lionel Messi — from Barcelona and Argentina. If you are a follower of soccer, or if you just want to catch up and get ready for Saturday’s game, you should read this article about this fantastic little soccer player – best in the world.  Enjoy!