x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Not much sport in US leaves many bored on the Fourth of July

Apart from Wimbledon and baseball, there was little that was captivating on American television, including a hot-dog eating contest, on holiday weekends.

Fireworks at ballparks, such as this one in Los Angeles, draw crowds on the Fourth of July.
Fireworks at ballparks, such as this one in Los Angeles, draw crowds on the Fourth of July.

In the United States, holiday weekends and sport go together like strawberries and cream.

The signature dish at Wimbledon is consumed by the wish-we-were-there, while watching on the television our fellow Americans bow out early and whoever scores a seat in the Royal Box bow to the nobility.

That many of us are drawn to breakfast-time tennis staged more than 5,000 kilometres from our shores, on the Fourth of July break when we celebrate our independence from the very nation that hosts it, might seem odd.

Not really. We appreciate the relative purity of Wimbledon, with its minimal marketing intrusion. (As opposed to a Fourth of July event on our soil, the Nascar race once properly called the Firecracker 400 but whose name sadly has been co-opted by a soft-drinks firm.)

Besides, the holiday has granted us extra leisure hours to while away, and our sports calendar is light at this time of year. There is no American football and no basketball, professional or college. (Maybe no professional for quite a while, with the locked out NFL and the NBA simultaneously closed for business for the first time ever.)

So we grab the remote control and click to find overseas happenings. Wimbledon has little viewing competition, except for football and the Tour de France, which many Americans dismiss as the minor leagues with the retirement of Lance Armstrong.

The one home-grown sport we fall back on during the Independence Day interlude is baseball. The holiday signals a special juncture in the eternal season.

Until the Fourth of July, each game was enjoyed solely on its own merits, with the post-season largely an afterthought. There was no need to get overwrought about your team's play-off chances - unless your team is the Houston Astros.

From here on, we tend to check the standings before the box scores. So do team executives, who must decide this month whether they are buyers or sellers of players to gear up for the play-offs or shut down for the season.

What better way to announce the transition than eardrum-splitting fireworks displays, which lit up the sky on Monday night in ballparks around the league.

These games increasingly are becoming the go-to place for fans of fireworks as their communities cancel publicly funded shows for lack of finance. Others pulled the plug - or extinguished the match - as a result of drought conditions that created a potential fire hazard.

How fortunate that no game ran too deep into the night because of weather delays, extra innings or player mistakes that fouled up the baseball-fireworks double header.

Nothing like in Atlanta on July 4 (and 5) in 1985. The Braves and the Mets slogged through 19 innings, stretched out further by rain, and New York won on a strikeout at 3.55am. The show must go on, the Braves management decided, and the first of many fuses was lit six minutes later.

The noise from the stadium generated a torrent of emergency phone calls from residents who feared their town was being bombed or under siege. No longer will fireworks provide the dawn's early light in Atlanta.

Even with baseball, Americans have grown desperate for athletic action on the holiday weekend. The ESPN network, arbiter of all things sports, allotted an hour of programming on Monday to a freak show that has capitalised on another Fourth of July staple.

A sausage between buns. This is only fitting: an event that rewards gluttony has caught on in a country where obesity is a raging concern.

If you missed Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Contest, count your blessings. A chap named Joey Chestnut, who somehow weighs just 218 pounds (98kgs), gulped down 62 dogs in 10 minutes for his fifth successive Nathan's title.

What's next? Who can devour the most strawberries and cream at Wimbledon?

Wait, it gets worse. An actual organisation called Major League Eating (MLE), which licenses the professional eaters, punishes its members much like the NFL and NBA do.

Takeru Kobayashi was excluded from Monday's competition after a contract dispute last year incited him to crash the awards stage.

Wait, it gets even worse. This year, a women's division was introduced, which means no gender is spared anymore.

Monday was "The Twilight Zone" revisited as we flipped between television sport channels and websites, learning about Chestnut's winning "strategy" of soaking the buns to make them more chewable.

Yuck. Any chance of an MLE lockout? Like, permanently?

Gratefully, our next holiday break, which recognises Labour Day on the opening weekend of September, coincides with the cusp of the American football season and with baseball's races gathering speed.

Compared to the holiday just passed, our sports plate should be full. Not as full, though, as Chestnut's stomach.