After the past sixteen days we have seen everything that is virtuous about sports in the global society. A great many other things have been seen along the way and naturally not all of them have been positive. I will not focus on the political implications (or at least try to) and I will limit the discussion of the downside of the games mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed this installment of the Summer Olympic Games. I believe our country’s athletes exemplified what is pure in the exaltation of athletic victory.
The Build Up
There was a great degree of trepidation as to how smoothly these games would run. The discussion of smog, the human rights issue and PEDs seemed as if they would but a damper on the games. The rumblings began with the protesting of the running of the Olympic torch. The lasting image that China used was the protesters attacking a paraplegic girl and the girl protecting the torch. She was hailed as a national hero. I don’t care what side of Tibet you hail from, physically going after a girl in a wheelchair for carrying an inanimate object is reprehensible. It’s a torch, not the keys to the Chinese military. The Chinese clearly had their act together when the Opening Ceremony began on the 8th. It’s hard to put into words the theatrical presentation of the Opening Ceremony and unless someone has seen it the description gets lost in translation. The enduring image was the towering Yao Ming walking side by side with a little boy who saved classmates in an earthquake that occurred in the Chinese countryside.
The pool in the Water Cube was built for speed and for all who watched inside it or on TV, it was built for pleasure. The pool was designed wider and deeper to decrease the water disturbance and decrease the times. Combined with the aerodynamic Speedo suits the world records did not stand a chance, even Janet Evans’s 19 year old 1500m Freestyle record was crushed. At the head of the excitement stood Michael Phelps, with his immense breakfast, training regiment, motivation, and physical attributes. In the early stages of his run, it seemed the only one who could come close to Phelps was the green line marking the world record pace, but even the line fell short. It was in the 4x100 meter relay that the drama began. The anchor leg by Jason Lezak should be remembered as one of the greatest Olympic performances of all time. His amazing comeback on the French prompted the now indelible image of Phelps celebrating in exaltation. It was commented that Phelps was rejoicing in the fact that his dream of 8 Olympic medals was still alive, but I think he was simply captured in the moment of half disbelief that Lezak caught Bernard and half team pride for winning the race just as everyone watching was.
Phelps was clearly the best, but the swims were taking a toll on him. In a situation where he and the Serbian Cavic have equal amount of rest Phelps would win easily but in this case Michael was on the tail end of the gauntlet of races. The half stroke he took proved to be the difference proving that even the best benefit from an amount of luck. In the end, Phelps accomplished something that no one else has in Olympic history. That in itself should be celebrated and appreciated for the phenomenal event that transpired. The rush of hyperbole came on faster than Phelps in the last 15 meters of a race. Suddenly it was a question of how Phelps stacked up against the history of not only his own sport but also the greats of other games. I am hesitant to crown him king of athletes and lord of the Olympics, but I do know I was rooting for him, and most definitely admire his performance.
The Young and the Senseless
Having an older sister that competed in gymnastics I am accustomed to watching the sport every Olympics. I am not ashamed to say I know who Bart Connor is and the origins of the Thomas flare. I was glued to the television when Kim Zimeskal heartbreakingly failed to win gold in Barcelona and when Kerri Strug hit the vault on the broken leg. That being said I was both inspired and disappointed in what happened in the women’s competition. The judging was inconsistent and quite favorable to the Chinese. The Americans were penalized far more harshly for mistakes than the host country. Many times the wait for the judges scoring brought the competition to a halt while they discussed over the phone the routines or watched them in slow motion on their monitors. The American team’s hopes fell when Alicia Sacramone fell off the beam and then on the floor. At 20 years old, this was likely Alicia’s last Olympics and it was aching to watch her after the stumble on the floor. Is there any worse feeling in sports than letting your team down?
Nastia Luken and Shawn Johnson redeemed the second place team finish with a great battle in the All-around which they continued in the Event finals. Some of the Chinese team members are not of age, I don’t care what you say its common sense. The Americans never made a case of this, and simply pressed on. It was great to see Shawn finally get a medal on the floor. In all the sports of the Olympic Games the athlete’s sacrifice, but particularly in gymnastics the training is brutal. Everyday spent in the gym, taking a pounding again and again all for one chance at a routine every four years. Underage and pre-menstrual jokes aside, the dedication and precision of Nastia and Shawn’s performances are more than admirable.
The suspect judging of course was prevalent in the indoor stadium. Alicia Sacramone lost out on a bronze medal in the vault to Chung Fei of China who missed so badly on her second vault she landed on her knees. Jonathan Horton completed a dazzling high bar routine in the Event finals and produced a better landing than his Chinese counterpart, yet had to take the silver. The Chinese crowd even booed his lower score when it was revealed. All being said, the American men took home the team Bronze with a team half filled with alternates and the American women took home more medals overall than the Chinese.
The Bobsled team has a lot to live up to
On the track, Usain Bolt put forth a performance on par with Phelps in the pool. It included breaking the 100 meter record while looking around the last 15, pushing in the 200 meters past Michael Johnson’s Atlanta record, and finally running behind Asafa Powell in the 4x100 relay rooting him on to another world record. Bolt was criticized by the IOC president and others for his celebrations after he won, but no one could deny his greatness. At only 22, he has a chance to become even more of a legend in London.
Elsewhere on the track, the USA team had both great successes and failures. The most heart wrenching of the latter was women’s hurdler Lolo Jones. With two hurdles to go in the finals, Jones caught the hurdle even though she miraculously stayed on her feet she finished out of the medals. At 26, it is unknown if she will be in there in London to try again. Watching the tears leak out of the eyes of the beautiful woman whom no one had wanted when she was young and finally found a loving foster home was like a shot to the gut. Yet despite the disappointment she still gave an interview and even managed a smile and congratulations for her competitors. The baton passing was errant to say the least in the 100 meter races but the 400 meter races went well for the Americans. Despite those that fell below expectations, the Americans came away with more medals than they ever have in an Olympic games. This included Decathlon winner Bryan Clay, one of the athletes that participated in a heightened drug testing program before and during the span of the games.
The Redeem team not only had a well conceived nickname, the team itself was well conceived. When Jerry Colangelo was given the reigns to USA Basketball, he made it a point to only bring on players that wanted to win the gold back after the debacle in Athens. I cannot think of another venture in which 12 multimillionaires came together and played so selflessly for each other and their country. They were impressive early and their play was spectacular at times, but in the final against Spain their determination rose above all else. As Catfish said in a text he sent me, “The rumors of Dwayne Wade’s demise were exaggerated.” Wade came through in every single game with a big performance including a 9-12 game in the finals. As great as this win is and should be celebrated, can the USA team being this energy and attitude in every installment of the Olympic Games?
There are stories too many to count but those are the moments that stuck out in my mind. Just today seeing Hugh McCutcheon taking a moment for himself in the tunnel after his men’s volleyball team won gold after the tragic death of his father-in-law. In the spirit of competition and emotion these games were tantamount to any we have seen. It is hard to fathom what goes through the mind of any of the American athletes that won gold and stands on the podium hearing the national anthem. Perhaps they think of their country and what is good about what it means to be American. Maybe their thoughts fall on all the training, sacrifice and hard work that has led to this moment. Or maybe it is something as simple as the fact that they can’t wait to get back to the Olympic village and participate in the “activities” that occur after competition. For most of the athletes, it is back to a life of anonymity, and for those who did not come home with hardware, it is an even more thankless return home. I do not wish to place these athletes on an unworthy pedestal; I merely recognize and appreciate what these men and women stand for, and what they go through. Even now I look forward to the next Olympics, where this unique congregation of sport meets again.