Olympic Performance & the Four Year Interval

“They’re designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years, they might develop their own emotional responses: hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail-safe device.” (Police chief)
“Which is what?” (Deckard)
“Four year life span.” (Police chief)
Blade Runner

Four years is a long time. In Blade Runner, it was the entire lifetime for Replicants. Four years is an entire high school experience. Think about the different person you became between freshman and senior years; between entering and exiting college. What about how different you felt physically four years ago? How about the differences between when you were 20 and 24? 28? 32? The difference in physical ability and experience can feel like nearly a lifetime, and the difference between when you were clueless and when you knew better can make you a different person.

That interval drives competitive tension in the Olympics, continuously pitting rookies against the veterans, the ones who have had to wait that four year lifetime to return. The phenoms may not yet have a target on their backs  and may not have the pressure of a Sports Illustrated cover to live up to or the hopes of a nation, but they also may not know how to handle the normal butterflies of competition on this biggest world stage. Rookie nerves play into the misjudgment and errors can occur in that closing killer minute when the veteran zooms past in the bike race, leans forward to touch the wall first, or feints right and goes left to score.

Still, the lack of preconceptions – not knowing what it’s like to lose and have to hear about it for four years – allows the youngling to take risks, to apply the steely-eyed gaze you expect from someone older, or to bounce with the extra energy that says winning is fun. They bring that extra zeal with goofy grins and a shrug whether they slip up or perform perfectly, often with an “I have no idea how I did that” gaze.

The veterans know how to get past the butterflies. Unless they failed last time and have had those six hours a day workout sessions for 1400 days to chew over it. If they medaled, they may be addicted to the idea of repeating the moment. If they didn’t, they want redemption.  They’ve had to rest, rehab, redo, and recommit all over again, just to be there.  At the Olympics, this moment between the first timer and the defending champion will play out repeatedly and make every competition interesting, regardless of the sport.


This dynamic was front and center in the very first competition in Rio, the women’s 10m air rifle. The three finalists included two from China, a country which has won 49 medals in the past 8 Olympics. Shooting in China is, arguably, what swimming is to the US. Medal winning breeds good facilities, healthy competition, national pride, and more medals. There they were in the finals, Yu Siling and Du Li, the champions from London and Beijing.

And here was 19 year old Virginia Thrasher, a West Virginia University sophomore absolutely off the radar, shooting near the bulls-eye, round after round.  As Yu took the bronze, she had the veteran’s grace in a wave to the crowd, but her face seemed to show the disappointments of the billion people that she would have to face back home. Meanwhile, Thrasher was all giggles and shrugs in her first TV interview. All I could think was, please let her be as genuine as she seems and please don’t let her be ruined by the tsunami of publicity that is about to rain down on her head.  Will she return in four years to Tokyo? She will think differently about it, if she does.

He needed his best dive
This four year interval also plays out in cycles.  In 1976, Klaus Dibiasi had won two previous gold medals in the 10 meter platform (a silver in the Olympics before that when he was a teenager). In Montreal, he was chased in his quest for a third gold by a sixteen year old upstart, a kid whose parents started him diving to keep him out of trouble and to help his asthma, a phenom named Greg Louganis. The competition came down to the last dive, and Klaus needed his best to beat Louganis, a front 3.5 somersault.

The past met the future in this event and the past won.

20160810 dibiasi gettimages

Louganis was at the top of his game in the diving world after that. As the 1980 Olympics approached, he expected to realize his dream of winning. But the Olympics were in Moscow, and geopolitics intervened when the US boycotted. A mini-generation of athletes had to make that hard choice to stay in shape, redo, recommit, and wait for 1984.  Waiting paid off, and he was thrilled to win gold in both diving events in 1984 at home in Los Angeles. Maybe because he had to work so hard that extra four years, he continued to dive and dive well. He was the first diver to score a perfect 10; the first diver to break the 700 point mark. He set his sights again on Seoul 1988. But the Chinese had entered the Olympics and also set their sights on diving; Seoul was the beginning of their dominance in diving, that lasts to this day.

20160810 louganis.jpg

Xiong Ni was fourteen years old, challenging Louganis in the 10 meter platform as Greg had challenged Dibiasi twelve years earlier. To make things worse, Louganis had hit his head on the springboard competing in the qualifying round. Unbeknownst to the world, he had been diagnosed as HIV positive and had kept it secret to avoid being labelled a pariah. As he bled into the water, he knew he would have to tell the judges and risk the news getting to the tabloids. More burdens to carry, as he started the 10 meter competition. And here was young Xiong, chasing him dive after dive. In an eerie mirror of events, the way the world likes to play things out, Louganis beat Xiong with his last dive, his best dive, the reverse 3.5 tuck, the so-called “Dive of Death.” (Xiong himself would go on to win three more medals in another two Games, the cycle repeating itself.)

She competed with my Dad
Then there is Oksana Chusovitina, who competed on the vault in London. And in Beijing. In Athens. In Sydney. In Atlanta. In Barcelona. And in a record-setting seventh time, in Rio. She competed originally with the Unified team in 1992, and then kept going. In 2012, her adolescent son had been diagnosed with leukemia, so she moved to Germany to compete, raising money with her gymnastics to pay for his treatment. In 2008, at the age of 33, she won a silver medal on the vault, joining competitors half her age. Nastia Liukin, the NBC commentator who won the all-round gold in 2008, is the daughter of Russian gymnast Valeri Liukin, a champion in his own rate in the 1980s. As she said, “to put this in perspective, [Oksana] competed with my dad.”

20160810 chusovitina thesuncouk

Gymnastics used to be a sport for women in their twenties. The Russian women in the 1960s dominated the sport with the grace of dancers, a reflection of their strong ballet heritage. But an innovator came along in 1972; a young woman who was a pixie compared with the acrobatic sirens on her team. Olga Korbut hopped around the floor, the beam, and the parallel bars – literally standing on the bars – as if it were a playground. Even though she didn’t win the gold, she changed the sport, as after that, young athletic routines came into favor, easier to complete for a teenager not yet fully grown. Olga herself, returning in 1976, was no longer the sprite.  Another fourteen year old, Nadia Comaneci, took the limelight. This dynamic played itself over until 1992, when Svetlana Boginskaya returned to lead the Unified team to a second gold and showed that it was still possible in a structure that favored the young, for a veteran to repeat. Chusovitina followed in the model, repeating success in the vault an unheard of seven times. Her coach in Rio as she vaulted for the Uzbekhistan — none other than Boginskaya herself.

Battle of the Tropes: Cinderella vs. One Last Chance
People tend to favor the underdog in this dynamic.  We often see ourselves as us against a world full of barriers and challenges, Goliaths we have to battle every day. Naturally, we like to root for the little guy. We love to root for the Rulon Gardners of the world, the Wyoming farmboy who defeated the unbeatable. Gardner beat Alexander Karelin in Greco-Roman wrestling in Sydney 2000, when Karelin hadn’t lost a match in thirteen years.  But let’s just for a minute take Karelin’s point of view.

20160810 karelin sportsillustrated

How much effort does it take to stay at your best for thirteen years? To be the guy that everyone wants to beat?  It’s one thing for the Yankees or Patriots, teams that can create an infrastructure that allows talent to move in and out over the years, but one guy? How long could you do it? How many times would you, like Chusovitina, put the leotard back on? Like Dara Torres or Michael Phelps get back in the pool for another set, another three hours of swim practice (five Olympics)? How about in a sport not as well known–Al Oerter (4 golds in discus). Or a sport and country not well known  – Mark Todd (New Zealand equestrian rider in his eighth Games).

Maybe it takes being old enough to appreciate those still at it long past their rivals – to be Usain or Serena and still be at the top of your game.  Rulon failed trying to succeed at the next Olympics, as have many others. No knock on him, as he will always be Olympic champion. But every time someone is upended, the standard of excellence maintained by those who can repeat becomes that much more apparent.

Oksana may just try to qualify for Tokyo. I really hope she does.

One last note: Putting the finishing touches on this entry, I flicked onto fencing. There it was exactly: Hungary’s Geza Imre, a medalist from 1996, battling Korea’s Sangyoung Park, half his age. See for yourself — the men’s epee gold medal match was epic. That’s the Olympics!


2 Replies to “Olympic Performance & the Four Year Interval”

Leave a Reply