The Buffering and Battering (Day 6, Tokyo)

The U.S. and Japan mixed it up in women’s rugby, a demonstration of “Rugged Grace.” Photo by Reuters.

The Olympics have always been a gauntlet for athletes. The physical competition is hard enough. But they also have to contend with the expectations from their country, intrusive examination from the media, and the obnoxious assumptions made by–well, by us. It’s not new. It’s not right that humans are used as a brand for a country, or as symbols. I have a modest proposal toward that end. And, if you’re not keen on my idea, you might at least consider that there is some good arising from the “stress and strain of free competition.” Change does emerge from these battles. It takes time.

Same Old, Same Old

An awful lot of people have decided they know exactly what’s best for these talented individuals. Media feeds are replete with opinions about whether He Did or She Should or How it Proves one thing or another. The coin of the realm these days is to pick apart the decision of Simone Biles to remove herself from the team and individual all-around gymnastics competition. Most understand that part of her decision was that the tournament had grown far bigger than flying off a vault. Biles herself noted that she hadn’t quite realized what it would mean to be “the face of the Olympics.” Not the face of gymnastics, or even team USA. But NBC had been selling the entire Games with Biles’ giant photo superimposed over all its coverage.

Massive, over-hyped expectations aren’t new. Remember Matt Biondi? Biondi was an outstanding swimmer who competed in Seoul, in 1988, midway between seven-time-gold-medalist Mark Spitz and Crazy Arms Phelps. Biondi had a chance to equal Spitz’s record, as he was entered in seven races. Naturally, that was the story, and when he lost a close butterfly race to Anthony Nesty of Suriname, the story was the loss. Not his seven medals–five gold, a silver, and a bronze. Not his return to win three more in 1992. Just that somehow five wasn’t enough.

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