Upset! (Day 3, Tokyo 2020)

A practically unheralded no-name upset the world-ranked team. Athletes, multi-world-champions, previous-gold-medalists, who hadn’t been beaten in a long time, were outplayed and out-strategized. Cue the American excitement for our great win… excuse me, did you think this was about Team USA losing?

There’s been a ton of hand wringing at the beginning of the Tokyo Games in the American press. Headlines about being “stunned” and shocked because no U.S. medals were won on Day One, and several of our world’s best teams lost opening rounds and games. It’s especially aggravating when all this flagellation glosses over the outstanding play of everybody else. Plenty of winning has taken place. Plenty of thrilling contests and patriotic tears. Yes, there have been a few big upsets. Let’s embrace All of them.

Presume, Much?

In 1908, the first truly international Olympics in London, American team organizer James Sullivan wanted to know how the British were going to determine the “overall national winner.” Sullivan, head of the US team, devised his own system of assigning points to medals and “went so far as to claim that the British were dreaming up some dastardly counting scheme that would privilege their athletes and ensure the championship…” writes Olympic historian David Golblatt. Because, even in 1908, our obnoxious chauvinistic leaders thought we ought to win everything. That’s when the absurd medal count started.

Here are my predictions for Tokyo 2020:

Team USA will not win all the medals
Team USA will not win all the medals that the media “expects” them to win

The American women lost to Sweden in their first game, looking lethargic and sloppy. Forty-four wins in a row didn’t sharpen their edge much. Katie Ledecky lost in the 400m, despite being featured in so many advertisements! How is that possible, that the second-best swimmer in the event in the world, a person who nearly beat Ledecky’s four-year-old world record in the Australian Trials last month, did actually beat the American now? Aussie Ariarne Titmus was excited, though American eyeballs were rolling back in their head.

Ariarne Titmus excited to win a gold in women’s 400m. Photo from Yahoo News.

Skateboard Nyjah Houston, who supposedly wins 54% of the contests that he enters, didn’t medal. At all. My skateboarder son told me 8 years ago that Houston is a poser, so I apologize, but I was brimming with schadenfreude. My son doesn’t like American bronze-medalist Jagger Eaton either and said the right guy, Japan’s Horigome, won the gold. So there you have it, from the expert dude.

The American men’s basketball team lost to France. You mean, they can’t just play like in their All Star Game, simply allowing each other to take turns dunking? They actually have to play defense? France’s Rudy Gobert, by the way, was the American NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

In the Mixed Gender archery team competition, the Americans were seeded 2nd after their opening round. They promptly lost to the lowly 15th-seeded Indonesians, as the Indonesians beat the pants off them. World champion Brady Ellison and top-ranked MacKenzie Brown were not at their best.

There were two curious side notes. Both, as it happened, are unvaccinated. Brown complained later about the lack of spectators and the lack of cheering, as apparently archery normally attracts huge crowds, and she felt lonely. Interestingly enough, there were large cheering sections for the South Koreans, who are outstanding archers and continued their excellence in the sport. Seemed to be enough cheering for the American swimmers poolside, too. If you’re there just for the cheering, maybe it’s time to go back to Texas.

Besides, putting these huge expectations on athletes is absurd. It’s undue pressure on people who have enough pressure as it is. Do we have to start out the American gymnastic team competition by wondering how many records Simone Biles will break? Can we not just let them all compete? It also doesn’t give others enough credit. Sweden and France played quite well, thank you very much. Kudos to Ariarne Titmus.

It is definitely embarrassing–not to lose, though. It’s embarrassing to act like such a bully when we have the biggest team, the most resources, all the TV feed. We fielded a team of 613 athletes. The next largest team (Japan) has 556, followed by China (406), France (398), and Great Britain (376). Here are two more predictions.

Team USA will win the most medals. Japan will win the second most.

I could be wrong. There is a host country boost, and Japan has excellent judokas, wrestlers, and gymnasts. They could get the most medals. The world would not stop turning on its axis.

An ecstatic Horigome Yuto keeps his balance in the first Olympic Men’s Skateboarding event. Photo by AP.

Emotions Run High

The Japanese already ollied and kick-flipped their way to three medals in skateboarding, which was invented in California. Were these upsets? The youngsters were certainly emotional about these historic wins, as the first medalists in the new Olympic sport. Horigome Yuto took the first for the men with his beautifully-executed nollie 270 noseslide. There was a little dabbing at the eyes.

When 13-year-old Nishiya Momiji took the gold on the women’s side, there was more dabbing. A middle-aged Japanese woman on the sidelines was copiously wiping at her eyes with a napkin. Mom, perhaps?

When all the obsession from our media, through which these Games are filtered, is on whether our giant, over-hyped team wins or not, we miss the breadth of excitement and emotion displayed by the other 19,400 athletes. I spent an afternoon watching the 46kg women’s and 60kg men’s semifinal and medal round judo matches. One after the other was well-contested, several going into “over-time,” i.e. Golden Score. (By the way, banging a huge gong instead of a buzzer when time runs out ought to happen in more sports.)

Judoka Luka Mkheidze of France continues France’s judo legacy. Photo by

One after the other was topped by an athlete thrilled to have achieved his or her dream. Every medal winner broke out in tears. It was far more satisfying to be repeatedly excited on behalf of the winners, than to be whining about Team USA losses. I highly recommend a sojourn over to other sports where expectations don’t run so high, at least for athletes that don’t star in all the advertisements. Make no mistake, I am a huge Ledecky/Biles/USA fan. But let’s just let them compete and do their best. I actually plan to watch a lot of handball. One more prediction.

Team USA will not win a medal in handball. (The U.S. doesn’t have a handball team).

There Will Be Firsts

Did you know Kosovo won its first medal in judo? Distria Krasniqi took the gold. Ukraine’s Daria Bilodid held off Israel’s Shira Rishony. Mongolia’s Urantsetseg Munkhbat beat Portugal’s Catarina Costa. These are not giant names, not big countries. Israel, Mongolia, Portugal, Kosovo. Proud places. Tough places to live sometimes, compared to where most of us live. What does it take to train in Mongolia? How are they faring in the pandemic? Will there be billboards in Ulaan Baatar with Munkhbat’s face on it? I hope so.

The Ukraine isn’t a small country, and Bilodid was notable when, at 17, she was the youngest judoka world champion. But she had to wait years to get to Tokyo and was upset in the semifinals. Yet, she fought back to win in her bronze medal match, and her reaction was heartfelt. She’s coached by her dad, another former athlete. The hugs were long held.

Daria Bilodid of Ukraine reacts after winning bronze REUTERS/Sergio Perez

These were the first skateboarding medals and the first in mixed-team archery. Congratulations to the winners! Well-played and well-deserved.

Plus, there was a huge first. Since 1924, women have competed in the fencing foil. The gold had never been won by a non-European. Until now.

Anatomy of an Upset

This is what an upset looks like. The #1 seed, the previous gold medalist and previous-previous silver medalist, who has won the last three world championships and comes from a country that wins everything in this event … faces off against an athlete who is well-ranked but seeded fifth, who comes from a country that couldn’t care less about this sport and who has never heard her name. The #5 competes at the top of her game and, in a thrilling, back and forth duel–literally a duel because it was in Fencing!–ekes out an unbelievable victory. Hooray!

No American woman had won a medal in foil. No American had won a gold in foil. No non-European had won a gold in foil. Lee Kiefer pulled off the unthinkable against the fantastic non-Russian Russian, Inna Deriglazova. Team Russia isn’t technically allowed in the Olympics due to their massive state-sponsored doping campaign. Thus, all the 328 Russian athletes have to be called Russian Olympic Committee athletes instead. When they fence, they don’t get to wear a flag on their helmet. However, you know who they are in fencing because they’re the ones who keep winning.

Lee Kiefer trying to get inside the guard of the formidable Inna Deriglazova. Photo at Zimbio.

Where does Lee Kiefer’s win rank for The New York Times? Not at all. Forty-five listed Olympic stories and none about Kiefer. In looking up the beautiful photo above taken by Matthias Hangst, I had to sift through photo after photo of the U.S. losing their basketball game. It really is upsetting.

Kiefer’s husband fences on the men’s team, so that’s an interesting future story. Her father, sister, and brother fenced. Surely, there were high family expectations. She put her medical studies on hold to fence, practicing in the basement through the lockdown. When she won, and her coach ran up to embrace her in tears, she couldn’t believe it, “What just happened?”

The bronze medal went to another non-Russian Russian, Larisa Korobeynikova. She beat Alice Volpi of Italy, who happens to be world-ranked #4 to Korobeynikova’s #19. Add that up.

Lady K (which is easier to type) is #19, far below her celebrated #1 teammate, Lady D. How many times to you suppose that Russian Lady D beat Russian Lady K in practice? She probably lost a lot. So, yeah, Lady K didn’t win a gold or silver, but she came from behind to upset the Italian Volpi, and the Italians were the people that the Russians hired to teach them sword technique back in the 19th century. Look up the name Valentina Vezzali.

When Korobeynikova took her final point, she sobbed like a baby. It was fantastic!

Want to read more about South Korean archers or why the French like judo? Click here.

Mixing It Up, Olympic Style

We are a few days away from Opening Ceremonies, stumbling and bumbling our way into a Games postponed a year and now without live spectators. But the athletes have waited and trained and practiced and now it’s Their Time.

Jasmine Blocker, USA, handing the baton to teammate, Obi Igbokwe, in the 4×400 m relay. Get ready for Mixed Gender Team events! Youtube Video by NBCSPorts.

There will be some changes for Tokyo 2020, not the least of which will be boxes of face masks and gallons of hand sanitizer. It’s not even really weird that the year these contests are being held is not the year they will be named (Wha? Not Tokyo 2021? Nope).

Consider that the Games of the VI Olympiad were in Berlin, in 1916. Didn’t know about those? They were cancelled because of World War I, but the IOC kept them in the official list. Whereas the IOC didn’t include the 1906 Games in Athens, which are now called the Intercalated Games, because the IOC didn’t run them. Whenever you wonder why the IOC is doing something out-of-touch with reality, just remember the VI Olympiad.

But these changes are exciting, so let’s discuss. Let’s talk about some of the new sports, the new Mixed Teams, and the new peoples we will see competing.

Continue reading “Mixing It Up, Olympic Style”

Redemption, Resilience & Resetting at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Shiffrin slalom in Pyeongchang
Mikaela Shiffrin shrugs after 4th place slalom, photo from CNN

The word that gets thrown around a lot at the Olympics is ‘redemption.’ I think it’s ‘resilience’ or ‘resetting’ – we all know what it’s like to have to pick yourself up, get over it, and continue on.  …the one instance that gets me more than anything is what the speed skater Dan Jansen was able to do. It took him four Olympic Games, and he was a magnificent skater. We all knew how hard he had to work…those are the stories that get me more than just about anything, that you’re gutsy enough to try again.
–Mary Carillo, NBC Olympics commentator

Redemption is about the story. Resilience is about the athlete.

People who write about sports like to turn competitions into stories–myself included. Descriptions are thrown around loosely like Cinderella Story, King of the Half-pipe, Queen of the Slopes. It shows how closely viewers liken these events to fairy tales and hope for fairy tale outcomes.

Those who remember Dan Jansen’s story probably still think of it as the quintessential happy ending. Jansen was the best speed skater in the world, but suffered one calamity after another in his Olympic quest for a medal. In 1994, in his third Olympics, he finally won the gold medal to his relief and the relief of the whole world.

In Pyeongchang, viewers saw that same kind of resilient spirit in the pairs figure skating. Aliona Savchenko and partner Bruno Massot of Germany were in fourth place after the short program. Two bronze medals for Savchenko in five Olympics were a great achievement, and a reflection of being oh so close. Trying for a win was beyond difficult, given that the quad salchows and twists being executed by the Chinese and other younger pairs were out of reach for Savchenko at 34. Still, the German pair skated a perfect free program then watched the other pairs make mistake after mistake. When her gold medal was announced, Savchenko broke down and tears of redemption streamed down her face.

Yet, redemption isn’t just about winning, and bouncing back isn’t only about the top of the podium.

Resilience vs. Expectations

Mikaela Shiffrin has been the best slalom skier in the world for the past five years. With four slaloms among the five races on her list, the media started casually commenting about multiple medal chances. Given the athletic performances of people named Bolt and Phelps (or Bjorgen or Fourcade) in our collective memory, we start assuming that everyone can just rip off two or three golds, as if it’s just become commonplace. Talk about fairy tales!  Expectations become the monster under the bed.

Shiffrin, 22, still has one more event to participate in after capturing a gold medal in the giant slalom last week. She’s expected to participate in Friday’s combined event after deciding to withdraw from Wednesday’s downhill race due to scheduling issues. These Games haven’t gone according to plan for Shiffrin as she failed to medal in her signature event – the slalom (30 career World Cup wins) – and now comes the distraction of her boyfriend getting bounced out of South Korea.
–Brett Bodner, New York Daily News

Even a gold medal in the Giant slalom wasn’t enough for some writers. The next day, best-slalomer-in-the-world Shiffrin threw down outstanding runs but then so did Hansdotter, Holdener, and Gallhuber, the ones who literally grew up in the Alps. They shushed by Shiffrin to take the gold, silver, and bronze. One day earlier, Shiffrin lay encrusted in the snow, sobbing with joy over a medal; now she could only shrug. Fourth best out of 78 skiers in the world is no crime. Only 23 years old, she laid her heart bare on Twitter to reveal a deep understanding of what it’s like to train and win, to fall short and fail, and to keep trying.

That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when they felt both– because we care.
–Mikaela Shiffrin on her 4th place in the slalom

Because heavy winds in Pyeongchang caused schedule changes that stacked the races up, Shiffrin pulled out of two events to focus on one last try in the alpine combined–today. Maybe she’ll win; maybe she’ll come in fourth; maybe she’ll miss a gate and DNF.  Whatever happens will be fun to watch. Whatever happens, she’s won already.

Resilience and Bounce-back Within the Race Iself

Norway has blitzed other countries in the Olympic medal count, as they typically do. But in their “Super Bowl” race, the men’s 4×10 cross country relay, they’d only won in three of the last 10 Games, and not since 2002.  The relay is grueling–well, it’s cross country skiing, which is always backbreaking– but the 4×10 is like watching four elite runners do 5ks runs back-to-back. (Imagine the Olympic Cycling Road Race was a relay, who wouldn’t want to see that?) As a relay, the team has to strategize about who skis the anchor leg and whether to hang with a group or go out fast.

Norway yearned for a win but had been upended by the Swedes and the Italians several times. And the OAR Not Russian* team had 21-year-old speedster Denis Spitsov in its final leg. They also had cagey Andrey Larkov as their opener who immediately showed the OAR strategy because, as the race started, Larkov took off and built up a huge minute plus advantage before the first leg was done. Building up big leads can demoralize the other teams. It requires resilience for the other teams to respond. They have to work together. That’s what Norway, Italy, and France did; they chased down the Not Russian team by leg three.

Norway passes OAR in 4x10km relay
Johannes Klaebo says See ya later to Denis Spitsov on his way to winning the 4x10km Super Bowl for Norway, photo by NBC

Arguably, the racer that gets passed might also be done for the day. It requires resilience–if you’re the one chased down–to bounce back. That’s what OAR then did. The gap wasn’t much by the time leg four had started, and, by then, team Italy was out of gas. Spitsov, the anchor, pushed himself and his team back in contention by catching up to and tucking himself in behind Norway’s Johannes Klaebo. Both had young, speedy legs–what Americans would probably call hot dogs–both had already won medals in the Games. Norway had bounced back in the race at least once, but so had OAR. As the two played cat and mouse around the three final laps, leaving the other countries to duke it out for third place, they slashed up the hills and zipped down the curves. Until, with about a kilometer to go, Klaebo said See ya to Spitsov and put his legs into another gear. Gold for Norway, and silver for OAR. No remorse for either.

Falling Holds the Seeds of Success

Bohannon Olympic Men's Aerials
Mac Bohannon misses landing in Men’s Aerials, photo by Salt Lake Tribune

We joke about the skaters missing jumps, but when competitions are built on executing athletic spins and swirls flawlessly, then bigger scores require bigger tricks. Winning means doing something harder. Trying to win raises the likelihood of falling.

More big air and half pipe snowboarding and skiing events in these Games have allowed us to see incredible acrobatics. Imagine how many times these athletes had to fall in practice just to learn a trick, then perform it landing upright. Then, try to fly higher to gain more points, and still land on your feet. In the men’s ski aerials, the tricks got progressively harder and the falls got more … let’s call them spectacular.  Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko’s gold was for performing a quadruple-twisting triple back flip. Perfectly. With a perfect landing. How many times did he fall during training?

In late 2016, US Figure Skating launched a campaign to celebrate vigor in moment’s of adversity, called #Getup. Gold medal figure skater Scott Hamilton was the perfect spokesman, a survivor of cancer and brain tumors. He put it into clear perspective.

If you didn’t fall, you didn’t try. I fell 41,600 times. What do you do? Well, you get up 41,600 times.
–Scott Hamilton

Resilience & Redemption Have Many Definitions

There’s falling and getting up. There’s bouncing back from adversity and injury. That also carries different meanings for different people. The men’s figure skating competition had it all on display.  Yuzuru Hanyu won the first back-to-back gold medals in the sport in seventy years. Hanyu was so severely injured back in November, he missed his country’s Trials. He hadn’t skated much over the winter and didn’t participate in the Olympic team skating event. As he took the ice for the short program, however, he demonstrated why he’s broken figure skating point records. He was sublime. When the last skater finished the long program, and Hanyu realized he had won the medal that all of Japan expected him to win, his tears of redemption–of resilience–were as genuine as anyone’s.

High expectations also sat on 18-year-old Nathan Chen’s shoulders in the competition on the opening weekend. After being labeled by U.S. media as the Quad King (fairy tale words again!), he faltered. Again in the individual short program, he fell in all three of his quad jumps. Seventeenth place. Out of it. No chance for a medal.  Knowing he would have four years to chew over what happened, he bounced back out on the ice for the men’s long program and hit six quads–one more than was in his program–and a new Olympic record. He won the long program and finished in a respectable fifth place. Better thoughts for the next four years.

Adam Rippon, Pyeonghchang 2018
Adam Rippon after his team skate, helping to win a bronze medal, photo by ABC News

Then, there’s Adam Rippon, who finished in tenth place. Rippon had been a middle of the pack skater for a dozen years, named as an alternate for Vancouver in 2010, but missing the cut for Sochi in 2014. He had talked openly to the media about struggles with money, with training, with having enough food. He was the first openly gay athlete to be named to the U.S. Olympic team and had pre-Games media spats with homophobic politicians.

Despite the distractions, he took the ice for Team USA after Chen missed his jumps and helped scrabble out a bronze medal with a beautifully artistic, if not quad-filled, program. On the interview circuit in the days following, he entertained interviewers with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. (“How do you explain your success?” “I can’t explain witchcraft.”) TIME magazine declared that he won the Olympics. In the grand scheme of twenty years of skating, traveling, falling, arguing, starving, bitching, missing out, and squeaking by, Adam Rippon’s tenth place was one of the greatest tenth place finishes ever.

At the end of the day, a gold medal is an outstanding achievement among the best in the world. So is a medal. So is finishing just off the podium, or in the top ten. Or gaining a record or a new personal best. Or finishing the race. Starting an Olympic competition. Racing to qualify for the Olympics. Training to try to qualify.

Or just training and falling down and getting up, one more time.



*OAR, the Olympic Athletes from Russia, are competing under the Olympic flag due to their country’s massive doping scandal. However, many commentators continue to call them “the Russians.” My solution has been to label them the Not Russians.