The phrases “greatest of all time” and “greatest in history” are getting bandied about with awful frequency these days. She’s the greatest swimmer of all time. That has to be the greatest finish in history. Really, folks, history is pretty long. It’s annoying to use such words when athletes are in their second or maybe third Games. Come back, maybe, when you hit five. Or how about eight?
Instead, as far as the Olympics go, I propose that we honor the Living Legends. The Games are full of folks who still compete with strength and experience. Every time they say, “just one more time.” Every time it’s, “this will be my last.” But they stay in shape, they have outstanding technique, and they’re long past the Olympic jitters.
Perhaps they have lost a step but still make up for it with guile and style. Perhaps they’re not three-peating or four-peating or five-peating. There still have suitcases full of medals. Overall, considering all the sports, these legends might make this the Greatest Class in Olympic history.
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.
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.
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