Wednesday, August 13, 2008

why i love the Olympics (part 1: class)

so i have a 19-year-old college heckler to this blog.

you know the kind. the armchair athlete who's never done anything remotely athletic in his life, but yet sees himself as God's gift to physical perfection and feels necessary to browbeat everyone so they know it. the obnoxious loud-mouthed conceited windbag with an overblown sense of self-importance who thinks it's acceptable to personally insult and denigrate others. the pathological hyper-aggressive personality who insists on building his own self-esteem by beating down the self-esteem of others. the kind of person you may describe with terms such as "jackass" or "douche-bag" and my friends and coaches call an "idiot" or a "loser."

he's identified himself--and others have told me (yes, it unfortunately seems we know the same people)--through a number of comments that stood out for their remarkable lack of brutishness and mental incapacity. basically, he's made it clear he's out of touch with the greater truths of life and living and what it is that's really important in this world, and is simply just a dorm room thug seething in his own invective and hate.

what's curious is that he keeps mocking this blog as being for "old people"--with his idea of old built around a bizarre fixation with the number 30. he's made a number of comments about how pathetic that age is, usually within the context of aggrandizing his own physical abilities. yes, i know, it clearly shows just how little he knows about athletics, and how he's obviously never heard of names like Jason Lezak, Dara Torres, Merlene Ottey, Carl Lewis, or any of the countless other mature athletes who've done so many special things and given the world so many special performances in their careers.

and yes, he's clearly an upstanding character. my teachers would call him a "philistine." my grandfather would have labeled him as someone "who does not deserve the honor of being called a man."

i call him someone with no class.

which wouldn't bother me (i've taken to just deleting his comments). except that he's being rewarded for it. the same way bad men always seem to be rewarded in this world: the adoration of girls and the adulation of his own posse and the encouragement of his behavior within his own peer group. it's quite a sad statement on what people consider important.

it's enough to make you wonder if there's such a thing as good in this world...or if the good guys ever win.

and that's why i love the Olympics.

those of you watching the swimming events on Sunday, August 10 were treated to one of the most special moments in Olympic history: the men's 4x100 relay. in short, it was the greatest swim relay race in history, and one of the greatest moments in sport. EVER. and i'm not even a swim fan. this race reflected everything great about Olympic competition, and the way the Olympics always seem to reveal the greater aspects of the human spirit and human values.

you can read some of the newspaper stories about what happened:
for reference, i put the full text of the 1st article at the end of this post, since it seems to be the most comprehensive.

here's the background: prior to the race, the French team--who were the favorites to win--had publicly stated "the Americans? we're going to smash them. that's what we came here for." seeing that they were young and brash, and were led by the world-record holder Alain Bernard, and held 4 of the 5 fastest times in the world this year, there was very little reason to doubt them. they came into this race with all the obnoxious behavior and boorish aggression of playground bullies intent on intimidating everyone out of the gym.

basically, they had no class.

the American team was comprised of Michael Phelps swimming lead-off, followed by Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, and then Jason Lezak as anchor. while Phelps is known for his unquestioned swimming domination, the U.S. was not favored to win. they were older--with Lezak being a notable 32 years old--and slower than the French. most argued it was going to take a miracle, or everyone on the U.S. squad having the race of their lives, for them to be in contention. as a result, they came into the race with a noticeably subdued demeanor of men focused on the challenge before them. later, they would note that they even took a team-only meeting in the days before the race to have a reflective, heart-to-heart conversation about being a team and about what this race meant.

but the race didn't seem to start very well for the Americans, with the French and Australians setting a blistering pace putting the Americans in a trailing position despite personal best times from Phelps and Weber-Gale. and it didn't seem to be going well at all when Jones hit the wall and Lezak found himself starting almost a full body length behind French anchor Alain Bernard...a full body length behind someone younger and faster and the reigning world-record holder. everyone wrote Lezak and the American team off, even the television commentators, since there just seemed no way for Lezak to catch up or even compete.

but that's why the Olympics are so special.

Lezak later commented in interviews that he steeled himself, and decided that no matter what happened he was here to represent his country, his team, and his honor, and he was going to do whatever it took no matter how much it hurt. and slowly, he began chipping away at Bernard's lead.

at the 50-meter mark Lezak had managed to catch the Frenchman's wake, and used the draft to keep working up to Bernard. at the 75 meter mark he was an arm's length behind. then, 2 meters from the finish, he found himself only a hand behind and blasting past Bernard. Lezak made a last surge, and touched the wall a split-second before the French leader.

the final result? a victory for the Americans, in a world-record time of 3:08.24. and the utter exuberance and joy of the American team going absolutely out of their minds. and the French team completely shocked and in tears.

you can see an interactive presentation of the race:
while all the live footage of the race has been removed for copyright restrictions from Youtube, i managed to find a Youtube audio recording that gives you an idea of how electric this race was:
after the race, during interviews, the Americans said they had posted the French taunts on their locker-room walls for motivation, and decided that "we were going to let our actions do the talking." for all that, the Americans still displayed enough sportsmanship to meet the French team, with Phelps remembering to shake hands and talk briefly with each of the French swimmers--both at the end of the race and again on the medal stand. the French, for their part, were left to reconsider their lessons, with Frederick Bousquet, who swam the French team's 3rd leg, conceding "experience overcame talent."

for my part, i think this race showed more than that.

this race did show age trumping youth (a 32-year old Lezak chasing down a 25-year Bernard). but it also showed a team of obnoxious, hyper-aggressive personalities being defeated by a team of reflective, sincere ones. it showed trash-talking boorishness being taken down by quiet actions. it showed rudeness being overcome by sportsmanship.

it showed in perfect illustration what one coach of mine once said: "boys will talk the talk. men will walk the walk."

it showed in perfect succinctness everything that real athletes are constantly taught: the meaning of class.

and that's why i loved this race. and it's why i love the Olympics.

because it shows something the world needs the most at the times the world needs it shows the greater aspects of the human spirit and human values.

and it shows that they have a place in this world.

and it shows that they can win.

Jason Lezak made sure Michael Phelps still has a chance for 8 golds
International Herald Tribune
By Karen Crouse
Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING:Lezak, swimming the anchor leg of the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay, out-touched Alain Bernard of France at the finish by 0.08 seconds.

Would Michael Phelps's bid for eight gold medals in the Beijing Games dissolve in a pool at the Water Cube on Monday? The answer was a resounding no.

Not over Jason Lezak's 32-year-old body.

Lezak, swimming the anchor leg of the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team, hit the water a half-second after Alain Bernard of France, who came into the race as the world-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. "I knew I was going to have to swim out of my mind," Lezak said.

Lezak made up ground, but with 25 meters remaining it appeared as if he would run out of pool. Trailing Bernard by half a body length, Lezak put his head down and surged to the wall.

A three-time Olympian, Lezak had been in this predicament before. He anchored the U.S. 4x100 relay teams at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics that came up short. This time, he was part of a photo finish.

When the water settled, the giant video scoreboard showed that Lezak had out-touched Bernard by 0.08 seconds. Phelps's pursuit of Mark Spitz's record of seven swimming gold medals in one Olympics remained alive, with a little help from his mates.

Lezak's split of 46.06 seconds was the fastest anchor leg ever, by 0.73, and his personal best by over 1.2 seconds. "His last 50 meters were absolutely incredible," Phelps said. "He had a perfect finish."

After Lezak touched, Phelps, who swam the first leg, raised his arms and let out a primal scream. Garrett Weber-Gale, who swam second, came up from behind him and swallowed him in a hug.

The United States was timed in 3 minutes 8.24 seconds, shattering by nearly four seconds the world record that its B team had set the previous night. France won the silver in 3:08.32. Australia, benefiting from a world-record setting lead-off swim of 47.24 from Eamon Sullivan, was third.

Bernard, who in a matter of minutes lost the 100-meter world record to Sullivan and the relay gold to Lezak, was bereft. He broke down in tears in the pool and later in the interview area.

His teammate, Frédérick Bousquet, who split a blistering 46.63 on the third leg, said, "We believed in the gold medal until the end." He added, "The touch made the difference and experience overcame talent."

Though not well-known outside swimming circles, Lezak, a native Southern Californian, has a reputation in USA Swimming for finishing strong in sprints.

"Jason is the most phenomenal closer I've ever seen in my life," said Cullen Jones, who swam the third leg.

After making the turn, Lezak said he momentarily lost the courage of his convictions. Bernard had a 0.6 of a second lead and Lezak was not sure he could reel him in. "I'm not going to lie," he said. "The thought really crossed my mind for a split-second: 'There's no way."'

Then he reminded himself that he was representing his country, and this was the Olympics, and he was not getting any younger, so he had to make the most of this chance.

"In five seconds I was thinking all these things," Lezak said. "And I got a supercharge."

With his surge, Lezak kept alive Phelps's drive to break Spitz's record and collect a million-dollar bonus from Speedo. Asked if he would demand a cut if Phelps succeeds, Lezak grinned and joked, "We've already talked about that."

Phelps, 23, was timed in 47.51 on the first leg, nearly half a second faster than he clocked at the U.S. Olympic trials but behind Sullivan's 47.24. He joined his teammates in the ready room with one lackluster morning swim behind him.

In the semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle, the second of his five individual events, Phelps never held the lead in his heat, botched his finish. He qualified fourth with a time that was two seconds slower than what he had clocked at the trials in July and one second slower than his target number.

"I just wanted to save as much energy as I could for the relay," Phelps said afterward, between labored breaths.

He and his teammates knew they had to be at their absolute best if they were to hold off the world, which has gotten the best of the Americans in the past two Olympics. As thunder rumbled over the bubble-wrap ceiling of the National Aquatics Center, Phelps stepped to the blocks.

The quartet of Nathan Adrian, Jones, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Matt Grevers gave Phelps and Co. the swimming equivalent of the pole position - Lane 4, in the middle of the pool - by qualifying first in the heats Sunday night. In the process, they gave everybody the time to shoot for, eclipsing by 0.23 of a second the world record with a clocking of 3 minutes 12.23 seconds.

The squads from France and Australia also finished under the existing record of 3:12.46, setting up a final that delivered all the bang of a fireworks show.

At the U.S. Olympic trials in July, Lezak, Weber-Gale and Phelps posted sub-48 second swims, which until the Games had been matched this year by only two others: Bernard and Sullivan.

Lezak, Weber-Gale and Phelps sat out the preliminaries to conserve energy. In what proved to be a competition within the competition, the four Americans who did swim were essentially racing one another for the opportunity to team with Lezak, Weber-Gale and Phelps in the final.

Jones, a Bronx native who grew up in New Jersey, won the honors by clocking the fastest split, a 47.61 on the second leg. In 2006, Jones became the first African-American to break a long-course world record when he was part of the U.S. relay team that set the global mark that fell Sunday night.

All eyes Monday were on Phelps, but the pressure was on the French, who had never won a medal in the event and were trying to win their country's first swimming relay gold.

In the heats, the French had rested their two fastest swimmers, Bernard, who broke the world record in the 100 freestyle twice in March, and Fabien Gilot, who has the sixth-fastest time in the world this year.

The uncertainty of the outcome was a decided departure from 1972, when Spitz counted three relays among his seven golds. In those days, United States dominance meant there was never much drama in the relays. Going into the 1972 Munich Games, the Americans had won every Olympic gold awarded in the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays and 8 of 13 in the 4x200 freestyle.

Since then, the rest of the world has caught up to the United States, the globalization of the sport reflected most dramatically in the relays. In 2000, the Americans were upset by Australia in the 4x100 freestyle, and in 2004 they finished third behind South Africa - which returned for its defense unchanged from 2004 - and the Netherlands.

Returning the Olympic crown in the event to the United States was a high priority, Phelps said. "A couple of days ago we had a guys-only meeting where we shared some stories going back and forth about the hopes we have for this meet," he said.

The French had made their hopes public. Their trash talking might have been their undoing; it motivated the Americans. "It fired me up more than anything else," Phelps said.

However many more Olympic medals Phelps wins, his legacy is secure and so, now, is Lezak's.

"I just happened to have the swim of my life at the right time," Lezak said.


Bob Almighty said...

Man I still remember the insert foot in mouth moment from 2000. Gary Hall's infamous "we'll smash the Aussies like guitars" followed by Austrailia's victorious 4x100 doing air guitar on the blocks.

Sladed said...

I love your take on the event and on the Olympics. You put it very nicely. I am a swimming fan and former competitive swimmer and that event simply made the Olympics for me this year. I've since enjoyed Dara Torres and other events and sports but this was utterly remarkable.