Monday, July 2, 2012 at 7:28 AM
I am such a big fan of the Summer Olympics that I even tune in to watch competition in such dubious sports as Curling and Archery. So between network and online coverage I will probably watch more of the London Games (July 27 – August 12) than anybody I know.
There’s no denying, though, that most of my interest will be focused on Swimming and Track and Field (having competed in both in my halcyon youth). And that interest was only heightened after watching some of the premier events at the U.S. and Jamaican Olympic trials last week.
As improbable as it seemed, Michael Phelps pulled off the historic feat of winning eight gold medals in Swimming at the 2008 Beijing Games. Not to mention the thrill he provided by winning two of those medals is dramatic, if not miraculous fashion, by razor-thin margins.
Therefore, nobody expected Phelps to emulate that overall performance. Yet, after qualifying in all of the same events at last week’s trials, that is precisely what he is poised to do.
Except that he faces an heir apparent in fellow American Ryan Lochte who seems determined to be a spoiler. And I think he will be … in their very first head-to-head competition: the 400m Individual Medley. Not just because this was the only event Lochte won in their head-to-head competition at the trials; but because, even though he can sustain his speed and stamina over 200 meters, Phelps’s (relatively) lazy approach to training over the past four years means that he simply cannot sustain it for the 400. And considering that a defeat at the outset in this energy-sapping and potentially ego-deflating event could ruin his chance at gold in every other event, it would not surprise me if Phelps decides to withdraw.
(It’s an indication of how solicitous advertisers are for the telegenic Lochte to upset the camera-challenged Phelps that they are already featuring Lochte in commercials, for razors for example, that really should feature Phelps – who is now legend for his razor-thin victories.)
Teenager Missy Franklin (17) was sensational in qualifying in four individual events. Now she’s being hyped to become the first female to win seven medals, though not necessarily all gold, in one Olympics. But I remember all too well how teenager Katie Hoff was hyped as ”the female Michael Phelps” going into Beijing only to end up winning just one individual silver and two relay bronzes. So forgive me if I do not buy the hype being sold about Missy….
It speaks volumes about how far we’ve come in debunking racial stereotypes that bragging rights for the fastest swimmer in America went to the very Black Cullen Jones after he won the 50m freestyle. And, as if to reinforce the point, another Black swimmer, Anthony Ervin, finished second.
(Only the top-two finishers in each event qualify. This means that Jones and Ervin will be representing team USA in this event in London. The irony/symbolism is rich in so many respects….)
As impressive as Phelps was in the pool in Beijing, Usain Bolt was on the track in winning the 100 and 200 meters, shattering the world record in both. Unlike the case with Phelps, however, everybody expected a repeat performance from Bolt.
Except that he too faces an heir apparent in fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake who seems equally determined to be a spoiler. And I think he will be … in the 100m. Not just because Blake looked almost as invincible in defeating Bolt at trials last week as Bolt looked in defeating everyone at the Olympics four years ago; but because Blake just seems possessed of more speed over this shorter distance than Bolt seems capable of revving up to at this point.
Incidentally, Blake’s 9.75 was considerably slower than the 9.58 world record Bolt set at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. It is noteworthy, though, that Bolt has not come close to running that time since. Indeed, his form is such these days that if anyone does in London it will be Blake.
So, ironically, where Phelps still has enough speed to win the shorter races but not enough stamina to win the longer ones, Bolt has enough stamina to win the longer race but not enough (lightning) speed to win the shorter one. This is why I see him defeating Blake in the 200 – notwithstanding that Blake beat him at the trials in this event too just last night. (Their times – of 19.80 and 19.83, respectively – were way off the 19.19 world record Bolt set in Berlin.)
Apropos of irony, there’s no doubt that their matchups in London will be even more hyped and watched than Phelps and Lochte’s. Yet Bolt and Blake attracted so little interest for their 100m showdown in Kingston on Friday that they ran in a practically empty stadium. What’s more, when you consider all of the great female athletes who were competing, most notably Women’s 2008 Olympic 100m champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, you have to think that Jamaicans now take their great athletes for granted. And these are the same Jamaicans who resent Bolt and others competing so much in Europe — where they are not only handsomely paid but royally celebrated. By contrast, the 15,000-seat stadium in Omaha was packed all week for every one of Phelps’s races, including the preliminary heats.
Meanwhile, I am still recovering from the disappointment I suffered when I learned that Marion Jones fueled her way to Olympic glory in 2000 on a cocktail of steroids that would make Lance Armstrong blush. Which is why I do not have as much interest in watching the women’s sprint events as I do in watching the men’s.
Mind you, given the rogue’s gallery of Olympic cheaters like Ben Johnson and Justin Gatlin, I fully appreciate the chauvinism inherent in this antic disappointment. But I expect men to cheat. I still expect better of women. (Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic Champion in the 100m, showed impressive form – after a four-year ban imposed in 2006 for taking performance-enhancing drugs – in winning this event last week. But where I expect him to give Blake and Bolt a good run, I do not expect him to beat them.)
That said, I haven’t lost all interest in the women’s sprints because I was positively mesmerized by Alyson Felix through each round of the 200m. If ever anyone can be thought of as a beautiful two-legged gazelle, it is she. I know the Jamaican girls seem poised to repeat their dominance, but I think Felix will be a spoiler in the 200m.
Finally, and I hope this seems at least consistent with my interest in Curling, if you tune in to watch Emma Coburn of the United States win the Women’s 3000 Steeplechase, you’ll see why she had my eyes glued to the TV for the 9:32.38 time it took for her to win the trials in this event. (Time for a cold shower…?)
Let the Games begin! I can’t wait….
2008 Beijing Games