Thursday, August 14, 2008

8/14/08 Michael Phelps, Alicia Sacramone

The twin faces of the Americans in these Olympics to me were newly elevated golden god (according to NBC) OMG MICHAEL PHELPS, and Alicia Sacramone, disgraced (yet silver-medal possessing) gymnast. As per the old "Wide World of Sports", the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat personified.

There is something of a twin symmetry to Phelps's achievements and Sacramone's disappointments - it became too easy, at a certain point, to marvel at Phelps's sheer aquatic dominance and conclude that we were watching some kind of half-dolphin, half-man at play in its natural habitat. It was difficult to conceptualize this striving, the difficulty, the punishing training and the ascetic-style devotion to one activity only for days, months, and years at a time. All that we (the television audience) saw was someone closing the gap from potential to kinetic energy, destiny made manifest.

Which is not to say that Phelps made it look easy, necessarily. No, that honor goes to Usain Bolt, who looked like he could have won the 100, broken a world record, and still had time to eat a ham sandwich before crossing the finish line - in terms of smoking the competition, Bolt's only competition was Guo Jingjing, the Chinese diver that seemed to operate on a similarly higher plane.

Still, though several of Phelps's golds were indeed contested, that only served to sprinkle a little drama on top of those eight, to give the narrative of his quest its requisite bend and snap. Eventually, everything fell into place, and now he's got neck bling for miles. A quintessentially American narrative, featuring as it did challenges, adversity, and ultimately the triumph of the Yanks and a happy ending (plus a mom that NBC is about ready to spin off into her own show).

Sacramone, on the other hand, experienced the kind of Olympics that makes you realize that what these people are doing is extremely, extremely difficult. There's nothing quite like seeing someone fall off of the balance beam to make you realize, as a viewer, that the thing is just as narrow and scary as you might remember from long-ago gym classes, and that the women and men flipping all over it are just as vulnerable and mortal as any other member of the species.

In addition, the increasing nervousness that played across her face and overall demeanor as she was delayed, delayed, and further delayed speak to the shaking hands, the sweating, the choking that bulk of us feel in athletic endeavors. The terrible calm and quieting of the basketball game at the free throw line, the lining up of the game winning kick, the beginning of a vault that literally endangers life and limb - mastering these require a forced ice water of the veins, the kind displayed by Jingjing and Sacramone's teammates - the kind of terrible calm that is the envy of all of those who have ever had nerves get the best of them. That Sacramone undeniably choked when the pressure was on makes her as undeniably human and American as Phelps's glorious races against his own presssures and expectations.

Repeatedly, the gymnastics announcers emphasized that this was a young woman's sport; the Chinese gymast's age a point of controversy because young people are more flexible but also have a surfeit of abandon with which to throw themselves around in such acrobatic and terrifying flight. Alicia, at 20, had far more of the terrors of self that plague all of us from time to time than the younger Liukin and Johnson. For the inspiring, look no further to the 33-year old German medalist that beat her out at the vault. For the flip poignant side, look at Sacramone losing a judged contest to someone that landed on her shins, falling off the balance beam, and claiming a silver medal with her teammates in the all-around that should by all rights be gold, ages of the Chinese gymnasts dependent.

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