Round of Applause
Michael Phelps earned so much respect in my eyes this week. Before these Olympics, there was already no doubt that he is the greatest swimmer who ever lived and the most successful Olympian of all time. But his unprecedented achievements in Athens and Beijing almost served to water down just how incredibly good he is, if that makes any sense. After Beijing, we had come to take for granted that Phelps would win every race he swam, and that is about the most unfair standard to which a person could ever be held. It took a few losses in London — particularly in the 400 IM and the 4-by-100 free relay — before diehard American swim fans like myself realized that his dominance was over. And it looked like those losses on the first few nights had knocked the life out of Phelps, almost as if his lethargy was going to preclude him from even making the podium in the rest of his individual events. But his come-from-ahead loss in the 200 IM, which was among the most heartbreaking sports events I’ve ever watched, totally changed around my feelings about Phelps. I loved his killer competitive nature before but never sensed that he truly felt accomplished by what he’s done in his Olympic career. That changed both when he received his silver medal after that race and when he anchored the U.S. 4-by-200 free relay team to gold. When receiving his gold — his record 19th medal overall — he teared up during the national anthem. Finally, the gravity of his career seemed to hit him, and at the same time it hit the fans who have cheered him on for over a decade. In that moment, I realized I had just watched the greatest Olympian of all time experience the emotion of his own epiphany. And that was about as cool as an emotional sports moment as I can ever remember.
Chorus of Boos
Limiting the number of gymnasts from one country who can compete in the all-around gymnastics competition is absolutely the most ridiculous rule that exists at the Olympics. If you watched the women’s qualifications last weekend, you undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching emotions pour out of American Jordyn Wieber, who was my favorite (as well as that of many experts) to win the all-around gold medal. But because the U.S. team is so much better than the entire world (reflected in their blowout victory in the team final), Wieber didn’t even qualify for the event in which she undoubtedly would have won a medal. Twenty-four gymnasts qualified for the all-around competition; Wieber’s score in qualification was fourth-best in the world and she didn’t make the final. It all comes down to the absolutely asinine rule held by several of the world’s major sport governing bodies that limits the number of participants that can come from a particular country. The rule isn’t awful in its general intention — the line of how many athletes can compete in a particular event must be drawn somewhere — but its execution is insulting to countries with as many world-class athletes as ours. To limit a nation to entering two athletes into an event when a country like the United States could very well produce the top three athletes in any one competition is plain wrong. Instead, in the case of the gymnastics all-around competition, more than a dozen athletes who frankly don’t belong in the same gym as Wieber are competing for gold while the reigning world champion is not. My feeling on this all come back to one of my basic beliefs, that the best should not be punished for being great for the sake of including others who don’t deserve the privilege. And by the way, that ridiculous rule probably cost Wieber thousands upon thousands of dollars in endorsements, because not many companies want to hire the gymnast who didn’t qualify, even if she’s the best one at the Games.