Amazing stories happen, here. Thousands to see. Here are four –in 400 words or less.
They often come when we need them most. Every four years, summer is a little more special, when the Olympics draw the watching eyes of millions around the World. Normally, summer’s harbingers are the blinking lights of fireflies in the trees, rising heat, and a late sunset. But an Olympic summer –that’s different. An Olympic summer is signaled by the arrival of stories –thousands of them—that bring sports fans, witnesses of human perseverance, and participants of a global phenomenon to the same couch. For a few days of summer, every four years, the world shares a television set. We watch the same moments of triumph, defeat, and passion. It’s an event that transcends oceans, time zones, and political boundaries. And when it doesn’t, that matters too.
Amazing stories happen here, at the Olympics. There are stories that will forever shape the world of sports. There are stories that will forever define the limits of human achievement and will. And there are stories that will never be separate from history. Every fourth summer, these stories number in the thousands, broadcast to televisions, radios, smart phones, and newspapers across six continents. This isn’t just a competition –it’s a special moment in time. And 2012 is no different. Already, the stories are revealing themselves by the thousand and faces that once belonged to strangers are transforming into heroes.
I give you just four stories –four quick insights as to what you should watch out for in the upcoming Olympics. This doesn’t even begin to crack the surface, but like any Olympic event, you must start before you can finish. These stories encompass sport, but also have human sides. That’s the beauty of the Olympics…we don’t lose sight of that connection. This summer will give us more stories, but for now, here’s an appetizer –my own Olympic 4×400—four stories in four-hundred words or less.
- The Ascension of Michael Phelps
If Michael Phelps can secure a third medal in this summer’s Olympic Games, his first intake of breath when he rises from the water will be rarified air. Already the storied event’s King Midas, he holds more gold medals than any athlete to ever compete in Athens and beyond. But with three more medals, he will also stand alone on the other list that matters. With three more medals, Michael Phelps will have earned more golds, silvers, and bronzes than any other person since the Modern Olympics began in 1896. That’s 116 years. That’s athletes from every corner of the world. That’s not simply a milestone…that’s the stuff of legends.
Phelps’ ascension to the top of Mount Olympus will require surmounting a name that has held the top spot for over half a century. It’s a huge honor that’s been held by a rather small gymnast –Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union, winner of eighteen medals in a three-Olympic span. She medaled in numerous events, individual and team. It was a career that stood unmatched for decades…until now. Phelps not only has a chance to eclipse this record –it’s almost inevitable.
Phelps has sixteen medals coming into London, and while he isn’t the dominant force he was when he arrived in Sydney or Beijing, he’s still easily one of the best swimmers in the world. He will compete in seven events, including the 200m IM, 400m IM, 100 Fly, 200 Fly, and four relays. Only needing three medals to pass Latynina’s record, it seems almost impossible that Phelps will fail to medal in five of those events.
It’s also quite possible that Phelps gets four more golds, which would mean that his gold total (18) would be twice as much as anyone…ever.
This is happening. And it shouldn’t be understated. If, and almost certainly, when Phelps rises from that pool, securing the third medal of his 2012 Olympics and the nineteenth of his storied career, he will do so as the most successful athlete in Olympic history. And he will do so to the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner –a moment we should cherish considering that only one other American is even in the top ten of all-time medals won.
Not many twenty-seven year olds secure their spot as an all-time great at such a young age. But with a strong stroke this summer, Michael Phelps can do just that.
- Can Tyson Gay surmount the odds, or is a Bolt about to strike twice?
It’s only one-hundred meters of track –less than ten seconds to decide who reigns as fastest man in the world. But the memories of this event last forever. The 100 Meter Dash is the most storied and closely followed event of the Olympics. It’s a flash and a few seconds that represent years of hard work, perseverance, and dreams. It all comes down to this: a gunshot, a sprint, and a fraction of a second.
In 2012, this event contains many stories. One of those includes a local man trying to rise again, against all odds. Another, a world-known superstar, the fastest man in the world, and sudden whispers of doubt. Both stories will make this the most exciting ten seconds of the summer.
Tyson Gay, by all accounts, shouldn’t be here. The sprinter, born in Lexington, showed promise a few years ago. He had three gold medals in World Championships, and he was one of only three runners to defeat Usain Bolt after his world-record run. He had a chance to be the greatest. Tyson Gay never gave up on that promise.
But his body did. In 2008, Gay suffered a hamstring injury at the Beijing Olympics that would eventually send him home with no medals. Then, in 2011, fate dealt an even more crippling blow. His hip gave way. It required surgery. And for a while, the world forgot about Tyson Gay –he disappeared.
Not so fast. Tyson Gay isn’t done –and if you listen to him, he has a chance. He’s running the 100 meter in London, and after beating teammate Justin Gatlin recently in Paris, he seems to think that this race is wide open. He says not to count him out.
Bolt, on the other hand, seems suddenly poised to fall. Not a few weeks ago, most people considered it a foregone conclusion that Bolt would defend his 100 meter crown. Again; not so fast. At the Jamaican Olympic Trials, he finished second to Yohan Blake, and has reportedly suffered a hamstring injury less than a month before he has to race in London.
Only once in Olympic history has the 100 meter gold been defended (Carl Lewis, ’84 and ’88). It’s hard to do. Even when you’re the fastest man in the world.
It’s rare that any Bolt strikes the same place twice. But, as Gay pointed out; it’s ten seconds…anything can happen.
- Oscar Pistorius Stands Tall
It’s not often that a South African makes the most waves of the Olympics before they even begin. Then again, it’s not often that a man with no legs earns a chance to race in the biggest track meet on the face of the planet. In fact, it’s never happened.
Since he was eleven months old, Oscar Pistorius has been without both of his legs. It’s a fate that many would have met with despair and apathy. It’s a fate that he refused to accept. And now, the world will watch him run upon the biggest stage.
Last week, in South Africa’s Olympic Trials, Pistorius failed to qualify for the 400 meter, just missing the necessary time to meet the difficult standards of his own country. It seemed that this impossible dream, had indeed, been squandered. But in the eleventh hour, the South African officials had a change of heart. They decided that he was worthy of running in the 400 meter and the 4×400 meter relay, making him the first double amputee to ever race in the Olympics.
There’s a key word in that last sentence; Pistorius is worthy of this distinction. Nothing was handed to him out of pity –he’s fast, he’s hardworking, and he deserved this moment. In the United States, we are spoiled by incredible 400 meter talent. At our own trials, the top three finished under 45 seconds, including defending Gold Medalist Merrit, who finished at 44.12 seconds. From our perspective, we may think that Pistorius’ personal best of 45.07 seconds isn’t worthy of an Olympic berth –that his story took him where his mechanical legs could not.
That’s ridiculous. Pistorius’ personal best easily meets Olympic qualifying standards, which for the 400 meter, is set at 45.25 seconds. He’s not just a story, he’s a world-class runner.
Much controversy will surround Pistorius if he or his relay team medals in London. People will question whether it is fair that he competes upon his medal “blades”. But what shouldn’t be questioned, what shouldn’t be a controversy, is this: Oscar Pistorius is an Olympian.
It’s a distinction defined not just by skill, but by heart and perseverance. Pistorius has all three –perhaps at a level unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Forget any controversy. For a second, maybe even forget the flag he represents. This is a story of the human spirit…and that’s worth rooting for.
- Anthony Davis is no Christian Laettner
Breathe easy, Big Blue Nation. I mean that in a good way.
Anthony Davis’ inclusion on our national basketball team –the only player on the list who spent last season in a college classroom –is a dynamic worth seeing.
We are now twenty years removed from the iconic Dream Team –the first team of professionals that took the Olympics and world stage by storm. It was a team with nearly as many future-hall-of-famers as it had jerseys. One of those other jerseys was Christian Laettner. Beside names like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, he was a dubious choice to join the team, at best, especially considering that Isaiah Thomas had been snubbed. It was a novelty act –a way to placate those that feared the transition to pro players on the Olympic stage. Laettner was the fresh face, the college darling. And he was also pretty irrelevant.
Laettner was a power-forward/Center type of player. He was big. And on this team, there wasn’t room for him. The Dream Team already included David Robinson, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley. With forces under the rim like that, it was hard to find a place for Laettner. Thus, in eight games played, he hit nine total field goals, and averaged 2.5 rebounds per game.
Twenty years later, Anthony Davis is not a novelty choice. In fact, the story to watch in this year’s Olympic Basketball games might be just how much of a role he plays in a potential Gold Medal chase. Unlike Laettner, this big college-star doesn’t join a team of future hall-of-fame big-men. Only Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Chris Bosh are as tall or taller than Davis. Only one of those names (Chandler) is known for great defense, and only one other for his great rebounding (Love).
Davis provides a big presence on the boards and on defense for this team. For those who saw Kentucky’s two wins against Kansas, it wasn’t what Davis did on offense that wowed scouts and fans alike. It was his dominating presence on defense, including 13 total blocks between the two games. Davis, obviously, will not be the star of this Olympic Redeem Team –a team that includes Lebron James and Chris Paul.
But he’s no Christian Laettner. He’s no novelty. He has a part to play.
*Author’s Note: (7/8/2012) This fourth story now becomes a story of what could have been. This is the role (an important one) I think Davis could play. Though I wrote this after two different websites had (falsely) reported Davis had made the final roster, it came out officially hours later that he was actually edged out by Iguodala and Harden. I think this still stands as an interesting facet of the USA team to watch. Injuries (which often happen after an NBA season) could still lead to Davis being selected to the team. Also, if their lack of size contributes to an upset, you know people will look at this decision as a defining moment. Don’t lose sight of this story. It might still be part of the USA Basketball narrative.