By Mike Johnston
Sometimes I think I just see things backwards from the way most other people see them. I've been trying to get into the hubbub over Michael Phelps, with less than perfect success; my basic take is, the guy's a freak and swims better than anyone else, so he wins whenever he races. Why that makes his contests more interesting to most people rather than less so is something of a mystery to me.
I admit I don't understand swimming. Despite truly endless rounds of serial torture that lasted throughout my childhood (my parents called them "swimming lessons," and persisted with them interminably, cheerfully ignoring the obvious evidence of ineducability that was right in front of their eyes from the start), I'd drown in the shower if I didn't pay attention. So maybe it's not Michael Phelps who's freakish—maybe it's just that, in my view, swimming is.
Who knows why people find certain kinds of contests boring and others thrilling? I love watching golf on TV, for instance, so I really don't understand it when the common complaint comes up that it's dull. But on the other hand, beach volleyball…oh my God. Beach volleyball is about as exciting as watching people play ping-pong with their hands. Wearing flippers. Which I would prefer, actually. The only conceivable purpose I can see in beach volleyball is that it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making regular volleyball look dynamic, athletic, and strategic. But only by comparison. I'll leave the remote alone for a while when the women beach volleyball players are playing, because of the undeniable appeal of those superbly tall, fit females who look like they could throw me into a headlock I'd never forget, but beach volleyball played by males has got to be the most boring sport ever invented.
I enjoyed the women's all-around gymnastic competition in this Olympics. They, at least, are regularly performing athletic feats that I both understand and find awe-inspiring. Little Shawn Johnson was pictured during warmups at one point bouncing on her toes and then snapping off a quick front flip like a sparkly little fireplug Tigger. The things those women can do on the floor, few sane people would ever attempt on a trampoline.
The big problem with gymnastics is the same as it is with figure skating and high-diving—it's that there's no objective measurement of success or failure. An anonymous panel of judges bestows some arbitrary number, and that's that. It looked an awful lot like bad judging was going to carry the day in the women's all-around, too, at the beginning. But good sense and obvious skill asserted itself, the ship was righted, and the right woman won—Nastia Liukin, scion of Russia and adoptee of my USA, clearly having the performance of the day, was a joy to watch. She pulled off the difficult trick of performances that were both superbly athletic and supremely graceful.
But far and away the most amazing single feat of these Olympics—and possibly one of the greatest athletic feats I have ever witnessed or heard of—was Jamaican Usain Bolt's totally astonishing win in the 100 meters. Running I understand; I was fast as a kid and loved to run. Sprinters are usually stocky, muscular types, and I was tall and (formerly) lanky. I could hang with the best in the 220 and 440 (the measurements were in yards in those days), but I couldn't start fast enough or find enough room to run to beat the best 100-yarders at my school; there was a guy who was about a head shorter than I was, Neil Yashiro, whom, to my immense frustration, I just could not beat.
So I never expect to see tall guys doing well in the 100. Then here comes Bolt, a giant amongst the little sprinters at 6'5", loose before the race to the point of arrogance or even silliness, inexperienced, barely out of his teens. For the first forty meters he runs like a tall guy, laboring to get up to speed and barely staying even with the field. Then he turns it on, opens serious daylight between himself and the field, and takes the last 15 or 17 meters to look around, throw his hands back, and pound his chest—and still he breaks his own world record and wins going away. With his shoe untied. The guy easily threw away 5 100ths, if not a whole tenth, on the record he could have set.
Now, racehorses sometimes run away with a race. But sprinters virtually never run away with a 100. If you'd ever told me that a tall guy would have room in an Olympic 100 to use the last 15 meters to celebrate and still win going away, I'd have given you that sympathetic but condescending look we reserve for true fools and the irredeemably ignorant. What happened just can't happen. And yet it did. Astonishing. Beyond words, really.
So anyway, I admit I tend to see things wrong-way-'round. And I'm proud and happy for Michael Phelps (and his Mom, who got about as much air time as he did). Most of my countrymen will identify more with him, for any number of reasons. But when it comes right down to it for me, Phelps, schmelps—this is Usain Bolt's Olympics, first, last, forever. Before he's done, this phenom will set records that will stand for twenty years, mark my words. Sui generis.
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston All Rights Reserved
Video capture: Sports Illustrated
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