To me the Olympic Games are all about track and field. The real games don’t take place until Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake have their showdown in the sprints and those Jamaican wonder women leave the competition in their rear-view mirrors. Meanwhile, I sit and yawn while someone shoots at clay pigeons or plays Robin Hood, or whatever. Oh, I don’t mind dozing through some equestrian show – the horses are soothing to watch – or admiring the ball control and shooting prowess of those soccer stars. But water polo? Field hockey? Who watches those?
The Olympics manages to make even boxing look boring. I can hardly see the boxers under all that padding and behind those enormous gloves. As for those “thrilling” swimming competitions, all I get to see on TV is tiny slivers of churned water. Somewhere in there, someone is setting another record, or scoring another upset, but we viewers wouldn’t know it until the commentator clues us in.
So it was a great joy to watch the U.S. women’s gymnastics team do their thing. I’d seen gymnastics at school, of course. And some of those gymnasts were quite impressive. But the Olympics is a completely different world. As Salon’s Willa Paskin put it this morning:
Olympians are, to a one, freakishly talented and fiercely devoted. But swimmers swim and runners run, and though we can’t go nearly as fast (someone recently suggested that a normal person swim in the last, just to provide context), our much slower laps and jogs still look like the same sport these Olympians participate in. But gymnasts are tiny little girls who turn themselves into rockets, doing flips and turns and splits and tumbles we patently cannot do with what looks like extraordinary ease.
She was describing America’s Fab 5, of course. There’s nothing tiny or girlish about the male gymnasts; they look like body builders. But while they undeniably perform magnificent feats of strength and daring, it was the shimmering sprites on the women’s team that bewitched us with their magic.
I have to confess I was caught up in the wonder, the suspense, the risk – not only of physical injury but also of devastating disappointment and embarrassment. As I saw the indomitable little Gabby Douglas soar above those uneven bars (above, right), my heart caught in my throat. And I teared up when the little Russian gymnasts crumpled under the pressure. It was beautiful and inspiring – and so sad… so sad that in the glory of the US triumph, those little girls from anoother country saw their dreams turn to dust.
That’s life, I guess; someone wins, someone loses. But don’t try to tell me “the glory of the Olympics is not to have won but to have taken part.” That might have been true once. But not today.
Today, as a famous football coach said, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Photo above left shows US women’s gymnastics team, from left: McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber.