11 August 2008

long live sport

I love the Olympics.

I know a lot of folks seem bored by The Games, and some folks can be so annoyingly nationalistic as to become nauseating, but for me one of the most purely beautiful sporting moments is that odd 5 minute highlight reel now assembled and played at the close of every Olympic broadcast, where we see a parade of Olympic glories (and sometimes heartbreaks) set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Yeah, yeah, Super Bowl and World Series and World Cup and whatever, blah blah blah... those are all professionals playing at the peaks of long well-publicized careers, with decades of pampering and pay behind and usually years more ahead.

But in the Olympics we get Nobodies. Anonymous people from anonymous places, often competing in sports we never even acknowledge except for these once-every-four-year events where we will sit and tolerate some swimming or decathlon highlights as we wait for the Dream Team to play.

I love the nobodies. Because every time you see someone lining up to compete in an Olympic event, that's a human being who has set their jaw with steely resolve and dedicated years of their life to answering a question most humans will always remain too timid and terrified to ever ponder: "how good can I be? Where is the absolute limit?"

Pushing one's self in pursuit of epic greatness is not something most people have the stomach to try. The ego cost is usually too great: It sucks to be shown -- conclusively, harshly -- that you're just average. Or maybe even worse. Instead, we mock those who dig deep onto reserves we lack. We ridicule the focus and dedication required to improve from the 99.9947 percentile to the 99.9983 percentile.

How razor thin is that difference? About 8 one-thousandths of a second, if Sunday's 4x100 Men's Freestyle Relay is any indication.

Everyone probably is aware of US swimmer Michael Phelps. He is a freak of nature, a condor-winged naturally-gifted talent with an unnatural drive to improve. He's on a chase to collect 8 golds and become the greatest collector of Olympic hardware in American history. He has huge endorsements and requests for appearances on all the shows and magazines. he is the Golden Boy of swimming right now.

But how many people can honestly say they'd hear of Jason Lezak before Sunday night?

Sunday, Lezak swam the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay for the US men's team. The French team was near-universally expected to win. Even Rowdy Gaines, former Olympian and commentator for NBCs swimming coverage at The Games, admitted "I've worked this race on paper a hundred times and I just don't see how the US can outswim the French-- they are just that good."

But there's a reason we actually run the races and play the games rather than just award medals and trophies based upon what the stats and numbers tell us is "supposed" to happen. Because we -- we, the less focused less committed less involved folks on the sidelines -- will never truly know when one human being is going to take a deep breath, step forward, and say "to hell with what is supposed to happen. Right now, right here -- I AM history."

If you did not see Sunday's epic race, check the video below. Words will not describe the just plain amazingness of it.

On the final turn of the final leg, the US team trailed the French team by roughly three quarters of a second -- a full body length -- with the French riding to certain gold on the back of the world record holder in the 100 freestyle, Alain Bernard. Bernard had expanded a small lead into a near-impossible lead with just one pool length to go. The commentators covering the race were saying there was no way to chase down Bernard, the world's fastest sprinter.

Except someone forgot to tell Lezak. With half a pool to go, Lezak unleashed what swim experts are already calling the most amazing and impossible surge ever witnessed. Suddenly, without any rational explanation, Lezak started closing. Fast.

Phelps and teammates watching from the finish line were screaming for Lezak to find one more calorie of strength. The announcers were screaming "THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!" Even Bernard, a "right breather" who turns his face over his right shoulder to breath between strokes, could be seen turning to his left underwater to steal a glimpse at what was totally completely and in all ways inconceivable -- "oh my God -- here he comes..."

Bernard, already the world's fastest-ever in this event, broke his own record in the race, covering 100 yards in a blistering 46.6 seconds, only the third time any human being had broken the 47-second mark over 100 meters.

Lezak? From some never expected corner of his heart, he summoned forth the insane effort needed to swim a 46-flat. Three quarters of a second better than Bernard's record. Lezak lunged forward with his last bit of strength to touch the finish 8 thousandths of a second before the mighty Bernard, and nobody in the building could quite believe what they had just seen. The French stood staring at the final times with a totally stunned expression, as Phelps, Gale and Jones flexed and howled with pure unfiltered screaming joyful wonder.

Lezak? He panted in the water, seeming too spent even to lift his arms to accept a high five. He had no strength left to celebrate.

He'd left it all out there in the race -- one insane impossible unbelievable unforgettable race.

"The whole thing was remarkable," said Orjan Madsen, the German head coach. "It was one of those moments where you just sit back and say, 'Jesus Christ.' If I wouldn't have seen [Lezak overtaking Bernard] with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it."

Long Live Sport.


Stephen said...

great commentary, dude -- look out, Rowdy! luv it!

Stephen said...

btw, they zapped your vid... :-(

Brent said...

My son the (very slow) swimmer stayed up to watch the race, we hate the french and were hoping for a miracle. 50 meters to go: "oh no, he'll never catch up! 25 meters: "wow do you see that?" 15 meters: uncontrolled screaming! 10 meters: uncontrolled screaming and jumping up and down. The wall: a fraction of a second of silence, then bursts of "how'd that taste frenchies" (the son is quite the trash talker).

Such a great olympic moment, it might surpass the USA hockey team beating the USSR team. People that aren't supposed to win finding something inside that the rest of us don't have.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Beautiful commentary.

sweeper said...

Most Excellent Post. These athletes are all in for the game and to achieve excellence. In many ways, they make their pro counterparts look rather pathetic. They couldn't have written a better story than the 100 meter relay event. Unless it involved a simultaneous alien attack.

C W Magee said...

"The French team was near-universally expected to win."

Out here, the American were considered strong favorites, with the Australians and French outside chances. So I think that the USA as underdog story may have been a fabrication of the US press.

If you really want an amazing story, though, how about this guy: