How appropriate that the centennial of the modern Olympic Games should turn into a primer on how to distinguish quality from mediocrity in the modern, no, make that the postmodern world. The summer Olympics in Atlanta were so commercialized, so contrived, so American, that they epitomized the corruption of almost every amateur Olympic ideal Pierre de Coubertin ever expressed. Of course, in this postmodern world we recognize that de Coubertin was a racist, a sexist, an elitist, and an all-around blowhard, and so the corruption of many of those ideals has been a victory hard-won and long overdue. In de Coubertin’s world there were few minorities, no women, and above all no poor people of any race or sex running the track. There were also no mothers and few fathers with the resources–financial and emotional–to make their way to the point where they could invite their young children to join them on a victory lap.
Where the Olympics are concerned we grew up in the modern world, where amateurism was to be protected like virginity, and if a western athlete didn’t make the Olympic team while a college student or shortly out of school there was no hope. How much better that talented young women are now able to compete in the Olympics, go home, have babies, and raise them in a fairly well-to-do environment while training for a return–and without serving, as diver Pat McCormick did in the 50s, as wife of the coach, mother of his children, and cook and nutritionist at the training table for the rest of the team. And how much better that athletes such as Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Janet Evans and Mary Slaney should be able to play out their Olympic careers over decades and not merely at one glorious olympiad or two.
This is the postmodern world, the land through the looking glass, where everything is inverted and reversed, where the pure has become corrupt and the corrupt somehow pure, where heroes and villains are sometimes indistinguishable and where the athletes that best express the original ideals of amateurism and the sheer glory of competition turn out to be a bunch of multimillionaire basketball players with nothing to gain but a slight boost in their off-court endorsement contracts. It’s a better world than the one that came before it, but it has come at the cost of crass commercialism, contrived TV coverage, and the commentary of John Tesh. In this world, it’s the spectator’s duty to cut through the extraneous cultural crapola. To put it another way, why penalize Michael Johnson because some ad director was observant enough to seize on his starting-line glower as the perfect image for a line of shoes?
Johnson was anointed by the mass media as the greatest star to emerge from the 1996 summer games, and with a reservation or two we’d agree. He was the athlete who best exemplified our unvarying athletic aesthetic: that it is not merely what is performed on the field of play but how it’s performed that expresses a great athlete’s character, whether it be the apparently pure and traditional “character” of a Cal Ripken or the evil-atoned-for character of a Dennis Rodman. Johnson projected his persona in his every movement on the track in Atlanta.
Much has been written and said about Johnson’s “classic” style, modeled on Jesse Owens’s upright running. Yet Johnson’s form is more baroque than classic; it’s “upright” taken to extremes. Owens ran erect, prim and proper, in the 1936 games in Berlin. The bland expression of his face and the calm of his trunk belied the energetic movement of his arms and legs, giving him an effortless look as he whizzed past the competition. With his white shoes and lily-white U.S. track uniform of those games, he seemed to be running on air. Johnson ran, like Owens, erect, but with his head lagging behind. He looked like a cartoon choo-choo: all pumping pistons and drive wheel up front, a big caboose in the rear, and his little smokestack of a head drawn backward as if caught in the draft of air created by his own motion. His results were as impressive as Owens’s: he blew people away.
Much of the fun of watching Johnson compete lay in the gamesmanship of the runners. Like poker players, no one wanted to reveal what he was holding until the final hand. In the 400-meter heats, Johnson typically got near top speed on the turn and then coasted home, twisting his chinless, drawn-back head slightly to the left and right to see if anyone was within reach. Then in the final, driving from start to finish, he was gone like a train ’round the bend, approaching Butch Reynolds’s world record, setting an Olympic record, and winning by a margin of victory that hadn’t been equaled since–how appropriate–those amateurish first modern Olympic games 100 years ago in Athens.
Even then one got the feeling Johnson was holding something in reserve, for he was also slated to compete in the 200 meters. In those heats over the next few days there was even more gamesmanship, as Johnson headed for a showdown with Namibia’s Frank Fredericks, who had ended his 21-race winning streak a few months ago in Oslo. Again Johnson coasted through his heats, but Fredericks was equally impressive–if not more so. In his first qualifying race Fredericks rose slowly out of the blocks, appeared near last place midway through the turn, and then took off like a military jet that had briefly fired its afterburners. In that 20-second race he ran hard for about five seconds. The rivalry between Johnson and Fredericks was said to be intense, and the media played it up. So in the final Johnson left nothing in reserve, pulling a hamstring down the stretch but winning in an amazing 19.32 seconds, a full third of a second ahead of his recording-setting time at this summer’s U.S. Olympic qualifying meet. (That time narrowly survived Fredericks’s finish to stand as the second-fastest clocking in the history of the event.) Johnson turned his head at the finish line, not to see who was chasing him but to see how he was doing chasing history, and when he spotted the clock he threw up his arms in amazement. Who should be the first person he embraced afterward but Fredericks himself, who was smiling in the manner of an athlete who has given his absolute best only to find himself overwhelmed. Johnson’s record 200 saw a great athlete at the absolute peak of his powers; 19.32 should stand up in that event for a long time. It’s unlikely that even Johnson will match it.
What made Johnson’s double-gold Olympics all the more noteworthy was that the hype machine had been running full blast on him. It’s not that today’s spectator has to ignore the off-field hype; rather, he or she must learn to factor it into an athlete’s feats. The one annoying thing about all the fuss over Johnson was that, as hard as Nike and NBC publicized his goal of an unprecedented 200-meter, 400-meter double, they’d done their best to ignore that Valerie Brisco-Hooks had won both events in the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Not only that, but the very night Johnson completed his double, Marie-Jose Perec of France completed double gold in the same two events on the women’s side. When Nike and NBC called Johnson’s feat “unprecedented,” they meant unprecedented by a man. This was the most glaring bit of chauvinism of the games, and it made all the talk of how these were now “the women’s games” seem like so much pandering.
That said, women and their stories did dominate. The media made much of the cat fight between Gail Devers and Gwen Torrence (Torrence had accused Devers of using performance-enhancing drugs at the 1992 games in Barcelona), but when Devers won the 100-meter dash to claim the title of world’s fastest woman, Torrence was one of the first people she hugged. They later shared the victory stand after running legs of the 4×100-meter relay. Devers’s attempt to double in the 100-meter hurdles was quashed, this time not when she tripped over the last hurdle but when Lyudmila Enquist of Sweden, formerly of the Soviet Union, won the event. Enquist, in a story not even Tanya Harding could top, had for a while been banned from athletics for testing positive for steroids. Her ex-husband later admitted he had planted them among her protein pills when she left him for her Swedish agent. She returned to the good graces of the International Olympic Committee to win gold. There was also the exuberance of Dot Richardson, the star shortstop on the softball team, who had left her medical residency for a year to play in the Olympics, and her teammate Lisa Fernandez, a pitcher with an underhand fastball so vicious she should join the Cubs or White Sox.
Best of all, perhaps, were the last hurrahs of Janet Evans, Mary Slaney, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Evans returned for her third Olympics with her familiar, paddleboat swimming style, but after overcoming the ravages of time and a maturing body shape to repeat as the 800-meter gold medalist in 1992, both caught up with her. In contrast to Johnson, she let up too soon in a 400-meter qualifying heat and failed to make the finals. Then she narrowly made the final 800-meter field and finished an also-swam. That didn’t diminish her career as one of the great Olympic swimmers. (Her 1988 world record in the 800 could stand longer than Johnson’s in the 200.) Slaney, however, returned with an unfamiliar, herky-jerky running style that truly had been ravaged by time. Once she was one of the most graceful runners on the planet; now, she looked old and ran older. Unlike Evans, she returned home without past gold medals to console her. Joyner-Kersee suffered a hamstring injury and had to withdraw from her gold-medal defense in the heptathlon. Yet she returned for the long jump, and on her last try earned a bronze medal. Like Evans, she is the greatest female athlete the United States has produced in her arena; unlike Evans, she went out a medalist.
Carl Lewis, the old pro, pulled two last long jumps out of somewhere: the first, on his final try of the qualifying event, to make the finals; the next, on his first jump the following night, to put pressure on the field. The jump stood up, and he claimed the gold medal. Lewis was one of the first of the great postmodern U.S. Olympians to cash in on liberalized money-earning standards, and for that reason he was always regarded somewhat suspiciously by the U.S. mass audience. This final victory almost threatened to send him out in the golden glow of an elder statesman who’d earned nine golds over four sets of Olympic games, but then he campaigned shamelessly for a spot on the 4×100 relay team in order to set an Olympic record of 10 golds. When that went awry he departed with a smile masking apparent bitterness–a familiar face on him.
Dan O’Brien borrowed a slogan from the 1983 White Sox and won ugly in the decathlon. Derrick Adkins was much more beautiful in winning the 400-meter hurdles. Like the previous master of that event, Edwin Moses, Adkins was a former engineering student who took a studied approach to athletics. Yet, like the physicist Heisenberg, he refuted many of the accepted “facts” he had been taught by his elders. The conventional wisdom in the hurdles was to get back on the ground, beating feet against the track, as soon as possible. Adkins, however, reasoned that air time, resulting in less friction, was to be extended. That gave him the fluid look of water riffling downhill over a pebbly streambed.
Amid all the hoopla and the hooey, one had to seek out beauty to find it. In the opening ceremony, embellished with pickup trucks (a touch all Atlanta’s own) and the usual schoolkids in goofy costumes, there was one neat scene in which sheets were arrayed around a bright light, and dancers in athletic poses threw up shadows resembling the images on a black-figured Grecian urn. Likewise, amid all the hysteria and jingoism of the U.S. women’s gymnastics TV coverage, there was one moment for the ages.
Throughout the team finals, there were four gymnastics teams on the floor, but the NBC coverage focused almost exclusively on the U.S. team. Still, they were clearly having an extraordinary night, with Dominique Dawes excelling and Shannon Miller performing as coolly and proficiently as she had in Barcelona. (Both would crash and burn on the floor exercise, of all things, in the individual finals.) Most solid of all, however, was Kerri Strug, who kept performing strong routines whenever the U.S. seemed about to fold. They went to the vault, where Mary Lou Retton won her individual gold medal in Los Angeles, needing only to perform well to seal up first place. The strongest members of the team on this apparatus, and thus the last to go, were Dominique Moceanu and Strug, both of them students of Retton’s coach, Bela Karolyi. Moceanu needed a score slightly better than 9.7 to clinch the gold, but her feet slid out from under her on the landing and she sat down, earning a 9.1. Still, she had another vault, but it duplicated her first. Only Strug was left. By that time another Russian had come up short of a perfect 10 on floor exercise, and Strug needed only slightly better than a 9.4 to clinch gold. Yet she too sat down on the landing, twisting her ankle to boot and earning a score no better than Moceanu’s.
Here’s what happened next. TV commentators Tesh, Elfi Schlegel, and Tim Daggett missed it, and NBC failed to correct it, even though the network aired the event on tape about five hours after the fact. Strug could easily have wagered that the two remaining Russian gymnasts would earn something less than perfect 10s and that the U.S. team could afford to stand pat with Moceanu’s score. She could have put her own interests in getting her ankle treated immediately, in order to be ready for the individual competition, ahead of the team’s. She didn’t. Instead, she took her second vault. Although she had limped back to the end of the runway, she ran down with nary a hitch. She bounced off the vault, ricocheted off the horse, and performed a twisting somersault landing so solid she all but did it on one foot. Holding one leg off the ground like a gimpy horse, she extended her arms, then collapsed trying to leave the mat. She earned a 9.712 to seal the gold. She also tore ligaments in her ankle, removing her from further competition.
The final Russians on floor exercise did come up short, and the U.S. team could have won with Moceanu’s score. The TV commentators kept this hidden, as if the touch of absurdity somehow diminished Strug’s vault. In fact, Strug’s vault was more heroic because of the absurdity. It was perhaps the most literal-minded application of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure” aesthetic we’ve ever seen in sports, and coming in the midst of that overblown, hyperventilating TV coverage it caught us by complete surprise, so that its effect was even more powerful. Here was an authentic moment elbowing its way into the phoniest, most contrived TV coverage in Olympic history.
Yet now comes a relatively new phenomenon of the postmodern age: the dangers of overexposure. Only a few days later the U.S. team, Strug included, returned to the mat to perform a jingoistic joint floor exercise, complete with hands over hearts for the anthemic “Proud to Be an American.” Strug’s moment was one of the greatest in the 100 years of the Olympics, but by Christmas we may well be sick of it.