The London Olympics — A Retrospective

BLOG #35, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE LONDON OLYMPICS
A RETROSPECTIVE
August 29, 2012

What a show London threw for the world!

And that’s one thing London appears to do better than any other city in the world, unexcelled as they are in royal pageantry.

Every four years of our lives–barring world wars–, the world gathers for another Olympics. The Winter Olympics, since they disenfranchise the Southern hemisphere countries, can never be truly global. In today’s electronic world, it would be almost unthinkable for any nation to do a no-show for a Summer Olympics for its very place among the family of nations is at stake; not to show up would represent a worldwide black eye. Indeed, these Olympics can truthfully be said to represent the most-watched spectacle on earth. Hence the sheer amount of money and effort expended for bragging rights for specific events.

Each Olympics of our lives gifts us with a new set of heroes and heroines. The coin of the realm is medals, with Gold equating the laurel wreaths of ancient times. One moment, an athlete is unknown; only seconds later, the athlete’s name and image is transmitted on every computer screen in the world. One moment, an athlete may be facing a minimum wage future; only seconds later, endorsements worth millions! No wonder they cry, when they have to settle for fourth place, for not to earn at least a Bronze is to be saddled with an achievement that doesn’t even make a blip on the media screen.

Especially is this true in the U.S., where, sadly, the only medal that appears to count is Gold. On talk shows, Silver and Bronze winners rarely are even approached for interviews. This is, of course, a far cry from the Olympic ideal: To be honored for the effort represented by the achievement of edging out their competitors in their native countries–and thus earning the right to show up in the quadrennial Olympic parade of nations. Tragically, this U.S. led perception that only Gold counts has seeped into the global Zeitgeist and distorted it as well.

The Olympics creates its own royalty. In this respect, case in point is Ethiopia’s most famous runner. So idolized is she that in her home nation she has achieved such a level of idolatry that she is treated as though she were empress of that former monarchy.

The same is true with the so-called “fastest man on earth,” Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Yet even he had to re-earn this status, beating out an up-and-coming Jamaican who had defeated Bolt in Jamaican pre-trials, proving that past laurels are ephemeral at best: lasting only until someone else comes along who proves better, stronger, or faster.

Or if further proof of fame’s short shelf life were needed, we’d need look no further than Michael Phelps, the Superman of swimming. Even though his supremacy in prior Olympics had seemed absolute, he came into the London Olympics under a cloud of doubt, which early meets did little to dispel as in several cases he failed to medal at all. The big question had to do with whether archrival Ryan Lochte might supplant him. But then Phelps awoke, and the lion roared once again, and he finished his astounding Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 Gold, making him perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. At least for now. Next Olympics, in Rio, it will be someone else’s opportunity to shine and inevitably Phelps’ medals will lose their luster. As Robert Frost famously put it in his poem by the same name, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Prior to the Olympics, all around the world, in each nation, as Olympic tryouts took place, those who excelled became locally famous, high hopes held out for the best of them. This local fame crescendoed as each team was sent off to London. In some cases, this early fame proved to be justified; in the majority of cases, it would not, and that early fame wouldn’t even last long enough to accompany the athlete back home.

We couldn’t help but note this phenomenon in the case of our state’s Wunderkind, Missy Franklin, temporarily lauded nationally, lauded as well in Colorado. In her case, however, the hype proved to be justified for she went on to win five medals (five Gold and two World Records). More significantly than that, however, she emerged from the games as America’s new sweetheart, her infectious joie de vivre lighting up every room and venue she entered; and not coincidentally energizing every team meet she participated in. Just as significant, if not more so, had to do with her parents’ determination to value their daughter’s right to a normal growing up over the siren call of professional sports and the money it could shower upon her if she’d just renounce normal girlhood in favor of becoming a cog in professional sports’ straightjacketing and mass-produced squirrel cages, akin to the State-run sports programs operated by medal factories such as China and Russia, in which the athlete’s parents are provided few opportunities to interact with their children.

Nor should we forget the way the so-called “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas, captured the adoration of every little girl in the United States.

A serendipity had to do with the sight of the world’s most iconic couple, William and Kate, reveling in the sights and sounds of the games like any other couples sitting in the stands.

These, of course, are but a few of this year’s crop of Olympians who capture–at least temporarily–hearts all around the world.

See you in Rio!

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                                                                              BLOG #29, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
FAIR PLAY
AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON
PART ONE
July 18, 2012

Every year at this time the Tour de France dominates our lives.  Not that we are unique in this respect, for in France over 15,000,000 people line 2,100 miles of roads, mainly in France but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain; and then there are the millions who watch it on television around the world.  Without question it is the greatest bicycle race on earth.

But keeping it so is anything but an easy task given that riders from every bicycle-loving-nation on earth try to make it into the ranks of one of the competing teams.  Together, all these fiercely competing teams make up what they call the peloton.  Each year my wife and I become more fascinated by this strange animal with its core engine of riders and its constant breakaway of riders determined to find fame outside the riders who are content with whatever glory comes to their individual teams.

Because so much is riding on winning something—be it being first to crest a hill, first to race across a finish line during a day’s stage (if not first, at least second or third), and most desirable of all: first to cross the line in Paris as the winner of the Yellow Jersey (or second or third)—there is almost unbelievable pressure on race officials to keep a lid on things, on the testosterone-driven 180-some riders who each harbors an agenda.

And then there are the inevitable crashes.  In this year’s Tour, far more than normal.  When the peloton is in motion with all those cyclists weaving in and out, moving forward and dropping back, all in the confines of narrow roads, crashes occur without a moment’s notice.  When they do, given their speed (20 to almost 60 mph), and paved road surface, the injuries are often bloody and serious, resulting in continual reductions of riders in the peloton.

With the peloton is a host of race officials, team leaders, media personnel (complete with helicopters overhead), and general support personnel, all further clogging up roads bordered by spectators.  It is a veritable zoo.

Each year’s peloton is a world unto itself, a miniature republic.  The ruler of that peloton is forced to prove his right to wear the coveted Yellow Jersey.  The winners early on are a different breed from the kings of the sport who lie low until the mountains.  Thus the winners of the relatively flat stages know that their reigns are likely to be brief.  The entire peloton knows this thus the early day-to-day winners have little power over their unruly cyclists.  But cyclists feverishly compete for momentary glory anyway, even knowing how ephemeral it is likely to be.

Always in the back of their minds are the dreaded time trials.  Dreaded because in them there is no longer any possibility that they can hide their true abilities from the peloton or the world, for each rider’s race time is individual.  At every stage of the time trials, speed so far will be measured against all the other finishers.  Almost inevitably, the leading time trialists will also excel in the mountains and fight it out for the podium in Paris.

And then there loom the mountains, with their serpentine roads and grades up to 20% on which the true separation between the titans and the lesser-mortals is graphically made evident.  But no matter how powerful a cyclist may be, unless he has an equally powerful team supporting him, his winning chances are nil.  Here it is that the smoothly operating phalanxes of superb and tireless mountain men come into their own, each man giving his physical all at leading out at the head of the peleton, with the others getting to coast behind in his slipstream.  Inevitably, however, the time will come when the future king of the race is forced to leave the slipstream and race for the top with the other would-be-kings.  These moments literally define each year’s Tour, and can be tremendously exciting to watch.

Now it is that the entire focus of the Tour is on these gladiators: who is it that has the greatness and staying power to dominate the mountains and rule over the rest of the race?  Sometimes the outcome remains in doubt until the very last day.  But then, be the margin between the leader and the closest competitor ten minutes or ten seconds, during the triumphal ride to Paris it is an unspoken rule that it would be unsportsmanlike to challenge the Yellow Jersey for supremacy in Paris.  Yet, even then a crash or accident of some sort could dethrone the ruler as could his failure to keep up with the peloton.

* * *

Next week, after the last week of this year’s tour, we’ll discuss more in depth the issue of what it takes to maintain a level playing field for all, as well as what real power may reside in those who wear the yellow jersey during the last half of each year’s Tour.