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How does one react to an Olympic athlete who objects to the pressure? It's sort of like a presidential candidate saying he doesn't like all the attention he's getting. The Olympic/election year 1992 is notable as the time when both these phenomena occurred. Thank the gods that our athletes proved themselves more courageous than our maverick politicians when it came to finishing what they started.

The rarity of the Olympics is what makes them precious. Athletes understand this, but more than a few are unwilling to accept the quid pro quo. Most of us will not see 20 olympiads in our lives, and an Olympic athlete's prime might extend across two. Take away the pressure and all one has is a big sports festival with fireworks and boring ceremonies to signal its beginning and end. (The Barcelona games offered an opening ceremony more boring than most. Only the lighting of the Olympic flame--done with bow and arrow--lived up to the moment.) Winning a world championship in any sporting event is no mean trick, but an Olympic gold medal is something else again. It testifies that, with each athlete in the world given four years to prepare, one is the best--best able to cut through all the added hoo-ha and perform. The phrase "grace under pressure" applies, but this is no macho Hemingway standard applied to an otherwise insignificant task. Competition, pressure, execution are the attributes of all great sporting events--for both men and women. And the Olympics pride themselves on being the greatest of all sporting events.

Therefore, it was discouraging to see the U.S. Olympic swim team complain about all the public expectations, which manifested themselves most dramatically in the media. In the end the team comported itself nicely; after a disappointing start, almost every swimmer expected to win gold rose to the occasion and claimed it in at least one event. Yet that whining in the interim was hard to take. I was hoping someone would say, "Hey, I swam the fastest race I ever swam and I just came in second, and if anybody can't accept that I'll lend them my medal for the afternoon so they can shove it up their ass," or something of the sort. I'd vote for an athlete like that if he or she ran for president. (Charles Barkley may yet get my vote, but we'll deal with him later.)

This isn't to say that athletes have to be stoic. One of the most moving early moments of the games was when swimmer Janet Evans finished second in the 800-meter freestyle and burst into tears. Evans's story in and of itself is an Olympic classic: winner of three gold medals as a sprightly 15-year-old in 1988, she watched her body change dramatically over the next four years--growing two inches and gaining 15 pounds--but she kept on swimming. The body as an entity ought to be the athlete's greatest benefactor, but there must have been times when Evans felt betrayed by hers. She went from a streamlined catamaran to a 19-foot sailboat and was expected to breeze along at the same brisk pace. Her tears, I believe, weren't in response to public expectations but to her own expectations and desires. When she came back to win the 1,500-meter freestyle going away, not a fan in the stands or watching on television could have been as happy as she was. Every athletic competition is, first and foremost, a competition with oneself; it's something that those of us who have given up competitive athletics have forgotten. Evans offered a telling reminder.

It should be added that this emphasis on pressure is not a litmus test one applies to all sports--although it certainly applies to most. Even the most obsessive Olympic fanatic has to have mixed feelings about the "women's," i.e. girls', gymnastics these days. Gymnasts are most like figure skaters in their skittish temperaments and in the demands --quite literally--of grace under pressure that are put upon them. Yet figure skaters must grow into their bodies before they are able to perform the feats demanded of them. It seems that women's gymnastics, these days, consists of a race between trainers to catch the most steely little girls before they develop and turn them into robots.

The gymnasts I most admired were two losers: Svetlana Boginskaya of Belarus and Kim Zmeskal of our own United States. Boginskaya, a 19-year-old in her second Olympics, was clearly the most elegant athlete in the competition. She led halfway through the individual events after a beautiful floor exercise. Yet she fell out of contention on the uneven bars, where her long, adult lines made her seem slow and plodding compared to her pixieish, almost insectlike younger, smaller competitors. As for Zmeskal, she gave in to the pressure on the first night of the team event by falling from the balance beam, then came back to lead all gymnasts on the second night to barely qualify for the individual finals. Then she bounced out of bounds like a stray golf shot on her first event of the finals--the floor exercise--and was never in contention. Through it all, no tears, no triumphs, just the same tinge of anxiety lining her pale blue eyes.

In the finals, I got the impression I was watching the triumph of some evil outer-space pod that turns girls into automatons. It became a battle between two very similar girls (girls, again, I insist): Tatyana Gutsu of the Ukraine and Shannon Miller of the United States. Gutsu, like Zmeskal, had fallen from the beam in the team event, but on the last rotation, giving her no time to make up for the poor score, and she had failed to qualify for the individual finals. Yet in the two days that followed one of her teammates was "injured," allowing her a spot. (This was passed over as an almost expected part of the show, but imagine the outrage if the Unified Team were still the evil Soviet empire.) Then they battled back and forth, Gutsu and Miller, each one slender, small, and--it must be admitted--supremely talented. The Spanish media, NBC informed us, had dubbed Miller the "porcelain princess," and the moniker applied too well to both of them: they seemed beautiful bits of glass, oven fired and unbelievably sturdy.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I think this is where we draw the line. To subject girls--or boys, if they were able to perform the requisite feats of men's gymnastics (which, significantly, they cannot)--to such pressure seems genuinely cruel. Both Gutsu and Miller withstood the pressure, but at the cost of nurturing more tics than a sheepdog. Dave Anderson of the New York Times felt the same and went so far as to suggest that such young competitors should be banned to prevent this "subtle form of child abuse." This seems a bit much, but something should be done. The gymnastics powers that be have altered their standards to reward a style that can only be performed by girls; those standards should be shifted--from the purely athletic toward the artistic--to emphasize the talents an adult brings to the sport, while allowing room for the true prodigy.

That said, one of the glorious moments of the games was the final rotation in the individual gymnastics championship. With both Miller and Gutsu on the vault, Gutsu shaved Miller by 12 one-thousandths of a point. Olympic judges have grown more restrained in recent years and no longer compete against one another to give out perfect 10s, but Miller's vault on this final apparatus-- under the utmost pressure--was as perfect as anyone will likely see. NBC showed it again and again, in increasingly slow motion, and it just kept getting better. But of course it was scored a 9.975, not a 10, like Mary Lou Retton's gold-winning final vault in the 1984 games, so it will have to be filed with those almost-great sports moments, perhaps alongside Raghib "Rocket" Ishmail's called-back punt return in the 1991 Orange Bowl.

The Olympic coverage, as a whole, was fairly crisp, faithful to the events as they occurred. The opening ceremony, in fact, was a bit too faithful and could have used some editing, especially in the excessive bit involving the Spanish fashion show. Elsewhere, however, NBC used a free hand in chopping up events and dealing them out. I don't imagine I was the only one hooked into the escapades of the U.S. men's volleyball team, which quickly became as much a late-night staple as Paul Shaffer. It was annoying to find oneself awake, again, at 12:30 in the morning, waiting for the U.S. team to grind out another five-set win. But the U.S. team somehow made this worthwhile time after time, especially once they'd all shaved their heads as a show of support for Bob Samuelson, a volleyball player with the facial features of John Malkovich and the hairstyle of Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett, who ran afoul of the refs and cost the U.S. team its opening match, against the Japanese.

The U.S. basketball "Dream Team," on the other hand, was shifted around and almost hidden on the schedule, in order, I suppose, to keep one tuned in to find out when they would be on next. I never went out of my way to see one of their games, but I loved it when I caught them on television all the same, from the moment Larry Bird hit a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer to give them a 40-point lead against Cuba in the Western Hemisphere qualifying tournament (they went on to win by 79). There was no drama to their contests, nothing unusual to their performances, and they laughed off the intense pressure other athletes withered under. This was the sport played at its highest level, and that's what the Olympics are about. Let's leave all that amateur-professional crap to the side for the moment; the Olympics are held to bring the best athletes in the world together, and the United States--for the first time--brought its best basketball players. The U.S. Olympic Committee didn't want to do it; they ran into more trouble with these self-possessed and (more important where the USOC is concerned) financially secure athletes than they wanted. It was the International Olympic Committee that wanted them, and there they were. I loved seeing Earvin "Magic" Johnson run the fast break again, and Larry Bird pop the three, and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen pick off passes and go for the jam, and I loved how Charles Barkley brought the exuberance of the playground to the games (his departures from traditional sportsmanship were priceless, from his elbowing of an Angolan player in the opening Olympic contest to his quote that anyone who complained about playing against a team so dominant should "just take their ass-whipping like people and go home"). While conventional amateur athletes like Germany's Albin Killat were succumbing to the pressure to the point of turning dives into belly flops, the U.S. basketball team stomped the competition like gods. If they weren't worthy of the Olympics, the only other place for them to play would have been Mount Olympus.


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