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Clippings: Olympics 2012 are sports at their best

I knew the American Fab Five would win the women’s gymnastics title at the Olympics several hours before watching some of the action on television Tuesday evening. And I knew Michael Phelps would surpass the Olympic medal count on Tuesday by reaching 19, but fall short in the 200-meter fly by five-hundredths of a second.
But the headlines I saw on my email at work didn’t matter, I knew there was much more to the story.
Watching the action unfold in the 200-meter butterfly and seeing how Phelps led the entire race only to be touched-out at the end was exciting enough — and actually allowed me to focus on the details rather than the result. When he came up for air and saw he’d been beat, you could see his disappointment and you knew what he was thinking: Oh man, I thought I had it in the bag. I can’t believe I lost it in those last few strokes; shoot, I shouldn’t have glided so long on that last stroke, I should have…
But that’s what the Olympics are all about: extraordinary individual effort at that one given moment in one event. In the 200-fly, Phelps lost the edge that was clearly his to South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who took the gold and the glory. He beat Phelps in a race the Olympic legend hadn’t lost, anywhere in the world, since 2000.
Commentators will chatter about how Phelps, with a bit more training and a more serious approach to this year’s Olympics, could (or should) have won even more gold medals, and overall medals — possibly reaching as many as 23-25 if he were in top form.
But that’s not the point: This is the guy’s fourth Olympics. He’s been training in a pool for more than three-quarters of his 27 years. He’s a bit burned out; and at that particular moment he didn’t have as much fire in his belly as did the upstart South African. That’s sports, and that’s what makes it compelling. The most talented don’t always win.
Even knowing the headlines, we watch to see the triumph of victory and the tragedy of defeat. Le Clos won and the elation and surprise on his face was the story to witness, not just Phelps’s disappointment.
Or consider the Russian women gymnastics team, or the American men’s gymnastics team. The Russian women were in the running, then fell apart with a few missteps. In the men’s gymnastics competition, the Americans — who had expected to medal — were never in it. They just couldn’t find the groove; they lost the mojo they had the day or two before in the preliminary rounds.
The Fab Five, however, were spectacular.
Who couldn’t watch little Gabby Douglas all day long flying high on the uneven bars, springing off the vault so high it’s breathtaking, or bouncing and prancing her way through the floor routine as effortlessly as a pixy sprinkled with fairy dust? And to watch Gabby and her teammates (McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber) perform so flawlessly in their individual events, and then for Douglas, Wieber and Raisman to execute their floor routines to clinch the gold was the essence of a dominating team performance: flawless execution with minimal mistakes.
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But at this early stage in the Olympics — before the track and field events and many others — it’s the Michael Phelps story I find so interesting.
It is difficult to imagine striving for some ephemeral goal for so much of your life. How do you know at age 6 or 8 or 10 that you want to become the world’s best at something? How do you say to yourself, “I want to win more Olympic medals than any other person in the world ever has before?” How do you tell yourself for 20 straight years that this goal is so important you’ll wake up every morning and go to bed every night with this over-arching goal riding herd on your daily activities — what you eat, how much you exercise, how much you study, how much you socialize, how much you party, how late you stay out, how you spend your “free” time.
Wow. Even if you were motivated to take on that challenge at 15 (the age Phelps competed in his first Olympics), to follow through for the next 12 years is the epitome of commitment.
I’m excited that Phelps has set the record. I am in awe that he has been so disciplined for this long in his life, and that such discipline has led to his success (it doesn’t always). I even bet that Larisa Latynina, who had 18 Olympic medals back in the 1950s-’60s, is glad for a story that puts her back in the spotlight and moves the bar a little higher. Upping the ante is also at the heart and soul of Olympic sports.
But I’m not envious of Phelps, or the Fab Five, or my favorite competitors in the pool, the sport fields or on the track.
I love sports for the fun and the excitement, for the exercise and the camaraderie, for the rush of adrenaline when the moment is yours to win or lose or just have a good go of it. But when it becomes work, I can sympathize with Phelps and understand why he can smile and just be happy he’s still among the world’s best at 27 — gold or silver or bronze, or not.
That he can smile and not beat himself up for losing a race he could have won is actually one of the best story lines of these young games — a little humility in a sea of egos. That’s sports at its best, too.

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