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Games always prove gripping

As usual, the Olympics have hooked me. No, I haven’t watched the London Games 24/7. The need to stain our deck, get our new desktop computer up to speed and other household chores have gotten in the way. Oh, and they actually expect me to show up for work, too. The nerve.
Still, my family and I have watched a fair amount, some live on our desktop, some painfully parceled out by NBC in primetime, and some recorded on our DVR. The DVR is great because it allows us to skip through video of gymnasts and swimmers when they were kids, not to mention Super Pac ads.
A quick word on NBC. I don’t want to bang on the network too hard for its coverage. NBC is in it to make money, and its approach is working.
But on a weekend there is no reason not to show the Phelps-Lochte showdown live, and then re-run it in primetime. And when on this past Saturday we tuned in at 8 o’clock to watch athletes go higher, faster, stronger, and instead we got a recap of the USA women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal performance from 1996 — well, let’s just say NBC crossed a line. Enough. I’ve never been happier to own that DVR.
A few thoughts on Phelps. First, his teammate Tyler Clary was full of the stuff they put chlorine in pools to decontaminate when Clary slammed Phelps’ work ethic. Phelps is and has been in terrific condition, good enough to qualify for four Olympiads. One also does not have that physique without training hard and eating carefully. Stick to swimming, Tyler, and you too, Lochte. We don’t need to know what you do in the pool besides swim. Phelps showed more class than both those guys.
Phelps had already proved he belonged on the pedestal with the all-time Olympic greats four years ago, and needed to do nothing more to cement his legacy. But do more, he did. Phelps went out in style with his efforts in London, and showed incredible longevity in his athletic career.
Still, the greatest ever?
I’ll stick with Carl Lewis, the only track athlete to make five Olympic teams, the International Olympic Committee’s Sportsman of the (20th) Century, and Sports Illustrated’s Olympian of the Century. Lewis is now one of only two men to defend the 100-meter title (hello, Usain Bolt, another who belongs in this discussion), and the only man to defend the long jump crown.
Lewis won 10 medals, nine gold, in his Olympic career, fewer than half Phelps’ total. But Lewis has only one way to get from point A to point B, not four, as swimmers do. How many golds does he win if there are four different long jumps, with run-ups from 10, 20, 35 and 50 meters? And if he is allowed to run sprints at 50 and 150 meters as well as 100 and 200 meters? And there are more kinds of relays?
Also, note Phelps is once again, as was the case in Beijing, not the fastest man in the pool. Florent Manadou won the 50-meter freestyle, and Nathan Adrian won the 100-meter freestyle. Those are your fastest swimmers. Phelps is an incredibly versatile, wonderfully talented, amazingly great athlete. But I believe for a swimmer be crowned the greatest of all time, he probably should be the fastest, not just the most adept at its many strokes.
Moving on, who knew badminton would make headlines? Most know that four two-man teams were unceremoniously tossed from the Games for giving less than their best effort in matches. One hilarious video of a contest between Korean and Chinese teams showed players deliberating hitting the shuttlecock into the net or out, or just letting it drop at their feet.
The problem was because of upsets the winner of some matches in the tournament’s round-robin phase would face a tougher draw in the elimination phase. Tactically, it made some sense to lose, as some talking heads pointed out afterward. The excuse was floated that it was the format’s fault, not that of the players and the coaches who ordered them to throw the matches.
I’m not buying it. To start with, badminton is a good sport. Back when I went away to prep school I hit regularly with an accomplished player and got OK at it. I earned a P.E. credit in badminton from Middlebury College. I easily defeated the school instructor in a match to prove proficiency. So here the sport is with a chance to show it’s more than a backyard diversion, and the athletes make a mockery of it because they are wusses who aren’t confident about their next match.
Secondly, officials on the video repeatedly warned the players they would be disqualified if they didn’t start trying. Um, not much of a competitive advantage if you earn a DQ, eh? The players got what they deserved.
The highlights so far are too many to list. But one favorite deserves mention: Brit Jessica Ennis winning the women’s heptathlon. (Great to see track after a week of watching many athletes waiting for judges to post scores.)
Ennis is possibly Britain’s most popular Olympian, a lithe and well-spoken 26-year-old who missed the Beijing Olympics with stress fractures in her feet. By the time the final of the heptathlon’s seven events came around, the 800 meters, Ennis was so far ahead basically all she had to do was jog a couple laps around the track and collect her medal.
Instead, spurred on by a roaring capacity crowd she went out fast and took the lead, holding it for about 550 meters, easily clinching gold. Two runners passed her on the final corner, but she still looked strong, and even with another runner making a move on her, at least a fourth-place finish in the race looked certain. The announcers said she wasn’t the fastest in the event, and it is unusual for a runner in even a middle distance event to be caught and passed, and then rally for a victory.
Then a funny thing happened. Maybe it was the British fans, now cheering at near-deafening levels. Or the frustration of missing Beijing. Or the years of training paying off. Or just the joy of the moment. Or all of the above.
Ennis suddenly shrugged off the challenge from behind, burst off the rail and stepped to the outside past the two competitors ahead of her, and surged down the stretch to an easy victory as the stadium erupted in an absolute frenzy.
Now that was an Olympic moment.

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