Posted: Tuesday August 17, 2004 9:45PM; Updated: Tuesday August 17, 2004 10:52PM
Let's talk about hype. And what it can do to the color of silver.
Two teams, two silver medals in team gymnastics for the U.S. On the one hand, you have the U.S. men's team, perennial runts of the Olympic litter. No medals since 1984 and only one before that, way back in 1932. Never so much as an Olympic bronze on foreign soil. Talked softly but confidently after two consecutive silver medals in the world championships, but only spoke about trying to win a medal, any medal.
Sure, they knew they had the talent to possibly win gold, but any medal would send them home happy. Which it did. Solid silver. Feel-good story all around. Departing three-time Olympian Blaine Wilson finally made it to the podium at age 30. The Hamm twins lived up to their billing. Men's gymnastics gets a long overdue dose of respect.
Fast-forward 24 hours. The U.S. women, preposterously dubbed the "Magnificent Six," are beaten in the final rotation by a Romanian team that no one's heard of outside of Bucharest. A close competition, fairly judged, resulting in a silver medal that brought as much joy to the American camp as a kick to the kidney. So many long faces hadn't been seen since Smarty Jones was run down at the Belmont.
The difference? Hype. The media, NBC, the American coaches and the gymnasts themselves were predicting the gold. No less an authority than Mary Lou Retton called them the most talented team ever assembled. They were chasing history, comparing themselves to the real "Magnificent Seven" who won gold in Atlanta, when in fact they had done exactly -- what?
Won the 2003 World Championship? At home, in Anaheim? Well, no. Three of the six members of that team weren't chosen for the trip to Athens. Annia Hatch, Courtney McCool and Mohini Bhardwaj -- half of this Olympic team -- weren't on the World Championship winners. A fourth, Courtney Kupets, was injured at those World Championships and unable to compete in all the rotations. This group was as different from those 2003 World Champions as the World Champion Florida Marlins are from the team that took the field in 2004.
That's girl's gymnastics -- and, yes, most of them are girls, not women. They come and they go in a heartbeat. Now you see them, praise them, cheer them, and now you don't. We may not like it, but all of us in this media machine should know it. You're only magnificent if you win the meet that you're in.
Unfortunately, the hype machine can't control itself, and it runs away in a pre-Olympic frenzy, trying to create heroes before they're born. Or made. This U.S. women's team was talented, yes. But I assure you there wasn't a gymnast on it of the poise and grace of Shannon Miller. Or the great Russian star, Svetlana Boguinskaya. Nor was there, much as NBC willed it, the next Mary Lou.
"Everyone expected gold, but we're happy with silver," said 18-year-old Terin Humphrey, gamely repeating the party line.
Did the pre-Olympic expectations weigh on the psyche of the team? "In the back of our minds, a little bit."
That's the poison of hype. It saps a team or an athlete of the adrenalin and focus that comes from being an underdog. And if anyone had looked closely enough at the Romanians, who also won the preliminaries on Sunday, they'd have seen that their gymnastics was every bit as difficult as the Americans'. And that their floor exercise routines -- the event that won the Romanians the gold -- were measurably superior.
So let's hope that one day, hopefully soon, the young ladies on the U.S. team will really mean it when they say they're happy with the silver. It may not be magnificent, or the fuel of rich endorsements, but it was very much deserved.