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How cool was gymnast Paul Hamm's comeback in the men's all-around competition Wednesday? As incredible as his final routine was --- a beyond-clutch 9.837 on the high bar that won him gold by twelve-thousandths of a point -- I was equally entertained watching Hamm dig himself the hole that he barely got out of.
Coming out of his blind landing in the vault event, the Wisconsinite did his best impersonation of that ski jumper at the beginning of ABC's Wide World of Sports, lunging sideways, nearly into the laps of the judges, and inducing incontinence, it seemed, in commentators Al Trautwig and Tim Daggett. "Five tenths [off] for the sit, deductions galore for going to the side," hectored Daggett. "It's shocking."
Mildly shocking, to me, was the pleasure I've been taking from the pratfalls of my countrymen.
I laughed out loud upon learning that the U.S. hoops team had been schooled by Puerto Rico (Anyone who read my colleague Jack McCallum's story on this painfully inexperienced squad could not have been surprised by that result).
My take on the woeful play of these ambassadors from the NBA is this: these guys spend enough time getting smoke blown up their behinds -- let 'em eat crow for awhile. Let them explain why they had to hang on for dear life in their win over Greece, after losing by 19 to Puerto Rico, a team with a 40-year-old center. Let them marinate in the new-found knowledge that the international game is more about team play -- and the ability to shoot better than 7-for-45 from the 3-point line -- than it is about their dazzling individual skills.
Is something wrong with me? I was not disappointed in the least by Michael Phelps' failure to eclipse Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in the same Olympics (By the way, has Ian Crocker finished his leg of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay yet? Did someone slip a lead pipe into that guy's skinsuit or what?) I have nothing against Phelps, who seems like a great kid, and whose freakish talent is obvious. But I was turned off by the marketing campaign that accompanied his Olympic preparation: if he had won eight golds, Speedo was going to cut him a check for $1 million. Yeah, it was a savvy business move, earning them boatloads of pre-Games pub. It also ensured that no matter how remarkably the kid performed -- he has three golds and two bronzes at this writing -- anything less than eight gold medals would carry with it a whiff of disappointment -- which is ridiculous.
If I have nothing against the athletes, and I don't (even the cold-shooting NBA players deserve props for showing up in Athens, when so many of their peers bagged on these Games), why would I take pleasure in their disappointments? Because they expose hype for the cheap talk it is. Because they muzzle, however briefly, the "USA!"-chanting yahoos whose enjoyment of the Olympics is pegged solely to this country's medal count. The jingoists would say they're just being patriotic. I would say these Games are a quadrennial celebration of the brotherhood of nations. I would say they're missing the point.
I liked William Rhoden's Wednesday column in The New York Times. Rhoden begged to differ with those who labeled Romania's victory over the U.S. women in gymnastics as an "upset"; as something the American women, who took silver, needed to apologize for. This is the message the media too often sends our athletes: If you're not on top of the podium when your event is over, you basically wasted your airfare getting over here. Rhoden got his hands on a story written by Kim Zmeskal, a gymnast who was favored for gold in Barcelona but finished 10th. So disappointed was Zmeskal, then-16, that she bailed before the closing ceremonies, a decision she now describes as "one of my greatest regrets ... The Olympics have to be about journey, rather than its outcome."
Reminds me of a wise old Division III coach I know, the estimable Frosty Westering of Pacific Lutheran. Despite winning 305 games and four national championships in his day, Westering inveighed against what he called this country's "No. 1 or No One" mindset. In his book Make the Big Time Where You Are, he reminds us that "the joy is in the journey." It sounds like Kim Zmeskal has finally figured that out. Around the Olympics, I always find myself wishing more people would.
Austin Murphy covers college football and adventure for Sports Illustrated.