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From Olympic chill to the chills

Olympic interest had been low until Coughlin and Co. broke world record

Posted: Friday August 20, 2004 12:08PM; Updated: Friday August 20, 2004 2:52PM
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I admit it: For someone who is a) a sports fan, and b) paid to keep somewhat abreast of all things athletic, I'm bad about watching the Olympics. In the absence of a terrorist attack and, as of this writing, Katie Couric's managing to not come completely unglued on the air, the bigwigs at NBC have to be most thankful for the fact that mine is not a Nielsen household. I've watched nearly none of their event coverage, less than a half hour a day on average. It's partly the sprawl of the thing. Three hundred and one events? It's overwhelming, especially since many of these, ahem, sports seem like they were invented to win frat party bets or get on Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks segment. Can someone explain to me why synchronized diving is an Olympic sport, and why donning a Velcro suit and leaping onto a Velcro wall is not?

That said, I have to confess to goose bumps when I happened to catch the U.S. women's world record swim in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay on Wednesday. It was a stirring performance, and not simply because the 7:53.42 time turned in by Natalie Coughlin, Carly Piper, Dana Vollmer and Kaitlin Sandeno shaved more than two seconds off the previous mark. That record, set by East Germany in 1987, happened to be swimming's longest-standing record and a lingering black mark on the sport -- a reminder of days when the sport was dominated by a pharmacologically-aided sports regime.

The U.S. women's pursuit of that record gave the Games exactly what they needed: an enemy. The Cold War may have been bad for international relations, but it made for great Olympic theater. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. has been the world's sole athletic superpower, a status that makes our victories feel less fulfilling than they once did. How much fun is winning when you're supposed to win, and usually do so easily? Let's face it: It's easier to get amped about sports we don't care about if there's a black-hatted villain to root against.

And so, if I had been holding a flag as I watched the 4x200 relay, I probably would have waved it. Over the last decade we've learned how pervasive the East German doping program was. Coughlin, Piper, Vollmer and Sandeno were all either toddlers or yet to be born when the East Germans set the relay record, but watching the German Democratic Republic get erased from the record book had to be sweet for older generations of swimmers. "It burned people a lot [that the record hadn't been broken]," U.S. coach Mark Schubert was quoted as saying. "We all knew the reason why. We're very proud to have that record back."

It shouldn't take a showdown with an extinct evil empire to stir my interest in the Games. And it's silly to puff up over a blow struck for cleanliness in sports after a summer in which the reputations of several U.S. track athletes have been shredded. No matter. Sometimes having something or someone to root against is more fun than having something to root for, which is why the women's relay record was the highlight of the Games' first week.

Fellow blogger Mark Bechtel made reference the other day to the tutu-clad guy, who interrupted the synchronized diving competition. We can only hope that Mr. Tutu tries to pull another stunt in New York. The state just passed a new law instituting harsh punishment for fans who jump on the field during sports events. It's known as the Calvin Klein law; in '03 the fashion designer wandered onto the court and tried to chat up Latrell Sprewell during a Knicks game. This week the first person charged under the law, a 38-year-old telemarketer from New Jersey, was sentenced to eight weekends in jail for jumping onto the Shea Stadium field in May. (He was also banned from Shea for three years, but that seems more like a favor than a punishment.) I wonder if Calvin Klein designs a tutu. ...

This information would have been better posted a week ago, on Friday the 13th, but since there are still 10 days left in the month, I post it now as a public service. Apparently in many Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, August is considered a cursed month. Some of the worst disasters in Brazilian history have occurred in the year's eighth month. Three of the nation's presidents have died in August. People flock to religious shrines and voodoo healers to guard against the curse, and according to this story every Brazilian knows the rhyme Agosto, mes do desgosto, or "August, the month of sorrow and grief." So take heart Larry Bowa (soon-to-be-fired Phillies manager), Konstantinos Kenteris (disgraced Greek sprinter), Dave Wannstedt (coach of the injury-riddled Dolphins), Quincy Carter (dumped Cowboys QB) and Jeff Bagwell (you of the .140 average this month, lowest in the majors). You're not alone in your misery.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephen Cannella covers the NHL for the magazine and contributes frequently to SI.com.