Work in Sports
Putting that Hall in the past
SYDNEY, Australia -- Gary Hall Jr. has said some outrageous things in the past -- in fact, probably in the past five minutes. Even as Hall has been on his most polished behavior during this week's post-race press conferences, some of which have followed humbling defeats, you could almost see the glare of a guitar smasher roll by his face. His Harley is mean, his hair is mean, his predictions are mean. Is that all there is to Hall? I might have thought so but for a brief conversation I had with him a few years ago when he said: "Sometimes I can't tell the difference between the friend and the enemy in myself." It was one of those eerily prescient throwaway lines that stays with you and makes you understand this isn't an unmitigated bad guy, because bad guys treat themselves much better than people around them.
Hall brings all the hoots and jeers upon himself. Sure, fans in Atlanta loved his shadowboxing routine before his 50- and 100-meter freestyle confrontations with Russian rival Alexander Popov. And even when Popov dusted Hall in both races it didn't dissuade the American from coming out swinging again. At the U.S. trials last month Hall wore a boxing robe and boxing shorts over his swimsuits when he walked onto the pool deck. In Sydney he got nipped at the wall by Aussie superstar Ian Thorpe at the end of an unforgettable 4x100-meter freestyle relay, and placed third behind Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Popov and the 100 free. Yet on Friday, as he lined up again against Popov, van den Hoogenband and U.S. teammate Anthony Ervin, Hall still struck a shameless Charles Atlas pose before the 50-meter freestyle. The cacophony of ill will that followed was as welcoming as a symphony of of nails scraping on a blackboard, but it could not have been worse than what Hall has faced during the last four years.
In 1998 Gary Hall was Gary Hall's nemesis. He tested positive for marijuana during an out-of-competition screening and served a three-month suspension. Another announcement followed -- that Hall also had marijuana in his system during the Atlanta Olympics, but was never suspended because the recreational drug was not yet on the IOC's banned list. Then, the following spring, as Hall and his fiancée were walking home from a party he collapsed on the way back to his car. Doctors subsequently broke the news to him that he had an advanced form of diabetes and would need aggressive treatment, including regular monitoring of his blood sugar and several insulin shots a day. At minimum his swimming career was in peril.
Hall was leaning toward retirement, certain that he wouldn't have the energy both to train properly and do all that what was needed to live a normal life. First, he spent several weeks in a Costa Rican rainforest, swimming in volcanic springs and listening for his inner voice, which eventually told him to try again. When he returned home, he went to Berkeley, Calif., and moved into the basement of progressive swim coach Mike Bottom. The coach had only one unusual rule for Hall: he had to buy a good guitar for himself. "Gary's an individual," Bottom explained to us at the trials. "That guitar is what makes him relax and find himself, so I wasn't about to turn him into a different guy. I just wanted to help him swim better."
Hall made the team at the U.S. trials and recalled a lyric from the group The Clash each time he swam: "I've been beat up; I've been thrown out, but I'm not down."
Then came the latest guitar reference. A day after the team arrived in Sydney, Hall, still feeling the effects of the longest flight he had taken since doctors diagnosed his condition and struggling to find the right insulin dosage, was asked by reporters about a reference in diary he was writing on CNNSI.com in which he said he felt the U.S. team would smash the Australians "like guitars." Hall, who has long pushed his teammates to play up the Australian rivalry in order to drum up interest in swimming, got what he wished for. He was on the front and back pages of the newspapers. Kieren Perkins, the usually mild-mannered distance veteran of the Aussie team had fired back, saying, "I don't take a lot of notice of drug cheats." So The Daily Telegraph ran a picture of Hall with the headline "He's a Drug Cheat." Seconds after Thorpe had come from behind to beat Hall in the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay, Australia's Michael Klim mocked Hall by strumming an imaginary guitar.
A 50-meter freestyle is the heavy-metal race of swimming, perfectly suited to Hall. It is 22 seconds of punches and kicks rather than strokes. Many swimmers don't breathe until they hit the wall. When the bubbles cleared on Friday, Hall touched first, in sync with his training partner, Ervin, in 21.98. van den Hoogenband was third in 22.03, with Popov a distant sixth. Neither U.S. swimmer read the scoreboard right the first time: A "1" by lane 4 and a "1" by lane 3. Finally Hall and Ervin threw up their hands and high-fived. The U.S. team, seated along the extended pool deck on the opposite side, began chanting: "Tie, tie, U.S.A., U.S.A., tie, tie, tie." It was remarkably unified considering there hadn't been a reason to dust it off since Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer each clocked 55.92 to share the gold in the 100 free at the '84 L.A. Games.
The awards ceremony was historic on two counts. First, Hall gained some measure of family vindication for his dad, Gary Sr., who won medals on Olympic swimming teams in 1968, '72 and '76, but never won an individual gold. Ervin, whose father is 75 percent black, had become not only the first African-American to make a U.S. swim team, but the first to win a gold medal. Ervin has ducked the issue in press conferences now for the better part of a year, since he emerged as an Olympic threat. "People are trying to pin me down to a definite thing," he said Friday. "I feel in American society today that mixed blood is not a big deal. This was a victory for U.S. swimming."
Then Hall paid tribute to everyone, from Ervin to Bottom to his Australian rivals. "If I have to share the gold-medal podium with anybody," Hall said of Ervin, "I was glad to share it with him. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. This was like another day at practice. I've been racing the best in the world each day." Asked if he felt glad to have done something his father never did, Hall answered: "He has still accomplished a lot more than I have. He has 11 records or something, so he has still one-upped me. This race was not redemption for my father. I don't think he was trying to accomplish anything for himself through me."
This looked like a Gary Hall much more at peace with himself. After the first musical question, Hall smiled and said, "I don't even know how to play the guitar." At least for now, Gary Hall was Gary Hall's good friend.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Brian Cazeneuve is in Sydney covering the
Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Cazeneuve's
behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.