Decades ago, the Olympics were must-see television.
They still are, but not for the same reasons.
Every four years, it wasn’t merely the spectacle that drew viewers in, as it is now.* And it wasn’t even the chance to see niche sports that in any other year could only be found on a random “Wide World Of Sports” episode.
*And by spectacle, in the present tense, I mean whatever contrived feature NBC has conjured to make us watch a prime time highlight package of an event that happened some seven hours earlier in the day. That, or some bloated opening ceremony in which the torch doesn’t light.
No, it was more than that. Way more. It was the competition. Raw, emotional, cut-throat competition. East Germany. China.
The Soviet Union.
Certainly, when you’re talking Cold War, losing a couple of heated sports rivalries between countries is but a minor concession when the fall of a couple of choice superpowers is in play. But let’s face it, the Olympics haven’t been cheered in the same way since Red Square featured the occasional — or constant — weapons of mass destruction parade.
But we might have a little something now.
Minutes after he was clipped for the gold medal by USA’s Evan Lysacek, Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko let loose with a fury of rhetoric that would have made Khrushchev proud.
The best — and most inflammatory — comment: “Quad is quad. If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump the quad, I don’t know,” muttered Plushenko, referring to his ability to spin in the air four times and hit a wobbly landing, as opposed to the series of Lysacek triples that were flawless. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating, it’s dancing. That’s my point.”
Despite the prodding by the veteran Russian, who entering the Games was the gold standard in the sport, Lysacek has taken the high road at every turn, whether he’s being interviewed by The Associated Press, Al Michaels, Meredith Vieira or Bob Costas. His answers sound rehearsed at this point — and no less classy. “It’s tough to lose. It’s not easy, especially when you think, no matter what, you’re going to win. It’s a really tough pill to swallow,” Lysacek told The AP. “We’ll just try not to take it out of context and give him the benefit of the doubt. And congratulations to him on his third Olympic medal.”
Sniping aside, what happened late Thursday night was more than bratty behavior from a prissy Russian and elegance under fire by a stand-up American.* In fact, it was a lot more than that. It was sport at its best. And nothing less.
*If it sounds like I’m generalizing and pushing the Us-versus-Them mentality to Rocky-Drago heights, it’s only because I am. Forgive me — I’m in the mood for a little old school Commie bashing. What can I say? The Olympics bring out the best in me.
Because it is figure skating, which finds its way into the national consciousness for about 47 collective minutes every four years, it was difficult to understand what you were watching while Lysacek was on the ice performing his long routine. Yes, he stayed on his feet. Yes, he completed all his jumps and all the landings looked rhythmic. And yes, he seemed to be in command of his performance.
But, really, what do we know? I might say that Dorothy Hamill did more for haircuts than transcend the sport of figure skating, and others may agree.* So technically, we’re really all in the dark.
*I could say that, but I’d be wrong. Hamill, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist, is credited with creating the “Hamill camel,” a revolutionary spin move. But people really did like her hair. Honest. Don’t ask me how I know this.
But it was after Lysacek’s performance, when he threw his head back and let go an open-mouthed scream, when he pumped his fists five times and let loose another guttural yell, that it became clear this was a moment. You realized then what Lysacek already knew — he had just given the performance of his life on the grandest stage at the highest level of competition and did it under pressure few have ever known in the history of sports.
That is what is so unique about the Olympics and most of its athletes. This is a one-shot deal for many of them, against the best of the best in the world, at a precise moment in time. Four years is a long time to wait for a second chance that may never come. LeBron James, on the other hand, will get another crack at the NBA playoffs in a few months.
That Lysacek held on to win gold made it more memorable (and lucrative). He’s a historic American athlete now, and yet the victory isn’t the most satisfying aspect of it all. Not to him.
“Each step wasn’t planned to win this gold medal,” he said. “It was to have a personal victory and to have the skate of my lifetime at the most important moment.”
I believe that. I saw it on his face Thursday night.
You see, Evgeni Plushenko skated only to win.
Evan Lysacek skated for the love of the game.
Sometimes the best competition — and most fulfilling victory — is the one you achieve against yourself.