August 13, 2012

On Saturday, Aug. 11, I strayed. On the penultimate day of the Olympic games, I dared to go see a dance performance in the middle of the afternoon. It was pretty much the first time since the games’ first preliminary women’s football matches on July 25 that I did something geared to adult sensibilities (trips to the playground and three-year-old’s birthday parties not included) that had absolutely nothing to do with the Olympics.

The performance was by a dance troupe called Pilobolus, which does a lot of choreography designed to look like the movement of biological organisms. One dancer took a birdlike stance and undulated his back horizontally like Michael Phelps doing the butterfly stroke. At another point, two dancers rolled onto the stage in an amoeba-like curl, much like synchronized divers in a tuck. Another piece started with dancers crab-walking across the stage. “Huh,” I thought, “looks like freestyle wrestling.” Another used a number of balls lacquered in primary colors that were just about the same size as those used in rhythmic gymnastics. After the intermission, the lights came up on a stage that had a large metal-framed table on it. I sat up with interest, “Is that a set of parallel bars?” It wasn’t, of course, but one thing became clear to me: Watching the Olympics has completely warped my brain.

Which may explain my feeling on the night of Aug. 12: Thank God it’s over.

This despite the fact that the games ended well—I don’t mean the closing ceremonies, which were, as usual, inane. (When did George Michael turn into the English Billy Joel? That kind of snuck up on me.) I’m talking about the last days’ competitions being hard fought and deeply satisfying. I’m thinking here of Mexico’s stirring 2-1 victory over Brazil in the men’s football final on Aug. 11, a match Telemundo’s Andrés Cantor correctly identified before the game as the most important in the history of Mexican football.

The last day of the Olympics began with the wrong Kiprotich winning the men’s marathon—Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich, that is, as opposed to Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich, who owns the second-fastest marathon time ever. Stephen edged out another Kenyan, Abel Kirui, by 26 seconds. Which, by marathon standards, is a real nail-biter. In team sports, the US men’s basketball team was finally challenged in the gold medal match by a grizzled Spanish team that hung tough but succumbed, 107-100; the hero of the games was universally acknowledged to be LeBron James, and you get no argument from me. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul and Kevin Durant all had their moments, too, but it was LeBron’s show from the get-go. The only team who was more dominant was the US women’s squad, which trounced France in the gold medal match, 86-50. It wasn’t as close as the score makes it sound. It will be a real changing of the guard at USA Basketball: Neither Mike Krzyzewski nor Geno Auriemma will be back for the Rio games. Allegedly.

The men’s handball final was an extremely taut 22-21 French victory over Sweden, but then, who cares? Possibly the most dramatic finish of the last day was the men’s volleyball final, in which Russia improbably defeated Brazil, taking the last three sets after having dropped the first two.

Even the very last medal of the games, in women’s pentathlon, seemed significant. Sure, Laura Asadauskaite of Lithuania took the gold, but the best part was that competitors from this year’s and 2016’s host countries split the silver and bronze (Samantha Murray of Great Britain and Yane Marques of Brazil). I sure hope somebody remembered to include thank-you cards along with those gifts.

Brazil is also hosting the 2014 World Cup, of course, and both that event and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics promise to be interesting. I expect that the security will be a little laxer than it was in London and that the parties will be a whole lot better.

Part of the difference between Latin American cities and those in the US and Europe is that the poorest residents, instead of being marginalized far from the center of town, have been marginalized up to the highest hilltops. (This has to do historically with how plumbing and electricity spread too slowly up the slopes from the valleys.) One unintended consequence is that some of Rio’s least beautiful neighborhoods are within easy eyeshot of its biggest tourist destinations. Don’t be too surprised if Jacques Rogge or whoever steps into the presidency of the IOC after him insists on a giant, Cristo-like green screen blocking unfortunately positioned favelas. Plus, think of the opportunities for large-scale advertising!

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it says here that the London games will be remembered for a good long time thanks to a string of indelible performances: Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and Gabby Douglas and the Fab Five, for sure, but also: 17-year-old Missy Franklin’s four golds and one bronze promise the beginning of a long and possibly Phelpsian Olympic career; Ashton Eaton, 24, dominated the men’s decathlon; 400 meter hurdler “Super” Félix Sánchez became a comeback story for the ages; with gold in the individual all-around competition, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura cemented his claim on being the greatest male gymnast ever; US women’s water polo superstar, Brenda Villa, closed out her Olympic career winning the one title that had previously eluded her, even as 19-year-old Maggie Steffens emerged as Villa’s heir apparent.

The final medal count showed the US at the top of the list with 46 golds and 104 medals overall. Of those, by my probably underestimated count (there may be a few people of Latin American heritage that I didn’t spot as such), Latinos won or played a prominent role in winning 11 of those medals—five golds, three silvers, and three bronzes. The gold medal for tempest in a teapot goes to the harsh reactions to Leo Manzano’s having draped himself in the US and Mexican flags after winning the first US medal in the 1500m since Jim Ryan in 1968.

A day or two after the event, I came across a CNN.com opinion piece by Ruben Navarrette Jr. that neatly summed up the controversy for me. Just about every argument that Navarrette makes is exactly wrong. He suggests, for instance, that Manzano identifying with the Mexican flag is bad while Oscar De La Hoya having done the same thing at the 1992 Barcelona games was okay because the boxer was born in the United States while Manzano was moved here by his parents as a 4 year old. If I understand him correctly, that means that a person who has a greater claim to identifying with another country actually has a less legitimate right to express it.

He does acknowledge Manzano’s “sweat and sacrifice” in getting to the Olympics, but, Navarrette says, “the last thing the Olympics is about is the individual … Manzano wasn’t there to compete for himself but to represent his country.” Well, that is a fairly Chinese Communist Party way of looking at things: There are no individuals—there is just the state!

Let’s not forget what’s important here: Each of the 104 Olympic medals won by an American at the London games adds a tiny, eensy-weensy smidgeon of prestige and glory to the good old USA. For the athletes who won them, however, the effect can be life altering.

Let Manzano wear his flags and his individual pride in his American-ness and his Mexican ancestry on his back or his sleeve or wherever else he wants to. Let’s not be the kind of sports fans who Jerry Seinfeld used to skewer for “standing and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city”—or in this case, country. Let’s acknowledge and yell for the flesh and blood and iron wills that fill out those Team USA uniforms instead.

Just a little something to think about. You know, for next time.

“Blame It on London,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “London Recalling,” the August 13, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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