August 14, 2008

Faced with winning "only" a bronze medal for greco-roman wrestling, 84 kg class, Ara Abrahamian took off his medal during the medal ceremony, stepped off the podium, and dropped it to the floor. "I don't care about this medal," he said. "I wanted gold. This will be my last match. I wanted to take gold, so I consider this Olympics a failure."

For as long as there have been judged sports, there have been controversial decisions; and on some of these the final outcome of the contest has rested. It could be a matter of visual angle. It could be a matter of an abrasive and arrogant personality, making it very difficult indeed to see the competitor with absolute neutrality. It could be as simple a matter as a blue uniform or a red. It could even be a matter of improved technologies, as with the new Speedo LZR Racer swimsuits.

Earlier this week, I stared in wonder as the final of the men's 4x100 freestyle swim unfolded before me. The broadcast feed includes a line showing the current world record distance. Of the eight teams involved, five finished in world record time: the United States, France, Australia, Italy, and Sweden. Canada, the sixth team, finished below the world record that had been shattered just the previous day (3:12.46). South Africa, the seventh, missed it only by 0.2 seconds, and even the very last team, Great Britain, missed it by only 0.4 seconds. Every team swam faster than the Olympic record which had stood until the previous day. The final leg of the American swim, swum by the oldest member of the American team, became the fastest that distance has ever been swum (46.06), although only the first leg of the relay counts against the official 100 metre freestyle time: and that world record fell to Australian Eamon Sullivan (47.24). (Over the next two days, Sullivan and the French swimmer Alain Bernard would alternate in re-breaking that record.) All four continental records involved were broken during the heats, and then broken again in the finals. The difference between gold and silver was a breath, a glance, the wake along a rope, such a small fraction of a second that the unaided eye could never have caught it. Truly the French team director caught it best:
Alain is wounded. But I don't think that Alain lost the race. It's Lezak who won it.
- Claude Fauquet
From the display afterward, one would never guess just how exceptional the race had been for all its participants. Screaming. Howling, not a smile to be seen. Pumping the arm into the air in a display that would not be out of place among any of the world's gorillas, making it rather difficult not to believe that man could be related to apes.

(And yet, given the sheer intensity of this race, would any swimmer have been capable of a more restrained emotional release?)

Of an eight event roster, Michael Phelps has three events remaining. Five are complete: five gold medals, five world records. It is entirely likely that he will easily win at least two of the other three, probably in world record time. The third will be more tightly contested, but here too he now has a better than average chance to win, if only because he and his teammates now have the weight of momentum behind them.

I would not jinx his chances in the least, but ... what if Phelps should lose? Worse yet, what if he should lose in a controversial decision? What if he should lose that final relay due to a teammate making the same kinds of impossible, minuscule mistakes that no one should make at these levels but that adrenaline and an impossibly tight race bring about nevertheless? What he were forced to watch, helpless after the opening leg, as one of his teammates makes the same kind of tiny slips as had been made by Alain Bernard?

Would he be capable of a sportsmanly acceptance that someone else in the world might possibly be his equal? or even slightly better? Would he take it out entirely on his teammate?

Or would he, like Abrahamian, throw an adolescent tantrum at the suggestion of anything less than utter gold? and would his coach, like Swedish coach Leo Myllari, dismiss a single disputed call as "It's all politics"?

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