Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow....

So, the Olympic are finally over. And I watched as much of them as I possibly could (even while I was at the beach on vacation). But now I have to go back to regular TV, which doesn't seem to have quite the same drama as the games.

And oh, was there drama:

Plenty to go around in Gymnastics with Nastia and Shawn battling it out in the All Around as well as on the Floor Exercise and Balance Beam. And don't forget the drama of the team competition or the absurdity of Alicia Sacramone's finishing behind the Chinese gymnast on the Vault final.

Or you might like the drama of Men's Gymnastics with the US team, injured and inexperienced, winning a bronze medal when no one thought they could. Jonathan Horton on the High Bar was great to watch as was Sasha Artemev on the Pommel Horse (even that final routine where he fell was spectactular).

Track offered it's own drama with both US relay teams dropping the baton (literally) in the 4x100 meter relay and Jamacia's Lightening Bolt winning both sprints in spectacular fashion (while Lexington's Tyson Gay failed to make the final in the 100). But the US made up for it's short commings with the Men and Women winning the 4x400 meter relay (the women with a great come from behind victory).

And Men's Volleyball had a great story line with the coach dealing with the death of his father-in-law at the start of the games and the team going on to win gold.

My boy Tayshaun Prince helped the US men's basketball team to a redeeming gold this Olympiad after the disappointment of Athens, but there was little drama there since they blew out everyone in every game until the final.

But perhaps the most drama was at the pool.

Michael Phelps' stunning 8 for 8 Gold Medal performance will forever be known as the highlight of the Beijing Olympics. It was, perhaps, the greatest feat in all of sports. And I don't know if it will ever be equaled. And while his great run was full of great moments, the greatest thing which will come from his performance isn't tangible.

What Michael Phelps did for the sport of swimming can't be measured in Gold Medals or World Records. He took a sport that habitually languished in obscurity--relegated to the late night tape delayed status in Olympic years--and made it a prime time event. They were cutting away from Women's Gymnastics to show swimming! He had his own heading running at the bottom of the ESPN crawl. He was the lead story on the news! These are things the swimmers just don't do. You don't have an entire stadium full of NFL football fan stay after the game to watch a live feed of a swimming event half a world away. You don't have a swimmer as the final image of the Olympic games. You don't find a swimmer doing commercials for Rosetta Stone, VISA, and Johnson and Johnson. But Phelps changed all that.

I grew up swimming in a town where swimming wasn't all that popular. Our high school swim team was a meager 10 strong. We had to furnish our own uniforms and, until my senior year, our own transportation to the meets. We got no funding and even less support from the school system. In fact, several years when I had to miss a day of school because I qualified for the State Championships, I was told that I would not be allowed to make up the work I missed since that counted as an unexcused absence. I missed 2 days of class a year for swimming--the football team missed every Friday from August until November. Our team didn't get a yearbook page. The teacher in charge of the yearbook committee told me that since "swimming wasn't a real sport" it wouldn't get the same 2 page layout that every other sport got. Instead we got a tiny 2x4 group photo along side the Pep club, the History club, and the Astronomy club (which only had a 5 members). I wonder what that teacher would say to me now? I know what I would say to her: "If swimming isn't a real sport, they explain to me why the most talked about athlete of the Olympics was a swimmer?"

Yes, Michael Phelps did something amazing in Beijing. But what he did for swimming will extend far beyond the closing ceremony.

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