Saturday, August 04, 2012

Writing Olympic Dreams

I've gotten caught up watching the Olympics this year.  It happened the first day of competition.  I turned on the TV Saturday morning and watched as Alexander Vinokourov, a 38 year old rider from Kazakhstan, won the Men's road race.  Mark Cavendish from Great Britain was the favorite to win.  Great Britain had assembled a "dream team" of racers to put him into position to win.  Throughout the race, the commentators kept pointing out that the British cyclists were setting the pace for the peloton and that it should be only a matter of time before a break-out group, which included Vinokourov, was reeled in.  
I guess Vinokourov wasn't listing to what they were saying.  He and the group he was with worked together to keep ahead of the others.  Even when accidents dropped riders from their group, he carried on.  At the end, he broke just at the right moment.  Vinokourov, who's career as described sounded like an up and down affair, finally won the Olympic gold medal that had eluded him.  He retired from cycling the following week.  
Vinokourov probably though he couldn't write a better sequel for himself.  
I used to follow Olympics closely growing up, but in recent decades my interest had waned.  The games were becoming too slick, it seemed to me.  In 1992, in Barcelona, the "Dream Team," the first Olympic basketball team to have active NBA players on its roster, played in the Olympics.  They beat their opponents by an average of 44 points per game.  A number of my friends and fellow sports fans though this was the way things ought to be, it was how the script should have been written from the beginning.  Me, my feelings were more in line with those expressed by Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. Hockey team to their "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid in 1980, when he said, "I find that term ("Dream Team") ironic because now that we have Dream Teams, we seldom get to dream."  
My favorite Olympic moment from the summer games had that dream-like quality, though.  It took place in 1984, when the games were held in Los Angeles.  I could tell something was very different with the games in town.  Driving through Los Angeles during those two weeks, for instance, I encountered no traffic on the freeways.  None at all.  The companies in and around Los Angeles had changed their employees' schedule to spread traffic around and lower congestion.  As I sped, that's right, "sped," through downtown Los Angeles, I thought to myself, "Why can't it be like this all the time?"  
The event in question was the 4x200 meter men's freestyle relay.  That year, the dominant swimmer in the pool was a West German named Michael (pronounced "Mikhail") Gross.  He stood 6 feet 7 inches tall.  He had an arm span of nearly 7 feet.  He was nicknamed, "The Albatross."  Before the 4x200 team event, he had won the gold medal swimming the same race as an individual.  He was considered by some to be a better swimmer than Mark Spitz had been.  The West Germans put him on the anchor leg of his team.  His teammate, Thomas Fahrner, who had won the bronze to Gross's gold, started them off.  
The Americans acknowledged Gross's dominance by putting their fastest swimmers in the early legs of the race.  Michael Heath, who had won silver behind Gross in the individual event, started them off.  David Larson and Jeff Float (great name for a swimmer, huh?  "Float.") followed him.  Bruce Hayes, who had failed to qualify for the individual 200 meter freestyle race, was the anchor.  Clearly the American strategy was to build up such a big lead that not even Michael Gross could overcome it.  
In the early going, their strategy seemed to be working.  Each of the Americans put a little more time and distance on the West Germans, who were trailing.  By the time Bruce Hayes jumped into the water, he had a one and a half second lead on the West German team.  
But Hayes was swimming against the Albatross.  Just by diving and breaking to the surface of the pool, Michael Gross cut the lead in half.  By the end of the first 50 meters, he had caught up with Hayes.  At the end of the first 100 meters, he'd taken the lead.  The sportscaster, Jim Lampley, who I could never stand due to his superior tone, was reminding the audience that Hayes had failed to make the individual 200 freestyle, where Gross had won gold.  He described Hayes as "helpless in the water."  He was asking his color commentator what, besides a complete breakdown by Gross, could allow Hayes back into the race? 
To add to Hayes's difficulties, Gross, who was swimming in the lane next to Hayes, began swimming as close as he could to the American swimmer, using his wake as an obstacle for Hayes to swim through.  
There is one thing you need to know about Bruce Hayes, though.  During the lead-up to the 4x200, he was described as an excellent "relay swimmer."  He was someone who swam faster when swimming on a team than he did when swimming just for himself.  "He just doesn't want to let his teammates down," the commentator said.  
While Lampley was bemoaning Hayes's efforts, I was going crazy.  Hayes wasn't falling behind.  He was keeping up with Gross, stroke for stroke.  Going into the final turn, he was half a head behind.  And after the turn...  He started...  Pulling...  UP!  Closer and closer...  Just behind...  Just a bit behind...  Pulling...  Even...
Gross touched the wall at 7:15:73.  It was a world record time.  
Or...  It would have been.  Hayes touched at 7:15:69.  Four one-hundredths of a second faster.  I was whooping it up, along with Hayes in the pool and the crowd that had watched him do it.  It had been spectacular.  Hayes swam the last 50 meters of the race faster than anyone else had swam a 50 meter leg in the competition, including Gross. 
They called the 4x200 American team, "The Grossbusters."  
I mentioned that there have been a lot of changes to the Olympics since I started watching the event.  The creation of Dream Teams, and the overall professionalization of just about all the events.  It takes too much time and training for genuine amateurs to compete in any of the high profile sports.  Sponsorships and endorsements give them the time and money to work out, swim, jump, run, ride or do whatever it is we watch them do.  Olympians are entertainers.  Just like any other singer, dancer or actor.  The difference is that they have to write the script for their story as they go.  
And that, thinking in writing terms, is where the hook for the Olympics comes from.  Those moments, which are increasingly rare, but so much more precious for that rarity, when people like Bruce Hayes and his 4x200 teammates, or the Lake Placid Hockey team in 1980, or a 38 year old bike rider from Kazakhstan, write endings to their stories that no one "reasonable" person believes will come true.  
We all should do better at being the authors of our own dreams.  
PS: If you want to see video of the 1984 4x200 meter relay, they have on YouTube.  Just click: HERE.


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