“True Sport” at the Olympics

I haven’t been watching the Olympics. Not as a political protest – we simply don’t have a TV. I considered renting one, but decided I could do without the frustrations of NBC’s coverage.

My memories of past Olympics are soured by the networks’ baffling urge to break into long and “boring” events such as the 5000 meters or marathon, with deliberately poignant stories of the athletes’ childhoods, hobbies, pets, families, and tastes in music, voiced-over to 1000 soupy strings. I haven’t watched Michael Phelps’s races, but I envision the 100-meter butterfly finals interrupted by a purportedly folks-pleasing vignette on his taste for hip-hop music and wearing his cap backward.

By the way, I’m not inspired by Phelps, and I feel a little guilty. I’ve spent time reflecting on why. Later, I’ll talk about that.

Meanwhile, there’s always been much to dislike about the Olympics, yet if you can mentally strip away the politics and money, there’s much to love.

What’s inspiring about the Olympics? Not medal counts or thrashings by the US softball and basketball teams. While it was lovely, eight years ago, to watch Lisa Fernandez bury the opposing batters, and in Beijing to see the US basketball millionaires finally playing as a team, I find it more stirring to follow the underdog US men’s water polo and women’s soccer teams, possibly because my roommate for a year in the early sixties at Stanford was Don Buehler, a water polo All-American and father of Beijing US soccer defender Rachael Buehler.

Don was an extraordinary guy. For a long time, his teammates wondered if he was on the brink of flunking out of school. He was quiet, didn’t socialize, and generally seemed like a big, dumb clod. Little did they know that he spent all his hours away from the pool and classroom studying in the library stacks. Don earned a Phi Beta Kappa in pre-med, an extremely rare accomplishment; and, rarer still, he was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. Don declined the honor, preferring to pursue his career as a surgeon. Rachel is clearly a branch of the same tree – Stanford class of 2007, an absolutely amazing 4.0 in pre-med, and an Olympian.

I’m inspired by the water polo players also because the US teams have been thoroughly dominated by the European teams for a long time, especially the Eastern Europeans. Here’s a telling quip from US Olympic water polo coach Terry Schroeder:

When I came aboard, we were as close to a dysfunctional family as you’d find. They didn’t really believe in themselves and they weren’t a good team. There were a lot of great players, but they were individuals. … It hits me in the heart to see how far these guys have come. … It’s magnificent to see the human spirit and see how much a team can come together.

So I’m keeping an eye on water polo and women’s soccer, at least in part because of my distant connection with Don and Rachel Buehler. I’m sure that Don is in Beijing, watching the water polo games with joy, and I’m happy for him that Rachael is both a wonderful soccer player and an exceptional person.

So, why am I not inspired by Michael Phelps? I think perhaps because the best parts of the Olympics are, in a sense, local. They aren’t about gold medals or dominance. They’re about individuals extending themselves, and giving together. The best of the Olympics isn’t about roundly whipping others, but individual pluck and energy and grit. Phelps’s eight gold medals effectively hide who he is. For sure, if you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated, you’re Big Sport. Phelps has arrived. We didn’t see his struggles, how he molted from a young swimmer among many thousands, to winning those eight golds.

Are there any dull, prosaic stories at the Olympics? “Well, I worked hard, and here I am.” Even the dopers, sent home in disgrace, must have known the joy of personal expansion. Reaching the Olympics requires austerity – how could they have persevered, without the incentive of that primal joy? These are things one doesn’t do only for money.

Trust Joe Henderson, one of running’s most inspiring living elders, to spot a landmark article that appeared in Sports Illustrated shortly after the 1972 Games and share its message with his readers.

In “Gleanings From A Troubled Time,” Bil (correct spelling) Gilbert brilliantly dissected the positive and negative faces of sports in a difficult Olympic year.

Nowadays, [sports] exists on at least three levels. There is first True Sport, the manifestation of man’s seemingly innate urge to play. True Sport is organized for and often by participants and is essentially a private matter like eating or making love. High Sport is True Sport raised to the level of art by the talent, even genius, of its participants. It is public in the sense that all art is public (great music, painting, literature or sport is incomplete until that time when it is displayed, judged and acclaimed). Finally there is Big Sport in which elements of True and High Sport are present but are modified by other considerations, notably commerce and politics.

It’s a moody, sad article. It’s redeemed from black despair when, near the end, the mood shifts wonderfully as Gilbert relates how he and a friend, a college track coach, drove four members of a local girls’ track team to a nearby all-comers meet.

Instead of having to fill out tricky affidavits of eligibility and swear to false performances in the interest of getting into more desirable heats, there was simply a row of event sheets spread out on a long table under the mosquitoes.

“What are we meant to enter?” the girls asked.

“Enter anything you want. School’s out.”

Gilbert contrasts the relaxed mood of the local show-up-and-run event with the tension and hype of Big Sport:

Now the pressure was gone, the agony eased, and what was left was the addiction to the sport. It was possible, as it was not earlier in the season, for strategic, political and competitive reasons, to sprawl out on the wooden benches very pleasantly, drink Cokes, slap mosquitoes, talk shop and gossip about the grim summer track events in Eugene, Ore., Canton, Ohio and Frederick, like veterans who have been through the same battle but on different sides.

Big Glenda was there, all 280 pounds of her. She is a phenomenon, a huge, mountainous, exuberant, gross white girl, who for mysterious reasons and in mysterious ways has gathered together from the heart of the District of Columbia a bunch of very strong, fast black dudes, the D.C. Striders. Big Glenda rubs down these tough boys like a trainer, swats them around, eats them out like a sergeant and mothers them like a hen. She begs money for them and gets them scholarships. They love it and she loves it. “There is no mystery about the D.C. Striders,” says Big Glenda. “We’ve done it all with love.”

Gilbert concludes:

High Sport is the creation of geniuses, the exceptionally talented and passionate. It is the sport of [chess champion Bobby] Fischer, [Mark] Spitz, [Billie Jean] King. It satisfies the same needs as other arts. It provides a medium and method of expression by which the talented can comment on themselves and their world. High Sport artists also serve their audiences by stimulating them to consider the nature of man and the world.

True Sport is a Winchester All-Comers meet. It stands to High Sport as a craft does to an art. It is a dignified, honest activity, perhaps of more general social value than High Sport since it involves many more than the few who can practice High Sport. It satisfies the human need for play. Also, as any craft does, it provides an outlet of expression for those who are not high artists, for those with insufficient ability or perhaps dedication. In the same way, it gives pleasure to small audiences, people who have either participated in or studied the sport and have some critical appreciation of it.

Big Sport is a corrupted, institutionalized version of True Sport, which often attempts to pass itself off as High Sport. It stands to High Sport and True Sport as a molded plastic angel does to sculpture and pottery. Occasionally there will be moments of High Sport or True Sport within the framework of Big Sport (as, for example, Spitz swimming in the Olympics, [gold-medalist Dan] Gable wrestling there, Chamberlain winning the last playoff game for Los Angeles ). Usually these are testimonials to individual perseverance and passion, to the ability of individuals to put up with institutional inefficiency and the institutional predilection for consistency and routine.

What Gilbert is saying is that, even at the High Sport-Big Sport-Olympic level, there’s still True Sport to be found.

It’s in the underdog American water polo and soccer teams who inspire us not just as artists. We’ve seen their rough edges – how the soccer team got skunked by Brazil last year, and how, at the beginning, the water polo team wasn’t much of a team at all.

Maybe there’s a good chance they’ll lose their respective finals. But we still cheer, precisely because they haven’t arrived. They’ve built something special, starting from scratch, just as we aspire to do. We cheer for their process, as much as their results, because their process is ours.

Update: The US women’s soccer team beat Brazil 1-0 in a game that the Brazilians dominated offensively. The US women were the underdogs to the end, played like a team to the end, dug down and played gritty to the end, and won in the end.

The US men’s water polo team, who weren’t expected to reach the medal round, took silver, losing by 4 points to Hungary, a powerhouse in water polo-mad central Europe. I didn’t watch the game, but the news stories are inspiring.

Surprise, surprise. The US men’s basketball team were severely challenged by a ferocious Spanish team in the gold medal game. The US team emerged from the Games in a far more inspiring fashion than I, or perhaps anyone, expected. They had to fight hard for the gold. They proved that they could submerge their egos and play as a team. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Scott Osler described it beautifully in his post-game wrapup column.

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