Terrance Heath

Olympic Heroes 2012

Filed By Terrance Heath | August 09, 2012 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Gabrielle Douglas, Michael Phelps, Olympic Heroes, Olympics 2012, Whitney Houston

The Guardian is asking its readers, “Which Olympians have inspired you most so far?”

After Super Saturday’s rush of gold medals, Britain is still dazed. But whose performance has inspired you most so far? Is it someone from the gallery of modern British heroes that includes heptathlete Jessica Ennis, runner Mo Farrah or cyclist Jo Rowsell? Or a non-British Olympian like swimmers Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos or Ye Shiwen? Perhaps the most inspirational figures for you have been the ones that didn’t end up on the podium at all, such as judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, the first Saudi woman to compete at the Games. Tell us your stories in the thread below.

Granted I don’t know the stories of most, let alone all the Olympic athletes. But I have to go back to my post about Whitney Houston to choose from among the stories I do know.

Here’s what I wrote about Whitney, after her death.

Sure, it’s exciting to watch someone soar. It’s fun to cheer for a winner. But someone getting up from a fall and even trying to move forward again is much more compelling. I care less about the person who crosses the finish line first, grabs the gold, and goes on to the winner’s circle, than I do about the person who finishes the race even though it’s clear the best she’ll be is an also-ran When I’m cheering for the underdog, then my heart is in it.

I’m less interested in the person who does all the right things (or at least appears to), than the people who screws up their lives in any one of a hundred different ways, and at least tries to recover. In some ways, they’re better examples than the people who appear to make all the right moves. That is, if you know what it means to get up and keep going.

“When I’m cheering for the underdog, then my heart is really in it.” That pretty much sums it up. And while I usually am less interested in who ends up in the winners’ circle than who kept running despite the odds against them, this is one of those times that the underdogs I was rooting for ended up in the winner’s circle.

First up is Michael Phelps. I was already rooting for him, because he’s a fellow Marylander and a fellow ADDer. Now, you might ask, “How a guy who set a new all-time record with eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics be an underdog just four years later?” But even before Phelps hit the water in London, people were questioning whether he still “had it” or whether he’d just had it. By time he lost the men’s 400m to Ryan Lochte, people were asking “What’s wrong with Michael Phelps? It was almost as if he didn’t already have 39 world records under his belt. It was as if Phelps couldn’t have justifiably skipped the London games and still have been one of the greatest if not the greatest Olympic athletes of all time.

The thing is that between 2008 and 2012, Michael Phelps proved all too human. He did something that we tend to believe someone who’s achieved his status just doesn’t have a right to do: he fucked up.

Whitney basically said that she was a person, not the perfect pop princess she was made-up to be, but a human being endowed with an inalienable right to fuck up.

Part of being concerned about social justice is understanding that humans fuck up. That we are, to use a cliche, all more than the worst thing we have ever done. That Helen Thomas can say something that feels like a personal slap across my face and still be a journalist that I look up to. That someone can commit a crime and still deserve more than being locked up and having the key thrown away.

Increasingly we live in a world where we have no right to fuck up. If we do fuck up, there Is rarely a second chance any more. (Don’t believe me? Just look at our bankruptcy laws. Fuck up financially now, and you’re done. No second chance. No redemption.) When we fuck-up, when we fail, we’re supposed to quietly leave the stage. That is, after being sufficiently called out, scorned, and humiliated, for the sake of others’ gratification or entertainment. (Reality TV thrives on this.)

There was the infamous “bong hit” photo. It was supposed to have the power to “destroy the career of the greatest Olympic competitor in Olympic history,” according to the now-defunct “News of the World.” Then Phelps was involved in a traffic accident that same year, and was forced to admit that he drank a beer about an hour and 15 minutes before the accident, and was driving with an invalid license. (Not to mention his drunk driving arrest from 2004.) It hardly mattered that the accident was caused by the driver running a red light. People had a field day.

Yet, people still write that Michael Phelp’s story stands out for its “lack of relatable humanity.” Phelps may have swam like a god most of his time in the pool, but outside of the pool has floundered in some very public ways. Maybe he has a body built for swimming, and maybe it gives him enough of an edge that he could still slack off and win, but this guy has still trained relentlessly for ten years, because natural talent is nothing without some kind of training.

Still, even his former training partner tried to call him out for giving slightly less than 100% in London. Tyler Clary, the third best swimmer after Phelps and Lochte, claimed Phelps was asking to be beaten.

Clary, 23, will be competing in his first Olympic Games in London and dismissed any assumptions that Phelps served as a mentor. Rather, he presented him as lazy. The two will go head-to-head in the 200-meter butterfly at London.

“I saw a real lack of preparation (from) him. Basically, he was a swimmer that didn’t want to be there. They can talk about all of these goals and plans and preparation they have. I saw it. I know. It’s different. “

So much for Phelps and Lochte being the only swimming rivalry in London.

“I’ve always called myself more of a blue-collar worker, as far as swimming goes,” Clary said. “I work my (butt) off all the time. That’s not to say that everybody else doesn’t. But the fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make.

“And the day that it happens, when I finally beat him, is going to be a huge deal in my mind, because it would be complete satisfaction. And the only thing that would be better than that is breaking the world record.”

That day will never come for Clary, because Michael Phelps proved that he could give 95% and still beat most swimmers who were giving 100% or more.

But nobody can take this moment away from Phelps.

Whatever Michael Phelps does with the rest of his life, after retiring from swimming at 27-years-old, he will probably be the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time for decades to come, and he remain the Olympian with the most gold medals until the next young superstar rises to claim the title -- probably decades from now.

The other hero in my book is Gabrielle Douglas. Known as “The Flying Squirrel,” Gabby Douglas was not supposed to be in London right now. She wasn’t supposed to get any closer to the Olympic arena than sitting in front of the television in her Virginia Beach home, in 2008. But 12-year-old Gabby charted her own course. After watching Shawn Johnson in the Beijing Olympics, Douglas decided she had to work with Johnson’s coach -- Liang Chow. Two years later, having worn her mom down, Douglass moved 1,200 miles away from home to train with Chow, in Iowa.

But Douglas had been on the path to the Olympics since the age of 8-years-old. During her 8-year rise to Olympic star, Douglas stumbled more than a few times. But her singular trait seems to be getting back up and trying again. You can practically chart her progress though YouTube videos of her performances.

Still, she wasn’t supposed to be in London in 2012. She was written off in 2011, when she balked on the balance beam at a national meet (but made it on the third try). Yet she still somehow ended up on the world championship team, where she made it to the finals, and tied for fifth. She was al alternate for the American Cup. She could compete, but her scores didn’t count. Still, her unofficial score beat everyone.

Still, she wasn’t supposed to be there. Gabby Douglas wasn’t supposed to grab the top spot on the U.S. Gymnastics team. She wasn’t supposed to win two gold medals. And she certainly wasn’t supposed to take the biggest prize in gymnastics, with a gold medal in the infidel all-around competition. So said the “Powers That Be.”

Inexperienced.

Inconsistent.

Insecure.

Not focused.

Unsteady.

Lacks confidence.

Can’t handle the pressure.

Not ready.

Not ready.

Not ready.

These are just a few of the many negative adjectives used in the days preceding Gabrielle Douglas’ historic gold medal win in gymnastics this week. Search any antecedent video and print stories about Gabby done by NBC, ESPN, the New York Times, and just about every other bastion of American journalism. It is easy to confirm that, repeatedly, these were the descriptors that always managed to be worked into any statement about her gymnastic efforts or to describe this lovely 16-year-old athletic powerhouse in comparison to her (losing) teammates on the U.S. Olympic team. Even when talking heads and pundits begrudgingly acknowledge that the speed of Gabby Douglas’ rise to the top of the women’s Olympic mountain was meteoric, they still cannot quite grasp how it happened or why it happened.

It seems that little credit is given to what must have been extremely hard work, to rise from a non-entity in the world of gymnastics to holding its highest female honor in just 2 years. Little credit appears to be given to the fact that Gabby Douglas won the all-around medal precisely because she posted excellent scores on all 4 gymmastic apparatus, the balance beam, vault, uneven parallel bars and floor exercise (unlike her teammates, most of who did not even compete on all 4 and did not score as well as she did on those they did compete on).

No credit at all is given to the resilience of her poor, single, Black mother; our nation doesn’t care about, let alone reward, the indomitable will and spiritual strength it takes to actually be a single Black mother in America raising four children. Or the strength it takes to allow your 14-year-old daughter, your baby, to move far far away in terms of literal and cultural distance to chase a dream. Hell, even after the team gold was won with Gabby being the highest scoring qualifier for the all around, the Today Show did a whole “Parents of the Fab 5″ segment in which it not once mentioned Gabby by name, although it was sure to let us know who Jordyn Wieber’s parents and Aly Raisman’s parents were. (It is Natalie Hawkins, btw, not Missy Parton, no matter how much the media is running around saying that Gabby had a white mother too.)

Even after her astounding win, it was Douglas’ hair that was the biggest topic of conversation. Not her amazing performance. Not the medal around her neck or the smile on her face. It was all about her hair. And most of the criticism seemed to be coming from black women. But it’s already apparent that Douglas will rise above her hair do detractors in the same way that she overcame doubts about her Olympic readiness. By working hard and not worrying that she wasn’t supposed to win.

How’s that for inspiring?


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