If you could be Jamaican only for a day, surely you’d pick today. For not only is today the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, but Usain Bolt got the party started early by reclaiming the Olympic 100 meter sprinting crown last night, and the whole island is already celebrating. I remember watching Bolt run in Beijing four years ago; when he burst from the pack in the back half of the sprint, I made a noise like “Waohohoahoh!” It was simply awesome and more than a bit scary to watch a man that large run that fast. Michael Phelps has gotten a great amount of the hype, and he deserves it all, but even so, no single moment of the American swimmer’s career has amazed me quite as much as the sight of Bolt running. Before the sprinters lined up in the blocks, Bolt mugged for the cameras by pretending to be a DJ and scratching an invisible turntable. You either despise the arrogance or love the confidence and looseness. I’m in the latter camp. Happy Independence Day, Jamaica!
Bolt’s example inspired Kenyan steeplechase runner Ezekiel Kemboi, who won the gold medal in his event, leading by such a large margin down the homestretch that he could afford to run out to cross the finish line in Lane 7, where Bolt had been running earlier. Kemboi won despite the cloud hanging over him; he’s accused of trying to stab a woman in his native Kenya after trying to blackmail her sexually. After these games, he’ll go back to his native country to face the charges, which he denies.
In my previous post on the Olympics, I called Wang Hao the Andy Murray of table tennis. Since then, the actual Andy Murray made that phrase obsolete by finally breaking through and winning the Olympic gold medal, defeating Roger Federer in the final and Novak Djoković in the semifinal. So what if both Federer and Djoković were below their best? The Scotsman is no longer what the British call a “nearly man,” and now has a claim on the exclusive fraternity that currently rules his sport. If Murray can bring his form and confidence to upcoming Grand Slam tournaments, the world of men’s tennis will be that much more interesting.
Murray’s gold was part of a huge gold rush for Great Britain. Countries typically see a boost in performance when they host Olympic Games, but Britain has been off the chain, winning not only in the rowing and cycling events that they normally excel in, but picking up medals in marquee events in gymnastics and track and field. The British aren’t used to this much success. Where will their negativity go to? Oh, that’s right: soccer! The women’s team crashed out to Canada in the quarterfinals (just after a rousing victory over Brazil), and then the men’s team did what England traditionally does by losing on penalties to South Korea. Poor Daniel Sturridge, recently recovered from meningitis, missed Britain’s last penalty kick and then pushed his teammates away as they were trying to console him before doubling over in tears.
The Olympics always have their disappointments. McKayla Maroney sitting down her second vault in the event finals was a huge shock, but if you want a real gymnastics underachiever, look no further than Kohei Uchimura. The Japanese gymnast will exit the Olympics with a gold medal in the all-around competition and a couple of silvers, but he entered the competition as a consensus pick for the world’s greatest gymnast and was supposed to lead Japan to a team gold medal and pick up several medals in the event finals. Instead, he had a rare bad day in qualifying, while his and his teammates’ bobbles during the team competition resulted in China taking the gold yet again.
The soccer games were broadcast here on Telemundo. The Spanish-language network’s broadcast has been an interesting change of pace from NBC’s. Not surprisingly, Telemundo focuses more on Latin American athletes. Leather-lunged Andrés Cantor (he of the famous “goooooool!” call) serves as studio host and calls the soccer games. Telemundo’s coverage isn’t free of sentimentality by any means; a feature on USA boxer Marlen Esparza was as syrupy as anything NBC has run. Yet they have a more functional relationship with the tape delay. The network broke into its coverage of the Mexico-Senegal soccer game (a crazy game, by the way) to inform viewers that Erick Barrondo had just won a silver medal in the 20-kilometer walk, the first-ever Olympic medal for the nation of Guatemala. Barrondo won the event at the Pan American Games earlier, so his silver was by no means a surprise. Telemundo could have kept the information under wraps, but instead they told their viewers before broadcasting footage from the race after the soccer game ended. What do we think, viewers? Do we prefer to watch in suspense, or would we rather be spoiled? Barrondo celebrated his medal by calling for an end to the violence in his nation.
I found myself caught up in a new Olympic sport: badminton. The nail-biting men’s singles final between China’s Lin Dan (no relation to me) and Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei won me over. Lee was looking to win his country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal and avenge his loss in the 2008 Olympic final to Lin. However, during the deciding third set, Lee let two birds drop in bounds because he thought they were going out. As a result, he lost the set by a narrow 21-19, and Lin (known as “badminton’s John McEnroe” because of his emotional outbursts during play) won his second gold medal. The match ended with both competitors in tears. The sport features fast play, with the tempo varying because the bird can change speeds so markedly in the same point, and the players need incredible agility and reflexes, not to mention speed to cover the court, to reach the bird. With a fired-up crowd chanting in Mandarin between points, the atmosphere was pretty incredible.
A few days after our men’s basketball team broke all sorts of records in crushing Nigeria, our women’s team did the same to China.
I feel privileged to have seen the athletic exploits of Bolt, Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Oscar Pistorius, and all those gosh-darned adorable teenage girls who were kicking ass for USA in the swimming pool. (Missy Franklin looks like an unstoppable force right now.) We’ve still got one more week of the Games left.