Friday, February 17, 2006

greatness courts failure

I'm not actually watching the Olympics, but I do read the sports pages. And I've noticed that the sportswriters who are covering some of these high-profile American flameouts are being merciless:

"I didn't feel my inner peace tonight," Weir said. "I didn't feel like my aura is white today. My biorhythms were a little off. I was black inside."

Whatever. Truth is, it's all Weir-speak for this:

I choked.

Fine, so Johnny Weir is a little eccentric. But you know what? These are amateur athletes. It may say "USA" on the helmet or the uniform or whatever, but really, they're not over there for us (depsite what NBC would have you believe).

They don't owe us anything.

Yet this particular Philly scribe treats a 21-year old who's not getting paid as he will Tom Gordon the first time "Flash" blows a save opportunity as a Phillie.

Am I the only one who thinks there's something wrong with that?

The AP said Lindsey Jacobellis' "hot dogging" board-grab was inexcusable because it cost her a gold medal.

"Inexcusable"? I'm thinking a good rule of thumb for sportswriters is that they should quit if they ever start sounding like middle school teachers trying to give detention time to the athletes they cover.

And obviously none of these scribes have ever seen Tin Cup, in which Kevin Costner's character blows his chance to qualify for the US Open because he refuses to lay up (at least, that's how I remember it). He keeps trying - and failing - to make it over a water hazard that makes the world's best pro golfers pee their pants. Don Johnson's slimy character lays up and secures a forgettable finish near - but not at - the top of the leaderboard.

"Greatness courts failure," Costner's character says. Everybody remembers his spectacular failure, and he wins the respect of the golf community (not to mention Don Johnson's girlfriend, played by the comely Rene Russo).

So if Jacobellis wanted not just to win but to excel - to give a performance for the ages - who can blame her if it didn't work out? If she's OK with herself after taking her shot at greatness and falling short, who are we to criticize her? (And frankly, given the nature of snowboarding, how can we criticize her? This is not Leon Lett dancing at the end of his fumble return; this is an entire sport based on showing off).

In general, who are we to get offended when an American amateur athlete fails to bring home the gold?


jesse said...

Jacobellis insisted she wasn't showing off.

"When you grab in boardercross you're trying to get back on the ground as fast as possible," she said. "You try to be stable in the air."

So, the AP writer basically contradicts his/her own lede.

Just another reason to hate the media.

As for Johnny Weir, if you're going to talk about your aura and your biorhythms, and reporters have covered you like you're some special princess, you're going to be open to criticism when you fail.

And now that I think about it, Jacobellis was in that annoying commercial where her coach calms her down by telling her to imaine that her Visa card had just been stolen, then she smiles and races down the mountain feeling the warmth and security of Visa's fraud protection wrapped around her body, or something like that. She cannot be ripped nearly enough for that.

Nobody could have ripped that Ted Ligety guy if he had failed, because he didn't open his mouth before the Olympics. When you make public declarations about how good you are, then don't live up to it, I think criticism is par for the course. That doesn't mean the media is always fair in its criticism. My point, as usual, is murky. Murky!

Ryan said...

if you're going to talk about your aura and your biorhythms, and reporters have covered you like you're some special princess, you're going to be open to criticism when you fail.

I'm not sure a columnist can use his own previous fawning coverage of an athlete as implicit justification for mercilessly ripping that athlete after failing.

Well, I guess he can, but it doesn't make it actually justified (and makes said columnist look like an opportunistic two-faced douchebag).

And it certainly doesn't justify the attitude that we should all be offended that Weir didn't medal, or that Jacobellis didn't bring home the gold. No matter what these athletes said or did to justify their supposed comeuppance, it doesn't change the fact that they're amateurs, and they didn't owe any of us a damn thing.

jesse said...

I haven't read any of Sam Donnellon's previous stuff on Johnny Weir, but if he's coming off as a two-faced douchebag, that's his own problem, and he probably shouldn't have been fawning over someone who hadn't actually accomplished anything in the first place.

I hate the sports media as much as anyone. As Phil Hoffman said in Almost Famous, friendship is the drug they give you. And as much as he may be an amateur, Johnny Weir got high on it. He presented himself as a diva and as someone who promised a big performance. It's not like he shied away from the spotlight and the fawning and said, "I'm just an amateur figure skater trying to do my best." If he had done that, he'd be immune to any criticism.

To put it another way, let's say that Mensch decided to run a marathon. He gets all pumped up and starts talking about how he's going to run it in under three hours, boasting about his great time to come for days on end. He shows off his fancy marathon-running outfit and expects us to be impressed. Then he goes out and takes five hours to run the marathon -- he's wheezing at the end of it and saying that he would have done better if the bus to the starting line would have come on time. It's impressive that he finished the marathon, sure, but after all that yapping and buildup, I'd think you'd be allowed to make a few snide comments, like "what happened to that three hours?"

I see Weir like that, only instead of boasting to his friends, he was on the news showing off his fancy costumes to Vai Sikahema. I think that doing all that, he opened himself up to criticism when he failed to deliver the performance.

I'll refer again to Ted Ligety, who was a total unknown coming in and walked away with a skiing gold medal. If he had finished 27th, nobody would have ripped him -- he didn't make a big show of himself beforehand.

Americans love a champion, but we also love to see a shameless self-promoter fall flat on his face. Maybe it makes us feel superior to those who have still taken more risks and worked harder to get where they are than any of us ever will, but Johnny Weir finishing fifth in figure skating or Bode Miller getting disqualified from the skiing thing is not that different to me than Freddie Mitchell falling flat on his face in the Super Bowl after running his mouth. I think that's what's at play here.

Ryan said...

Sorry, you mentioned Mensch in a special marathon running outfit, and this being the Winter Olympics, I pictured one of those "spider-man" ski suits the athletes wear, only on him. Mensch in Kenyan marathoner short shorts is a slight step up, but not by much.


Anyhoo, I appreciate your point, and I agree that the freddie mitchell dynamic w/r/t the media coverage of these athletes is probably a large part of what's at play here. But it shouldn't be, in my opinion.

Freddie Mitchell 1) was an asshole, 2) had to answer to his teammates and the organization which put food on his table, 3) quite possibly tipped the balance between the two teams in favor of his opponent because of what he said, and 4) represented his city in a much more tangible and direct way than any of these Olympic athletes represent their countries. His mouth wrote checks his game couldn't cash, and it was his teammates, his employers and the fans of Philadelphia who paid for it.

These Olympic athletes have nobody to answer to but themselves and the close circle of family and coaches that surrounds them. No matter what these athletes say beforehand, for the media to act as if we all should feel we were robbed because they didn't win is absurd any way you cut it.

If Lindsey Jacobellis wants to add some flair to snowboarding (and let's face it - in the snowboarding community, if she had just crossed the finish line, she would have been considered L-A-M-E lame... which is neither here nor there, but definitely worth mentioning) and is OK with the risk and its ultimate result - and she's the one who has to live with what happened - why should we care that she didn't win? Report the story, but don't shit on her.

If Johnny Weir wants to be an extroverted weirdo - which does not necessarily mean that he's an attention-whoring braggart - why does that mean we have to bash him harder when he doesn't win? Criticize his performance, but don't pick apart his personality and character as one would pluck the wings off a housefly.

I'm honestly not sure if you're condoning the sports media, or saying that right or wrong, this is what happens. I think the latter is certainly true - but I also think that it's wrong.

jesse said...

The media, and especially the sports media, are full of people who like to tear others down as a way of feeling superior. I agree that it's wrong, but yes, I'm saying that it's what happens.

My question is, where is the line drawn on who's eligible for criticism? Bode Miller might be the elephant in the room in this conversation -- he's made a ton of money in endorsements and come up a huge loser in everything he's done in these Olympics, all after also running his mouth more than perhaps any athlete in the Games. Is money the determining factor? Or is it a matter of team vs. individual?

Ryan said...

I'm not sure about Bode. He's really the only flameout at the Games who's been actually scandalous. The other flameouts don't appear to be self-destructive, belligerent alcoholics. Miller might even be deserving of more sympathy, because it almost looks (from an outsider's perspective) that he's ruining his entire life, not just blowing his chance at taking home a piece of precious metal around his neck.

I'm not sure there has to be a line drawn for the rest of these athletes, either. As thinking adults, can't we take it on a case-by-case basis? And I think it's worth mentioning again that I don't take issue with criticism; I object mainly to the love-you-when-you're-up, violent-deconstruction-of-your-entire-being-when-you're-down hypocrisy which apparently sells papers and drives ratings. Criticism is a high calling, and it's what sports media ostensibly exists for - not character assassination.