SYDNEY, Australia — Once upon an Olympics, you came to the party broke and anonymous. You arrived as an amateur, without fanfare, a small suitcase in hand, a flag on your lapel.
You gave the best performance your body could deliver, you burst across a tape, touched the wall in a swimming pool, netted a winning shot — and suddenly, you were an Olympic champion. Your world was never the same.
Today, like the time and weather here in Australia, everything is upside down. Many athletes at these Sydney Games are arriving famous. They are arriving with entourages. They are holding press conferences before they compete. They are cover stories in Time and Newsweek, past guests on David Letterman or Jay Leno, they carry the hopes and good wishes of multinational corporations already paying them millions of dollars.
They are less athletes than IPO stocks, being picked early in hopes of a big gain.
And the Olympics are more about what they could lose than what they could win.
Welcome to the 21st Century Olympiad, where Michael Johnson could blow his whole career, Maurice Greene could have to stop talking about himself, a 17-year-old swimmer named Ian Thorpe could let down his whole country, Bela Karolyi could lose his magic touch, and Marion Jones could win three gold medals and go home …a failure.
Sound backward? It is. But the breathless effort to hype these Games has made waiting until there are actual results seem like coming to dinner as they’re clearing the plates. Everyone wants in early. The result is to reduce athletes to coming attractions for new movies. You can only hope the real thing is as promising as the clips.
The result: Some athletes will go home diminished by these Games.
How did all this insanity start?
I believe his name was Carl Lewis.
L.A. Games, Lewis broke mold
Go back to 1976, the Montreal Olympics, the last time things worked the old-fashioned way. That Olympiad gave us Bruce Jenner and Nadia Comaneci, both of whom were discovered after their inspiring victories.
Then came the Olympic boycott of 1980. No news. No heroes. At least not in America. By the time 1984 arrived, it had been eight years since we had celebrated the red, white and blue in the Summer Games. And a lot had changed. The country was in the throes of a personal infatuation, the economy was booming, Ronald Reagan was saluting the flag — and the Olympics were in Los Angeles, home of the movie star.
That combination produced a sea of change. Just as Peter Ueberroth broke Olympic tradition by selling sponsorships to every inch of the Games before they happened, so too did media outlets and corporations try to jump the gun by getting in early on The Next Big Thing.
Carl Lewis was the biggest of the Olympic things, a good bet to match Jesse Owens’ feat and win four gold medals. Lewis was outspoken. He was media-hungry. Breaking with a general Olympic tradition of “let’s see what happens,” the American press put Lewis everywhere, plastering his face across magazine covers before he ever broke a five-ring sweat.
The pre-Games cover story is now a phenomenon out of control. This year Marion Jones has already graced the front of Time and Newsweek — as well as countless other periodicals. Has anyone pointed out that she is yet to win anything in an Olympics? Don’t be silly. For the media, this is about being there before it happens — so we can say we told you so.
Jones already has been tabbed as “the story of the Sydney Olympics.” She carries the Lewis-ian label of “all eyes are on….” But if Queen Marion is the year 2000 version of King Carl, she would be wise to heed his fate. Lewis did everything that was predicted. He came home with four golds. But his behavior during the Games — his reluctance to go for a world record in the long jump (he was “saving himself” for the other events) and his seemingly shrink-wrapped approach to celebration — made America turn off rather than on. It didn’t help that his agent said, “Carl is as big as Michael Jackson” — and that was before the Opening Ceremonies.
Lewis finished his Olympics in worse shape — for his image — than when he went in. That cost him millions in lost endorsement opportunities — the very windfall you’re supposed to catch when you come home golden.
Could Jones suffer the same fate? Possibly. In fact, she could suffer even worse. There has been so much hype about her winning five gold medals. What if she loses one? What if she falls? What if there is a bronze in the mix?
Will she not be seen as “almost” successful?
Will America buy “almost”?
Designated stars had better deliver
And let’s not stop with Jones. Track stars Johnson and Greene, the world record-holders in the 400 and 100 meters, respectively, have already done themselves pre-Games harm. Their trash-talking over a 200-meter showdown at the Olympic trials made them only look silly when both pulled up with leg injuries. Now, neither is in that event, and each of them needs a gold here in Sydney — not to reap new fortunes but to keep the ones they have.
Johnson, for example, signed a $12-million deal with Nike. Greene drives a Mercedes 500SL with the license plate “Mo Gold.” How long do you think such exalted lifestyles will continue if they fail on the track next week?
Same problem in the pool. Thorpe, the thick, gangly swimmer who carries Australia’s youthful hopes, is already a national hero. He has had endorsement deals since he was in junior high. But if he comes up short this week, even though he is only 17, he will be seen as overhyped, a product that didn’t deliver.
The same fate may await gymnastics guru Karolyi, who molded such American stars as Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. Karolyi has become such a superstar himself, results are expected simply when he shows up. Never mind that the U.S. women’s gymnasts seem unlikely to be hanging anything around their necks this year. When people see Bela, they think gold. If he fails this time, his glow is dimmed.
The irony of all this pre-packaging is that, when it comes to the Olympics, Americans prefer to be surprised. That’s the reason we gravitate to stories like Dan Jansen, the speedskater with the tragic habit of falling during his biggest races, or Strug, the mighty mite who vaulted with a damaged ankle. We like to be caught off guard, moved to tears, struck by the glory and drama of the moment. We don’t like to be told who’s gonna wow us.
But it’s too late. Once one person rushes the stage, everyone does. So media can’t resist the pre-Games hype, corporations can’t resist getting in early, agents can’t resist making deals, and the result is this: What used to be an event where everyone came in empty and some went home full, now has some coming in full and going home empty.
And it’s a shame. After all, the Games are supposed to be about the glory of the good effort. No athlete should have to tell his grandchildren about the
“the Olympics where I lost it all.”
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).