Jesse Owens was without a doubt the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A black man winning four gold medals in Arayan Germany was interpreted as a symbol of America’s strength in diversity. And yet, when Owens returned to America, he struggled to earn a consistent income, unthinkable if he were a star today.
One way Owens earned a living – he was an owner of a Negro baseball league team, The Portland Rosebuds. In order to bring fans in, I suppose, he footraced against horses between games at double headers.
And yet, the single most decorated Olympian ever, including a record 23 gold medals, Phelps is engaging an even more absurd race….against a shark.
In promotion of Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week”, Phelps will swim a race against a great white shark on July 23, 2017.
What can I say? This is the height of absurdity.
I can see in my head what a race with a horse looks like. I cannot imagine what a race between a man and shark is. How long would the race be? Since sharks are always in motion, does this particular great white shark getting a running start, as it were? Are man and shark racing together, in the same ocean lane? If yes, I imagine that would motivate Phelps in a uniquely visceral way.
But the simple reason why this whole exercise is clearly a gimmick, according to this article, great white sharks reach speeds of 25-35 mph, while a swimmer of Phelps’ caliber tops out at 6.
In the history of the Olympics, both Summer and Winter versions, athletes who have compiled the highest medal hauls over their Olympic careers tend to be gymnasts and swimmers. In fact, of the top 20 greatest career medal recipients, seven are swimmers, including the all-time record holder, Michael Phelps, and his 28 total medals.
It just got a little easier for swimmers to add even more medals.
On June 9, 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of another 15 events for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, including the men’s 800-meter freestyle, the women’s 1500-meter freestyle, and the intriguing 4×100 mixed medley relay, in which 2 men and 2 women form a single team and swim the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle in succession.
What else are we going to add? Are we going to do, like, 75m frees? How many other events are we going to add?When you add something like an 800m for men and a 1500m for women, and you’re adding mixed relays and 50s of strokes. I don’t want to say it, but it seems like there’s too much going on. It seems like, so then we’re going to grow the team by a handful of other people? I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s what swimming has been through all of this time, and hopefully we don’t have it for too long, but it’s not in my power. I can’t really do anything. I’ll just sit and watch.
It’s a bit of a ramble from Phelps, but it’s clear he’s unhappy. One could speculate that the IOC made it easier for some young swimmer to have more chances to earn medals, and perhaps one day, overtake Phelps’ 28 medals.
On the other hand, British gold medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke, Adam Peaty, expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the IOC didn’t add even more swimming events as he thought that people wanted to see more sprints, for example, 50-meter races in the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. Perhaps more accurately, Peaty believes that the emphasis should have been on speed over distance, as he said in this BBC article.
Sprints engage people more than distance events. I don’t like that there’s another distance event and I don’t think that’s what’s needed. I’m a bit disappointed.Maybe they could have both just done a 1500m and then done away with the 800m. You can’t please everyone and I know I’m a sprinter but they’re the races I always remember growing up watching the Olympics.
Jesse Owens was special for several reasons, but his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was an accomplishment that shone as bright as his spectacular statement of race and merit. Since that time, no one else had achieved the feat of four Olympic championships in a single Olympiad.
No one, that is, until Don Schollander swam to glory in the stunning National Gymnasium in Yoyogi in 1964. Schollander won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, 400- meter freestyle, and the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle relays.
And a fifth gold medal was definitely within his reach. One could argue it was his for the taking…until it wasn’t.
At the time, there was an unwritten rule within the US swim team that the winner of the 100-meter freestyle gets to take the freestyle leg of the 100-meter medley relay race. The 100-meter medley is a competition made up of four styles of swimming – the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke and freestyle – each one swum by a different person for two lengths of the 50-meter pool.
As explained in part 1 of this series, Schollander, unexpectedly to all except Schollander, won the 100-meter freestyle race. Thus he expected the unwritten rule to be enforced, and to be told to assume his rightful place as the anchor leg of the 100-meter medley relay team.
But when he met with the coaches, Schollander’s place on the medley team appeared tenuous. According to Schollander in his book, Deep Water, the coaches thought that Steve Clark was the fastest 100-meter freestyle swimmer on the team, and if not for bursitis, he would certainly have finished better than fourth in the Olympic Trials.
The coaches decided that they would use the 4×100 freestyle relays to determine who would swim the freestyle leg. Clark, followed by Mike Austin, Gary Ilman and Schollander won the finals handily, trouncing Germany by a full four seconds and set a world record. Clark’s time in the relay was 52.9 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than Schollander. Clark joined the 4×100 meter medley team, and would go onto set another world record to win the gold.
Schollander would most certainly have met the same result if he were on the medley team. When someone said to him before the decision was made, “You’re going to win four gold medals, anyhow. What do you care whether you get one more? What’s the difference between four and five?” Schollander viewed this as a matter of “justice”. But perhaps he also viewed this as one of those rare opportunities for historic significance.
Certainly in the back of my mind I was aware that this could mean my fifth gold medal. And it wouldn’t be just one more gold medal – it would be an unprecedented fifth gold medal. No swimmer had ever won four gold medals at an Olympics, but nobody in history – in any sport – had ever won five. But this wasn’t my arguing point. I felt that I had earned the spot on the medley relay team.
Mark Spitz, a teammate of Schollander’s in Mexico City, would go on to win an incredible 7 gold medals in Munich in 1972. Michael Phelps would go onto greater heights, grabbing 8 golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But before there was Phelps and Spitz, there was Schollander – one of the brightest stars of Tokyo in 1964.
Singapore has been aggressive in recruiting foreign athletic talent. Trying to punch above its weight, this nation of 5.6 million has a government program called the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) in which the government recruits foreign athletes with promises of income and training support. In exchange, the incoming athlete takes up Singaporean nationality and represents Singapore in international sporting events.
In 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the FST is one tactic in a strategy to bring the world’s best talent to Singapore, and thus continue to raise the capability bar.
In the Olympics contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of four million … If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over … Look at the Beijing Olympics. Tao Li, the swimmer, she’s done very well. The women’s table-tennis team … they have won an Olympic medal. We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team, and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them.
When Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu won the team bronze medal for Singapore at the 2012 Olympics in London, it was a moment of mixed feelings for Singaporeans. Yes, Singaporeans won an Olympic medal. But were they Singaporean, or mercenaries? According to this 2012 blog post, this did not resonate as a Singaporean victory.
According to a poll by Yahoo! Sports, 77 per cent of the 17,227 respondents polled over three days said they would not be proud if a foreign import won an Olympic medal for Singapore. It is not clear if the respondents had in mind Singapore’s table tennis teams, which were almost entirely made up of China-born athletes, but they were the only athletes representing Singapore with any real chance of winning any medals.
However, when swimmer Joseph Schooling triumphed over legend Michael Phelps of the US, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary in the 100-meter butterfly finals in Rio this past August, Singaporeans went mad over the hometown boy who beat the very best in the world. Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean, and that makes all the difference in the world, according to this blog post from The Online Citizen.
Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.
When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?
What’s interesting to me is that Schooling did not develop his world-class skills in Singapore. He did so at the University of Texas in the United States, where he competed among the very best, including Phelps. According to this article in Today Online, some of the comments in support of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme were Singaporean athletes, who “called on the universities to improve on and emulate the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association’s competitive environment by attracting top athletic talents to local institutions to compete and train among local athletes.”
Here’s how Singapore Sailing Federation president Benedict Tan and Minister for Social and Family Development argued the point.
By attracting world-class talents here and being in the system, it raises standards, and when you have real competition, they really level up. (Local) universities have been very forthcoming. But whether we create an (sporting) atmosphere or culture … it’s whether we have a critical mass of athletes.
This debate between head and heart is like a ping pong rally, back and forth…hopefully unending….
Empty stands are a common photo-op at all Olympic Games, but they were particularly obvious at the Rio Olympics. A debilitating economy and high ticket prices made sure of that.
But the Rio Paralympics, following only a little over two weeks after the Rio Olympics, was under even greater threat due to the economic hardship of Brazil: funds to support the travel of athletes to Brazil from developing economies were delayed, and only 12% of tickets to all Paralympic events were sold. The organizers feared empty venues and death by embarrassment.
According to the Economist, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, borrowed funds from state-run companies to ensure all Paralympians were at the Games as planned, while cutting funds in other areas. He also took down big screens around Rio to encourage Brazilians to attend. To make it easier, organizers slashed the price of tickets, making entry as low as USD3, and made strong appeals to the public to pack the venues and cheer.
It worked. As the Guardian wrote, ticket sales for the Rio Paralympics had topped 2 million at the time of the article on September 10. in fact, that day welcomed attendance of 167,675, which was better than the best day at the Rio Olympics, by about 10,000. At the time of that writing, total attendance was approaching 2.4 million, which would make it the second-most attended Paralympics after the London Paralympics in 2012.
In those jam-packed venues, filled with the enthusiastic and raucous locals cheering on Team Brazil, emerged a star among stars. The day before the end of the Paralympics, a 28-year-old swimmer from Sao Paulo won his fourth gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Over the span of a 10-year career, Daniel Dias, who was born with malformed arms and legs, has won 24 medals in the Paralympics, including 14 gold medals.
Dias is a national hero, Brazil’s very own Michael Phelps and by the noise generated by the crowd inside the venue you could feel the weight of the nation’s hope on his shoulders. This would be pressure for some, but not Dias. “I try to enjoy everything. I feel it’s positive pressure and a great honour to represent this country with everybody watching on TV. I’m trying to do my best in the pool,” he said.
And how loud were the cheers for hometown hero, Daniel Dias, in his 100-meter freestyle final? Watch the clip below and listen to the roar of the crowd.
Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.
American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.
Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.
Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)
Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.
More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.
And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.
The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.
Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.
Jarrion Lawson lept into the Brazilian night and landed in the sand, confident he had gold in his grasp. He was certain he exceeded his American teammate, Jeff Henderson, who was in first with a jump of 8.38 meters. When Lawson’s mark was revealed, he was astonished to see his leap recorded as 8.25 meters. Lawson not only lost the gold, he failed to medal, falling to fourth place behind Luvo Manyonga of South Africa and Greg Rutherford of Great Britain.
Lawson, in the follow through, had apparently grazed the sand with the fingers of his left hand before his feet landed. While Henderson was thrilled with his victory as he trotted along the track wrapped in his nation’s flag, he could see his teammate in the throes of agony. Such is life in the cut-throat world of athletic competitions measured in hundredths of centimeters or seconds under the microscope of digital recordings.
It must have been what Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszu felt when American Maya DiRado touched the wall .04 seconds earlier in the 200-meter backstroke finals. It must have been what Chad Le Clos or László Cseh felt when they tied Michael Phelps for second, losing to Singaporean Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly finals, as they all finished at exactly 51.14 seconds. But at least they got to share silver.
And perhaps, more painfully, it must have been what 4-time gold medalist, Allyson Felix felt when she hit the tape at the end of the 400-meter sprint finals, only to see Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dive over the line, her hands, wrists and ultimately her shoulder hitting the finish line earlier than Felix’s torso.
Jim McKay, the late, great host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, began his show by explaining his show’s raison d’etre: to deliver sports that showed “the human drama of athletic competition”, “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”
The thrill for one often comes at the agony of the other. That’s why we love the Olympics.
Singapore exploded. The Southeast Asian nation of over 5 million, affectionately self-proclaimed as the Little Red Dot, blew up their part of the Twitterverse with exaltations of pure bliss – one of their boys took gold at the Rio Olympics.
And it wasn’t just any gold. It was one destined to land in the hands of Michael Phelps, arguably the most successful Olympian ever.
Joseph Schooling, a 21-year-old third-generation Singaporean, lept to a great start in lane 4 of the 100-meter butterfly finals. Schooling quickly took the lead, held it at the 50-meter turn, and never relinquished it. He led from start to finish and defeated the favorites by a clear margin. Phelps, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary finished in a tie for second, 0.75 seconds behind the University of Texas third-year student.
“I’m really honored and privileged to swim alongside some of these great names, people who changed the face of our sport,” he told Channel News Asia. “I can’t really tell you how grateful I am to have this chance to swim in an Olympic final and to represent our country.”
Phelps did not add to his treasure trove of gold, instead settling for silver. But as noted in this wonderful New York Times article, Phelps has no one to blame except himself. Ever since Phelps began collecting gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, he has inspired young swimmers all over the world. Le Clos idolized Phelps as a child, and had the umbrage to defeat Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2012 London Games, albeit by a mere .05 seconds. Phelps came back to defeat Le Clos in the same race at the Rio Games.
Schooling is no exception, as he explains in this article. “As a kid I wanted to be like him,” said Schooling, who got his photograph taken with Phelps before his eight-gold medal performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years,” Schooling said, adding, “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”
While most casual observers of the sport wondered who the heck Schooling was, his competitors were aware. After all, Schooling is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly in the US. And the fact that Schooling was in lane 4 indicated he was fast in the heats leading up to the finals. Two days prior, Schooling had won his heat, defeating Phelps. In the semis, he posted the fastest time of all competitors.
But even so, with Le Clos and Phelps in the mix, Schooling’s victory was not a given. And as the winner of Southeast Asia’s first gold medal in swimming, Schooling’s victory is significant, as all trailblazing accomplishments often are, and will no doubt impact the dreams of millions of young athletes in Asia for years to come.
Schooling’s father, Colin, was ecstatic, but also aware of the responsibility his son now carries.
Singapore, he did what you all wanted and he did it in style. The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport.
“I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself.” – Pietro Aretino
There’s a powerful message in the Under Armour “Rule Yourself” campaign. Being the best is hard work!
The most recent iteration of the Rule Yourself campaign features the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, who hopes to add to his record number of gold medals at the Rio Olympics later this year. But as the commercial is trying to convey, Phelps’ achievements didn’t come only because he has natural talent, but because he applied an unnatural effort, sacrificed, and then achieved.
A few weeks ago, Under Armour released a commercial featuring members of the US women’s gymnastics team, also putting on display the rigorous training regimen of athletes competed to reach the highest levels of excellence.
There was a time people would say there is genius in the world, that the Mozarts and Tiger Woods of the world were born with talent. They were the chosen ones. There may very well be genetic advantages that can be parsed out. But a more likely explanation is that they worked hard at their craft. And in fact, research has shown that the greatest of the great, in any discipline, have often applied at least 10,000 hours of practice.
One of the populizers of this hypothesis is the acclaimed journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, who has developed a knack for featuring the best of the best in his stories. In the book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he writes extensively about the 10,000 hour rule, and quotes author and neurologist, Daniel Levitin to explain.
“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
Ten thousand hours.
It is as large a number as it seems. If 10 years is 3650 days, and thus 87,000 hours, then to get to 10,000 hours over ten years, you would have to spend nearly 3 hours a day training or practicing. Imagine a 20-year-old woman who makes the Olympic Games. From the age of 10, she’s spending finding time on the rink once or twice day, with longer days on the weekends…for ten years. This doesn’t include the travel time for her and her parents, the pain, the emotional highs and lows, the struggle to maintain school attendance and grades, and an even more heightened sense of self and insecurity as she struggles in her quest through puberty and her teens.
They make it look easy. But it isn’t. For first, you must rule yourself.
Larisa Latynina has won 18 Olympic Medals – that’s a career haul of over 2 kilograms, an Olympian achievement that only Michael Phelps has been able to eclipse. When Phelps passed Latynina in 2012, she famously quipped that it was about time a man was able to do what a woman had done a long time ago.
Latynina was gracious in the passing of the torch to Phelps, enjoying the internet limelight despite missing the fame that television brought to gymnasts Olga Korbut or Nadia Comăneci. In the 1950s and 1960s, Latynina, a Ukrainian who competed under the flag of the Soviet Union, was the undisputed queen of gymnastics, on a women’s team with a proud tradition of Olympic glory.
At the Tokyo Games in 1964, Latynina won six more medals, including two golds, bringing her Olympic total of medals to eighteen. Her total 14 individual medals is still a record for female athletes. Despite helping her team to a third consecutive Olympic team gold medal, Latynina gave way in Tokyo to an up-and-coming star from Czechoslovakia, Věra Čáslavská, on the overall individual championship, who would go on to win more individual gold medals in the Olympics – seven – than any other female gymnast.
Amazingly, Latynina continued her run of championships as a coach of the Soviet Union women’s gymnastics team from 1965 to 1977, where her team took gold again and again and again.
In the 1950s and 1960s, so many athletes who competed in the Olympic Games emerged from war-torn environments, overcoming poor conditions to become the very best in the world. As explained in this link, Latynina was no exception, growing up at a time when Ukrainians either resisted or gave in to Soviet collectivization of farms, and the policy ultimately contributing to famines.
And then there were the war years, when both of Latynina’s parents died. According to this ESPN article, her father was killed in battle in 1943, and her mother had to raise her sweeping floors, washing dishes and being a night guard in order to support her daughter’s training, until she too passed away.
At that end of the war, she was 11 and started ballet, her training leading to gymnastic exercises, and eventually to gymnastics full time. At the age of 22, she led the women’s Soviet team to gold in addition to earning three individual golds, continuing a long run of glory for Soviet women’s gymnastics.
Gymnastics would evolve, points more and more earned for athletic difficulty in addition to grace and beauty, in good part due to the impact of technology on sports equipment. “More sophisticated equipment has raised the bar of what the human body can achieve, and, in turn, made the sport more complex. For example, the floor exercise was originally performed on a wooden surface. Later a thin mat was added, and today there is a springy layer that allows for higher jumping without injury.” (See this link.)
Nadia Comaneci of Romania, who along with Olga Korbut were beneficiaries of more advanced technology that