Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




October 8 , 2009

They only hold the summer Olympics every four years and 2009 wasn’t the year for them. But they do hold the International Association of Athletics Federations world athletic championships every odd year, which is not quite the same thing, but close. This summer they were held in Berlin, and there were some absolutely memorable moments for those who love watching track and field competition on the world stage.

The games marked the return to world championship competition of Jamaica’s phenomenal sprinter, Usain Bolt, who set world records while blowing away the field in both the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Berlin world games was billed, in part, as a showdown between Mr. Bolt and America’s best sprinter, Tyson Gay. Mr. Gay missed the 100 meter finals in Beijing last year because of an injured hamstring, and was pointing to Berlin as his chance to redeem his reputation and vault himself over Bolt to gain the title as the fastest living human.

A press conference with Mr. Gay at the Berlin games prior to the 100 meter finals demonstrates how much the Bolt-Gay showdown was played up, with a reporter mentioning the billboards set up around Berlin advertising the Bolt-Gay race, and Mr. Gay admitting that he was looking at the 100 meter final as a “two-man, head-to-head race” because Bolt was “the only fellow you guys [the press] ever mention to me.”

A quick scan of newspaper articles leading up to the race illustrates that media attention. As only one example of many, an August 14, 2009 article in the online Telegraph newspaper from England entitled “Usain Bolt V Tyson Gay 100m Battle The Highlight At Berlin World Championships” notes that “There may be 2,500 athletes in action over the next nine days of competition, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the 12th World Championships are just about two men. But the hype is understandable. Not since Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson locked horns at the 1988 Seoul Olympics has there been so much expectation about a sprinting showdown. The forthcoming clashes over 100 and 200 metres between Bolt, the triple Olympic champion, and Gay, the triple world champion, have all the makings of the greatest sprint duels in the history and, if the weather conditions are right, world records must surely tumble.”

The race absolutely lived up to the hype.

In the 100 meter finals, Mr. Gay was fantastic, delivering on a world stage. He ran a 9.71, the third fastest time a human being has ever been officially recorded running over that distance. That must be said again, to be appreciated: the third fastest time ever in all of human history. His time broke the American record for that distance and, until almost exactly a year ago, when Mr. Bolt topped that mark in Beijing, would have set the world record. In a field of world class sprinters, Mr. Gay absolutely blew away everyone behind them, leaving them in the dust.

The problem was, there was one sprinter in the Berlin race who hit the finish line ahead of Mr. Gay. That was Usain Bolt, who broke his own world record to win going away at 9.58. The race, commemorated on YouTube, is one of the more thrilling track showdowns you will ever watch. This particular video features the race call by a German announcer, and even if you speak not a lick of German, you will recognize the absolute excitement and awe in his voice. Meanwhile the YouTube video, just as the live broadcast of the event when it was telecast last summer, followed Mr. Bolt’s enthusiastic victory lap around the track, camerafolks hustling to keep up in tow, ending with Mr. Bolt’s trademark “lightning bolt” pose for the crowd. His joy and bubbling enthusiasm at his accomplishment is absolutely infectious.

But what about Mr. Gay?

Without his participation in the event as a major competitor and threat to beat Mr. Bolt, the Berlin 100 meter showdown would have had no drama at all. It would not, in fact, have been a showdown. Three days after the 100 meter finals, Mr. Gay dropped out of the 200 meter dash, officially to nurse his still-sore hamstring for the relay races, but probably because he knew he had no chance against Mr. Bolt. With no-one to challenge him, Mr. Bolt won the 200 meter finals by a ridiculously wide margin, setting a new world record in that race as well. But without major competition, the 200 meter race was merely a race by Mr. Bolt against himself. And while it was fun to watch, and the world record was enormously impressive, it was nothing to get especially excited about.

While it was Mr. Bolt’s 100 meter accomplishment that got all the attention, it was Mr. Gay’s participation and effort that made it a race, and that’s what made the Berlin 100 meter final special, and absolutely memorable.

But for all his efforts leading up to and including the Berlin 100 meter final, in which he ended up running the third fastest time ever in human history, Mr. Gay was either ignored or—what is worse—labeled a “loser.” In the various YouTube videos there is only a brief picture of Mr. Gay in the field at the finish line, the disappointment clearly on his face, and he disappears from view after that as the cameras follow the winner.

An ESPN story (“Bolt Lowers 100-Meter Mark To 9.58”) posted online immediately following the race is typical of how the race was covered. In a story where all the paragraphs are one-sentenced, Mr. Gay is first mentioned in the fifth paragraph, when the story says that “Gay, [Mr. Bolt’s] closest rival, broke the American mark with his 9.71 performance and still looked like he was jogging -- finishing a few big strides behind Bolt in second place.”

You have to make it through almost to the end of a long article before you get to Mr. Gay again. After giving long details of Mr. Bolt’s actions during his victory lap, the ESPN article continues “Standing back at the finish line, waiting for [Mr. Bolt] to finish up, was Gay. … Gay was quite complimentary of his rival in a race that lived up to the hype.” The article noted near its conclusion that “Gay didn't have much of a chance. Not against Bolt.”

So in a race that “lived up to the hype,” a hype only possible because Mr. Gay provided credible competition to the world’s fastest sprinter, Mr. Gay is relegated to “loser” status, as if he had never even existed except as a canvas upon which Mr. Bolt could paint his masterpiece.

It would be as if you spent your time praising the work of Michael Keaton in the original “Batman” movie or Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight” while mentioning the respective Joker roles of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as an afterthought.

Interestingly, just this week, Mr. Gay came from behind to dramatically edge out Jamaican runner Asafa Powell at the tape in 100 meter dash at an IAAF meet in Greece. Mr. Powell was one of only two men—Mr. Bolt being the other—to beat Mr. Gay in the 100 all year. The end of the Athens race was so close, you could not positively determine the winner of the race until they showed the photo finish. It was one of the more thrilling races of the year. In my mind, when I saw Mr. Gay warming up before the race with Mr. Powell, I didn't see a "loser". Instead, I saw a really, really fast young man, one of the two fastest, ever, in history. But unfortunately, in athletics, there is an inherent (though not necessary) myopic focus on the winners of any competition—to the detriment of the worthy competitors—that explains, in part, the reaction to the selection of Rio De Janeiro as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the non-selection of the city of Chicago.

In case you missed it, Chicago made a serious, credible effort to win the games, even sending—at the last minute—their most high-level booster, former Chicago resident Barack Obama, to make a pitch for the city at the International Olympics Committee selection meeting.

There appeared to be some sort of shock in the country when Rio won the bid over Chicago, but one wonders why there was any surprise.

If Chicago had won the bid, it would have made the third time in nine Olympic games that the United States would have played the host (Los Angeles hosted in 1984, Atlanta in 1996). Unsurprisingly, no other region of the world has received such preferential treatment. In the 13 Olympics between 1960 and 2008, all of Europe has hosted only four times (Rome 1960, Munich 1972, Barcelona 1992, and Athens 2004), and no nation, of course, has hosted them twice in that period. Athens has hosted the games three times since their modern revival in 1896, but since Greece is the home of the original Olympics, that counts as a special case. Only England and France have joined the United States in hosting Olympic games twice, and while London gets them again in 2012, the last time they were in London was in 1948. All of the Asian continent has hosted Olympics only three times (Tokyo 1964, Seoul 1988, Beijing 2008). And while Mexico held the Olympics in 1968, that nation—for the geographically challenged—is in North America. Most significantly for the present discussion, South America—where Brazil and Rio De Janeiro are located—has never previously hosted a summer Olympics.

Given the above history, there is nothing that suggests that the United States should not have put in its bid to hold the 2016 Olympics in Chicago in competition with Madrid and Tokyo. But given that both Spain and Japan have hosted Olympics in recent years, and the United States has done it twice, fairness alone would seem to dictate that a South American city would get the next nod.

But there is another factor that argued for the Rio games, one that is so obvious that it shouts out at you. Brazil is one of the world’s unique countries, the carnival capital that offers a mixture of culture’s pretty much unmatched anywhere else. Much like Beijing in 2008, it is self-evident that the 2016 Rio games will be presented in a cultural atmosphere so pronounced and different that the venue itself will define the games as much as the competition.

Beside that, the only American city that readily comes to mind that could provide a comparable unique cultural experience would be New Orleans. And even New Orleans before Katrina is overshadowed by Brazil. Chicago is a great city, a major world city. But while it is competent to host the Olympics, there are few objective observers who believe that the city itself would have made the 2016 games memorable.

In this case, therefore, it is hard to see how it can be reasoned that Chicago “lost” the 2016 Olympic games. Chicago did not “lose.” It put its best effort forward—including one of the most persuasive persons on the planet, President Barack Obama—and in any other year, with any other competition, it would probably have gotten the bid.

But just like Tyson Gay in the Berlin games, Chicago had the bad luck of running against an almost otherworldly opponent, Rio and Brazil. And since there can be only one host every four years for the Olympics—just like there can be only one winner of a hundred meter dash—it would seem that no shame should accrue to Chicago’s attempt.

It did, of course. Just witness the sample headlines that followed the failed bid: “Why Chicago Lost” (Chicago Sun-Times), “The Agony Of Obama’s Defeat” (, putting the onus on the President because he traveled to the Olympic committee meeting to lobby for Chicago), “Chicago Torpedoed By Anti-US Sentiment?” (Chicago Sun-Times), and “Did Derrion Albert Beating Footage Kill Chicago's Dream?” (CBS News; note: Derrion Albert was a Chicago honor student brutally beaten to death by a group of fellow teenagers that was captured on video and widely shown on the internet and by the media). These articles, and many others, focused on why Chicago lost the bid, rather than on why Rio won.

That brings to mind the legendary answer the unknown coach gave to the question of how his team came to lose the big game. “Because,” the coach replied after much thought, “the other guys got more points.” Tyson Gay did not do anything wrong. He lost because Usain Bolt ran faster. One need not have to look at what might have caused Chicago to lose the Olympic bid beyond the fact that Rio was the best choice, a fact that seems easy to see if one is not preternaturally wired to root for America at all times.

And that brings into focus another aspect of the reactions to the Chicago Olympic loss. Far too many Americans don’t see such things as a competition, they see these things as events—or bids, or international conflicts, or wars—that America is always supposed to win.

It isn’t, friends.

And though one should always examine their effort to see where it failed, and figure out how to try better the next time, that is really all that needs to be said about this Chicago Olympics thing.

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