NBC wanted must see drama, lordy, are they are getting it.
Here are some of the things I am reading and pondering right now, a few days into the Tokyo Games:
Babies with medals
Where does your life go when you win Olympic gold at 13? Or even silver at 13? That is now the fate for Japan’s Momji Nishiya, who won the debut of skateboarding in the Olympics today. The other 13-year-old, Rayssa Leal of Brazil, took silver. Obviously, they are super talented, survived the heat and pressure, and deserve the glory. The rules allow them to compete while they are still in junior high. Other sports where you can pop big young, like gymnastics, tennis and skating, have age rules in place to ensure competitors are not kids. They can be teens, like 16, but not kids who are barely authorized to babysit. Other sports don’t need rules like this; because you need to be an adult just to get into the mix. I don’t think we would send a young teen into boxing or the marathon…
Aside: At the 2008 Beijing Games, Juliet Macur of the New York Times and I had some side-eye thrown at us when we publicly questioned the strong Chinese women’s gymnastics team over their young appearance. They physically looked much closer to 10 than 16. We guessed they were around 12-13. Birth certificates were presented by the Chinese, attesting to their eligibility, and that was that. But let’s not pretend all the rules are followed.
Aside 2: Why is it good to be so young and a star, aside from having freaky talent that makes you awesome? Slender bodies, lighter frames, and outlines that have not changed due to puberty fly, twist, and spin faster. Centers of gravity usually change with hormones and hips.
I keep thinking about how these girls handled being on the Olympic team at 13. The bronze medalist, Japan’s Funa Nakayama, is 16. In this case, the mental and physical maturity between a 13- and 16-year-old is like crossing the Grand Canyon.
These kids were sent to the biggest competition in the world, without their families. The Tokyo organizers have been hard-core with their ban of spectators, down to families because of COVID. Most parents don’t want to send their 13-year-old to Chipotle around the corner solo on their bike.
That title, “Olympic medalist”, hangs on you for life. It’s an honor, comes with a lot of perks, but the expectations and pressure of that being attached to your name forever is heavy. People want things, people try to scam you. Nishiya and Nakayama will forever have the bonus round of being heroes in their land, with Japan loving on its sporting icons to the point of destruction through non-stop scrutiny. Female stars in Brazil are not as big of a deal, as we have noticed throughout the years with Marta and the soccer team's success being a local media afterthought.
The toughest part will be making peace with life. Medal-winning Olympians and Paralympians are forever defined by that accomplishment. The public judges them differently. Competitors play harder against them. Fans taunt with the medal status on those bad days. They internalize the pressure of being that person, the winner with the big bling. The swirling quicksand of being a 13-year-old girl, a fraught zone to be survived, now gets more amplified and complicated. Winning a medal is a lot to handle for adults. I want them to still enjoy being kids. Likely though, that is all over to the same degree of being a child actor who hits it big.
Congrats to the girls for the wins. Let’s pray they have amazing and true support systems.
Team USA swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are two of the greatest athletes ever to compete in their sports. The U.S. men's basketball team is stocked full of NBA stars. Australian tennis player and world No. 1 Ash Barty is having the best year of her career.
But that does not mean that can't have a bad day, lose to a competitor who was faster, or just simply get smoked.
Barty made 55 unforced errors in her first round match to exit Tokyo with a whimper. Ledecky "lost" the 400 meter free, finishing second, to Ariarne Titmus of Australia. The race was smoke, with Ledecky swimming the second-fastest time of her life - only to be topped by Titmus' nearly setting a new world record. (And yes, the WR still belongs to Ledecky.) Ledecky seemed cool with winning her first silver in the 400, as she knows there was nothing more she could do.
Biles and the women's team sit second behind Russia, heading into the all-around final. The Americans were good, but not perfect. Biles had some uncharacteristic wobbles, and smirked a few times - knowing she was not at GOAT level. She was human, even while still being great.
And the basketball team? Losing to France is not a total hang head with shame event, but it revealed the cracks in Team USA right now. They were ice-cold and the defense looked a little All-Star game level lite. The 25-game win streak dating back to 2004 Athens is toast. Time to start a new one. And I trust in Pop/Kerr coaching hive mind to figure this out.
Good stuff to read/look at:
- The typhoon means organizers will be watching the waves, and determining when it is safe to hold the first Olympic surfing competition for medals. Meet the guy in charge of reading the charts, radars and making sure the waves are big but not deadly.
- There was an Argentinean fencer who lost her match, but had her boyfriend/coach of 17 years propose afterwards with a drawing of a kitty. I think that would automatically get a yes from me. But we'd have to discuss this 17 year wait thing for sure.
- Kohei Uchimura, one of the greatest men’s gymnasts of all time, ends his career on home soil. He was a shadow of his normal self, which was sad to see. But applause for the memories.
- Team USA family and friends can’t go to Tokyo to watch their person compete. Next best thing? Go to Orlando's Universal Studios for the big official watch parties.
- The Tokyo organizers have been tough on nursing moms who are athletes. Athletes were not allowed to bring their families at all - including babies. That factor was cited as a reason not to come by stars such as Serena Williams and Roger Federer, who normally travel with their children and partners. Then, because of the pre-Games outcry from nursing moms being separated from their babies, the organizers modified access a little. But in the end, the mom-athletes are not able to nurse or bring their babies. This shouldn't be this hard.
- Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee probably isn’t winning a medal during these Games. But in all the ways that count, she’s won already.
- The Instagrams of photographers Mandi Wright (Detroit Free Press) and Jack Gruber (USA Today). Wright (@detroitmandi) is showing what life looks like in Tokyo, as she gets to the Olympic venues by bus. Her photos are respectfully voyeuristic. Gruber (@guygruber) does daily what-am-I-eating updates, as he tests out Japanese convenience foods. The "peanut cream" packaged sandwiches revealed the Japanese preferences for having no crusts on bread. What will he eat next?