2012 Summer Olympics
A clueless princess. An obnoxious -- really! -- badminton player. These are the Olympians we'll be jeering
Only in Asia can a badminton player be a prima donna. Here, badminton is a backyard game, considered as innocuous as croquet and lawn darts. There, it’s a piece of the continental identity. Dick Ng, a badminton coach at Stanford University, even once told Asian Week that “Asians excel [at badminton] because we’re compact and have quick reflexes and blazing speed.”
In China, which has won 22 Olympic badminton medals (ahead of Indonesia’s 15 and South Korea’s 14), the government pays for players’ housing, meals and training. There is no bigger name in badminton than Lin Dan, the only player to win every major badminton tournament, including four world championships and a gold medal at the Beijing Games. “Super Dan” is one of the most popular athletes in China, named 2010 Sports Personality of the Year by a national TV network.
But Lin is also a violent, volatile personality whose outbursts would not even have been tolerated by the tennis brats of the ’70s and ’80s. In 2006, he threw his racket at a South Korean coach after a line call went against him. Two years later, Lin’s coach beat Super Dan in a practice match. So Lin punched him.
Badminton may not be appreciated all over the world, but bad behavior is.
Track and field, United States
Gatlin won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Games but didn’t return to defend his title in Beijing. Why not? Because he was serving a four-year suspension for doping after having tested positive for synthetic testosterone. Gatlin was stripped of his 9.77 second world record but was allowed to keep his medals. (He also won a silver in the 4×100 relay and a bronze in the 200 meters.)
Gatlin’s suspension is over, and he won the U.S. Olympic Trials in an un-drugged personal best of 9.80 seconds.
Performance-enhancing drugs have destroyed track and field’s credibility. The women’s world record book is filled with unbreakable records set in the 1980s, before the Ben Johnson scandal led to stricter testing. Marion Jones was forced to return five medals from the 2000 Sydney Games after admitting to using PEDs
Gatlin is entitled to run again, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t start using drugs until two years after Athens, when he finally got caught. The good news for fans of clean running is that the sport has advanced since Gatlin was on top. Even his fastest drug-aided time would not have been fast enough to beat Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the best of a new generation of Jamaican sprinters.
When the Aussie rugby team defeated South Africa’s Springboks in 2010, triple gold medalist Rice had a taunt ready for Twitter: “Suck on that faggots!”
Rice, whose @ItStephRice account had 8,000 followers, took down the Tweet and had this apology ready for the media: “I did not mean to cause offense and I apologize. I have deleted it from the site.”
But Jaguar Australia dropped Rice as a brand ambassador for its automobiles, and gay Aussie rugger Ian Roberts told a reporter, “She is an idiot … and anyone who continues to endorse her as an athlete is an idiot, as well. And I say that with a very sad tone in my voice. What a fool … It is never acceptable to belittle gay people.”
Rice will be defending her gold medals in the 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. (She’s a world record holder in the latter event.) The Internet seems to have forgiven her. @ItsStephRice now has 63,000 followers.
Basketball, United States
During the 2011 NBA Finals, the sports fans of Cleveland, still bitter over James’ decision to take his talents to South Beach, adopted the Dallas Mavericks as instruments of revenge, nicknaming them “the Mavaliers.” Things only got worse this year when James won a title in Miami, leaving his jilted hometown fans heartbroken and championshipless.
Will Clevelanders refuse to root for any team that includes LeBron James? Kobe Bryant was the star of 2008’s iteration of the Dream Team. This Olympiad, according to basketball watchers, “it’s LeBron’s team.” If you were disappointed when the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to finally win James an NBA title, his pursuit of a second gold medal is your next chance to hate on LeBron.
James could be worse. He only abandoned his hometown. Kenyan steeplechaser Stephen Cherono once sold out his country, defecting to Qatar and changing his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen in exchange for $1,000 a month for life. This resulted in one of the epic track races of our time. The Kenyans threw everything they had at the turncoat in an attempt to stop him from winning the steeplechase at the 2003 World Track and Field Championships. James will probably still land a gold.
Equestrian, Great Britain
In the ancient world, the equestrians were members of the Roman Empire’s 1 percent. In the modern Olympics, equestrian is the one event in which money and social rank are more important than athletic ability.
Phillips is the daughter of two former Olympians — Princess Anne, who rode her mother Queen Elizabeth II’s horse, Goodwill, in the 1976 Montreal Games, and Capt. Mark Phillips, who won a gold medal in three-day team eventing at the 1972 Munich Games.
In 2006, Phillips won the three-day eventing title at the World Equestrian Games and was named BBC Sports’ Personality of the Year. This year, she and her horse, High Kingdom, were finally named to the Olympic team. Phillips, who got her first horse when she was five years old, was once asked whether her royal lineage was a help or a hindrance in the equestrian world.
“It’s a hindrance,” she told ITV. “People think it was all given to me on a plate and it definitely wasn’t. But everyone in the sport is good to me. Everyone gets on with it.”
In the transatlantic competition for “horse with the most privileged connections,” High Kingdom is rivaled by Rafalca, the dressage mare for which Mitt and Ann Romney claimed a $77,000 loss on their taxes. Rafalca will be ridden by rookie Olympian Jan Ebeling. Go ahead and jeer him, too. In fact, go ahead and jeer this entire event. If we’re going to have horses in the Olympics, let them race, and drape a medal around the winner’s neck.
Cycling, Great Britain
In 2004, Millar was banned from the sport for two years and lost his 2003 World Elite Time Trial. French police had caught him with two syringes containing EPO, a protein hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, which increases oxygen capacity in endurance athletes. At the time, the British Olympic Association issued lifetime bans to athletes guilty of doping. That policy was overturned in March by the World Anti-Doping Agency, making it possible for Millar and sprinter Dwain Chambers to participate in the Olympics. (Chambers, who finished fourth in the 100 meters at the 2000 Sydney Games, admitted to using THG, or The Clear, the same steroid that helped Marion Jones win five medals.)
Even after that decision, the BOA didn’t have to select Millar for its five-man cycling team. But he’s one of the fastest cyclists on the island, and as the home team, Great Britain is under pressure to win as many medals as possible. Drugs have cost cycling even more credibility than track and field. 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis was stripped of his title for doping, and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong is now facing doping accusations.
In an interview with the BBC, Millar tried to present himself as an out-of-control drug addict, rather than an unsporting sportsman. “One of the things that cut me up the most with what happened to me was that it was preventable,” Millar said. “That angered me so much that there’s people who were supposed to look after me as a young man [and] didn’t. In fact, they did the opposite.”
Both Millar, 35, and Chambers, 34, are past their physical primes. It’s hard to compete at that age — which might be why some people will question their results.
Oscar Pistorius’ artifical legs
Track and field, South Africa
It is possible to jeer Oscar Pistorius’ participation in the Olympics without jeering Oscar Pistorius himself. From the thighs up, he is apparently a wonderful human being. Even Russian supermodel Anastassia Khozissova thinks so.
However, it’s unlikely that Pistorius would be a world-class sprinter if he had been born with a complete set of legs. And even if his prosthetics don’t give him a biomechanical advantage over the other runners, they give him a physical advantage. Unlike muscle, carbon fiber does not fill up with lactic acid during the stretch run of a 400-meter race. It can also be replaced if it breaks down.
Pistorius won a silver medal in the 4×400 relay at the 2011 World Championships. He was only allowed to run the lead-off leg, during which runners remain in their starting lanes, because race officials feared his prostheses might cut another competitor. For the Olympics, Pistorius is again on the relay team, because his time of 46.20 was not fast enough to qualify as an individual.
Michael Johnson, whose 43.18 seconds is the 400-meter world record, said last week that allowing runners with prosthetic limbs to compete alongside the able-bodied could end up compromising the integrity of medals and records.
“Because [Oscar’s] personal best is 45 seconds – and that is not enough to win medals – people generally will take the approach [that] he should be allowed to run: ‘Let him run, it’s great,’” Johnson said. Then he added, “What happens when we have a Michael Johnson, a 43-second 400-meter runner, who then has a horrific accident and then becomes a disabled athlete and then you put him on blades, these prosthetics, and he is now running 41 seconds?”
There’s also a First World/Third World issue here. Pistorius’ J-shaped Cheetah flex-foot prostheses are affordable in a modern nation such as South Africa. A Somali born with the same disability would not be so lucky.
Track and field, United States
LaShawn Merritt is the best runner we have in America. In Beijing, a Games that belonged to Jamaica, he led this country’s sweep in the 400. That made him one of only two U.S. men to win an individual gold on the track. (Needless to say, he won another in the 4×400.) But Merritt needed to be a bigger man than that. As he tells the story, he was buying condoms at a 7-Eleven when he saw a package of ExtenZe, an herbal supplement that claims to promote “natural male enhancement.” (He never has said whether it worked.)
Unfortunately for an Olympian, ExtenZe contains Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a steroid on the IOC’s list of banned substances. Merritt was suspended for 21 months. The 33-year-old would have been banned from London, ending his Olympic career, but the USOC won a case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, overturning a rule requiring drug cheats to skip a Games. As a result, Merritt will become the first accused PED user to defend an Olympic title. He won the Olympic Trials, and has the fastest 400-meter time this year, but pulled up 250 meters into his last pre-Olympic race in Monaco.
You shouldn’t jeer Merritt for trying to gain an unnatural advantage in sprinting. You should jeer him for trying to gain an unnatural advantage in sex. Who would make up a story that embarrassing, even to avoid a drug ban?