Athletes are just people

The outrage over Usain Bolt's chest-pounding proves that we expect athletes to be heroes -- and when they're not, we turn on them.

Published August 25, 2008 3:00PM (EDT)

I've been pondering the dust-up over Usain Bolt's record-breaking, chest-pounding, no-effort waltz across the 100-meter finish line since he did it a little over a week ago. As I watched the event, I screamed out loud, swept up in his joy and the sheer superiority of his athleticism. I love that he had one shoe untied as he slapped his chest before he even crossed the finish line. I love that he had a belly full of Nuggets at race time. And I love that he enjoyed himself before, during and after the race. The audacity!

I do not share Bob Costas' view that Bolt's gesture was disrespectful to the other athletes as well as to the fans who came to see the best possible performance. If that wasn't the best possible performance a sprinter could put on, I'm not sure what would be.

Was he gloating? Perhaps a bit. Should he have? Why the hell not! He's the fastest man alive and he was barely trying.

I think the reason that Bolt's exuberant behavior has produced such exaggerated outrage is that we expect our athletes to be superheroes. We engage in idol worship, demanding that these mere earthlings fulfill our communal hunger for picture-perfect symbols of humanity. We require our athletic champions to do no wrong -- on the field and off. If they fail to live up to our grandiose expectations, we turn on them.

Politicians disappoint us. They cheat on loving wives sick with cancer, they're on the corporate dole, they renege on promises, they compromise. Corporate titans do the same. They steal the 401Ks from their employees to throw lavish parties and deride workaday plebes as unenlightened, stupid toilers.

In today's America, heroes are in short supply.

Thus we have come to rely on athletes to fill this primal craving, this need for awe-inspiring, larger-than-life illustrations of humankind. So that we can believe in ourselves. But really, athletes are just people. They are faster, stronger, more physically courageous and willful than most of us. But like the rest of us, they are full of all-too-human foibles -- weakness, egotism, sorrow, uncontained joy, anger, fear, regret and even a little spite at times.

Marion Jones took steroids. She's a cheater. 2004 gold medalist diver Laura Wilkinson broke into a bighearted, generous smile when she failed to medal. She's a real winner with a heart of gold! Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a fight. He's an animal! Surprised? He beats his opponents' heads in for a living. Is it really shocking that he has trouble controlling his rage at times?

Costas disapproved of Bolt's midrace behavior. But one could regard Shawn Johnson's constant avowal that she trains for only four hours a day, while her competitors all train twice that, as a similar affront. Her confession before and after the meet, which appeared in every media outlet known to man, could be construed to reek of arrogance. She's better than all but one of the competing Olympic gymnasts and she puts in half the training time, half the effort. It must make those poor little underage Chinese girls feel just awful about themselves. They train 10 hours a day, see their parents once a year, and the best any one of them could muster in the all-around was a pitiful bronze. And what about Alicia Sacramone? She hung in there after missing the Olympic team in 2004, trained long grueling hours -- and fell twice in the team finals. Ms. Johnson should stop showboating, cease the constant yammering about her languorous, halfhearted training schedule. She's making the other girls feel bad!

I have no issue with Shawn Johnson talking about her training schedule. And I fully understand why it is discussed so relentlessly. The USA Gymnastics machine is countering the negative press out there about gymnastics -- the injury rates are sky-high, the girls are generally very young when they engage in brutally rigorous training schedules, eating disorders are alleged to run rampant, these children train on broken bones and feel the pressure of being their coaches' second chance. Not Shawn Johnson, though.

Good for her, and I truly mean that, with absolutely no sarcasm whatsoever. I am merely drawing a comparison. Costas took no issue with Johnson's bragging about her moderate training schedule because it made her more superhuman, not less. It fed the myth of the athlete superhero. And on top of her athletic prowess, she acts like a gracious, dignified young lady, grateful for the silver medal, proud of her competitor Nastia Liukin. But Bolt's gesture makes him less of a hero. He's swift but arrogant, insensitive and gloating.

Usain Bolt may be faster than a speeding bullet but he's not Superman. He's just a guy. And I, for one, applaud when athletes show their humbling, mortal fallibility.

By Jennifer Sey

Jennifer Sey is the author of "Chalked Up," her memoir about the ups and downs in internationally competitive gymnastics. She was the 1986 U.S. National Champion and a seven-time national team member.

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