Saturday, November 18, 2017

Gary Shelton at the Games: U.S. in need of a villain to hate


LONDON — In an Olympics that has had everything, what we need now is a villain.

We need a bully, a braggart, a bad guy. We need someone to glower and glare. We need someone who appears intimidating, invincible, inscrutable.

We need Alexander Karelin. We need Teofilo Stevenson. We need Kornelia Ender.

You know, just to make it interesting.

In the middle of the colors and the pageantry, what we need now is a rival. We need another country to dislike. We need a nation to scorn and to suspect of cutting corners. We need another nation that makes you feel giddy once you beat them.

We need Russia. We need Germany. We need Australia. You know, like in the old days.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the way the United States is clipping along in these Olympics. The anthem sounds good, and the athletes seem happy, and given the economy, we can use all the gold we can import. It's that sometimes it feels like the biggest rival to our No. 1 athlete in a sport is our No. 2 athlete.

In other words, what happened to the world?

Is Russia even attending these Games? Entering Monday, the Russians, the greatest of American rivals, had won only four gold medals. And get this: Three of those were in judo. They added three Monday, but the Russians have averaged 17 golds per Olympics over the past four (since the breakup of the Soviet Union).

And whatever happened to Germany? The Germans used to bring a terrific team to the Olympics. This time they have won five golds, but two have come in equestrian and two in rowing. For the first time in 80 years, the Germans failed to win an individual gold in swimming. Over the previous four Olympics, the Germans averaged 15½ medals.

Then there are the Australians. Did the Aussies get on a tour bus instead of the one heading to the Olympic plaza? These days, "down under" means the medal standings. Australia didn't win an individual gold in the pool for the first time since 1976. It has won two overall. Over the previous four Olympics, Australia averaged 14 golds.

One reaction goes something like this: Nyah, nyah, nyah.

The other is this: What happened? The medal standings are a staggering sight these days, what with Germany trailing France and Australia behind New Zealand and Russian having one-fourth the gold total of the United States. Forever these have been powerhouse Olympic nations.

Overnight, they have become the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Rams and the Los Angeles Clippers. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Granted, there is China. The Chinese won more gold than anyone in Beijing. They have a slight lead on the Americans in golds and overall medals. Can't we work up a good lather in the name of China, a nation with a history of doping problems and age-rule scandals?

Someday, maybe. When an American (non-Olympic) coach accused Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old Chinese girl, of swimming a suspicious 400-meter individual medley final (her last lap was faster than men's 400 IM winner Ryan Lochte's), the Chinese accused Michael Phelps right back, and for a day it felt as if a new rival had landed.

Ye passed her drug test, but given masking techniques, that doesn't mean a lot. Besides, when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, American athletes have taken enough to know what those performances look like.

Still, that controversy faded until the next international competition, and except for the medal table, no one thinks much about China, a country where the most important sports don't mesh with ours. China has won five of its golds in badminton and two in table tennis, for instance. Not to belittle those sports, because those medals are shiny, too, but they aren't exactly the sports that make Americans yell at referees.

Can you imagine the outcry if this falloff happened in the United States? It isn't any quieter elsewhere. Russia used to be the coldly efficient country that produced athletes such as Karelin, the great wrestler. Germany — especially when part of it competed as East Germany — once produced a steroid-fueled swimming team that included women such as Ender. Cuba (now buried in the medal standings at 21st) had boxers such as Stevenson. And on and on.

As you might imagine, a lot of nations seem to be angry.

In Russia, sports minister Vitaly Mutko has promised "very tough" changes to the country's federations. "We're almost at war," he said. Yeah, that's a Russian. The fencing and shooting coaches have resigned.

In Australia, there is talk of additional funding. That may solve future frustrations, but for now, it stings. "It's probably the greatest disappointment in my time," wrote the Melbourne Herald Sun's John Anderson.

In Germany, there is talk of changes, too. About time, said former swimmer Frannie Van Almsick: "This is a problem we have had for some time."

In the Olympics, failure happens. Excuses happen. But they aren't supposed to happen to these countries.

Once, they were fierce. Once, they were powerful. These days? A bronze would be nice.


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