When Olympians deserve better from the rest of us

I don’t mean to pick on Mike Wise here, because this isn’t the first column to take a couple of stray mixed-zone comments and berate an Olympic athlete as if she let down her family, country, boyfriend and dog.

He does take it to new heights, though, in this column.

“Pretty much all my mistakes cost me the bout,” Zagunis said, adding that any bout she ever lost had less to do with the skill, smarts and perseverance of her opponents than it was “my lack of concentration.

“Congrats to them for winning, [but] in my opinion, if I was completely 100 percent on mentally, then I would have been able to win again. It’s happened to me before.”

First, I’d like to see the full context here. Second, she’s basically saying she choked. That doesn’t strike me as arrogant or petulant.

Ready for it to get worse?

That is, no one but fencers care about fencing after the Olympics are over. And nothing is as over as when the Olympics are over.

So while they’re going on, niche athletes need to savor the Games and smile more often for those two weeks, give opponents that beat them credit more often — because they really matter to most of us only every four years.

So take THAT, Miss Not As Composed As Journalist Would Like After Shocking Loss On World’s Biggest Stage. You’re utterly useless the rest of the four years between Olympics, when you’re just off getting an education and winning the occasional world championship.

I sometimes wonder why people would want to be Olympic athletes. You devote your adolescent and young adult years to developing a rarified skill, and then if you’re anything less than perfect when the international broadcast feed clicks on, you’re subject to ridicule from an increasingly snarky media feeding off the perpetual snark of Twitter.

NBA and NFL players usually have one more game to play, and their mistakes are quickly forgotten. A media firestorm passes with time, and the player goes back to being an athlete. But if you screw up on or off the field, piste or pommel horse in that one instant America notices you before preparing for a fantasy football draft, and that window is gone.

Fair? Definitely not, even when the journalists are less explicit in their harrumphing than Wise is here.

We won’t change the armchair-Olympian attitude, though in the new media age, people can fight back:

Yes, that’s fellow fencer Tim Morehouse, who has also responded in more detail:

Mr Wise: Maybe she didn’t respond to defeat to your liking, but she didn’t make excuses, throw her equipment, curse anyone out or do anything but respond as best she could to an emotionally challenging situation.     I have seen far worst displays from athletes and this one certainly didn’t warrant the zeal to which you attacked her in your article.

It is legitimate to criticize athletes for their behavior (yes, even fencers), but your article was a personal attack.

And to the “every four years” point, Morehouse says this:

Fencing is a great sport and Mariel Zagunis is a great champion.  Whether people are writing about it or not over the next 3 years, she’ll be working hard to achieve her goals while conducting herself as a role model and contributing to our society.   She pursues excellence not for the Bob Costas sit down or the Wheaties box, but because she is trying to be the best she can be.    And in the end, that IS the Olympic spirit.

PS Don’t mess with the fencing team.   We have swords.(and twitter)

One more point, possibly self-serving: I’ve always tried, at USA TODAY and elsewhere, to get people to care about Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. And these Games have inspired me to redouble my efforts. That’s why this little blog is going to stick with Olympic programming. (And soccer and MMA, don’t worry about that.) When Zagunis wins another world championship, you’ll read about it.

And if we’re looking for Olympic controversies, shouldn’t we be looking at the boxing judges?

UPDATE: Wise has really gotten into it with some people on Twitter, alternating between gracious smoothing-over …

… and upping the ante on the attacks …

Being a Dukie who interviewed this fencing team in Beijing and had a funny conversation with Becca Ward about skipping the closing ceremony in favor of Duke’s freshman orientation (I told her she wasn’t missing much at the latter, but she insisted), I’m moderately curious about this. Ward went on to a fantastic college fencing career at Duke, in any case.

“She and her mother bully people and have a sense of entitlement” is “something positive”?

This is why people hate journalists.

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4 Responses to When Olympians deserve better from the rest of us

  1. Greg says:

    Really disappointing article from Wise. First, Zagunis did let that bout get away from her. She was clearly rattled and completely lost her confidence by the end. If ever there were an example of “they didn’t win it as much as I lost it,” that was it. I’m sure Zagunis had to deal with a mixture of shock, disappointment, and sadness. And I’m even surer that Wise could have given her a break if, in the wake of such a disappointing end, she wasn’t thinking so much about the “Olympic Spirit” – which should extend beyond athletes to include journalists.

    I’m glad that Morehouse stood up for his teammate – for the right reasons, and in the right way – unlike certain other Olympic athletes have these games. When the criticism gets personal it needs to be confronted.

  2. Jimmy LaRoue says:

    Well, Beau, as someone who loves the Olympics, particularly the Summer Games, I’m disappointed by Wise’s column too and would love to see more attention on the Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. As someone who has two big sports goals – to cover a men’s World Cup and to cover a summer Olympics – I’d love to be part of the process to help people care more about Olympic sports.

  3. Jim Mason says:

    Olympic athletes are on the world’s biggest athletic stage. They must act accordingly, and be prepared to be called out when they do not. The young woman was not merely an athlete; she was the flag bearer for the United States. While it may not be fair, she was possibly held to an even higher standard. By failing to acknowledge her competitor’s skill and outstanding performance, the young woman did not meet that standard, and was rightly criticized by Wise. I hope she apologizes, and I hope that if and when she does, Wise will praise her for it.

  4. cvr says:

    Mikey will praise her for it! Wow!

    Because that’s what Olympians work for: the approval of never-were sports “journalists.”

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