“I’m now a legend. I’m also the greatest athlete to live. I’ve got nothing left to prove. I’ve showed the world I’m the best.” — Usain Bolt, quoted in the New York Times, August 10, 2012
We — I’m referring here to we who write and broadcast, as well as we who read and watch and therefore control the media — have put a lot of weight on the 100m sprint, for no other reason than that it’s simple. There’s no equipment to break down or blame, no judges to debate with, and very little time for things to go wrong midstream. It’s just 10 or so seconds of running.
So we hype it. We call whoever wins it the fastest man on earth. They become the standout celebrity of every Summer Olympics, and when they go wrong, like Bolt’s compatriot did in Seoul, it’s a much bigger deal than when anyone else does. We’ve even penalized them for media-unfriendliness.
It’s not a coincidence that we started lionizing them in 1984, the year the Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles. LA was the beginning of so much of what the Olympics have become. It was when the multinationals signed on as sponsors, lessons learned from the financial debacle in Montreal. It’s when the opening ceremonies became something to watch. And it’s the first time athletes became celebrities en masse, with Mitch Gaylord, Mary Lou Retton, Victor Davis, Sebastian Coe and, most importantly for our purposes, Carl Lewis. (It’s also more or less when we started celebrating them for their looks — Gaylord was a celebrity even before his team won gymnastic gold — something that’s reached a social media-boosted zenith this year.)
Simple things are good for the media as they’ve existed for the past several decades. Do you remember Iran-Contra? It was complicated, didn’t play well in the media, and as a direct result didn’t become the impeachment-level Reagan-era scandal it should have. Theft is simple, blow jobs are simple, and like their presidential repercussions, speak for themselves.
So we’ve made a big deal of this little dash, so big a deal that Bolt, who ran 0.12 seconds faster than Yohan Blake this week, and 0.2 seconds faster than Richard Thompson in 2008, gets to crow like he was the first man on the moon. But his self-aggrandizement is dwarfed by global headlines proclaiming him the best, the fastest and the most fantastic.
Ever since the professionalization of the Olympics, contenders have been bathed in praise and cocooned in an exceptionality that understandably leads the more softheaded among them to believe extends beyond their actually quite limited abilities. Ryan Lochte, as an especially good current example, thinks he’s quite a bit more spectacular than he is.
So when a sprinter gets it not only from his handlers, but from the culture at large, there’s little chance for him to be anything other than the utter ass Bolt is today. He runs very short distances very quickly. That’s it. We, and he, would do well to keep it in perspective.