The stunt-double Queen Elizabeth II parachuting out of a chopper with a fake James Bond was cool and all, but, hijinks aside, there were two indelible images coming out of the first weekend of the London Olympics. You had swim star Ryan Lochte flashing his counterfeit platinum grill, biting on his 400 IM gold medal and presumed gold-medaling gymnast Jordyn Wieber sobbing after she failed to qualify for the individual all-around competition.
While Lochte clowned on the medal stand (ignoring, like a huckster, the Olympic officials that warned him against wearing his fronts), Michael Phelps was nowhere to be found. He was probably somewhere in the bowels of the arena, smarting as his megawatt shine dimmed. And while Weber dealt with what could go on to be the biggest disappointment of her life, little Gabby Douglas, her teammate, grinned and giggled with a “gotta get mine, you gotta get yours” detachment, justifiably tickled that she gets to go for an individual gold in a few days.
For those of you who, like me, don’t give a quarter of a crap about water polo, real-deal rivalries in the Olympics’ glamour sports (gymnastics, track and swimming) are driving the drama.
Rivalries in the Olympics are usually between two countries. Sometimes it’s a competition thing, like the U.S. swim relay rivalry with Australia and France. Other times, the countries carry over political rivalries, hence America’s Cold War-era Olympic rivalry with the Soviet Union and its current medal count competition with China.
Every so often, however, you get athletes from the same country that become rivals. Unlike, say, basketball, where Kevin Durant – having just lost the NBA championship to Team USA teammate LeBron James – has to make nice with a nemesis, athletes in individual sports aren’t unified by the goal of going for the gold together. They are countrymen, but also opponents.
We’ve seen this before. British middle distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe were their sport’s “Magic and Bird.” The rivalry between Russian figure skating duos of Maya Usova and Alex Zhulin and Yevgeny Platov and Pasha Grischuk was one of medal pursuits and suspected cross-team infidelity. And, of course, we remember that crazy chick Tonya Harding ordering a hit on Nancy Kerrigan. Clearly, a gold medal, like Rick James’ cocaine, is a hell of a drug and it can replace camaraderie with a cutthroat tension spiked with a jealous envy.
This summer’s Olympics feature Phelps vs. Lochte, Wieber vs. Douglas and American 100M hurdlers Dawn Harper vs. Lolo Jones. We need to send DJ Drama to London for this.
The way the athletes try to mask the rivalry-tension is almost as entertaining as the actual games. The day before Douglas and Wieber put on their onesies to begin competition, they were in their warm-up suits on NBC’s set, talking to Ryan Seacrest. Seacrest alluded to the rivalry and they both responded with calculated, totally transparent sound bites about being “best of friends.” Sure, girls. World champion Wieber cried after losing to upstart Douglas at the Olympic trials, only Wieber said they were tears of joy, sparked by making her first Olympics. Right.
Gymnastics is a notoriously competitive sport amongst the gymnasts. Russian coach Alexander Alexandrov has even knowingly joked about the need for world class gymnasts to be divas. So imagine as Wieber, headed toward a London coronation, is suddenly blindsided by the younger Douglas. Adding to the tension is the fact that the effervescent Douglas (“I’m just so bubbly and so outgoing. I just can’t be like, so serious. I’m just like, hee, hee, hee!” she said in a pre-Olympic New York Times piece) might have already overtaken the serious-natured Wieber as fan-favorite. It’s great drama. If Douglas goes on to win the gold in the individual competition, I hope NBC keeps a camera on Wieber while Douglas is on the medal stand.
Harper has to be sick of the country’s Lolo Jones love-affair. Despite Harper bringing home the Beijing gold (in the race where Jones famously tripped over a hurdle), it’s Jones that gets the national interviews, magazine covers and trends on Twitter. Their interaction is forced. And, although Jones seemed somewhat oblivious to tension and more focused on her pursuit of marketability (and a medal), Harper sprints for vindication. It’s personal for her. You will not see these two women embrace.
The most popular narrative propelling these Olympics, however, is Lochte’s unabashed mission to swim Phelps into retirement.
Lochte was quoted in the Washington Post, revealing what drove him the past four years.
“Right after Beijing, I had a four-year plan for getting here to London,” he said. “I thought I could go a lot faster. I knew I could, just because of the training I’ve done. That’s why I knew this was going to be my year.”
Sounds like he was planning a coup.
Phelps’ eight gold medals in 2008 pushed him into the conversation to claim Olympic G.O.A.T. status and afforded him an almost unprecedented level of celebrity for an Olympic athlete. The dude hosted Saturday Night Live (poorly). Phelps is The Man because he’s the best. Lochte has exhibited no qualms about coveting Phelps’ status as The Man and the best. This is the chief informant of their competition.
Perhaps the cameras didn’t catch it, but I didn’t see Phelps congratulate Lochte on his 400 IM win. And, after Lochte was overtaken on the last leg of 4x100 freestyle by France’s Yannick Agnel, when Phelps offered Lochte a one-armed, lukewarm “it’s cool” hug, the two didn’t make eye contact, while Lochte sported a “whatever dude” expression.
If Lochte beats Phelps in the upcoming 200M IM, ending the Phelps-era, or if Phelps wins, delaying the Lochte-era, the loser might grind their teeth into sawdust on the medal stand or try to steal the gold medal and run off with it the way Shooter McGavin booked with the yellow jacket in Happy Gilmore.
Even known, confirmed friends – superstar Usain Bolt and his training partner and significant threat Yohan Blake – get steely with each other after races. If Blake wins the 100M and 200M and sends Bolt home without an individual gold, I wonder if they’ll keep training together.
It’s real folks. Forget about camaraderie and country first. These athletes want that gold – screw a teammate. Let’s just hope we don’t hear about little Jordyn and Gabby losing it and going Love & Hip-Hop in the Olympic Village.