Once again, world-class athletes that we’ve pretty much ignored for the last four years will take center stage for two weeks before we forget about them for another four years.
Of course, some of them will become famous (and rich), but most will continue to toil in anonymity and poverty, running and jumping and throwing and swimming and triathleteing while they wait patiently for another Olympic year to roll around.
Right now, the U.S. is in the process of selecting the athletes who will represent our country in London when the 2012 Summer Olympics begin on July 27. The public’s attention is slowly focusing on the ongoing Olympics Trials, but the baseball All-Star balloting and the NBA draft and another Tigers Woods championship have gotten most of the headlines in the last week or so.
That will all change soon and we’ll be bombarded with countless hours of Olympics media coverage and suddenly everybody will be talking about athletes they never even thought about before.
That’s what happened four years ago to Michael Phelps. He had already established himself as the best swimmer in the world and probably the best of all time, but hardly anybody outside the swimming fraternity cared. Then he dominated the opposition in the Olympics, winning a record eight gold medals, and became a household name. And, as we mentioned previously, he also became very, very rich, endorsing everything from swimming gear to Subway sandwiches and, of course, his picture was featured on boxes of Wheaties, the ultimate mark of athletic immortality.
Think of all the great Olympics athletes who went from zero to hero in just a few short weeks, athletes who transcended their sports, Mark Spitz to Bruce Jenner to Mary Lou Retten to Carl Lewis. They came, they conquered, they cashed in and then they pretty much disappeared from our consciousness.
Most of this years’ Olympics athletes won’t cash in because they play obscure sports, or at least sports that aren’t featured on ESPN on a regular basis. However, many of them will leave London with a medal and some of those medals will be made of gold and an Olympics gold medal is still the single most prestigious prize in all of sports.
And just in case you were wondering, only three born-and-bred Delawareans have ever won a Summer Olympics gold medal – rower Frank Shakespeare (Helsinki, 1952), softball player Dionna Harris (Atlanta, 1996) and baseball player Mike Neill (Sydney, 2000). And it’s a good thing Harris and Neill won their gold medals when they did, because softball and baseball are no longer Olympics sports.
But badminton still is, and so are water polo and field hockey and beach volleyball and ping-pong (they call it table tennis, but it’s still ping-pong) and that fan favorite, synchronized swimming.
Of course, not many people will be paying attention to those sports, even if it is the Olympics. They’d much rather watch already-famous athletes like Phelps and LeBron James and Usain Bolt. That’s understandable, but regrettable, because in many ways the Olympics are all about people like Mariel Zagunis.
OK, admit it – you have no idea who Mariel Zagunis is. Well, she won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in fencing – the saber, to be exact — and she also won a gold medal in 2004. But there were no Wheaties boxes waiting for her when she returned home with her gold medals. And now she’s trying to win a third gold medal in London and hardly anybody will care.
After all, what good is fencing in the real world? There are no professional fencing leagues and it doesn’t seem like a lucrative field for endorsements. Zagunis would be a good person to have around if you’re ever attacked by a Musketeer, but other than that there are no fringe benefits to her sport. She works hard at it simply because she loves it.
And that, of course, is what the Olympics are supposed to be all about – competing in a sport simply because you love it. If you’re fortunate, you can also make some money off of it, but the vast majority of athletes competing in London won’t get rich, at least in terms of money.
But in terms of memories, even fencers and ping-pong players will leave London just as rich as Lebron James and Michael Phelps. And those kinds of riches can never be taken away from them.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.