Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Alchemy of Bronze

The Olympic Games. One of the more compelling races was in Track & Field, the men’s 400 meter final. The world’s eyes were on LaShawn Merrit – the upstart – and Jerimy Wariner, the world champion and reigning Olympic gold medalist. The upstart had outrun the champ at the trials, but the champ ran flawless, fast, and nearly effortless heats. It was down to the finals. The two had been in a season-long battle, is has been a fierce and unfriendly rivalry, and were each 2-2 against the other. You sensed perhaps grudging respect - at best - between the two. Then there was the question given less attention: Who would win the bronze?

The Bronze. Let’s face it: most Olympic aficionado’s can name a particular sport’s Gold medalist. But silver? doubtful. Don’t even ask about Bronze. Bronze is the red-headed step child among the noble metals. You hear the term “Golden Boy”, and “Sterling argument” – but bronze? It’s the mongrel among the purebreds, the alloy among its precious cousins. In the Games, Gold reigns supreme.

As each competitor stands in his starting blocks during the athletes’ introduction, I can't help but notice their faces: they are certainly happy and excited to be there, but for whatever reason, feel the need to contain the smile. Their faces twitch, like they want to smile, like the kid in church who wants to laugh but knows the penance that awaits is not worth the momentary loss of control. These athlets want to yell, to scream “LOOK AT ME, I’M IN THE OLYMPICS!!!”, but gamesmanship or concentration suppresses it: “I’m icy cool, calm.” There’s a part of me that sees the high school athlete playing it cool, casual. I get the impression that during the pre-race intros and warm-up the goal is to be expressionless, to show nothing. I can understand the need for focus, calm, the need to bring one’s attention to a single point on the track, not spread it out among the thousands of spectators. But I can't help but wonder how much energy it costs to contain it.

Merritt is all brash and braggadocio. And he is incredibly talented and fast. He’s the man, will win, the champ, anointed. HE BELIEVES. I believe him to be all these things, but also wholly lacking in humility. However, he’s in those starting blocks, not I. It’s his game. He's paid the price to be there.

Wariner is hiding behind his shades: they are his trademark. They are an odd prop, big and mirrored and really don’t fit his face. When he takes them off, he seems almost a bit cross-eyed, out of his element; the deer in the headlights. Perhaps the shades keep his competitors from seeing his eyes, from those precious, telling “wells of the soul”. The man is tough and talented; but why shades? Is he like a thoroughbred in need of “blinkers”, is he that distractible? Do his eyes show his fear and make him vulnerable? I don’t know. All I know is they just look plain goofy.

But here they are, these fast man-boys on center stage of planet Earth. The gun fires. And they run. They run fast. Really, really fast. The last 100 meters they are digging for any nugget of strength and speed. At the finish line, the brash upstart is ahead by – in sprint terms – a mile, and the champ comes in second. Following them is a pack: who will grab the bronze? It is David Neville, the “other” American, who dives –literally- across the finish line, belly-flopping after the finish to grab the final spot on the podium.

Merritt is ecstatic. He boastfully proclaims that he is not surprised, that he did what he set out to do. His fierce rival, Wariner, it devastated. He buries his face in the American flag, there must be tears; the regret as thick as the air in Beijing. This is the price of unfettered arrogance and gamesmenship.

The medal ceremony is the moment of reckoning. Merritt is cool, smiling but clearly contained. I think that he's trying to maintain some kind of image. It pains me to think that here he is, at the pinnacle of his sport, and he can't just let go. The official hangs the medal on his neck, shakes his hand. Wariner is grim, you can sense how unhappy he is to be on the lower podium, the discomfort and humiliation of being unseated by his rival, to have to settle for second. And then there is the bronze medalist, the afterthought of this race. He is the one that captures my attention. To get to the lowest rung of Olympic royalty he has literally thrown himself across the line onto the ground of the field of play. He has given every inch of his being to be there. The annoucement of the national anthem is given over the PA. In this race, it is the anthem of all 3 medalists. Merritt – who has barely cracked a smile - puts his hand over his chest momentarily, then re-thinks the gesture and lowers it. I think “What's this? Are you truly that arrogant? Is it too humbling to think that you are not a product of one, but that of all you inhabit, including your country? Is it too much to ask that while this is an individual achievement, you do so as a representative of your your nation? Would your golden cool somehow be tarnished by showing a bit of sentimentality?” Call me a nationalistic zealot if you will, but who has not watched those medal ceremonies and smiled, cheered, wept because of what - and who - these athletes represent? They represent us, and we can only wonder how incomparable that moment must be like to live. Wariner is stone-faced; his diappointment is palpable and he looks to be doing all he can do avoid weeping on the stand and showing the world what is painfully obvious to the world: he was not the strongest, fastest man on this day. And oh, how he wishes he were.

Then there is Neville. In a few weeks time, I bet 99% of us won’t be able to answer the question “Who won the bronze medal in the 400?”, or “Who is David Neville?” but I really, truly don’t think he cares. He stands tall on the podium, hand over his chest, belting the anthem, a smile a quarter mile wide. Despite his being the 2nd runner-up, he is the one that captures the spirit of the games, the one which represents the Olympic ideal. The gold medalist is too smug, the silver medalist too disappointed, but it is the bronze medalist - the third place afterthought - who stands so tall on this steamy summer evening. He understands with all clarity how precious and rare it is to be right there, right then. With his effort, determination, and uncontained joy in that singular moment, he’d morphed from a sprinter to an alchemist and discovered the secret of transforming bronze into gold.