Analysis

The price of an Olympic moment

There is something at the Olympics greater than gold

What is the price of an Olympic moment? When the Rio Games' opening ceremonies began, we all understood the contract we were entering into: hours of boredom and gobs of mind-melting advertising in exchange for a few seconds, here and there, of shock and joy. The Olympics, in this way, are a lot like life. We have to take in the banal, the pointless, and the painful in order to savor a few moments of triumph.

This is the contract we abide by, and the price we pay. Host cities pay an even higher price, and athletes the highest of all. The deal they make, in theory, is a lifetime of sacrifice and dedication in exchange for a bright charm. Worth wondering is how many athletes arrive at the Games hoping to win not a medal, but a moment.

The Olympic moment doesn't always play by the rules. In the Calgary Olympics of 1988, the figure skating rivalry between American Debi Thomas and East German Katarina Witt — called "The Battle of the Carmens," because both had set their programs to Bizet's opera, the skating equivalent of showing up to a party in the same dress — was all anyone could talk about. No one remembered Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley until she shot onto the ice after Witt's staid, careful performance, a force of sheer exuberance in a night dedicated to steely competition. Viewers thought the best thing the night could possibly yield was a tense battle of will. They were wrong. "Wouldn't it be great if every human being could have a moment like this once in their lives?" Jim McKay said as the crowd roared and roared. She didn't win the gold, but she won the moment.

When it comes to the Olympic moments count, it's hard to beat Bela Karolyi. Karolyi, who legendarily discovered Nadia Comaneci in a Romanian schoolyard and coached her to the first perfect 10 ever awarded to a female gymnast, at the 1976 Games, has been a presence for four decades in a sport whose participants can count themselves lucky if they remain in competition for four years. After the Romanian team's victory served as the highlight of the Montreal Olympics and made 14-year-old Comaneci a global sensation ("SHE'S PERFECT," the cover of Time magazine announced, "But the Olympics Are in Trouble"), Karolyi defected to the United States, and helped make Mary Lou Retton the star of the 1984 Games in the same way Comaneci had been Montreal's star. Nadia Comaneci's Olympic moment came with her first perfect 10; Mary Lou Retton's Olympic moment came when she prepared to execute a vault with the knowledge that anything less than a perfect 10 meant losing the gold.

The networks cameras focused on Retton and Karolyi as he psyched her up before the vault. ("Panda, Panda, Panda!" he chanted, using his pet name for her.) Karolyi's English was broken, but he didn't need to say much to prepare Retton for the apparatus. They were beyond the level of strategy, of complex reassurance. Karolyi only needed to lock eyes with Retton and tell her that she would score a perfect 10 for Retton to go out and do it. So she did.

The relationship between coach and athlete is always in the background of any Olympic event. Sometimes it's visible, sometimes it's not; sometimes we want it to be visible, and sometimes we don't. But the relationships that coaches have with young, female gymnasts — athletes viewers are already primed to see as vulnerable — are often the subject of intense scrutiny, especially when it comes to the question of how often gymnasts are pushed too hard, and forced to endure too much pain, injury, and sacrifice. Even more deeply, the intense relationship between gymnast and coach can suggest a level of control that is not just physical but mental: not just you can but you will.

American viewers' perception of Bela Karolyi has an interesting way of changing from moment to moment: He troubled us when he was the subject of exposés like Joan Ryan's Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, and he inspired us when his athletes vaulted into the kinds of victories we couldn't imagine any other coach producing. Loud, ursine, and inevitably towering over any gymnast he coached, his manner could be read as terrifying in one moment and effervescent in the next, often depending on what perspective you took (and whether the Americans were performing well that night). His ability to unlock his athletes' potential — and to help them reach the crowning moment of the Games — was undeniable. He told them what they could do, and they believed him completely enough to believe him when he told them they were capable of the impossible. Then they did it.

The lingering question this dynamic leads us to is whether an athlete can reach the same heights of strength and self-knowledge on their own — whether they can believe themselves capable of doing the impossible without forming such an intense bond with such a dominant figure. It's hard to arrive at an answer to this question. What seems far more readily apparent is the fact that we really don't want to know. Nowhere is this more clear than in one of the greatest Olympic moments in the Games' modern history: Kerri Strug's legendary vault in 1996.

Kerri Strug injured her ankle while landing the first of her two vaults in the women's team final, and limped visibly as she prepared for the second. Tension filled the arena: Could she vault again? The scores were close; the team medal seemed to hang in the balance. If Kerri Strug herself had any doubts about whether she would finish the competition, however, they were immediately dispelled by Bela Karolyi. "You can do it," he called to her. He had little idea of how severely she had been injured, and no way of knowing how much pain she was in. Those questions didn't matter. "You can do it," he repeated. "You can do it. You can do it. Kerri, you can do it. Don't worry." So Kerri did.

At the time, media outlets and Olympic commentators would make the near-universal claim that Kerri's Olympic moment was so miraculous because she had landed her vault on one leg. She didn't. She landed on two legs, subjecting her injured ankle to the full force of another vault, and then immediately retracted one foot, collapsing onto the mat.

"Kerri Strug is hurt! She is hurt badly!" the NBC commentator announced, sounding almost as shocked as the crowd. "Probably the last thing she should have done was vault again, and now she is in a lot of pain." Karolyi picked her up and carried her to the podium. We had our Olympic moment, but the questions it inspired were too troubling to ask, so we swore we saw something that had never occurred: a gymnast landing a vault on one foot, getting the glory without the pain, making sacrifices without sacrificing her power to choose, having it both ways.

Of all the attributes that make the Olympic moment, this might be the most defining: that we can lift it out of context and ignore its inevitable cost, and avoid even asking what that cost might be.

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