USA's Kobe Bryant, right, goes to the basket as Spain's Rudy Fernandez defends during the men's gold medal basketball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008. USA won 118-107. Associated Press © 2008
USA's head coach Hugh McCutcheon reacts as he leaves the court after his team defeated Brazil during their men's volleyball gold medal match at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008. USA won the gold and Brazil took silver. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
From the basketball court, the nominee is reigning NBA MVP Kobe Bryant, who led the final US push to basketball gold in a scintillating win over Spain. He finished the game with 20 points and 6 assists. Bryant has achieved one-name fame throughout the world - not many wouldn't know who "Kobe" is. Honorable mention on the hardwood goes to teammate Dwyane Wade, who scored 27 points and made four steals in another performance that left opposing players and coaches puzzling on the question of how to stop him.
From the pool, the gold medal-winning Hungarian team gets the nomination as a group, given that I don't know enough to single out a nominee from their 14-10 win over the upstart US team in the gold medal game. The Hungarians defended their 2004 gold medal and won their ninth overall gold in men's water polo, which is the country's national sport. Did you know that water polo got its name from its original form in which the players rode on floating contraptions meant to play the horse part in the polo-like competition? I'd have to do some research to understand how water polo could become a country's "national sport."
My volleyball nominee stretches the award title by being a coach rather than a player. American men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon began the experience of his life by having his father-in-law slain by a random assailant in Beijing on the day before competition started. His assistants coached the first three games before McCutcheon's wife told him to get back to courtside with his team. Perhaps inspired by their coach's courage, the US volleyballers overcame a succession of world class opponents, capped by a four-set victory over defending gold medalist Brazil in the gold medal game. McCutcheon is nominated for his courage, his team's performance, and to represent the efforts of thousands of coaches across the spectrum of Olympic competition.
With all due respect to Hungarian water polo, and in recognition of the deeply-held traditions associated with the Michael Phelps Award, Sunday's Michael Phelps Award is given in two parts - the athletic award to Kobe Bryant and a special coach's award to Hugh McCutcheon. Don't worry, whenever the award design is completed (I'm sorry to say that this process is still in the pre-conceptual phase as my award designer is currently dealing with 10th grade) and medallions are struck, each of Sunday's awardees will each get one of their own--none of this passing it back and forth, or a half-medallion each. They deserve it!
Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru breaks the tape in the Olympic men's marathon at Beijing. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)
The gold-medal exploits of Michael Phelps have received plenty of attention. Michael himself, who seems like a pretty regular guy, has found time in his "eat, sleep, swim" schedule (eating takes a lot of time given that he eats 12,000 calories a day), to have six (make that eight, of course) gold medals draped around his neck.
I started keeping track of what I thought was the best Olympic performance day-by-day by an athlete not named Michael Phelps. (Design of Michael Phelps Award medallion pending)
Here's my list (the days are when I watched the performance rather than when it actually happened in Beijing; and winners are limited to performances that I actually saw).
Saturday - Do They Even Have a Beach? The initial Michael Phelps Award goes to the Latvian beach volleyball team (Martins Plavins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs) that upset American gold medal favorites Rogers and Dalhausser. How many people around the world were scrambling to figure out where Latvia is, and whether it even has a beach? (It does--Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea; one of three new Baltic countries along with Lithuania and Estonia, created after the breakup of the Soviet Union). Congratulations, Martins and Alexsandrs, on Saturday's Michael Phelps Award.
Sunday - Age Before Mouthy - In a swimming performance that may be the best of the 2008 games when it's all over, US 4 x 100-meter relay anchor Jason Lezak swam down Frenchman Alain Bernard (the eventual 100-meter singles' gold medalist) from more than a second behind to win gold for the American team, which included leadoff man Phelps. Before the race, Bernard had brashly predicted that the French team would "crush" the Americans. At 33 years old, Lezak was an unlikely hero candidate, given the younger age of most top swimmers, but with 25 meters to go he thought about his age and how many more chances he would have to be in this situation (none) and decided to go for it. The French team stood motionless and speechless after Lezak outtouched Bernard by less than 0.1 second in the most exciting swimming race I've ever seen. As well as getting his own gold medal, Lezak saved the "eight gold medal" drama for both Michael Phelps and NBC, both of whom, I imagine, are extremely appreciative. A hearty "Magnifique!" and Sunday's Michael Phelps Award to Jason Lezak.
Monday - Sit and Swing - American gymnast Alexander "Sasha" Artemev should get a share of the bronze medals given to at least two of his teammates in the men's team gymnastics competition. Standing a shaky third over the Germans with the insidious pommel horse to go, Artemev's teammates Kevin Tan and Raj Bashrav (sp?) responded to the pressure by sitting on and stepping off the horse respectively. A similar self-destructive performance by Artemev would cost the US their hard-earned bronze medal. Artemev, with his own history of error-filled performances, swung his way through a dazzling performance that had the Chinese crowd oohing and ahing (however that goes in Chinese) like a circus act. The high mark lifted the American team to the bronze medal level of the award podium, and Alexander "Sasha" Artemev to Monday's Michael Phelps Award.
Tuesday - Go Togo! I was thrilled to see NBC covering men's kayaking. It's exciting to watch the paddlers battle their way through the manmade raging rapids of the Olympic course. Miss a gate and you're penalized 50 seconds, and you miss the medal stand. I didn't know enough about kayaking to know who were the favorites, but I had to root for giant Benjamin Boukpeti of tiny Togo, a coastal African nation with zero Olympic medals to its credit in the country's history. Leading going into the last round, Boukpeti thrashed his way through all the gates in the proper direction fast enough to earn a bronze medal. His Serbian competitor, a prerace favorite it seems, missed a gate and broke his paddle in disgust. Boukpeti broke his paddle in joy when his time and standing was posted. Imagine what he would have done had he known he'd won Tuesday's Michael Phelps Award. Go Togo!
Wednesday - Since Lazarus From the Dead - When I started watching the women's volleyball game between China and Cuba on Wednesday morning, China had won the first two games and were leading 15-11 in the third game of what appeared to be a routine three-game sweep by the defending Olympic champions. After an effective timeout, the Cubans roared back to win the third game and force a fourth. The Cubans' trials weren't nearly over as China rallied to gain seven match points during the fourth game. Cuba repelled every Chinese attempt to end the match and eventually won the fourth game 32-30 on their first game point. In the fifth set tiebreaker to 15 points, the Chinese led as late as 11-10, but eventually walked off the court in shock as Cuba prevailed by 15-13. Cuba remains the only undefeated team in its pool of the women's volleyball competition. As an aside, women's volleyball should put to rest for once and all the myth that women can't jump. Perhaps the victorious Cuban women's volleyballers can get better apartments; for sure they win Wednesday's Michael Phelps Award.
Thursday - Living Legacy - As thrilled as the American men's gymnastics team were with their bronze medal, the American women seemed disappointed in their silver behind the Chinese team. The opportunity for redemption came soon, however, in the women's all-around competition. America's two top gymnasts, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, would have a second chance to beat their young (some say too young) Chinese rivals. The competition was tight all evening. The nature of gymnastics scoring makes it hard to sense who's really ahead until the end. And NBC's broadcasters were convinced that the American girls were getting jobbed on their marks by the panel of international judges. The girls didn't pay any attention. They kept jumping, spinning, twisting and landing. Liukin and Johnson were the last two performers on floor exercise. Liukin, who looks just like her American mother, but performs with the soul of her Russian father (also an Olympic gymnast from the 1980s) gave an essentially flawless performance and earned a mark of 15.525, comfortably enough to beat the top Chinese opponent, Yang Yilin. Johnson, the quintessential American female gymnast - short, young, athletic, spunky - needed an almost unattainable mark of 16.125 to beat Liukin. She gave her own version of a nearly flawless performance, but her mark of 15.525 fell short overall. She settled for silver, and rightfully so, as Liukin was the better performer all night--her long legs sailing elegantly around and over every piece of gymnastics equipment, every move a thing of both artistic and athletic beauty. Oh well--getting a little carried away there, but Nastia Liukin richly deserved both her gold medal and Thursday's Michael Phelps Award.
Friday - The Reign of Spain - Rafael Nadal, reigning French Open and Wimbledon tennis champion, survived a strong upset bid by Serbian Novak Djokovic to advance to the final of the men's tennis competition. The match, which included Djokovic winning the second set by a dominating 6-1 score, ended after Nadal returned back-to-back overheads by Djokovic. Determined to avoid a third return, Djokovic pummeled a "sitter" overhead from just behind the net. Unfortunately he pummeled the ball out of bounds to lose the match. Not that he needs more recognition, Rafael Nadal still gets Friday's Michael Phelps Award for returning the first two smashes, leading Djokovic to think that he had to go for broke on the third chance. Nadal will face Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the final. Honorable mention goes to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who ran a 100-meter dash heat in 9.92 seconds while sightseeing the last 40 meters. And, if his name weren't Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps would have gotten serious consideration for an 0.01 margin victory in the men's 100-meter butterfly for his seventh gold medal of the games.
Saturday - The Man in the Middle - What are the most important parts of a 100-meter sprint? The start, of course, the race isn't long enough to recover from a poor start. And the finish--the ability to outlean the competition could spell the difference in a race often decided by hundredths of a second. New to the race, Jamaican Usain Bolt doesn't start particularly well. In Saturday's 100-meter final, he threw out his arms and started looking around 20 meters from the finish. In between, the aptly-nicknamed "Lightning" Bolt pulled so far ahead of the seven-next-fastest men in the world that he was able to celebrate victory before he crossed the finish line. The result of this three-quarter effort--nothing less than a new world record of 9.69 seconds, beating his own mark of 9.72. For a seemingly effortless gold-medal-winning, world-recordsetting race, Usain "Lightning" Bolt wins Saturday's Michael Phelps Award.
Here's a link to an NPR news report on Bolt's win Bolt Bolts to Victory
Sunday - No Tiebreaker - Four fine candidates emerged from Sunday's Olympic competition. The Phelps Award judges have spent all day trying to pick a single winner. Here are the finalists 1) Romanian gymnast Sandra Izbasa, whose won the gold medal in the women's floor exercise with a 15.65 score on the last performance of the competition. Even US cheerleader/analysts Tim Daggett and Bela Karolyi were impressed - well Karolyi anyway; 2) Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 10,000-meter run for the second consecutive Olympics; 3) German gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, a 33-year-old mother who took silver in the women's vault (she dedicated her medal to her once leukemia-stricken son, the reason for her emigration from Russia to Germany) and 4) Shelly-Ann Fraser, 21-year-old Jamaican winner of the women's 100-meter dash, making the small Caribbean country home to both the "World's Fastest Man" and "World's Fastest Woman" (Fraser as well may have been the World's Happiest Woman during her post-race interview, both her eyes and mouthful of braces shining, while the joyous words flowed non-stop from her mouth.) Izbasa gave the best performance; Chusovitina has the best story. I don't have a tiebreaking procedure, so for Sunday I'm awarding two Michael Phelps Awards - to Sandra Izbasa and Oksana Chusovitina, with honorable mention to both Bekele and Fraser.
The United States team celebrates their win over Cuba in semifinals. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Wednesday - Best of the Best - A busy day of medical appointments and two nice meals out with my wife limited my Olympic intake. In fact, the best performance I saw happened early Thursday morning, when NBC televised a women's volleyball game between the US and Cuba. In pool play the Cubans whipped the US in three straight sets. The US turned the tables 180 degrees in the semifinal game, winning three straight sets of their own against a progressively more confused and error-prone Cuban team. Particularly impressive in a stellar all-around US performance was veteran Logan Tom, who won points with jump serves, kills, blocks and digs. In fact, Tom has been the US team's high scorer throughout the Olympic tournament, more than 100 total points on service aces, kills and stuff blocks. For being the best of the best on this night, US volleyball star Logan Tom wins Wednesday's Michael Phelps Award.
China's Chen Ruolin won both the women's 10-meter platform diving gold medal and Thursday's Michael Phelps Award. (Photo copyright © 2008 AFP)
Thursday - Perfection Under Pressure - What a pressure-packed moment for a 15-year-old. More than a billion countrymen looked for a gold medal after two straight Olympic upsets in women's platform diving competition; veteran competitor Emilie Heymans of Canada ripped dive after dive to hold a slight lead going into the final dive--China's Chen Ruolin's backward two-and-a-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists--a dive that garnered four 10-point marks and 100.3 points, by far the highest-scoring dive of the competition and enough to win the gold medal by about 10 points. Aware of the historical backdrop and Heyman's performance, Chen admitted a little nervousness, but called on her training and competitive experience to nail the final dive. For being better than she had to be in the most pressure packed situation imaginable, Chen Ruolin wins Thursday's Michael Phelps Award.
US gold medal-winning decathlete Bryan Clay collapses on the track after the 1,500-meter run (photo by dadlak off NBC's television coverage)
Friday - I'm So Tired - American decathlete Bryan Clay put one foot in front of the other often enough in the 1,500-meter run to hang onto a huge lead and win the gold medal in the men's decathlon. Clay led after the Day One events and finished in the top three of every other Day Two event - winning the discus. Clay finished dead last in his decathlon heat, but knew he had enough points to win the gold and the title of "World's Greatest Athlete" when he laid out flat on the track in exhaustion. What Clay may not have known was that his performances were also good enough for Friday's Michael Phelps Award. Honorable mention goes to Argentinian forward Luis Scola, whose 28 points and 11 rebounds kept Redeem Team USA a little worried in their men's semifinal basketball game.
Saturday - Abundance of Excellence - Let's review the candidates.
American men's basketball icon Kobe Bryant, who both played and willed his teammates to a 118-107 win over Spain in last quarter of the gold medal basketball game. This game was really played on Sunday (even in Central Time). We'll hold Bryant for tomorrow.Kenyan marathoner Samuel Wansiru who won Kenya's first-ever gold medal by running the 26.2 mile course in an Olympic-record 2 hours 6 minutes 32 seconds (4:49 per mile pace) and made it look easy.
Australian diver Matthew Mitcham (just one year out of a career hiatus), who shocked the diving world, especially the Chinese looking for a diving sweep, with an all-time record 112-point (four 10s out of six marks) final dive to take gold in the men's 10-meter platform diving.
Ethiopian distance runner Kenenisa Bekele who added a gold medal in the 5,000-meter run to one he'd already won in the 10,000-meter race. Bekele also set an Olympic record.
American women's basketball star Lisa Leslie, representing both herself and the American team, both of which won their fourth consecutive gold medal. Leslie played on teams that amassed a 32-0 record in four Olympics. Women's basketball couldn't have a better ambassador.
It's hard to ignore any of these, but the next-to-last Michael Phelps Award goes to (drum roll) Samuel Wanjiru for a dominating performance in the marathon, one of the Games' premier events, a new Olympic record by almost 3 minutes in less-than-ideal hot and muggy conditions, and his country's first-ever Olympic gold medal in a race that Kenyans dominate elsewhere throughout the world.
Distinguished honorable mention to the three other very deserving candidates. I've included pictures of all the finalists in the gallery at the top of this report.