Friday, August 29, 2008

Spectacular Beijing Olympics Wrapup - Individual Land, Sea and Air Awards

Friday, 10 a.m. - We had company all week until yesterday midday, so I had a hard time finding quiet time to write a wrapup post on the Beijing Olympics. Then Barack Obama and Cubs-Phils got in the way last night. Here I am this morning.

The word that comes most easily to describe the Beijing Olympics is spectacular. Spectacular backdrops like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City; a spectacular opening ceremony (that I'm still waiting to see on DVD); spectacular venues like the Birds Nest and the Water Cube; spectacular gold-medal winning performances from American swimmer Michael Phelps, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Kenyan marathoner Samuel Wanjiru, German weightlifer Matthias Steiner, 15-year-old Chinese diver Chen Ruolin, the US men's volleyball team and many others too numerous to mention in one sentence; even spectacular runnerup performances from the likes of 41-year-old silver-medal American swimmer Dara Torres (with an injured shoulder no less) and Togoan kayaker Benjamin Bougpeti (the country's first-ever Olympic medal winner). The NBC networks breadth of coverage was spectacular as well as five different networks provided thousands of hours of live and taped action from almost every imaginable sport. Even spectacular photography from my photofriend Alain at the Games and around the city.

Up to now I've been directing my commentary away from the new king of Frosted Flakes, eight-gold-medal-winner Michael Phelps, but now is the time to give him his due. Phelps gold medal haul at Beijing is of course the all-time record for one athlete in a single Games; as his career total of 14 gold medals at both Athens and Beijing. He set seven world records in eight races. He won by body-lengths; he won by the length of a fingernail. After watching the prelims, I correctly predicted that the 100-meter butterfly and Serbian challenger Cavic would be the biggest hurdle in Phelps' race to eight gold medals. Relay races brought out the best in other US swimmers, as veteran Jason Lezak swam the freestyle leg of his life to nip loudmouth French swimmer Alain Bernard at the wall in the 4 x 100-meter race. Phelps also shows what talent, coaching and desire can be accomplish. Identified at the tender age of 11, Phelps and his coach set their clocks to eight and twelve years ahead and went to work. Phelps says he's coming back for more at London in 2012. Maybe sometime after that they're be a real "Michael Phelps Award" for the best performance of each games by someone who necessarily won't be named Michael Phelps, until the second coming (of Michael Phelps that is.)

Now for some summary awards. In recognition of the spectacular nature of the Games, I call these awards "Spectacles". I'll start with some obvious categories and hope that more creative ones come to mind.

Best Individual Male Performance, Land Division - Jamaica's Usain "Lightning" Bolt gets the Spectacle for three gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, and 4 x 100 meter relay) and three world records. Along the way he celebrated during the last 20 meters of his recordsetting 100 meter run; ran hard all the way to nip Michael Johnson's legendary record in the 200 meters; and led off a Jamaican relay team that crushed the previous world record by 0.3 seconds. Honorable mentions go to American decathlete Bryan Clay (who built up such a huge lead in the first nine events that he could finish dead last in the 1,500-meters and still win gold comfortably); Kenyan marathoner Samuel Wanjiru (who had the misfortune of having his name misspelled up until the time he received his gold medal); German superheavyweight weightlifter Matthias Steiner (who lifted more than 550 lb and a heavy heart (his wife having been killed in a 2007 car wreck); and Ethiopian long-distance runner Kenenisa Bekele, double gold-medal winner in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs.

Best Individual Female Performance, Land Division - I almost went with Nastia Liukin, but decided that most of her performances took place above the land. I'll create a new category to honor her. This Spectacle award goes to Romanian marathoner Constantina Tomescu Dita, who along with having one of the most challenging names for both broadcasters and bloggers, took the riskiest approach to the 26.2 mile race, racing out to a big lead early on and then hanging on for the victory. She actually hung on quite well, winning by more than 30 seconds. Honorable mention goes to Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser, who after winning the 100-meters also proved that braces can be beautiful with her post-victory smile. Let's go with American discus thrower Stephanie Brown-Trafton for the other honorable mention. She won America's first discus gold since 1932 with a first throw of more than 216 feet, a distance that stood up to all the competition.

Best Individual Male Performance, Sea Division - This spectacle of Spectacles of course goes to American swimming sensation Michael Phelps for all the reasons mentioned above. Honorable mention goes to American swimmer Jason Lezak, even though he swam in a relay, for his amazing final leg of the men's 4 x 100-meter relay and to Togoan Benjamin Bougpeti for his first-ever-for-his-country bronze medal in men's kayaking.

Best Individual Female Performance, Sea Division - The field for this award is more wide open than the men's side. I'll give the Spectacle to versatile American Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals to go along with five she won in Athens. Coughlin won the 100-meter backstroke, took silver in the 200-meter individual medley and bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. She added a silver and two bronzes in relays. Unlike "eat, sleep, swim" Phelps, Coughlin is known for believing that there is life outside of swimming, making her medal haul even more impressive. Honorable mentions go to Zimbabwean (I love that word, even though the country is a mess) Kirsty Coventry, for a similar performance to Coughlin, to Australian breaststroker Liesel Jones for two gold medals and a large dose of redemption after being shut out of gold at both Sydney and Athens, and notably to 41-year-old American freestyle specialist Dara Torres, who mixed modern training methods and motherhood to grab silver in both 50-meter freestyle (by an agonizing 0.01 second) and in the freestyle relay. Later it was discovered that Torres had been swimming with an injured shoulder. As of this writing, she's already undergone surgery.

Best Individual Male Performance, (Almost All) Air Division - Without doing a lot of research, I'll give the Spectacle to Chinese gymnast Li Xiaopeng, who won gold in the parallel bars and helped the Chinese men to team gold with terrific performances on both bars and the vault, both events that spend more time in the air than on the ground.

Best Individual Female Performance, (Almost All) Air Division - A lot of gymnasts did great work in the air, but none impressed me as much as Chinese trampolinist He Wenna, whose nearly perfect work won her and her country a gold medal, and my Spectacle in the (Almost All) Air Division.

Best Individual Male Performance, Air and Sea Division - In a diving competition dominated by the Chinese in every other event, Australian men's platform diver Matthew Mitcham shocked the world and prevented a Chinese sweep with the highest scoring platform dive in history, a back 2 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists, carrying a 3.8 degree of difficulty. He performed it perfectly, scoring four 10s and earning 112.10 points. Going into the last round of dives Mitcham trailed Chinese diver Zhou Luxin by almost 40 points, but Luxin performed a mediocre dive to open the water for Mitcham's miracle. Adding to the pressure on Mitcham, he also competed as the Games' only openly gay athlete. For his perfect final dive and gold medal, Mitcham wins a Spectacle award. Honorable mention goes Chinese springboard diver He Chong, who nailed his last diver for 100.7 points to win the 3-meter springboard competition by 36 points.

Best Individual Female Performance, Air and Sea Division - There's no mystery about my choice here. 15-year-old diver Chen Ruolin of China performed a similarly perfect 100-point dive to overtake Canadian Emily Heymans for the women's 10-meter platform gold. The amazing grace, skill and courage demonstrated by the slim 15-year-old blew me away and blows a Spectacle Chen's way.

Best Individual Male Performance, Land and Air Division - Chinese all-around gymnast Yang Wei's gold-medal winning performance wasn't the most dramatic (he won by a wide margin) or memorable, but it wins the Spectacle by far in this category as Yang jumped, flipped, spun, twisted, swung, dismounted and several other action verbs on six different pieces of gymnastics apparatus (floor, still rings, pommel horse, vault, high bar and parallel bars), a unimaginable feat for me, who endured crippling fear of even one piece of such equipment in middle and high school. Honorable mentions are probably due all over the world of men's gymnastics but most memorable for this American non-gymnast were Alexander "Sasha" Artemev's bronze-medal saving performance on the pommel horse, and teammate Jonathan Horton all-around excellence and leadership that same night during the team competition in which the US captured the unexpected bronze.

Best Individual Female Performance, Land and Air Division - No surprise here either as divine American all-around gymnast Nastia Liukin takes the Spectacle award for her gold medal performances in that event. Combining the elegance of her Russian parents and athleticism of her American training, Liukin, out with injury as recently as 2007, was transcendent throughout the women's gymnastic competition. There I go again. Honorable mentions go to Liukin's teammate Shawn Johnson, second in the all-around and gold medalist on the balance beam, to Romania's Sandra Izbasa for a gold-medal winning floor exercise routine, and to Germany's Oksana Chusovitina, who took a silver medal in the vault, which she dedicated to her young son, in remission from leukemia. Many wonderful young Chinese gymnasts will have to wait for team awards for their recognition.

Best Individual Male Performance, Land and Sea Division - Not too many events cover both land and sea - the steeplechase to a small extent; the triathlon to a great extent. Germany's triathlete Jan Frodeno gets the Spectacle award for an amazing performance at the end of which he outsprinted (yes sprinted after 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike ride, and 10 km run) his opponents for the gold. Honorable mention goes to whomever finished this crazy race, in particular to Canada's Simon Whitfield, who also had a sprint left in him. Altogether, 50 of 55 triathletes who started the event finished.

Best Individual Female Performance, Land and Sea Division - Australia's Emma Snowsill is an easy choice for the Spectacle here as she dominated the women's triathlon, winning by more than one minute in a total time of less than two hours. No shortened triathlon for the women--their swim, bike and running distances were the same as for the men. Snowsill finished just 11 minutes off the time of the male winner. Honorable mention to the other 44 female finishers.

Back with team awards later.

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