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The Cruelty of the Games

But at least we had Mikaela Shiffrin, right? That’s the American mega-star alpine skier who was poised to bring home multiple medals and become the commercial star of these Games. She’s won three medals over the past two Olympics, including two gold, and has won 47 World Cup slalom races, more than any single skier in a single discipline. Entered in five Olympic events in Beijing, the question wasn’t about winning a medal – it’s was about how many. That calculus has changed quickly. That’s because Shiffrin has skied out, missing a gate and not finishing, in her first two events, including yesterday’s slalom race, an event she won in 2014. It was unquestionably difficult to watch, as Shiffrin sat motionless on the side of the slope for some 20 minutes after which she gave an emotional interview and said it made her question the last 15 years of her life. Shiffrin will have three more events if she chooses, but right now, it’s tough to imagine coming back from what has to be an absolutely devastating gut punch.

Shiffrin is by no means the first Olympic athlete to have their worst moment on the biggest stage. In the Winter Games, speed skater Dan Jansen was something of an unfortunate poster child for bad breaks, falling in multiple events and Games before finally winning a gold in his last attempt in 1994. Last year’s Summer Games was marked by the withdrawal of the world’s greatest gymnast Simone Biles. Mary Decker tripped over Zola Budd in 1984. And, of course, Dan O’Brien, the world’s greatest decathlete, failed to qualify for the American team in 1992 after getting no height on the high jump. So this isn’t a new phenomenon, even if it’s just as shocking every time it happens.

Obviously, the world of sport is littered with bad breaks and miscues. Just take this year’s playoff game between Buffalo and Kansas City, where the Bills handed back a trip to the AFC Championship in the final 13 seconds. But there’s something particular about this happening at the Olympics, in an Olympic sport, with the presumptive favorite. If LeBron James loses an NBA Final, he’s still a filthy rich NBA mega star with a great chance of winning again next year. That’s not the case for Shiffrin or most any Olympic athlete, who largely spend the interim four years between games preparing for one moment to perform. And yes, I know that skiers and lugers and cross-country skiers do a whole lot of competing in-between the rings. But for a lot of these sports, that doesn’t translate in either the emotional or certainly fiscal payoff of doing it at the Olympics. In other words, you could be the best in the world for 1460 straight days, but if you don’t prove on the 1461st, it’s almost like it didn’t happen.

Perhaps that is one of the few remaining assets of the Olympic movement, one that seems harder to validate with each advancing year. Take away the crass commercialism and hypocritical political posturing and the inability to make countries play by the rules. And maybe what you have is this. The Olympics, for all its faults – and there are many – remains the one moment where we see athletes try to achieve their perfection when the pressure is highest. Not at some local 5K or one of 17 games in a season, but when the lights are nearly unbearable and opportunity for redemption is so far away it might as well be another galaxy. And yes, this is also part of the Olympics’ cruelty, but I’d argue it’s also its saving grace. Perhaps the one thing that dictators and the IOC can’t destroy.

Hopefully it stays that way. It may be the only reason left to watch.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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