Lindsey Vonn survives weight of great expectations at Vancouver Olympics
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Lindsey Vonn came down the mountain Saturday to take part in a panel assembled by the U.S. Olympic Committee to discuss the country's record-setting medal haul at the Vancouver Games. Vonn looked rested, relaxed and happy -- a marked contrast to her appearance in a news conference 2 1/2 weeks ago, when she seemed at times to fight back tears as she discussed her now-famous injury.
Vonn has gold and bronze -- one each -- to declare at customs when she returns from British Columbia. If she's unhappy about winning "just" two medals, she hides it very well.
"Being able to win my first gold medal and in my favorite discipline was amazing," Vonn said Saturday. "There's definitely been a lot of ups and downs -- shin injury, finger injury, gold medal, crashing, bronze medal, crashing -- there's been a lot going on, but my goal coming in to these Games was to win one medal and I have one gold and one bronze and I'm incredibly happy and proud of those accomplishments."
But a lot of people seemed to expect more from Vonn. And some of that is our fault. And by "our" I mean the American public in general and the media in particular.
Paul Simon was right: Every generation does throw a hero up the pop charts. More frequently -- every two years, in fact -- Americans single out one Olympian upon whom to rest all of our hopes and dreams. And we in the media help with the selection and presentation.
Maybe it started in 1972 with Mark Spitz. I don't know. But by the time Eric Heiden came along in 1980, it was a trend. And Michael Phelps, of course, took it to a whole new level.
Our choice of stars isn't always based on quantity of medals to be won. In past Winter Olympics, the "honor" has traditionally gone to the best American figure skater. Period. It was at least a refreshing change this year when a downhill skier got the spotlight.
But however well-meaning, I don't think we did Vonn any favors. Because she was equated with Phelps so often, it became a disappointment to some that she didn't win five medals here, the maximum number available to skiers. If your basic fan had paid attention to World Cup results, she would know Vonn had no chance of that; her best realistic hope was three medals. But many Olympic watchers follow these sports for two weeks, every four years. That's not a dig; so do some Olympic writers. The vast majority of international competition in Winter Olympic events takes place overseas; that's the reality.
Don't get me wrong, Vonn brought some of this on herself. Her appearance in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition did not offend me in the slightest -- I'm a big believer in making hay while the sun shines, and she's smart enough to realize that these opportunities will dry up quickly -- but it did turn off some people.
However, when her family and friends arrived at the bottom of the Whistler course waving "Vonncouver" flags and sporting "Vonncouver" hats, that crossed a line, because however innocently it was meant, it implied that Vonn was bigger than the Games. When she said the Whistler course was the worst one she could possibly ski with her shin injury, that seemed a bit overly dramatic. But athletes are no different than most of the rest of us: Exposed to the constant warm bath of the klieg lights, who among us might not develop a few dramatic tendencies?
All this aside, the biggest lesson we should learn is perhaps this: It doesn't matter whom we declare the pre-Olympic king or queen; there will always be surprises. For example, Johnny Spillane will leave Vancouver with more medals than Vonn. (If you haven't paid attention, he's on the Nordic combined team.) In fact, the United States will set a record for medals won at an Olympics -- for the U.S. team and for any country, ever, in the 86-year history of the Winter Olympics. That's an astounding development, considering that 12 years ago, the United States won a total of 13 medals in Nagano.
Vonn isn't solely responsible for this record-setting year, any more than Phelps, with eight medals, single-handedly led the United States to the top of the medal table in Beijing. The point isn't the medal count; the point is that it takes a lot of high-caliber athletes to achieve it. The sum is not greater than the parts.
But of course, we're Americans, and we sometimes can't help ourselves. We live in a country chock full of people who want to be stars. We have television shows built entirely around this concept. Our national obsession for fame has become a sickness.
So has our national obsession for the famous, so much so that we are giving too much attention to people who have done nothing to warrant it. Think of the number of people you see on TV or the Web or in magazines these days that you simply can't identify as having done anything noteworthy? Or that you simply can't identify, period? It boggles the mind.
No matter whom we choose to put on the biennial pedestal, Olympians have at least done something to earn our regard: They've made the U.S. Olympic team. Perhaps the greatest reward we could give them would be a little less fanfare, at least until the cauldron is lit.