Wednesday, Aug. 20, 10 a.m. ET
Olympics: Sally Jenkins Discusses 2008 Games
Wednesday, August 20, 2008; 10:00 AM
Live from Beijing, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins was online Wednesday, Aug. 20 at 10 a.m. ET to share her thoughts about the 2008 Olympics and discuss her latest columns.
A transcript follows.
Burke, Va.: Hi Sally,
What, in your opinion, has been the U.S. team's 'heartbreak' story of these games to date? I almost cried when LoLo Jones clipped that hurdle at the end. Gut wrenching.
Sally Jenkins: I would go with Jones, if only because her story is so impressive, and she came so far, to be disappointed by a toe. One toe. But so many events here are decided by small measurements -- a Serb might tell you that Milo Cavic's loss to Michael Phelps in the 100 butterfly by less than a bandwidth was the most gut wrenching loss of the Games.
Washington, D.C.: What's your opinion of Phelps as a person, especially now that he's under the media microscope.
Sally Jenkins: I can only give a journalistic impression which is hardly a window into the soul, but here it is. He is a bottomlessly ambitious competitor, who is opaque on the surface and an entirely different person below the surface. His mother says, "Under the water there is another level of Michael," and I think that's very insightful. My experience with other all time greats is that they tend to have a hard center -- they come from not a mean spirited place, but a tough one. Champions tend to develope out of a state of emotional emergency. Winning is a need.
Bethesda, Md.: How's Beijing treating you?
Sally Jenkins: Beijing is fascinating, and it's even better now that Bolt just set another WORLD RECORD in the 200. That's a breaking bulletin. Anyhow, back to Beijing: it's huge, sprawling, a taller Los Angeles, and it's been taken over by banks and petrochemical buildings, so you have to look hard for the history and the atmosphere, but it's there in small places. The smog is indescribably bad, having lived in New York City in the 1970s and L.A. in the 1980s, I can tell you it's unprecedented in my personal experience and you feel it all the time, even when it's blue skied. It's like a constant case of bronchitis. The food is exquisite, the people unfailingly kind and courteous, unless they totally ignore you and turn their heads. The overall impression is of a huge city, if not a great one.
Alexandria, Va.: Someone asked Wilbon this on Monday and I wanted your opinion -- which is the bigger accomplishment, Phelps 8 golds, or Tiger winning a major on one leg?
Sally Jenkins: What Michael Phelps did here makes Tiger Woods look like wood chips. Seriously, I admired what Tiger did on his bad wheel, as I wrote at the time, but Woods has never really won anything from behind, and there is a strong argument that his competition is not historically very good, as Jack Nicklaus said recently. Also, lots of athletes have played hurt. No one has ever won eight gold medals in nine days. Ever. And before Phelps is done in London, he could approach 20 golds overall. He's out of category, in my opinion. But there are lots of counter arguments.
Dupont Circle: Do you think Shawn Johnson was underscored on many of her events? I think it really was a mixture of both her being underscored but also the other person having the better routine. In the All Around, Nastia was simply perfect on the majority of her routines. Shawn was good too but I really think she had a disadvantage in the uneven bars because Nastia had such a great, harder routine.
Sally Jenkins: There is a very brisk philosphical war in gymnastics over acrobatics versus artistry, and Johnson and Liukin seem to embody it to judges, and to observers. It's interesting that if you take the position Johnson was underscored by some judges -- especially the Australian -- for her body type -- some people beliebe that inherently comes at Liukin's expense. It shouldn't be a knock on Liukin, who wass marvelous, to say that a couple of judges gave Johnson inordinately low marks for routines that were very strong.
DC: NBC can't show the the men's 200 final live. Are you kidding me?!? Reads like a great race. Terrible.
Sally Jenkins: I have lots of great friends at NBC, which is chock full of great journalists and broadcasters. But the decision to tape delay for the sake of commerce drives me crazy. Live television is a form of truth, and you hate to see it messed with.
Arlington, Va.: I heard Bolt broke the WR in the 200. Did you see it? Was he showboating again?
Sally Jenkins: Bolt did not showboat -- he ran all out and leaned across the finish line, and only then did he do the pretty boy routine. It was almost as if he wanted to prove what a serious athlete he is underneath the clowning. Remember, he's young and raw. Athletes new to the public eye don't always realize how their actions will land on the page, or appear on the screen. Bolt may have learned somethhing from watching and reading about himself. Just my guess.
Washington, D.C.: There have been some great performances during these games. And while watching them - I am able to forget about some of China's most egregious practices. But then the next day there is usually at least one story that reminds me how authoritarian China still is, and how the IOC just seems clueless about China's willingness to just lie about what they are doing. The athletes don't have anything to do with this -- but when I read about China preventing all protest (and sentencing two 70-year-old grandmothers to labor re-education) -- I wonder what I can do to help. Not watch the games? Write my fictional Congressperson? Write to NBC? Any ideas?
Sally Jenkins: The Beijing Games will go down with a terribly mixed legacy. They are absolutely great competitively, and repulsive at the same time. This morning the Chinese government sentenced two women who are nearly 80 years old to a year each in reeducation camp, because they filed for permits to officially protest the destruction of their homes at an official Olympic demonstration site. The Olympics are directly responsible for lives being literally bulldozed, for beatings, jailings. I love what's happened on the field and in the pool here, but in some ways its a vast fraudulent cover story, too. The IOC sponsors, six of them American companies, really called this shot and sent the Games here. CEOs like Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric may have good rationalizations, but I haven't heard a truly satisfying one yet, they just mouth platitudes about sport being apolitical.
Arlington, Va.: OK Sally, someone asked what the heartbreak story of the Olympics to date has been, so I counter. Phelps not counting, what has been the combination "feel good, biggest surprise" of the these Olympics for the U.S. team? I like the female discus thrower that came out of nowhere and the women's 8 in rowing. Probably the latter, if I had to pick one.
Sally Jenkins: I'd go with the great wrestler Henry Cejudo, son of an illegal alien who has since become an American citizen, wrapping himself in that red white and blue flag like it was cashmere. Also we may be working up to another glowing succcess for American women: just about every female team is still alive in the gold medal hunt, volleyball, water polo, basketball, soccer, softball...And probably many people would be delighted to see the men's basketball team bring back a gold medal after the debacle in Athens.
Journalistic Insight: Sally,
How long, on average, does it take you to bang out a column? Do you have a good idea what angle you want to write about prior to heading to the appropriate venue to observe?
Sally Jenkins: Thanks for indulging a journalist. It varies -- greatly. Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal at 11:11 a.m. Beijing time, and Barry Svrluga and I had to file by 11:30. Fortunately, we had a week of previous stories to build on, and the Americans were favored. Still, the deadline was so intense that I told Barry, "Feel my forehead." I swear my core temperature rose to 101. But then there are times when we've had an entire day and night to write. If you're trying to do an analytical piece you can spend a couple of days doing homework and trying to think, but on a live event, you don't want to have too many preconceived ideas because anything can happen. What if Phelps had lost by a hundredth of a second on the butterfly? All of your precious angles go out the window. You kind of want the event to just impress itself on the page, hopefully.
Bowie, Maryland: Early in the Games, you wrote about a human rights activist that you met with in Beijing -- any further news about him? Is there a willingness to discuss the subject of human rights among the athletes, visitors, and others that you encounter at the Games?
Sally Jenkins: I've messaged with him and he says he's okay. He did say that he was leaving Beijing, make of that what you will...Most athletes don't want to discuss China's issues, and they have every right to decline, of course. They've worked hard for to be athletes, not orators, and want to do their talking with their performances. And they may be influenced by corporate sponsors. That said, it's not hard to find people here who want to talk about China's human rights issues -- I've spoken with an AIDS activist, an American who teaches English here, and a professor who studies Chinese economics. The thing about talking with people though, especially by phone, is that you have to assume every word is listened to.
Washington DC: Is the Chinese gymnast age controversy legitimate in your eyes?
Sally Jenkins: Of course it's legitimate. It's state-sponsored cheating. There are few ways to cheat in gymnastics but one of them is to enter underaged girls. They have no center of gravity and it's much easier to fly through the air. There is a significant body of evidence that the Chinese government, though it's not clear at what level, altered three girls' birth certificates and passports. It's not the East German doping scandal, or the Soviets fixing track events in the Moscow Games, but it's not great on the part of the host coountry, either.
Chicago: Long-term, how can the U.S. compete with China when the Chinese can take kids away from their families at a very young age and make them completely devote themselves to a sport. This system obviously works well in sports that require constant repetition like gymnastics and diving but there are so many obscure sports where they can have people train when there is not that much interest in the US for them.
Sally Jenkins: Well, I wouldn't say that free will and free speech are huge competitive disadvantages for American athletes. The U.S. has managed to stay ahead in the overall medal count so far in Beijing, if you pay attention to that sort of thing. There have been lots of Communist countries that invested in state sponsored athletic programs, with great success. And with considerable toll, as well. Some of China's best athletes came into the Games hurt, for instance, perhaps from overtraining.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Sally, thanks for coming on today (tonight?).
What are you going to take away from these games? What are the things that are going to standout in 10 or 20 years? Bolt, Phelps, something else?
Sally Jenkins: To be frank, very confused impressions. Lingering depression over the cost of the Games for some Chinese people, an appreciation of being able to see Phelps swim live, a vivid memory of the bad smog days, an image of Bolt's ebullience, a sense of amazement that a bunch of crooked bureaucrats can hold a great and huge country hostage with corruption, awe at the heavenly landscaping. Best willow trees ever.
Farragut North, DC: Hi Sally:
I want to thank you for your earlier column on the farce that brought the Olympics to Beijing--a mixture of commerce and cupidity, having nothing to do with sport. I can't imagine how these elite competitors are slogging through the terrible air!
Sally Jenkins: Appreciate it. Okay folks, sorry to say it's time to go. It's 11:30 at night here and the day's only half over.
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