Michael Phelps

To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

GWANGJU, South Korea — If ever there was an event that suffered from an Olympic hangover, these 18th FINA world aquatics championships would be right up there on the list of leading candidates. Indeed, a longtime FINA official said, these were the championsihps from the twilight zone.

Some 18 months after the hugely successful — and bitterly cold — PyeongChang Olympics over in South Korea’s northeastern mountains, the action shifted to this nation’s southwest, and Gwangju, into the heat and humidity and, as it turned out, virtually non-stop rain. Strike that. These championships went down to the percussive beat of seemingly endless thunderstorms. There was lightning, too, as immediately before the women’s water polo final, won by the United States over Spain.

They tried to sell this event as a peacemaker: “Dive into Peace,” read the white-on-turquoise slogans plastered all over the venues and, indeed, around town, a nod not just to events on the peninsula but, as virtually everyone in South Korea knows, the events of May 1980, when a democracy uprising climaxed in a bloody battle between the military and locals, the victims now honored in an expansive national cemetery near town.

Instead of peace, however, a balcony in a packed nightclub near the athletes village collapsed early on the morning of July 27, killing two Koreans and injuring at least nine athletes, including four American water polo players.

Meanwhile, inside the venues, athletes from Australia and Britain staged medals-stand protests, purportedly over doping matters tied to the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. Attendance proved spotty at best; it would be charitable to say there were even hundreds of people on some days at the diving events that opened the meet’s 17-day run. Even the internet — and South Korea is known for its robust internet — didn’t work, and why?

It was thus left to Katie Ledecky, on the meet’s next-to-last night, to provide the emotional rescue — the stuff, the inspiration — that, truly, makes Olympic sport different from everything else. 

Essentially, Ledecky all but saved these championships.

Reimagining Olympic legacy

Reimagining Olympic legacy

Time flies. It was September 2017 when the International Olympic Committee made the dual award of the 2024 Games to Paris and the 2028 Games to Los Angeles.

In essence — nearly 11 years ’til the Olympics came back to LA, in July 2028.

Last week, it was exactly 2024 days until the start of the 2024 Games in Paris. A typical Olympic countdown clock ticks down from roughly seven years. The year marker for Paris is already at five.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, 11 years has turned to nine-plus. Of course nine-plus is a long time. But look how many months have already passed so quickly.

Unlike every other Games in modern Olympic history — the LA 84 Games the exception and thus the model, turning a $232.5 million surplus — LA28 offers a chance to do it differently, differently in this case meaning better, because in LA everything is built, meaning the LA 28 organizing committee has the extraordinary opportunity from the get-to to focus on what the Games ought to stand for and be about.

LA28 does not have to wait until after a Games for new buildings built as part of an Olympic-related infrastructure boom to secure a legacy.

Instead, it can and should use the Olympics — because there is no construction need — to redefine, indeed reimagine, legacy.

No one, ever again, should have to go through this

No one, ever again, should have to go through this

When our youngest daughter was just 18 months old, we were at a friend’s house here in Los Angeles. In the back was an unfenced pool. In a flash, she had toddled out to the pool and jumped in. Alertly, my wife ran across the house and jumped in — fully clothed — after her.

Another story. When I worked at the LA Times, we were at a party down in Orange County with some newspaper friends. We were all much younger parents then, and there were all kinds of little children around. I happened to be on duty at the hot tub when one of the kids, who was just 2, just that fast, sank to the bottom. I fished her out. 

Our daughter went on to do years and years at the LA County junior lifeguard program and a couple days ago finished her freshman year at Northwestern. That 2-year-old just graduated from Michigan.

These stories have happy endings. 

Way, way, way too many don’t.  

Please: let’s come together in the aftermath of the sorrowful drowning death of 19-month-old Emeline Miller, daughter of Olympic ski star Bode and his wife, Morgan, the professional volleyball player.

Let Emmy’s death be a call to action.

Alfred E. Neuman as swim spokesdude: What, Team USA worry?

Alfred E. Neuman as swim spokesdude: What, Team USA worry?

BUDAPEST — In the land before time, when there were no cellphones, those of us of a certain generation were sent out of the house by exasperated mothers who didn’t know the first thing about bicycle helmets and, truth be told, didn’t much care. They just wanted us out until it was dark.

So off we went, baseball cards in our spokes. It was a very exciting day when the new edition of certain magazines would show up in the racks at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store. It was super-exciting when Mad magazine would show up, with stupid Alfred E. Neuman on the cover, grinning, “What, me worry?”

Now that these 2017 FINA world championships are in the history books, can we finally acknowledge Alfred E. Neuman as Team USA’s unofficial spokesdude?

No Michael Phelps, no Ryan Lochte, no Missy Franklin. No worries.

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

BUDAPEST — Did you know, my 18-year-old daughter said to me over FaceTime, she in California, me here in Budapest at the FINA world swim championships, that Michael Phelps raced a shark?

Did you also know, she went on, that it wasn’t really a real shark? And Michael had a monofin? And Michael went 38.1 seconds and the shark 36.1 seconds? He was close!

So, I said to the darling daughter, now that you have told me everything about Michael and, as it were, the ultimate example of jumping the shark, what can you tell me about what’s going on here? Because, I said, this is a great meet.

To switch animal gears, or something, here was her response: crickets.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the existential dilemma of Olympic sport in 2017.

Katie Ledecky is (gasp) not perfect and -- it's (more than) OK

Katie Ledecky is (gasp) not perfect and -- it's (more than) OK

BUDAPEST — If you listen closely, very closely, to Katie Ledecky this week at the 2017 FINA world championships, you can hear — appropriately — a college sophomore-to-be.

Someone who sees that there is a big world out there beyond swimming, that swimming is just a piece of a long and meaningful life as part of a loving and supportive family. Who also sees that many of the big stars on the American team who have come before her in recent years have wrestled with some big issues and maybe — probably — could have benefitted from some quality time between Olympic Games.

If you were Katie Ledecky and you had done pretty much everything there is to do at the highest levels, and now, after Wednesday, in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, you were proven human after all, which in its way is the lifting of an incredible burden, might you be inclined to maybe think of 2018, or at least some portion of it after the college swim season, as, well, me time?

As a constructive and positive stroke all around?

Day One, two golds, Ledecky is ... 'incredible'

Day One, two golds, Ledecky is ... 'incredible'

BUDAPEST — It’s only Day One of the swim action of these 2017 FINA world championships, and here is the dilemma.

How many different ways are there to say Katie Ledecky is great?

In the first final in a meet she is expected to — strike that, absent something freaky, will — dominate, Ledecky set a new championship record in the women’s 400 freestyle, winning by more than three seconds.

FINA elections: a power-play clinic

FINA elections: a power-play clinic

BUDAPEST — Here is the short version of a contentious campaign that dragged on for months inside FINA, the aquatics federation, and that culminated in Saturday’s election:

A rival sought to execute an Olympic power play. In the end, though, it was like Milorad Cavic and Michael Phelps. A lot of drama, maybe. But you knew who was going to win.

Because when it comes to executing a show of authority in Olympic circles, you have to go a long way to get past the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, especially when what’s at issue is the power of the IOC president and his key allies.

Time for this 9-second reminder: Justin Gatlin is real, and genuine

Time for this 9-second reminder: Justin Gatlin is real, and genuine

SACRAMENTO, California — Five years ago, on the last night of July, Bruce Springsteen played an epic show in Helsinki, more than four hours, his longest show ever.

He and the E Street Band played 33 songs, one of which, My City of Ruins, ran to 18 minutes and 26 seconds. That song, as Bruce describes it that night, was originally written about his New Jersey hometown “trying to get back on its feet” but had since become about so much more: “what you lose, what you hold onto, the spirits that remain forever and the things you have to let go.”

Who is America's most famous Olympic athlete?

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After doing this now for nearly 20 years, when asking casual (American) fans of the Olympics to name the most famous Olympic athlete who first comes to mind, the answer is invariably one of two:

Michael Phelps. Or, more likely, Carl Lewis.

It’s in this context that one is urged to take in the first in a series of promotional videos — featuring both athletes and venues — from the LA24 bid committee.

Released this week, this first mini-movie features Lewis at the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, the LA Memorial Coliseum, where in 1984 he won four Olympic gold medals. He has, over his Olympic career, nine golds and one silver.

Sports Illustrated named Lewis the Olympian of the 20th century. That list includes Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Mark Spitz, Nadia Comaneci, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek and many more. Track and field's international governing body, the IAAF, named him male athlete of the century. The International Olympic Committee named him "sportsman of the century."

It would make for a long and fascinating discussion about why, despite his many achievements, Lewis is — still — viewed with something like suspicion in some quarters of the media. It’s a mystery, really. Ben Johnson is the guy who ran with stanozolol in Seoul in 1988, a steroid that turned his eyes yellow. If you have questions about Lewis’ stimulant tests back in the day: Lewis didn’t violate any rules then, and the levels wouldn’t be considered anywhere near a positive now. And, fast forward, maybe there are questions and maybe there aren't about clenbuterol and Jamaicans in Beijing in 2008.

So?

Carl Lewis sang the national anthem. He ran for office. Neither proved glorious. So what? Wasn't it Teddy Roosevelt who said it was the guy who was out there trying who matters? Lewis sometimes speaks his mind. Like last year, at a pre-Rio Games media summit, when he talked about Team USA relay drops. So what? Wasn't it Jack Nicholson who once said we couldn't handle the truth?

People: Carl Lewis has 10 Olympic medals. Nine are gold. And that's just the starting place. Some appreciation and respect, please.

When — not if — you watch this video, consider:

Phelps has won every single one of his 28 Olympic medals overseas. You can argue back and forth about whether Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete of all time (yes) but this is just fact: eight medals in Athens, eight in Beijing, six in London, six in Rio.

Lewis stands at a different place in the collective imagination. Why? This has zero to do with Phelps, who over the years has come to represent consistent, if not amazingly ferocious, excellence. With Lewis, it's even more layered, and this is where things get even more interesting, and this is another reason why the Olympics -- despite all their problems -- matter, and a lot.

Lewis won those first four medals, again all gold, in LA: the 100, the 200, the long jump and the 4x100 relay, matching the four golds that Owens won in the same four events in Berlin in 1936. The Coliseum is where Rafer Johnson lit the 1984 cauldron, another on a list of enduring memories. The Coliseum was center stage not just for the 1984 Games but the 1932 Olympics, too. Of course, it represents, as Lewis says in the video, history. It's more, really: you can hear and feel there the echoes of history because the building has been around so long. That’s the point: as everyone who knows the first thing about the Olympics and track and field knows, the Coliseum is nothing less than sacred ground.

Our world could use a lot more of what the Coliseum is and always was. It is good, especially in the Olympic context, to walk on sacred ground. Better still to run.