Jordyn Wieber, Missy Franklin and Olympic athletes deliver what reality TV can't
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Through our television sets, laptops, tablets and smartphones, on the radio and in the newspapers, the XXX Summer Olympic Games are bringing us experiences so rare we might have thought them extinct.
Consider the extent to which these Olympics are a shared experience, ensnaring cheering viewers from ages 5 to 95. We were once a nation where cultural experiences -- from the evening news with Walter Cronkite to the World Series to "I Love Lucy" to episodes of "M*A*S*H" -- were communal. These were discussed at the water cooler or dinner table or bar by swaths of society. Today, with hundreds of channels, infinite websites and homes brimming with media devices, how often is that the case? Yet seemingly everyone is rejoicing in wins, grieving at losses, and sharing these feelings with others.
Consider the almost 19th century amateurism of 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin, who won gold in the 100-meter backstroke Monday. She triumphed less than 15 minutes after swimming in another event. To stay with her high school team and longtime coach, and to retain amateur status, Franklin has turned down all endorsements. She didn't leave her family and friends to join an elite but faraway training program. She seems a thoroughly grounded and lovable young woman who has worked with an ardor few of us can imagine, and watching her turn devotion into triumph is refreshing.
The scene was just as riveting when 17-year-old gymnast and fan favorite Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for a shot at individual gold in the all-around competition over the weekend. Her scores would have made her a contender in the "best gymnast in the world" event, but only two gymnasts per nation can go to the finals in it. That rule prevents single-nation dominance, but it also shortchanges individuals on the strongest teams, and Wieber fell behind teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.
Wieber tried to put a brave face on the outcome, but her desolation was evident. When she and her teammates grabbed gold in the team competition Tuesday, it served as partial solace and redemption.
Then there is Michael Phelps, who began his fourth Olympics by failing to win a medal in the 400-meter individual medley. His redemption came Tuesday as well, first with an individual silver, then with a relay gold that makes him the most decorated Olympian ever. Phelps has several events left, and the eyes of history remain on him.
What we are seeing, and sharing, is the genuine tension and excitement that reality television tries to create but never can. This is reality with the highest stakes. The dreams, work and dedication of athletes, their families and their coaches, are wagered on one or a few chances to succeed. We are captivated, and in a way, united, by the drama. We become, for perhaps just a few moments in time, a nation of people who all care about and enjoy the same things.
In many cases that includes joyfully taking in performances by athletes of other nations, amazing us even as they defeat our countrymen. We owe this enjoyment to the dedication of these athletes, like Wieber and Franklin and Phelps, and far too many others to name. It's an honor to watch them, and a pleasure to do so together.