The London Chronicles, Vol. 7: The Olympic Mega-Bag

Grantland on the 2012 Summer Olympics

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Usain Bolt

The London Chronicles, Vol. 7: The Olympic Mega-Bag, Part 2

The Sports Guy wraps up his trip to London with actual letters from actual readers

If you missed Part 1 of my Olympics Mega-Bag, CLICK HERE to catch up. Here’s Part 2.

Q: While watching the Men’s 100 Meter final I found myself almost completely rooting for Usain Bolt to win the race in record time. I love to watch the USA beat every other country and actually get mad if we lose, especially in a sport we should dominate in. But he’s the only Olympic athlete from another country that I’d want to see beat the USA. I feel like he almost is an American athlete. He is seen on American commercials like Puma, ESPN, and McDonald’s, and rapped about by 900 rappers. Isn’t this weird? I think Americans should just adopt him for ourselves. Could we pull a Chappelle like draft?
— Stephen Walters, Allen, TX

SG: Before we get to the draft, I’ve been battling that dilemma since right before that 100-meter dash, once I realized I was rooting for Bolt to break the record (and not for the Americans to beat Bolt). Did that make me unpatriotic … or did I just value greatness over patriotism? Maybe it depends on the level of greatness. Bolt had a chance to become …

A. The greatest sprinter ever
B. The fastest sprinter ever
C. An iconic Olympian

… and beyond that, he’s a pure performance artist, one of the few Olympians who ever fully mastered that balance between achievement and show. Carl Lewis may have had a greater career, but I just can’t imagine him owning an 80,000-seat stadium like Bolt does. Lewis wasn’t nearly as charismatic. And actually, sprinters and runners are rarely if ever charismatic — that’s the reason there were TWO movies about Steve Prefontaine, for God’s sake. So I don’t think any American can feel guilty about secretly rooting for Bolt. We’re always going to gravitate toward the best. That’s why we love the Olympics; that’s why the MLS will never totally catch on; that’s why we revere Jordan 15 years after he mattered; that’s why Ali still causes a ruckus everywhere he goes (even in his current state); and that’s why many of us found ourselves pulling for Bolt a little. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, here’s the top three of my Chappelle draft board …

1. Usain Bolt
For all the reasons we just covered.

2. Roger Federer
Don’t you already kinda feel like he’s American? Couldn’t we just steal him from Switzerland? It’s not like they’d stop us.

3. Steve Nash

Cut to everyone in Canada screaming, “Hey!!! HEYYYYYY!!!! This is NOT funny anymore!”

Q: Where does Phelps fall on Most Accomplished Weed Users list? #1 has to be George Washington.
— @darthyankee (via Twitter)

SG: I have Phelps trailing Washington and Snoop Dogg, but leading Ricky Williams, Bill Maher and Woody Harrelson pretty comfortably.

Q: I scored a ticket for Mexico vs. Senegal in the quarterfinals of the men’s soccer tournament at Wembley. While I was thrilled at the chance to go to the Olympics, I was surprised at my lack of goosebumps when I got to Wembley. It’s supposed to be a hallowed ground, a soccer mecca … yet all I saw was a modern stadium that held a ton of people. It’s a nice stadium, for sure, but I wasn’t feeling the weight of history that is associated with the name ‘Wembley.’ I imagine this is what it’s like to visit Yankee Stadium 2.0. It’s still a cool pilgrimage (Yankee hatred aside), but it’s not the House That Ruth Built. (Maybe I’m just a geek in the wrong sport. In terms of sports history awesomeness, I got a bigger kick out of doing a mile on the track at Oxford’s Iffley Road the day after my Wembley visit, where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. Your thoughts?
— Matt Z., Bonn, Germany

SG: Couldn’t agree more. The walk to Wembley was much more exciting than getting inside — at that point, it’s just a gigantic, modern-looking, 90,000-seat stadium with a ton of grass. I brought my daughter to the women’s soccer gold-medal game and made the mistake of building up the stadium too much. After we sat down in our seats, she looked around and said, “I thought you said this was the best stadium” before concentrating on more important things like “What food are we getting at halftime?”

Wimbledon was a totally different experience, one of those rare sports venues that’s exactly as good as you think it’s going to be: immaculate, elegant, classic, overwhelmingly green. Even a 7-year-old can pick those things up. Then you sit down and there’s a level of intimacy that’s almost unparalleled, especially before crucial points when people are yelling out “COME ON, SERENA” and discussing the previous point, but then they somehow shut up at the exact same time and the noise just disappears from the stadium. It’s so quiet that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the match. You never forget you’re at Wimbledon. Not for a second. At Wembley, at some point, you forget where you are — it’s just a big-ass stadium with some grass. The Yankee Stadium 2.0 comparison makes total sense. And it’s true.

Q: Can you write something about how men’s soccer players need to sack up and play like the women do? The women literally beat the stank out of each other, get up without a tear shed (maybe a black eye here or there). You don’t see any of this “lying around pretending my leg is broken now I’m gonna run around on it for the next 90 minutes no problem” crap I’ve never been more interested in watching women’s soccer in my life and care less about men’s soccer.
— John K., Jersey B

SG: You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. Abby Wambach is tougher than anyone in the MLS — she runs around like a cross between Troy Polamalu and Clint Eastwood circa 1973. Totally fearless. When she gets knocked down, she gets up … and if she doesn’t get up right away, you know she actually got hurt. For this and a couple of reasons (success + likability + Alex Morgan), you could make a pretty good case that our U.S. women’s soccer team is as popular as, and maybe even a smidge more popular than, our men’s soccer team. Who could have imagined that one??? We need to schedule both teams playing important qualifiers at the exact same time and see which one gets a better TV rating. I really want to know. I have the women’s team as a 0.5-point rating favorite. And that might be low.

Q: I write to suggest one sport you must see — water polo. Water polo players are big, strong, and play dirty. The sport requires unbelievable toughness and determination, and most games are close. Like basketball and volleyball, the result is often determined by who gets hot in the fourth quarter. Also, the US team is really good. They have a real chance to win the gold. But the main competition is mostly former Iron Curtain teams — Hungary, Croatia, Serbia. Italy is also excellent. In other words, big strong guys like the US players, only hairier. I guarantee you’ll love it if you go.
— Joel, Pasadena

SG: Didn’t love it. In person, I thought it was like underwater handball — just a lot of splashing and heads bobbing. Even the crowd didn’t seem that into it. It’s a much better televised sport. “Splashing and bobbing” isn’t the right recipe for a great spectator sport — or anything, really. Water polo reminds me of the triathlon: I totally respect the athletes, I’m amazed by their stamina … I just don’t want to watch them.

Q: 6-0, 6-1 in the Olympic Final? Seems Serena is “a little upset” that Russia’s Maria Sharapova is America’s tennis sweetheart.
— Mike Ross, La Crosse, WI

SG: And as usual, something happened — in this case, the post-match Crip Walk, something she did for two seconds specifically to crack up her sister and, by the way, went over the heads of 99.5 percent of the people there — that ended up detracting from what should have been a career-defining moment for her. You know, because god forbid we ever watch Serena kick someone’s ass in a tennis match and decide “She’s the greatest female tennis player of all time” without some subplot undermining it.

Know this: Serena stood out more than anyone I watched these past three weeks other than Bolt. She crushed Sharapova. It was personal — like it’s always been for her, ever since the Wimbledon crowd cheered on Sharapova like she was the 1980 Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid. Serena hasn’t lost to her since. That gold-medal match was like watching Jordan and Pippen obliterating Kukoc in the ’92 Olympics. I just loved it. One of my favorite days in London.

Q: What pushes someone into synchronized diving? Is it “I like the water, but not the crushing loneliness of being three meters away from everyone”? Is it the ultimate in co-dependency? Do they get sensory overload from line dancing?
— Stephen, Indianapolis

SG: I … I don’t know.

Q: The coolest thing about watching Team USA is finally being able to cheer for a superstar you respect but you’ve been conditioned to hate. With five mins left in a tight US-Lithuania game (USA up 1), the US botches a shot but gets the rebound and kicks it out to a wide open Kobe. My first reaction (born from 10 years of dreading Kobe) was a gut wrenching “Oh no!” which quickly turned to elation when I remembered that just this once, the black mamba was on my side. An awesome “only in sports” feeling (and in comic books I guess).
— Stephane Essama, Chicago

SG: That was the most shocking moment of Sunday’s gold-medal game for me — when things got hairy in the fourth quarter and I found myself saying the words “Come on, Kobe!” as he was jacking up a 3. You know what happened next: I cheered him on for the next few minutes, we won the gold, and then I immediately drove to a local spa and got a colonic.

Q: If you are out after an evening of drinking, I thoroughly recommend Heineken House. The Dutch Olympians WILL turn up to party there after their events are finished and it is a good night out.
— Duncan, Sydney, Australia

SG: You should have just made the subject of that e-mail, “BEST WAY TO GET DIVORCED.” By the way, one of my favorite random true Olympic facts: Anyone can go to Ireland’s team Olympic House and get drunk there. You just have to pay $20 to get in. I’m not making this up. There’s a cover charge, and then anything goes. Reason no. 7,139 why you have to love Ireland.

Q: I know it is more fun to compare the 1992 and 2012 basketball teams, but why does everyone keep forgetting about our 1996 team? THEY HAD SHAQ AND HAKEEM! In a seven-game series, wouldn’t they have rolled over the 2012 guys?
— JT, Houston

SG: On paper, you’re right — Dream Team II had Shaq, Hakeem and David Robinson, as well as Charles Barkley and Karl Malone; Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill; Gary Payton and John Stockton; Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller; and even Penny Hardaway back when it still meant something to have Penny Hardaway on your team. Nobody remembers ’96 fondly because they followed the original Dream Team (a no-win situation), but also because they were thrown together like an All-Star team during the league’s “I Gotta Get Mine!” era — when the first wave of overpaid, entitled, too-famous-too-soon stars nearly derailed the league — so those 12 guys ended up uneasily coexisting, fighting for playing time and acting like the experience was more of a burden than anything. I hated that team.

And yet, it’s hard to look at 1996’s roster without concluding that they would have annihilated the 2012 guys. Maybe Hakeem, Robinson, Barkley and Malone were a shade past their primes, but they would have overpowered the 2012ers down low (and we haven’t even mentioned Shaq yet). They could have thrown Pippen and Hill on LeBron and Durant. They could have thrown GP (at his all-time Gloviest) on Chris Paul and Deron Williams. What’s left? The 2012ers’ chances would have ridden on small ball, 3s and chemistry, in that order. In a seven-game series, the 1996ers would be heavy favorites over the 2012ers.

But here’s the thing: We all know how basketball works. It’s not just about how good your roster looks on paper. The 2012ers loved playing together, didn’t worry about minutes and even managed any potential alpha-dog issues. You saw it in the gold-medal game, when Spain was playing really well — repeat: REALLY well — and instead of freaking out and having the game morph into a heroball contest, multiple Americans chipped in during the fourth quarter. Durant kept draining 3s. Chris Paul did a bunch of Chris Paul things. Kobe made a big shot and grabbed a couple of crucial rebounds. When things were getting hairy in the final four minutes, LeBron came through with a dunk and a 3. And then, Chris Paul finished things off with the best moment of the tournament — chewing up 23.999999999999 seconds of the 24-second shot clock before beating Gasol off the dribble for a gorgeous reverse layup, then screaming happily at his bench afterward.1

We’ve just seen it too many times: No matter how you stack things on paper, it’s nearly impossible for a basketball team to prevail against a quality opponent unless (a) everyone knows their role, (b) everyone likes playing with each other, (c) they can get stops when it matters, and (d) there’s something of a natural hierarchy when it truly matters. The Americans had (a) and (b); they made so many 3s with that obscenely close 3-point line that (c) didn’t totally matter; and as for (d), once that Spain game reached its all-time hairiest, the offense ran through LeBron and Chris (with “Feed Kevin” as their security blanket anytime Spain stupidly shaded away from him). Everyone was fine with it. Looking at that 1996 team, I can’t figure out a scenario in which everyone would have been happy. Maybe they’d be favored, but I could totally see 2012 pulling off one of those “2011 Mavs over the 2012 Heat” type of upsets. Especially because of the “When in doubt, LeBron James would be the best basketball player on the court” corollary.

Q: Are there two other players in the world whose games fit together as well as LeBron James and Kevin Durant? Both are long, athletic, highly skilled, unselfish and have extremely high basketball IQ’s. They just get it. There is no debate when one or the other “has to take over”, they just realize when the moment is upon them and play. LeBron becomes the slasher, KD spots up. It’s just amazes me they can have this type of chemistry without playing together during the season. That was just pure joy to watch.
— Mark, Baltic, SD

SG: Totally agree — maybe Bird and Magic in their primes would have blended together for more artistic reasons, and maybe Pippen and Jordan are the best example of two teammates completing each other, but what made the LeBron-Durant pairing so much fun was the way they blended idealistically. It just worked. They seemed to be genuinely invested in the other’s success. That’s another advantage 2012 has over 1996 — name me two people on the 1996 team who would have been genuinely invested in the other’s success.


You know what? I’m sticking 2012 second and 1996 third, even if it seems patently ludicrous on paper. That’s my final answer.

Q: Why isn’t there a show on Bravo called The Real Gymnasts of the US Olympic Team? It looked like at any moment any of the girls teams members were ready to punch one another. I would also like a side show focused on the assistant coach whose only job it seems is to hug/console the athletes after they stink up a performance. She has various different consoling measures. There was the back pat for an average performance, the shoulder hug for the below average performance, the full hug before the girl gets off the mat for the very poor performance, and the rare full hug followed by the holding of the face while clearly saying you did your best and keep your head up for the drastically pathetic you embarrassed yourself performance. There should be a ranking from you on the different levels of the assistant coach consoling the athlete for women’s gymnastics.
— Zach Rubin, Brooklyn

SG: McKayla was not impressed with that idea. But you know who WAS impressed? ME! I’d watch the crap out of The Real Gymnasts of the U.S. Olympic Team. Then again, I’m the same guy who enjoyed their Instagram photos from London and wondered things like, Do they really like each other this much, or do they secretly hate each other? So I’m probably not the best judge here. One thing you left out — the parents would be unbelievable on that Bravo show. They just spent the last 12 to 15 years driving their kids to hundreds of events, sitting through three-hour practice session after three-hour practice session and shelling out thousands of dollars per year, all so their kid had a 0.0000001 percent chance of winning the gold someday. Talk about pressure. By the way, you could also talk me into The Real Figure Skaters of the U.S. Olympic Team and even The Real Sprinters of the U.S. Olympic Team.

Q: Which US team member is most likely to have an Olympic village sex-tape “leaked?”
— Joe, Dayton

SG: You mean other than Ryan Lochte? I think he’s a -350 favorite over Usain Bolt right now.

Q: Tug of War was an Olympic sport from 1900-1920. Check it out. How have they NOT brought this back? The strategic considerations are endless — and probably meaningless. I’m pretty convinced that virtually no insight or understanding is even remotely necessary to form an opinion about Tug of War. In other words: this is perfect for sports/entertainment media. Threshold decision — do you form a national team from scratch or draw from your country’s Olympic delegation, with Tug of War held just before the closing ceremonies? I favor the latter. Maybe someone like Regis could be the coach. Or you could go a different direction and have Bobby Knight stand there with his hands on his knees — face beet-red — screaming “pull! pull! pull!” over and over again and then punch Ryan Reynolds or whatever squishy celebrity gets pushed onto the team by the marketing guys. All that being said, if it were solely up to me, the choice for coach would be obvious — Martin Kove. Initially, I figured you’d need a men’s, women’s, and mixed categories. But really, we should just let each country decide who to put on their squad and let things ride. Rope don’t lie, as Rasheed Wallace (and possible Tug of War sideline reporter?) might say. Finally, I would like to see a throwback USA-USSR match. For whatever reason, the IOC decided to dump Tug of War in 1920, just as the Bolsheviks were consolidating their grip on power in Russia, depriving the world of decades of American-Soviet matches that would have made the Cuban missile crisis look like an episode of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. At the very least, there wouldn’t be any boycotting. The 1980 hockey team is a footnote if, also that year, the Americans had gone to Moscow and beat the Soviets at Tug of War — on their own commie soil. There’s just no way you boycott when Tug of War is on the program. Put simply — the absence of Tug of War for the past century might very well be one of the greatest travesties in Olympic history. Easy as it may be to hang your national pride on the performance of a bunch of pre-teen gymnasts once every four years, there is nothing more fundamental to national identity as Tug of War. It is the consummate sport for a global competition in which it is still okay to make distinctions solely based on nationality. Actually, it’s not okay to do this, especially if you have a Twitter account. Which makes Tug of War all the more important. I know the chances of this email seeing the light of day are as slim as Tug of War ever making it back to the Olympics. But if there is any place where futile, mildly interesting, and extraordinarily dorky bouts of activism can surface briefly before being buried beneath a 5,000-word dissection of the last episode of Downton Abbey, it’s Grantland. Tug of War in 2016.
— Scott Stone, Washington, D.C.

SG: I don’t know if that was the greatest Mailbag question of all time, but it’s certainly on the short list. Anyone growing up in the 1970s remembers those epic tug-of-war battles that concluded both The Superstars and Battle of the Network Stars — in both cases, wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from the TV when they were happening.

Here’s how I think it could work: On the night of the Closing Ceremony, the two countries ranked no. 1 and no. 2 for total medals have a tug-of-war showdown. Ten people on each team — five male, five female — that have to come from 10 different sports/events. In other words, you couldn’t stack your team with three weight lifters or whatever. Oh, and everyone participating in the tug-of-war HAD to have won gold medals. And there’s a weight limit per team — you can’t exceed, say, 2,000 pounds for your 10 athletes. So let’s say our team ended up being Kevin Love, Jordan Burroughs, Ryan Lochte, Ashton Eaton, David Boudia, Missy Franklin, Allyson Felix, Misty May-Treanor, Candace Parker and team captain Abby “I’m a total badass and there’s no way we’re losing this” Wambach. And we were battling 10 Chinese gold medalists for the tug-of-war gold. Um … you’d turn the channel during this? Scott Stone, you’re an American hero.

Q: I just finished the ESPN article on the sexfest that is Olympic Village. My thought is why are the organizers providing condoms? Aren’t these the people we need reproducing? Isn’t the world going to be better off generations from now with a human race made from Michael Phelps knocking up Hope Solo and the like? Considering the rate dumb rednecks or crackheads are popping out kids, the Olympic committee should be discouraging condoms, right? Not only can we begin a race of super humans, it’s clearly going to bridge cultural gaps and fostering unity across the globe. We can singly end war as we know it with one mixed US/Chinese gymnast or Israeli/Iranian boxer. Plus this super race of humans will be better suited to defend earth from the inevitable alien invasion that would otherwise wipe out lazy slobs like the rest of us.
— Roni, Houston

SG: Yup, these are my readers. Wait, one more question.

Q: Has there ever been an athlete who Milton Berle’d it quite like Usain Bolt?
— Don Matthews, Ft. Lauderdale

SG: Not that I can remember. He will end up being my no. 1 enduring memory of these Olympics, someone who needed to be seen in person to be fully believed … and even then, you couldn’t believe it. Only four other athletes made me feel that way: Randy Moss, LeBron James, Lawrence Taylor and Bo Jackson. I went to a spring training game once when a young Bo Jackson scored standing up on a short fly to left field — people were just dumbfounded. It had no correlation to anything we’d ever seen before. I felt the same way about Moss loping down the field for a bomb in his prime. Same for L.T. going from Point A to Point B three times faster than everyone trying to block him. Same for LeBron shrinking the court on one of his four-step half-court fast breaks, or Bolt shrinking the track and pulling away from the field. All five guys made me think, I’m not totally sure that person is human.

True story: On Saturday night, I was pretty burned-out from watching two straight weeks of world-class sporting events. See, the Olympics are like gorging on an incredible meal that never ends, and at some point, your pants are bursting, and you’re shaking your head and saying, “I can’t do it, I can’t eat any more — can I take the rest home?” So the thought of staying home with my family, watching Saturday night’s events on television, chilling out and regrouping for Sunday’s gold-medal game … for about three minutes, that just seemed like the right move. Then, I started thinking about 80,000 people screaming encouragement for Mo Farah on the final lap of his 5,000-meter race — or even better, the sound they would create if he prevailed. I thought about Bolt streaking down the track on that final relay leg, shrinking that track one last time. And that’s when I realized, “ARE YOU CRAZY?” Within a few minutes, I was heading out the door and feeling giddy about the Olympics all over again. Just the mere thought of what might happen was like having the adrenalin needle from Pulp Fiction slammed into my heart.

My other enduring memory (which I already brought up earlier): I could never align my body clock to London time. Being eight hours ahead of Los Angeles was just too funky — I always stayed up until 2:30 or 3 in the morning, then woke up a few hours later. By the fifth night, I had settled into something of a routine: reading in bed on my iPad until I felt sleepy, then perusing the following day’s schedule of events as my final act. Hmmmmmmmmm. Where am I going tomorrow? Inevitably, I would narrow it down to three or four choices, turn off the iPad, click off the lights and spend the next few minutes debating those choices. Where did I want to go? What did I want to see? Sometimes the answer was obvious, sometimes it wasn’t. But every night, that’s how I fell asleep — knowing I would wake up in a few hours, knowing the next day would be just as good as the last one.

Last night? I just lay there feeling empty. I will miss the 2012 Summer Olympics.

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Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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