U.S. should honor Olympic spirit

What will you remember from the 2004 Olympics?

It may be what a few athletes didn’t do that will make these Olympics memorable.

Sports Illustrated listed swimming as the second-favorite sport to participate in; the first was golf. But while golf was the seventh-most-watched sport on TV, swimming didn’t make the list at all.

When Ian Thorpe was disqualified in the 400-meter freestyle at the Australian Olympic trials, however, it was headliner news.

Americans have interesting criteria for the sports they watch. Typically, the higher the athletes are paid, the more trash they talk, and the flashier their acts, the more headlines they grab and the more Americans tune in.

In fact, we recently missed a great opportunity to change that.

Thorpe’s heroic status is so revered that a swimmer gave up his spot in the event so Thorpe could swim it – an incredible gesture paving the way for Thorpe’s gold medal in that event, the first of five medals he earned.

Thorpe’s American counterpart is Michael Phelps. His attempt at breaking Mark Spitz’ record of seven gold medals in one Olympics brought momentary American fame to his sport.

Phelps didn’t break Spitz’ mark. And many thought the pre-Olympic hype surrounding the U.S. poster boy wasn’t worth it.

Before the Games, the media framed the 200-meter freestyle as a featured event. The race included Thorpe and defending gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband. To a true sports fan, the race was a certified spectacle. Van den Hoogenband had the lead until Thorpe scorched past him on the final lap holding off a charging Phelps.

Even with an amazing finish, some say the event didn’t live up to its billing. When Phelps didn’t win, the event became disappointing for the U.S. media. In less than two minutes, the chase for Spitz’ record was gone.

There was no world record and no trash-talking afterward. And Phelps, a bronze medalist (and new American record holder), was happy just to be in that race.

But sadly, American fans want the glitz and glory that often undermine the spirit of Olympic competition.

We maintain an attitude that we’re the best and that when we lose, it is because someone cheated or we weren’t on our “A-game.” Americans can’t concede that we may not be the best at everything.

The Greeks have exemplified the sacred spirit of the Olympics well. Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas’ motto is “Impossible is Nothing” (sound familiar?). Dimas tried to do something that no weightlifter had done before – win gold medals in four straight Olympics.

Dimas didn’t win. But, instead of seeing Dimas as a failure, the Greeks gave their bronze medal hero the credit he deserved with a four-minute standing ovation. With his medal, Dimas joined only two other lifters to win four Olympic medals.

American fans can learn from the Greeks: A bronze medalist isn’t a disappointment. American fans can learn from the Aussies: Respect the sport instead of craving the antics of track and field sprinters Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford in the 100-meter semi-final.

Like the Greeks, Americans should embrace their hero. Phelps did tie the record for the most medals won by one athlete in a single Olympics. But Phelps’ most impressive feat was giving up the butterfly spot on the 4×100 medley relay final.

Phelps put his eighth medal in the hands of his teammates. In a true gesture of sportsmanship, Phelps gave butterfly world record holder Ian Crocker a chance at redemption after a dismal performance in the 4×100 freestyle relay.

Will it be world records and gold medals that are remembered, or true heroics such as sportsmanship and gracious losers? It is the hope of many that the celebrated spirit of these games can transcend the next two years.

What will you remember from the 2004 Olympics?