Sharing the Glory & Agony of the Olympics
The Olympics are supposed to be an uplifting experience, when for two weeks ordinary people can unplug from everyday life to marvel and rejoice in incredible feats by extraordinary athletes. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I loved watching ice skating in the winter Olympics and gymnastics in the summer games. I rejoiced when Kristi Yamaguchi won gold, commiserated with Michelle Kwan when she took silver and then bronze. I gasped along with the rest of the world when gymnast Kerri Strug landed a vault on one leg to win a gold medal for her team.
As an adult, I experienced similar joy watching my sport, fencing, enter prime time. Spurred by the historic gold medal won by Mariel Zagunis at the 2004 Olympics, United States fencing has been growing in popularity in recent years. The 2008 Olympics were one of the greatest games in my memory; watching friends and clubmates Keeth and Erinn Smart win silver medals was one of the most joyful memories of my life.
I have been looking forward to the 2012 Olympics for months. My husband and I bought a new Tivo to make sure we could record television coverage of fencing. And for the first four days, the Olympics lived up to all my expectations. Beginning with two-time gold medalist Mariel Zagunis leading the American delegation as the opening ceremony flag bearer, to watching my friend and former teammate Maya Lawrence upset a top-seeded Italian to make the top 16 in women’s epee, the 2012 Olympics were shaping up to become another special memory.
And then it became a nightmare.
Beginning with the controversy over the women’s epee semifinal match, to world #1 Mariel Zagunis failing to win a medal of any color, I have spent the last four days in a state of numb shock as I watch the sport I love get hammered in the media.
We have come so far, and we still have so much farther to go. No matter how many gains fencing has made in participation and public awareness, it is still an obscure sport that many people find incomprehensible. This fact was brought home to me when I recently wrote about corporate accountability; I did not expect to have to explain so much about fencing.
Historically, there has been very little money in fencing. Athletes usually make money from professional events, sponsorships or funding from the organizing body. The Professional Fencing League folded about ten years ago, I believe due to insufficient funding.
2008 silver medalist Tim Morehouse and Mariel Zagunis looked to change that. Tim has been constantly in the media for the last four years, photographed by stalwarts like Vanity Fair and ESPN. Mariel appeared on a Times Square billboard representing her sponsor, TD Ameritrade.
With this level of scrutiny comes high expectations. Halfway through the Olympic games, US fencing has not yet won a single medal. There have been bright spots; men’s epee fencer Seth Kelsey put in a personal best with a fourth place finish that was televised live. But with only three events left in the Olympic fencing schedule, the US team is running out of opportunities to bring home a medal.
Guys, I will be watching and cheering for you over the next three days. Not that you need any more pressure, but a lot is riding on your results.
8/4 Update: The United States won a bronze medal in my weapon, women’s epee. This was the sole US fencing medal at the 2012 Olympics; my husband and I were crying tears of joy watching our friend and former teammate Maya Lawrence deliver a decisive lead to end the bronze medal match against Russia.