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I love the Olympics. Love, love, love. I love the cheesy emotional pre-stories, focused on hardships real and imagined in the athletes’ lives. I love the over-the-top attention on America’s sweethearts, like the women’s gymnastics team, or on America’s heroes, like Micheal Phelps. I can still remember the feeling I had in the winter of 1994, sitting on the floor of my college apartment in suburban Boston and watching Dan Jansen in his last ever Olympic attempt. The lead-in story was all about his sister’s battle and eventual death from cancer and about how Jansen, clearly the best speed skater in the world, simply couldn’t manage to win gold. But he did that day and I will never, ever forget it. I love those moments.
But one thing I don’t like about the Olympics is the inherent assumption by media, audiences and athletes themselves, that if you don’t win gold, then you’re a loser. These people are the absolute best in the world at what they do. Imagine being the second best in the world at something. The second best in the whole world. Heck, imagine being the eighth best in the world at something. That guy in the last lane of the pool, who straggled in to eighth place in the 200 meter breaststroke? He’s better than 99.99999999896825% of the people in the whole entire world (or something like that). But, oh, at the Olympics, he came in last. Loooooo-ser.
Which brings me to my brilliant idea, which is not mine at all but stolen from our family friend affectionately known as Uncle Pauly: the ninth man. The Olympic committee should establish a ninth lane with a non-world class athlete. Not just an overweight couch potato — that would be too obvious, but someone who’s in good shape. A college athlete or a weekend warrior, someone fit and strong who can run, jump, swim, dive, or leap next to the rest of the competitors. Can’t you just picture that neighbor of yours, the one who’s out early every morning running in rain, snow or oppressive heat, dashing along next to (or, more likely, lagging behind) the rest of the track runners? Or some young, strong, high schooler attempting the long jump after the other eight have competed … where do you think they’d land in the sand?
Of course, it would never happen — the legal wrangling it would take to allow some average Joe onto the parallel bars or the 10m springboard diving platform would be the first of many hurdles. But it sure would show the rest of us just how talented all those athletes are. Yes, even the ones who “lose.”