Monday, February 13, 2006

Crying over Kwan

A miserable thing is going to happen to Michelle Kwan now that her Olympic career is likely over. For the rest of her life, a section of the population is going to make sure a dark cloud hangs over her reputation.
Why? She never won the big one.
Kwan, not-so-arguably the standard-bearer for American female figure skaters for the past decade, never won Olympic gold. At age 25, she probably won't get another chance now that a nagging groin injury has forced her out of her fourth Olympics.
It's the same fate Dan Marino has been subjected to, the same reputation that is growing on Peyton Manning. It's the smear Ted Williams avoided because he played in Boston where baseball, and the stars who play it, transcend the diamond.
But to Kwan, who came to the forefront of the American consciousness just once every four years, the blank line on her Olympic resume is all-too-glaring.
Those nine U.S. figure skating titles are unapproached and unprecendented. She was a one-woman dynasty. If she was an NFL quarterback with that kind of hardware, she'd have been a god.
Instead, she is a figure skater, and your average American doesn't care what people like Michelle Kwan do unless they are either competing in the Olympics, or tangled up in a scandal involving redneck husbands and goons hired to smash the competition in the knee with a blunt object.
Because Kwan's success largely flew under the public radar, her failure on her sport's biggest stage will be the thing that defines her. Bill Buckner, anyone?
It's not fair, but seldom does our sporting society reward sustained excellence without getting all the way to the top. The flip side is that average performers are somehow vindicated by winning it all, even if they weren't much more than passengers along for the ride.
It's the dreaded "but."
Marino? Greatest passer in NFL history ... but he never won a Super Bowl.
Trent Dilfer? Mediocre quarterback ... but he has a ring.
It's a skewed way of thinking that brands great athletes who never claimed their sport's top prize as somehow overrated. But it simplifies things too much.
In Cleveland, we know all too well how greatness can be derailed by everything from injuries to playing the wrong team in the wrong place at the wrong time. An individual's greatness can't always be measured in hardware. Or a lack of greatness by a lack of hardware.
Talent, dedication, perseverance, those things can measure an athlete. A quarterback can't be measured by a team that never put a talented enough cast around him to win a title. Just like a figure skater can't be judged for all eternity by a groin strain that robbed her of her last chance at an Olympic gold medal.

1 comment:

Sussman said...

Here's the thing about Olympic gold.

Perhaps Kwan's prime was not necessarily at a point when the Olympics took place. It requires a bit of luck, because you may only have two or three years of greatness and it may not overlap with Nagano, Salt Lake or Torino.

She had five world championships. I think her place in skating history is pretty secure.