For US gymnasts, Olympics spotlight has a cruel side

Sam MellingerThe Kansas City Star
USA gymnastics coach Tom Meadows comforts Danell Leyva after the team finished in fifth place Monday. Nhat V. Meyer

LONDON -- Five men shook and thudded under the pressure of their lifelong dream in front of a full stadium of strangers and millions more around the planet watching on television and seeing their anguish in person is every bit as wrenching as it sounds. Tears shed from a life-altering opportunity missed are the cruel side of these games.

Nothing in sports does emotion like the Olympics. This is made-for-TV drama invented long before TV. The successes are legendary. Like Mary Lou Retton's 10. Usain Bolt's pose. Michael Phelps' golds. Those are the moments we best remember, the ones that make the Olympics the most powerful sports brand in the world.

The ones we'd rather forget are heartbreaking. These are human failures by mostly anonymous and working-class athletes playing for our team. Four years of training, of obsession, of long hours and longer travel and a million hotel beds and it's gone in one slip.

Like Danell Leyva on the pommel horse.

John Orozco on the vault.

Samuel Mikulak on the floor.

Four years of anticipation led to one nightmare afternoon when the USA men's gymnastics team that qualified first overall with realistic expectations of the country's first team gold medal in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics ended in a fifth-place finish on Monday.

Afterward, Leyva cried. Orozco stared into space. Mikulak found someone to hug. The Olympic stage is a temperamental monster.

"Little mistakes become big mistakes," USA gymnastics president Steve Penny says.

"Once you get thrown off a little bit it's tough to come back," American gymnast Jacob Dalton says.

You don't have to know anything about gymnastics to sympathize with the fall. You don't have to care about gymnastics to care about the people.

This is now three days of almost exclusively rotten results for America's most visible Olympians (aside from men's basketball). Phelps didn't medal in the 400 meter individual medley on Saturday. Ryan Lochte won gold in that event, but got caught from behind in a relay the next night.

On Sunday, the world watched Jordyn Wieber burst into tears after not qualifying for individual all-around gymnastics finals. And on Monday, a team packed with eminently likable American kids finished without a medal in an event they expected to win gold.

Before the event, Mikulak posted a message on Twitter that Team USA would "kill it." Team captain Jonathan Horton said the only reason the team wouldn't win "is if we just fell apart."

After the event, the shock still settling in, they tried to make sense of it. But how could they explain? How could they tell the rest of us what happens when the curtain of anonymity finally lifts after three years and 50 weeks?

Sunshine can blind when the room's been dark so long.

"I try to go out there and not think about it," Orozco says. "I'd like to think it doesn't get to me. But I guess it does."

The dirty truth is the sports industry is just as dependent on failures as successes. You can't have one without the other. You can't have compelling drama without the possibility of both. USA basketball lost three times in 2004. Even the unbeatable Russian wrestler got beat.

Sports run on this stuff. We're all part of it. The louder we cheer -- particularly for athletes unaccustomed to it -- the further the fall. This is the anatomy of sports panic, of being able to master every release and every round-off and every full-in-back-out and every half-in-half-out, but being by definition unable to master the stage on which you must perform it.

Leyva has hit that pommel horse routine hundreds of times. Same with Orozco on the vault. And Mikulak on the floor.

"Every time you'd hear a giant uproar you'd just tense up real fast," Mikulak says. "We were talking about it. Any time you heard that uproar, it's like, 'OK, chill on this skill for a sec, wait for it to die down, and then continue.'

"Being up there for team finals at the Olympics, this is huge. You know, stuff happens."

When it happens here, the world sees it. There are no second chances here, no next year. That makes the heartbreak harder.

It also makes the drama better. This is why we watch.

By Sam Mellinger
McClatchy Newspapers