My favorite Olympic athlete: Matthew Mitcham

August 25th, 2008

Thanks to NBC’s extensive online coverage of the Olympics, I watched sports I’ve never watched before. And I mentioned in an earlier post that I didn’t think diving was a sport. Well, I take that back – I was wrong.

Anyway, I watched the diving competitions along with all the other sports I sampled, primarily because it consisted of attractive men and women in skimpy clothing flexing their muscles to do things humans weren’t built for (like making a dive from a handstand look graceful). You know, the who point the Greeks started the whole thing. Diving competitions were getting a little boring though with the Chinese always winning. Sure, their athletes were better, but it didn’t make for interesting games…

Until the Men’s 10 final, one of the last competitions to be performed. While the Americans were performing terribly, and the Chinese were in top form again, Matt Mitcham from Australia was getting very good scores while providing the best after-dive reactions – big aw-shucks grin, waving, and mouthing “Hi mum” as if he wasn’t at the Olympics but having fun at a local pool where there just happened to be cameras around.

And yet, he did so well, even better than the almost unbeatable Chinese divers, that he won the gold. Suddenly that silly boy was a puddle of tears. If you were at your final event at something you worked really hard for but didn’t think you’d place – and then you won everything, wouldn’t you be a little uncomposed? The best part about watching the Olympics is watching people struggle to perform their very best and validate years and hears of hard, painful work…and then watching them win. Roger Ebert blogged about a similar response*: I don’t usually cry when things are sad, but I get teary someone does something outstanding and good in a way that only humans can do.

If you saw the thing on TV in the US, and didn’t know anything about him, you missed a lot since NBC didn’t air the medal ceremony and glossed over key pieces of his backstory. Before the Olympics, Mitcham came out, applied for and got funding so his mother and partner could come to the Olympics, and didn’t even qualify for some earlier events.  Even before that, he went through the the throws of growing up before buckling down and concentrate on being a diver.

Back to the competition: when he finally settled down, he was back to all grins and having fun (being respectful to the other athletes, mind you) during the medal ceremony.

When Michael Phelps won his historic eigth gold medal, he famously climbed into the bleachers to hug his mom. Well… Mitcham did the same thing, but it was even more endearing: after some pictures, he asked the Chinese woman escorting him to the press area if he could go hug his mom. She nodded yes, but I doubt she understood what he said. Next thing you know, he’s scrambling up the almost empty bleachers as the photographers jump over themselves to get some pics as he climbs onto the railing to hug his mom and kiss his partner Lachlan.

When I found out that NBC didn’t air this on TV I was pissed – sure, he’s not an American – and openly gay (shock! horror!) – but Mitcham was just as interesting to watch as Phelps. This was an athlete who had more presence than most athletes I saw, including the two American divers in the same competition, Thomas Finchum and David Boudia.

Oh yeah, after the competition, Mitcham also managed to give the best quote from any athlete at the Olympics:

I was a little bit jealous of people who finished earlier, who could’ve relaxed a bit; and I’m a little bit disappointed that now I don’t have time to go around and take photos of the big blown-up mascots in the village, or holding the Olympic torch outside the food hall, and going to the souvenir shop and buying souvenirs and stuff like that…but, who cares?

(full interview here.)

The Olympics are about being human, in praise of what makes humans special. For me, Mitcham embodied that struggle and triumph.

*Alright, so Ebert’s response is a little more noble, but it’s roughly the same kind of thing that gets me emotional.

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