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Women and Girls First

She's amazing, but in this post she's the "other Simone".

She’s amazing, but in this post she’s the “other Simone”.

                            [4-minute read]

It had been All About the Women up ‘til Sunday night.

And that’s mostly fine by me, lover of women that I am and aspire to be.

What about the guys?

Yessir, I think about that all the time, and not just when it comes to the Olympics and Canada’s medal count. For only one of hundreds of examples: Boys Adrift is a good book, and its subtitle (“The Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men” is part of it), though long, crystallized my worry and confirmed my observations. There are others like it, and plenty of other worry-warts besides me. However, this space has been crowded with masculine worries and wonderings and Superhero Action Calls to Young Men, fragile shouts that are no doubt still echoing down the cold, dark emptiness of deep space.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

Yes, the Rio Olympics. That’s where we’re headed.

I am no longer as avid about matters Olympian as I had been for most of my life, but I still pay attention. I still get jolts of home-boy joy when a Canadian is two one hundredths of a second faster than a guy from another country and therefore wins the title of World’s Third-Fastest Human. (Yay, Andre!) There’s an even purer, less patriotic delight in watching Usain Bolt surge into that long-limbed, powerfully fluid overdrive for SprintGoldSeven, or that incredibly smooth stride of the South African Wayde van Niekerk as he ran away from TWO Olympic 400-metre champions. That was astounding, and world records usually are. (And since van Niekerk is slender, and maybe since he’s coached by a white-haired, Afrikaans-speaking white granny, there’s not even a whisper of a suggestion of a muted accusation of him being a drug cheat. Hoping his cleanliness is as real as his jaw-dropping talent and training.)

But I’m a Canuck. The other moment of televisual awe, for me, came in the second half of the women’s 100-metre freestyle swim. At the 50, Canada’s sweet-16 star, the previously unknown Penny Oleksiak, was out of it. This upcoming grade 11 student – who didn’t even make Canada’s Pan-Am Games last summer, and I’d like to know the coaching rationale behind that! – had already won three medals and was absolutely The Story of Rio in Canadian media, so I was glad to be able to tune in live. Suddenly people were talking about her being a legitimate candidate to win gold, but halfway through it was clear: we were expecting too much. In the glare of expectation, she faltered, and who could blame her? She was too inexperienced. (Maybe that’s what the swim coaches decided in 2015, too.) And she was too far behind, so there was no catching the Aussies and the other blazing mermaids, six of ‘em, who were ahead of our lanky, slightly awkward, grinning gal. Wrong! Not only talented but mentally tough, she reeled in everybody and, with a brilliant final breathless spurt and a timely touch, matched the American Simone Manuel down to the hundredth of a second. 52.70.

Oleksiak didn’t look, for the longest time. (About as long as Bolt, Andre and That Other Guy took to run 100 metres.) Or she couldn’t. She just stared at the wall she had reached, and breathed and breathed. Maybe she was listening to the confused shouts, the ones that saw her placed first on the scoreboard but Manuel credited with an Olympic record. Perhaps she was just gassed, and had come closer to the mythic ideal of giving everything you have than nearly anybody who thinks she has. (And how do you calculate it? How do we understand the fact that this sweet and smiling and very young woman has more competitive jones than nearly any strutting alpha male you’ll ever hear trash-talking the world?) And then she turns around, mouths one of the greatest and most sincere OMGs imaginable, and instantly turns to swim over to her fellow gold medallist for a beautiful black and white embrace.

Beautiful, on so many levels: grace in victory, nationalism undermined, racial harmony, youthful delight. And what an athletic milestone for blacks, supposedly as inferior in water as superior on hardwood.

Beautiful, on so many levels: grace in victory, nationalism undermined, racial harmony, youthful delight. And what an athletic milestone for blacks, supposedly as inferior in water as superior on hardwood.

Andre De Grasse’s bronze, however, might be the top Olympic achievement by a Canadian since Donovan Bailey blazed his 9.84-second trail in 1996. This is the one hundred metres. It’s running. Everybody can run. No continent has a monopoly on surfaces you can run on, the way that North America and Europe dominate the swimming-pools-per-capita demographics. (While ranting about the Real Sports that should be in the Official Howdy Olympics, I made the same argument for a 5th-place finish in the 1500 metres by Kevin Sullivan in Sydney.) For those who are keeping a different kind of score, his bronze was the 13th medal won by a Canuck in Rio, but the first for a male. Where are you guys? The woods are burnin’!  implores Willy Loman to his slacker sons in Death of a Salesman. (I can still hear Dustin Hoffman’s Willy hoarsely shouting these lines, notably to a young John Malkovich as Biff.) I recite them in my head distressingly often. As a certified Canucklehead Hoops Junkie, I ask it of the Canadian men, who didn’t qualify. (Looking at you, Andrew Wiggins.) I could ask it of Canadian soccer men, as their female counterparts go for medals today versus world power Germany.

To a Canadian male with concerns for his young countrymen — for guys everywhere, really — every Olympics looks like a case study, but that doesn’t take anything away from the splendid achievements of women, be they Canadian or not. At every graduation of every school I was at for the last couple of decades, shining females crossed the stages with arms full of plaques and minds full of achievements to come. Penny Oleksiak hasn’t even gotten there yet, so she’ll have to content herself with the four medals she sleeps with in her Olympic Village bed. I’d bet there will be more honours to come, and not just at poolside.

I hope you enjoy some social commentary with your Olympic tea.

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