I am not sure where to look. I am sitting in the stands watching the Men’s Gymnastics Team Final at the Greenwich Arena.
It is the sixth and final round. On the rings: France. On pommel horse: China. On the floor: Germany. On the horizontal bar: Russia. All at the same time.
The U.S. and Britain are waiting in the wings with Japan and Ukraine.
The German executes a sensational series of twists and the arena erupts in applause. But wait, the Russian just dismounted from the bar. Was the applause for him? Oh, there’s a French guy twisting himself inside out on the rings. And a big cheer from the boisterous Chinese fans for China’s Weiy Guo on the pommel horse. Whoops, here’s another German on the mat.
My head is spinning. Who do I watch? Where do I look? It is so much easier sitting at home and watching on TV where the decisions are all made for you and the commentators explain the impossible rules, point system and penalties.
But not nearly as much fun. This is the first time I have seen the Olympics in person. And what a different view of the games it is.
Instead just seeing U.S. TV featuring U.S. athletes or Canadian TV featuring Canadian athletes, I see them all.
I can see the staggering physicality, coordination and daring. And, of course, drive. Moments ago Britian’s Sam Oldham fell from the high bar in the middle of his routine. I thought he was giving up as he walked off. But no, he re-chalked his hands, got a boost from his coach and continued his routine. Who wouldn’t be in awe of that kind of determination?
Now it’s the second half of the final round. John Orozoco takes to the horizontal bar for the U.S. team which seems to be out of reach of a medal. Max Whitlock from Britain gets a big cheer from the home team. Can I watch both at once? My eyes are crossing.
Sure people talk about the Olympics as a circus, but I never thought it was meant literally. Yet, as I look down at the floor of this vast arena, I can’t help feeling like I’m watching a four-ring circus. No lions, tigers or bears here. Just the most fit, agile men on the planet.
But what I really want to know is: how can these guys concentrate? There’s Whitlock flying through the air while Orozco does some super human twists and turns and dismounts to cheers from the Americans. Whitlock finishes a moment later and the British cheering section picks up where the Americans left off.
What I am quickly learning is that for all the discipline and physical training it takes to be an Olympian, ultimately it is mental discipline that determines the winner. If you can’t shut out the crowds, ignore the cameras you’re not going to walk away with gold.
What I also see from ringside is the impossibility of perfection. There are for more shaky landings and wobbly twists than I realized. TV takes much of that away, but reality constantly humbles even the finest.
It’s over. China has won the gold, Britain has silver, Ukraine has bronze.
But wait. Japan is appealing the judges on its routine on the pommel horse. A nervous pause.
And then the decision from the judges: Japan gets and extra 0.5 points, vaulting itself to a silver. Britain slips to bronze and poor Ukraine gets nothing.
As the judges leave the British fans jeer and boo.
The Arena darkens. Purple light bathes the floor. Suddenly the music from Chariots of Fire fills the air. In march the three winning teams. And then come three trays of medals. I’ve never seen this live before. I can’t help feeling goose bumps.
The British bronze medallists are called first. Their frustrated fans roar with approval. The six gymnasts crowd onto the tiny podium. Each is a given a medal and a small bouquet of flowers. They raise the flowers and their fists in the air. Another round of applause.
The Japanese step onto the podium. The same ritual is repeated.
Six smiling Chinese gymnasts wait patiently in the middle.
“Gold medallists and Olympic Champions, representing… China!!!” Huge cheers from the Chinese in the stands. The six grab hands and step up in unison, raising their hands to the ceiling.
They accept their medals and playfully bite the gold.
The national anthem of China blares as the three flags are raised.
I’m exhausted. I can only begin to imagine how the gymnasts feel.