Evolution in sports takes many forms, some simpler than others. It can be clear and visceral, like when Karsten Warholm of Norway tore desperately around the Olympic running track late Tuesday morning in Tokyo (pushing toward midnight in the U.S.), and annihilated his own world record while winning the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles. Warholm did in this race what he always does: He pushed away from his starting blocks and hissed around the first turn and down the backstretch, absent fear of what might lie beyond the wall of fatigue and pain and far into the unknown. He led for every step, and at the eighth of 10 hurdles, when it appeared that Rai Benjamin of the U.S. might catch him, his lead instead expanded, his form unwavering.
Warholm flashed across the finish line in 45.94 seconds, an incomprehensible .76 faster than the world record he set 32 days earlier, which had broken a durable record set 29 years earlier by Kevin Young at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Warholm stretched his mouth into an elongated “O,” as he often does, and then ripped his shirt open like Superman, who probably never ran faster than 47-flat. Benjamin followed him across the line in 46.17, more than half-second faster than Warholm’s old record, unfortunate to have been born so close to the man in front him. Brazil’s Alison dos Santos took the bronze medal in 46.72, a time between Young’s and Warholm’s old records. It was exhilarating beyond words, possibly the best track and field race in the sport’s modern history.
It was enervating and transformative. It was, as clear as the desperate morning sun, in Japan, evolutionary. In those 100-odd strides, Warholm – and all of them – kicked their sport forward along some invisible timeline, in a future heretofore unimagined, undreamed, unheard of. It was right there to see.
Just less than five hours came another form of evolution – more subtle, more hidden, more hopeful than manifest. And more important.
At 6:10 p.m. in Tokyo (5:10 a.m. EDT) at the mostly – but not entirely – empty Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles placed two hands on the surface of a balance beam and then hoisted herself onto its four-inch wide surface. For the ensuing 71 seconds, Biles performed the most important apparatus routine in the history of her sport; it was something less than her most aspirational work, but something far more than seemed possible only a few days ago. It was both stressful and liberating, both nerve-wracking and joyful. Biles won a bronze medal, the seventh medal of her Olympic career and her first at these agonizing Games, and it would be wrong-headed to suggest that it solidified her status at the greatest gymnast in history because that title was as firm as granite whether she competed or did not.
It was also evolutionary, not because of – unlike Warholm’s – pure calculable performance, but because of all that preceded it. It was evolutionary because of Biles’s very presence in the competition, after what transpired in the days before. Biles, citing mental health issues (which cascaded into very real physical danger, from the perilous nature of her sport), had withdrawn from the team competition and the other apparatus events. Her struggles – which did not prevent Biles from attending events and energetically supporting her teammates – pushed open the heaviest of doors and allowed the world to see the pain that many athletes endure in the crucible of competition.
That in turn led to a worldwide referendum on the importance of athletes’ mental health and a tacit, painful evaluation of the ugly phrase Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Understanding was achieved, ground was gained, lifelines were offered. But in the same breath, a stubborn and significant of the social media world disparaged Biles for ``quitting’’ on herself or her team. Deep-seated, festering positions were made public, mostly anonymously.
Those same ugly positions found more traction on Sunday when high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy agreed to share the gold medal in their event, rather than engage in a jump-off to fine one gold medalist. It was poignant, life-affirming moment – As the two men discussed the situation with an official, Barshim – the second-highest jumper in history – said, ``Can we have two [medals]?’’ When the official said yes, Barshim nodded, and shook hands with Tamberi, who leaped into Barshim’s arms as the first act in an operatic celebration. It was hard not to cry while watching, and impossible not to smile.
Yet, again: On social media there was an ugly backlash, and the invocation of overworked phrases like ``participation trophies.’’ Barshim and Tamberi were accused of weakness for their reticence to keep jumping, rather than celebrated for sharing. The stakes were not as high as in the Biles Affair, but the roots were sunk in the same earth.
That earth is the land of every coach who ever made athletes run until they puked, every gym teacher who watched a weak child shy from dodgeball, every fan who drank watered-down beer and screamed at players to earn their millions. Every man and woman and every moment that has transformed sports from a joyful place to a nasty one, from a place where athletes lace passion with happiness to a place where happiness is a weakness.
This mythology runs incredibly deep in America. For nearly two decades Bob Knight was a revered basketball coach (and still is, by many), not in spite of the way he mistreated players under the veil of ``discipline,’’ but because of it. Only when he was caught snatching up a player by the throat did dominoes begin to fall that would eventually end his career at Indiana (but he got another job, at Texas Tech).
Football coaches hold a sainted place in this lore. There is this passage from author Jim Dent’s 1999 book, The Junction Boys, about coach Paul (Bear) Bryant’s notorious 1954 training camp with the Texas A&M team.)The subtitle of the book tells plenty: “How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team”.
“The sun had climbed far into the pale blue sky and the gravel pit known as the practice field was dotted with orange juice stains when the eighty-yard wind sprints, known as gassers, finally ended. More than twenty times the boys had chugged to the other end of the field, taken a short break, and then wobbled back, stirring up clouds of thick dust. Just as Bryant predicted, the boys were vomiting everything in their stomachs – the orange juice, vitamins, and salt tablets. Bryant seemed happy to see the boys bent over and puking so early in the morning.”
Gassers and the Nutcracker drill remain a part of football’s collective memory, and football’s collective memory remains a driving force in shaping the world view of American sports fans. In 2018, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, died from heatstroke after running a set of gassers during practice in the heat. McNair weighed 325 pounds and would be required to do his most important work in a space barely larger than portable toilet. Yet he was made to run 110-yard sprints, which is not conditioning, but rather, hazing. (The McNair family sued Maryland and received a $3.5 million settlement from the school).
There are endless examples in sports lore of athletes ``playing hurt’’ and elevating their legacies: Michael Jordan’s flu game against the Jazz in the NBA Playoffs, Joe Montana eating chicken soup before leading Notre Dame over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Even Kirk Gibson limping out of the dugout before taking Dennis Eckersley deep in Game One of the 1988 World Series. These stories shape a certain audience’s perception of sports, along with their own hoary memories of being pushed to their limit. That audience can be loud, and harmful.
To be clear: There is value in being pushed to one’s limit. There is value in winning. But sports are not – and never have –a binary exercise: Win or Lose. Endure or quit. Eat or be eaten. They are a giant, roiling, slice of culture in which men and woman (and boys and girls) rise and fall, suffer and survive, learn and grow. In which we seek happiness, not misery. In all of this came the lessons of these Olympics, and most of all, of Simone Biles.
Last week Biles said, Enough. In the press conference after her bronze medal in the balance beam, Biles described her feelings last week while trying to return to training and competition: ``I couldn’t even breathe,’’ she said. It took days of recovering and therapy to get herself to a place where, on Tuesday, she could return to the arena. Her routine was a dialed-back version of Biles’s best. She did a pike dismount, without spins, because spins had left her disoriented. She said that watching others twist made her feel that she might throw up. Biles Lite is better than almost anybody else, hence her bronze medal.
But this was not about medals. “I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a medal,’’ Biles told media in Japan. ``I was just out there to do this for me.’’ And this: ``My mental and physical health is above all the medals I could ever win.’’ She climbed on a narrow plank and, like Warholm on a running track dotted with hurdles, but in a very different way, carried us forward toward a better place, a better understanding, a better world. Come along. Evolve.