I've been watching the Winter Olympics this year and I can't resist making a few comments about them. I'm struck not by just how different the athletes are but how differently they're treated by their home countries.
When I was watching the ladies' figure skating the announcers emphasized the pressure the two favorites, Kim Yu-Na of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan, were under. Not just the pressure of being in the Olympics and wanting to do well, but enormous pressure from their countries: These girls were expected to win gold. One of the announcers commented that winning silver would be a huge disappointment. I have to agree, the expression on Mao Asada's face during the medal ceremony certainly reflected that sentiment. I don't follow figure skating except for the Olympics so I'd never heard of either girl, but apparently they're both huge celebrities in their home countries. Kim, they said, makes $8-$9 million dollars a year marketing every product imaginable. If she hadn't won gold apparently she would have disappointed her country and could have lost her celebrity status, and I gather Mao Asada may face a similar fate with "only" a silver medal at the Olympics. I think that's absolutely horrible and an astronomic weight for these 19-year-old girls to bear.
Then there was Canada's Joannie Rochette, skating only days after her mother died suddenly from a heart attack while at the Games. From my limited perspective she's received only praise and support from her country and the world in choosing to deal with her emotions as she sees fit. Yes, she won the bronze medal, but I doubt anyone in her country or otherwise would have treated her any differently if she hadn't won a medal, or if she'd chosen not to compete at all.
Watching Apolo Ohno compete in the short track has definitely been entertaining, and the expectations he endures from the U.S. appear to be a huge contrast from those of the Asian figure skaters. Apparently, Apolo has also become a celebrity in the United States; when I heard his name I recognized it from previous Olympics but otherwise I've been oblivious to his growing fortune and fame. (I don't watch Dancing with the Stars, which he apparently competed in and won in 2007, so that probably has something to do with my ignorance regarding his social standing.) What struck me about Apolo, though, was his maturity, both in how he handled the actual races (demonstrating his experience in the sport and in international competitions), and in how he handled the results, whatever direction they took. While Apolo certainly had pressure on him and undoubtedly hoped to become the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, I never felt that he was carrying the weight of his country on his back the way the figure skaters were. I certainly hope Apolo didn't have to worry about losing a product endorsement if he happened to make a mistake in a race and didn't win a medal. Being disqualified in the final heat of the 500-meter race probably would have been devastating to other racers but Apolo handled it with such poise (in front of the cameras, at least, and you want to assume he handles things equally well in private), accepting, as Phil Taylor of SI.com put it, "the seemingly random twists of fate that can make or break a speedskater on the short track." Taylor's article doesn't focus on the disqualification but instead notes that Apolo has, "grown into a great Olympian and more importantly, a mature man." I think that's a greater testament to the man, his sport, and his country than any gold medal could ever be.