Layden: Competing under withering pressure, Olympians deserve our fervor and empathy

Posted at 10:07 PM, Feb 09, 2022

Long after much of the United States had gone to sleep, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 36-year-old American Lindsey Jacobellis won an Olympic gold medal -- the first by an American athlete at these Games, though more would soon follow -- in the sport of snowboard cross, careening down a hillside, though a series of sharp turns and over a succession of jumps and rollers. She crossed the finish clear of three other finalists, squatting, with one hand on the front-side edge of her board, the safest and most stable of positions, a telling point.

In a story widely told, her gold medal was inspirational, life- and sport-affirming, and not least, so long in coming that it seemed unlikely to ever happen. Sixteen years ago Jacobellis brought upon herself an enduring slice of Olympic notoriety when she styled off the last jump while leading the gold medal snowboard cross race in Torino by a wide margin, fell and finished second. She was 20 years old and has gone on to become the most accomplished rider in her sport’s history, but in three more tries, did not get the gold that was all but hung from her neck in 2006. Until Wednesday.

Jacobellis stood after crossing the finish line and put both hands over her heart, a look of amazement -- or something similar -- on her face.

SEE MORE: Lindsey Jacobellis finds redemption at 36 with gold, Team USA's first of 2022 Games

More than five hours earlier, U.S. ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin, 26, had skied off the course four gates into the alpine slalom event, which came 48 hours after she did the same thing in the giant slalom event, falling to her hip on the seventh gate. Shiffrin has won 73 World Cup races, all but 12 of them in slalom or giant slalom and is regarded as one of the handful of greatest skiers in history. Her first two Olympic races had consisted of 11 gates, 16 seconds of racing, and no medals. It was unthinkable, like an illusion. Shiffrin sat on the snow next to the course for more than 25 minutes, crestfallen in ways that she would describe in rare and agonizing detail. "I’m questioning a lot of things right now,"’ she said after the race.

SEE MORE: Mikaela Shiffrin eliminated from women's slalom after second consecutive Olympic DNF

And then Wednesday night (Thursday morning in China), 21-year-old Chloe Kim of the U.S. became the first woman to win two gold medals in the snowboard halfpipe event, laying down an unbeatable first run to confirm the distance between her and the rest of the world. At the finish, she fell to her knees, in that way that clipped-in snowboarders do, held her arms wide, and then covered her mouth with her giant mittens. It had been a long four years since her goal in PyeongChang, wracked with anxiety and self-doubt. "I thought maybe I can’t do this again," she told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.

SEE MORE: Chloe Kim claims second straight Olympic halfpipe gold

Four years ago at the Olympics, Nathan Chen finished a woeful 18th in the short program in men’s figure skating and even the best free skate in the field could elevate him only to fifth overall. Just past midnight Thursday, he finished off four years of subsequent dominance and won the United States its first men’s singles gold since Evan Lysacek in 2010. He watched from behind a table as his scores were posted, and then folded his gloved hands in front of his masked face as if beseeching thanks from beyond.

SEE MORE: Nathan Chen captures Olympic gold medal in men's singles figure skating

The Olympics are living history. They are not a statue or a cathedral or a monument in a distant desert. They change, they evolve, each one different from the last. It is tempting to say that geopolitics have created the most powerful shifts in the status of the Games, and that those shifts are new, but geopolitics were mighty present in 1936, 1972 and 1980, to name just three. Sports are added and subtracted. There are bid scandals and doping scandals. There are Summer Olympics in heat so oppressive that it undermines competition (Atlanta, Tokyo). There are winter Olympics where there is nearly only man-made snow (turn on your TV).

The only constant is the athletes. And the only constant for those athletes is the singular pressure that accompanies a once-every-four-years athletics competition and the manner in which that competition is framed and consumed by media, advertisers, sponsors, fans and the athletes themselves. Manifestly, the word pressure does not do justice to the ecosystem of desperation that consumes the Games. There is no word that does.

Jacobellis, Shiffrin, Kim, and Chen all exist in that ecosystem. Their reaction to success and failure underscores that reality. For the winners, part jubilation, part relief. For those who do not win, enervating pain, and a feeling -- unfortunate, undeserved -- of having let others down. It is the athletes’ mantra that high achievement comes when their world is narrowed to simply the field of play: a rink, a course, a hill. But in all sports, there is the power of external forces, and in the Olympics, by their definition and their infrequency, that power can be overwhelming.

In particular, Jacobellis has had longer than all but a very small number of athletes to understand the Olympics’ hold. Sixteen years to put one mistake -- an unforced error -- in perspective. "It really shaped me into the individual that I am and kept me hungry, and really helped me keep fighting in the sport," Jacobellis told a small group of reporters in the media mixed zone after her winning run. "I probably would have quit the sport at that point [with a gold medal], because I wasn’t really having fun with it." Hers is a rare perspective: She exorcised demons, but they were no longer just her own. They were the ecosystem’s. But she had put them in a useful place.

Kim told numerous profilers that she did not enjoy who she had become and what was expected of her after 2018. Four years older, she won again, and told NBC’s Randy Moss, "I’m in a much better headspace this time, I have a better idea of what’s expected of me." But few Olympians get two chances, and sometimes two is not enough. These are Shiffrin’s third Olympics.

In a sense, the monsters are always shared by the athlete and the broader world. The Olympics are thick with withering pressure because they are contested so rarely and in most -- not all -- sports, represent the pinnacle of achievement in that sport. A skier like Shiffrin competes dozens of times every year on the World Cup, an intense and lucrative circuit that unfolds away from the consciousness of all but the most hardcore American skiing fans. The four years between Games build with an ascending force. Among the things Shiffrin said Tuesday night was this: "I feel like some people were expecting that I might win. Who were hoping I might win. And you know, the people closest to me. It’s a letdown for them."

For them.

Olympic pressure has always existed. Ask Mark Spitz. Ask Franz Klammer. Carl Lewis. Yuna Kim. Lindsey Vonn. Cathy Freeman. Ask Dan Jansen. The list is nearly endless. But for a long time, that pressure was presented as one-dimensional, like all sports pressures. Bottom of the ninth? Pressure. Two free throws to win the game? Pressure. Six-foot putt to win the U.S. Open? Pressure. It was all lumped together and only marginally refashioned for the Olympics. Add a little frenzied nationalism to the mix and here we are.

Last summer in Tokyo, Simone Biles asked the world to understand that pressure is not one-dimensional. It is all-consuming, debilitating, and unhealthy. With her decision to withdraw from all but one gymnastics event at the Games, even as the acknowledged best female gymnast in history, she asked us to consider not just pressure, but mental health. She asked us, without asking directly, to consider the weight of expectation that Olympians carry to the Olympics. And to give them space and empathy. It was a big ask. Change will come slowly, if at all, as long as there are scoreboards.

It’s reflexive when compiling a list of offenders who create this outsized universe of expectation, to start with the media, writ large. Okay, fair enough. We spend ink, terabytes, and video creating stars in advance of the Games, and heap our expectations on them. Guilty. We do it in all sports, but again, the Olympics are different, because of their outsized value.

Are the athletes complicit? Sure. But how can we blame them? There is so much value for the athlete in establishing brand power and viability before winning a medal. It’s an endless loop of promotion and hype. It’s fair to say that not every athlete understands the weight of that cover story, that commercial, that sponsorship deal, until they are standing on skis in a start house high on a mountain, or staring down a halfpipe. It’s unrealistic to expect that most athletes would decline to participate in the process that can expand their commercial reach, that can help make them a little bit famous. Once the media, sponsors, and the athlete are on board, society follows.

Shiffrin said that she been thinking about, and planning for, the Olympic slalom and giant slalom since last summer. Joe Burrow has been getting ready for the Super Bowl since last week. It’s just different. Burrow will be crushed if the Bengals lose Sunday, but he will be back at training camp in five months. Shiffrin’s next Olympics are four years away, when she will be 30 years old. It is an eternity.

Is there a fix for this? I don’t think so. At least not a big fix. The Olympics survive and prosper because of the power of Jacobellis returning every four years to chase a medal that was lost in the air over the snow in Italy. They survive because Kim flew 12 feet above the lip of a half pipe and spun in ways that make us dizzy in our living rooms. Because Chen put one night in PyeongChang behind him and soared almost every day since. Because we care about Shiffrin, and just maybe she will yet win a medal at these Games. Humans are the life force of these Games, even when those humans hurt.

For now, ours is an uneasy alliance with those humans. They deserve our fervor, but also our empathy -- warring emotions. It will never be easy to thread that needle. It is imperative to try.