The Herald Bulletin

March 12, 2014

Jim Bailey: Prohibitive favorites? That's why they play the games

The Herald Bulletin

---- — If you watched the recent Sochi Winter Olympics, maybe you noticed that the talking heads seemed to think they were the story.

Oh, I know it’s not easy to report an event you know will be old news by the time it is rebroadcast in a different time zone where half the viewers already know who won.

So the commentators, many of them better known than the athletes they report on, put together profiles of superheroes, leading into their runs down the slopes or across the ice where they either vindicate those words or fall flat on their face. And if the latter happens, they face questions from incredulous network pontificators as to what went wrong that made them give less than their peak performance with the whole world looking on. How do you answer that when all you know is something malfunctioned at 88 miles per hour and you wound up with a faceful of ice?

Yeah, I know I represent one of those evil media types. But maybe that gives me even more reason to insist that this is why they play the games.

Olympic athletes, of course, are as finely tuned as any competitors in the world (indeed, most of them are professionals in their chosen endeavors).

But people, even professional athletes, are not machines. Sometimes when they are stretched to the limit, hamstrings give way or a triple flip doesn’t work. Or ice baked by brilliant sunshine doesn’t provide the right surface for a highly polished piece of wood or metal and sends it out of control.

That happens in team sports, too. Well-aimed 30-foot jumpers rim the basket and bounce out. A perfectly executed forward pass finds a wide receiver’s hands, then caroms away. The world’s fastest human zooms away from his world-class competitors, then feels a hamstring tightening up and catapults into the infield in agony.

Again, humans are not machines. And that’s not to say that machines are perfectly consistent either. Witness the unpredictability of NASCAR races, where the finest combinations of cars, drivers and mechanics can go from dominance one week to struggling the next. Or from the fastest thing on the track one moment to victim of a grinding crash in the blink of an eye.

Dedicated athletes aim for peak performance with endless practice, top-flight coaching and dedication to perfection. Your average sports fan only sees the end result when they hit the playing field, pool or slopes with expertise that makes their performances look automatic.

But nobody can predict the intangibles: how an athlete feels on a given day, the effects of jet lag en route, conditions of the venue, ability to block out off-court struggles of various sorts.

In spite of all the press clippings and endless lists of accomplishments, that’s why they go ahead and play the games. And may the best man or woman on that particular day win.

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by email at