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Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Athletes' reaction best part of Olympics

By Sarah Spain

Jumping, dancing, hugging, crying and fist-pumping. In the last two weeks, Olympians have celebrated victory every which way possible.

Pouting, crumbling, collapsing, crying and head-shaking. The losers have been almost as demonstrative.

As billions of us watch, these athletes react to the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. At that final moment -- whether it's one of victory or defeat -- they are ripped open, their hearts and souls and guts laid out for the world to see.

Sometimes it's beautiful. Sometimes it's tough to watch. But it's the rawness of the Olympics that makes them great. The stakes are never higher and the reward never greater. Tensions and emotions are at an all-time high. Joy, relief, sadness; every feeling bubbling just under the surface, threatening to break through.

For Serena Williams, the breakthrough made her break into dance.

Shortly after winning her first gold medal in singles tennis, with her friends and family beaming back at her from the stands, she put her arms over her head and did a little heel-toe shimmy. It was her version of the crip walk, a dance that originated decades ago with gang members in her hometown of Compton, but has since become a part of mainstream culture.

It was a display of genuine emotion, a moment of overwhelming joy for a woman who, at age 30, is experiencing an absolutely incredible renaissance. It was fun, it was honest; it lasted no longer than five seconds. And yet, some fans and media have tried to make that five seconds mean more than the 63-minute match.

They expected Serena to have more control over her joy.

A few days later, the breakthrough made McKayla Maroney break into tears.

Maroney needed only to land her second vault to coast to the gold medal, heads and tails above the competition. Instead, the reigning world champion and overwhelming favorite found herself flat on her butt. She had never before fallen doing the Mustafina, not once, and yet here she was, sitting on the mat in shock, her gold medal chance gone.

She stiffened up to fight off the tears and appeared to shut out the world -- her coaches and her competitors. At 16 years old, this was almost certainly the worst moment of her life. She twisted up her mouth as she was awarded the silver medal, trying to keep her composure. She was disappointed in herself, not the medal, but some viewers still criticized her for not appreciating her achievement.

They expected McKayla to have more control over her sadness.

In both cases, the expectations were unfair.

Who among us can understand what these athletes have gone through in the days, months and years leading up to the games? Sometimes their hard work is rewarded in the form of a personal best, a win, a medal. Sometimes their sacrifices feel almost for naught, as they slip, trip, falter or fail. Who are we to judge how that moment would feel, how we might act with our heart bursting or shrinking?

Every athlete is there to win, to do right by his or her country, family, coaches and friends. For many, success at the Olympics also means money, stability and a future beyond the games.

Did Williams open up a can of worms busting out a dance with controversial roots? Sure. Was her five-second boogie a premeditated attempt to bring attention to or support gang culture? Absolutely not. Other athletes have danced after a victory (10,000-meter winner Mo Farah did the "Mobot" and the U.S. women's soccer players performed the worm) and at least one other actually crip walked (Brent Barry at NBA All-Star weekend).

Does Maroney wish she'd had the strength to smile her way through defeat? Probably. Did her sadness show up gold medal winner Sandra Raluca Izbasa? Not at all. We've seen tears and scowls and buried heads from countless competitors in these Olympics, particularly in gymnastics.

Both women have since answered those who criticized them. Williams said of her dance, "I was so excited that it just came out!" And Maroney tweeted, "Disappointed on how today turned out, but everything happens for a reason!! #noregrets.. Plus, the silver medal is actually pretty sick!!"

We think so, too. Not that any of us can ever really understand.