This is the profound lesson of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” If Gladwell wanted to, he could write a sequel to “Outliers” focusing on Olympic athletes. I’m not sure Gladwell would ever write an “Outliers” sequel because I don’t think he operates that way. But I really think Gladwell could write another volume based solely on last night’s gold medal winners.
Because Olympic athletes in sports like swimming and gymnastics only enter mainstream sports consciousness once every four years, the role of opportunity becomes magnified.
In Michael Phelps’ case, at least he had three opportunities to take the Olympic stage. Honestly, I can’t get that excited about the volume of medals Phelps has won. To me, that’s solely a product of opportunity. I’ll admire Phelps as probably the most dominant swimmer of all time, but I don’t care that much about his final medal count.
Here’s what I mean. I will always consider Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton as the two names most synonymous with the Olympics. Maybe that’s because I was a 7-year-old American when those two athletes hit their respective peaks in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But I think they would have to be on any American’s short list of iconic Olympians.
Lewis won nine gold medals and a silver while competing in the ’84, ’88, ’92 and ’96 Olympics.
Retton won one gold medal, two silvers and two bronzes in her only Olympics in ’84.
Phelps joins the list with Lewis and Retton not because of the number of medals he’s won, but because he took full advantage of the opportunity in front of him (especially in 2004 and 2008, honestly this one just seems like icing).
Meanwhile, I think Gabby Douglas has a chance to join that elite list. With a team gold medal already around her neck, the 16-year-old Douglas will go after the all-around title later in these Olympics. So will Aly Raisman, but she’s 19 months older than Douglas and therefore seems way less likely to get another shot at this in 2016 and that’s the key.
If Douglas wins the all-around, or even if she just medals and then comes back for the 2016 games at age 20, she’ll be a huge star going into Brazil. If she mines any gold in four years, we’ll put her up there with Lewis, Retton and Phelps.
But even if all of those ifs don’t come to fruition, I was still as impressed/excited about the gymnastics team’s gold last night as Phelps, mainly because they (probably) had just one shot at it and seized the moment.
Photo via The Washington Post.