After two weeks of blood, sweat, tears, bike-racing crashes, head-bandaged judokas, rowers doubled over in agonized exhaustion, a German weightlifter dropping a 433-pound barbell on his neck and a British triathlon bronze medalist being wrapped in ice packs and rushed off in a wheelchair for medical care, the question remains:
Which Olympic event is the toughest?
SI.com stirred up a lively debate by posing that question to 14 of its writers and editors in London:
Olympic marathoners undertake an absurd physical task, one that can break even the greatest champions. (Recall that world record holder Paula Radcliffe was reduced to a sobbing wreck on the curb in Beijing.) The volume and intensity of training is so great that injury is an ever-present threat. Even when healthy, top marathoners can realistically do only two races a year -- which makes peaking for the Games that much more of a challenge
Then there is the ridicule factor. Walkers are the red-headed stepchildren of athletics. (I think at least some of them are red-headed. They all wear those funny caps.) Nobody likes race walkers. Their odd-looking craft is mocked as the sporting equivalent of the seeing who can whisper the loudest.
Now add to that the hand-to-hand physical combat that runners, rowers, riders -- I'll throw swimmers in there, too -- never have to endure. There is something primal about being face-to-face with your opponent and testing your sheer physical strength against his. Imagine non-contact athletes trying to perform while being twisted, flipped or trapped under their opponent. Sorry, Mike Farber, but a sport that includes techniques known as the body-lock and the gut-wrench has to be tougher than one known for heel-toe, heel-toe. Then there's the suplex, a throw described thusly: The offensive wrestler lifts his opponent in a high arch while falling backward ON HIS OWN NECK to a bridge in order to bring his opponent's shoulders down to the mat. On his own neck, people. If none of that convinces you, take a look at a Greco-Roman wrestler's ears sometime. After all the pawing that goes on in the matches, those things look like they've been chewed by a pit bull. Wrestling is the toughest sport. I'll go to the mat on that.
Armstrong also raced here with a metal plate in the collarbone she snapped in a crash last May. She remounted her bike that day, fracture and all, and finished the stage. That's how they roll in road racing, where the bun-hugging Lycra and spindly arms of the riders (they don't want to carry extra weight) tend to obscure how nails
Team USA's Timmy Duggan put it well the other day, explaining that road racing requires the endurance of "a marathon racer, or a Siberian husky," coupled with the tenacity of "a cage fighter."
"Cage-fighting huskies!" added teammate Taylor Phinney, helpfully.
Even if they're not the toughest -- and it says here they are -- these guys are the best quotes.
At the Olympics? The cycle gets accelerated to an almost absurd degree. Conferred a bye into the round of 16, seeded boxers must win four fights to take gold. Unseeded fighters must win five bouts. Never mind the bumps and bruises (mitigated by headgear and oversized gloves) and never mind the issues of stamina (mitigated by the limited rounds.) The psychological reserves required to endure this pugilistic speed dating? Far as I'm concerned the entire field is made of up mettle-ists.
Unlike any other endurance race, the open water also includes an element of physicality. OK, so it's not boxing or wrestling, but it'd be like a runner bumping another runner in the shoulder mid-stride over and over and over again. It'd be like tugging the shirt of the runner in front of you. Things happen underwater that you can't really see from the surface, so a lot of fouls don't get called, and some of it isn't even on purpose. A swimmer's gotta kick, doesn't he? Even disregarding the mess of people and what they're doing, there's also Mother Nature. Open water swimmers race in almost any weather (though not in extreme cold or warmth), but beyond that, some bodies of water are better kept than others. There have been world championship races through masses of jellyfish or in water that looked more like Yoohoo. One racer has recalled swimming into the floating body of a dead dog. Others who have since retired still struggle with colitis developed after swallowing too much dirty water. Now, this probably points more to FINA's desperate need to make the sport safer and more civilized, but it also proves that these swimmers are tough. Endurance, skill, physicality, mental acuity. Open water swimmers have got it all.
To compare it to the running marathon, the open water marathon has competitors from fewer countries, is completed in less time and has feeding stations, which means nobody should experience the glycogen depletion know as "the wall." Rightfully so, because they would drown if they did, but still ...
That's true about colitis, though. I hear that thousands of retired open water swimmers are filing a class action suit against the league, demanding everything they knew about colitis.