None of them stands above five feet or weighs more than 100 pounds, but all four dramatically assumed center stage during the 1992 Olympic Games. Two gymnasts: Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller. Two figure skaters: Midori Ito and Kristi Yamaguchi. Two powerful pepper pots who were favored to win gold medals and two elegant underdogs who outshone the stars when the spotlight was brightest.
What were the effects on them of winning or losing? How well did they cope after failing to live up to expectations—nearly always the expectations of others? And the flip side? Is Olympic success all it's cracked up to be intrinsically or financially? Is an Olympic medal the yellow brick road to a dream come true?
When I had last seen two of these young athletes perform, and lose—Zmeskal in Barcelona, Ito in Albertville—a light appeared to have gone out in each of them. They seemed crushed by their defeats, mere shadows of the champions they had been. I wondered if they could ever be put back together again.
This is what I learned: The experience of competing in the Games is a greater prize than any medal, even a gold. It's a greater prize than anything a gold medal might bring, since everything a gold medal brings—endorsements, new friends, fame—comes with strings attached. To have competed in the Games is a greater prize than losing is a disappointment, because with time the disappointment fades, while the memory of competing in the Olympics stays fresh and, quite possibly, improves. Yes, there are Olympic winners, but I believe there are no Olympic losers, hard as we in the media might try to find them. Maybe my view is too general; maybe it was just these four athletes.
December 14, 1992
Midori Ito had it the worst. Fifth in the '88 Olympics, world champion in 1989, the first woman to perform a triple Axel jump in competition, Ito was Japan's Dream Team at Albertville. No Japanese woman had ever won a gold medal in the Winter Games; no Japanese man had won one since 1972. The pressure on her to take home the gold was enormous. "I was the favorite," says Ito, "and I knew the Japanese people expected a gold medal."
Expected? Like one is expected to make the bed in the morning, expected to do one's homework. The quest for the gold became not a labor of love but a chore for Ito. When she first arrived in Albertville, she was in the best shape of her life. Rival coaches were literally covering their eyes during her practices, so awesome were her jumps. But as the competition approached, Ito began to withdraw physically and emotionally. She began missing her triples. She stopped smiling. Normally chatty with Japanese team officials, she became uncharacteristically quiet and aloof. "As the competition was coming close, she got more and more nervous," says her coach, Machiko Yamada. "So many Japanese people expecting medals."
Desperate, Yamada suggested that Ito replace her trademark triple Axel with an easier jump, the triple Lutz, during her short program. "After careful consideration, I agreed," Ito says. But the pressure was such that even that conservative move backfired. Ito fell while attempting her triple Lutz, effectively ruining any hopes she had of winning the gold medal. It was a mistake Yamada had never seen Midori make, even in practice. "Sometimes she stumbles—but fall, never," the coach said afterward. "I couldn't believe it."
Neither could many of the U.S. coaches who had followed Ito's career. One of them burst into tears. Another said it broke her heart. Everyone knew the pressure Ito was under, and the shellacking she would now endure at home. Sure enough the headlines back in Japan read, MIDORI FAILS. Ito, her face blank to hide her embarrassment and her eyes red with tears, felt obliged to apologize to the people of Japan. The funny thing was, she never felt she owed herself an apology. "I was never disappointed for myself, only that I had let down the people of Japan," she says. "I have no regrets because I know I did my best—all I could do."
Athletes understand defeat. They know they're only human. But great athletes know how to leave a mistake behind, and while television and newspapers were playing up the story of Ito's failure, replaying her fall, analyzing and second-guessing her decision to insert the triple Lutz, Ito put it behind her and went out and won the silver medal. In doing so, she provided one of the highlights of the Winter Games when she landed a triple Axel in the final minute of her long program, after falling on it earlier in the performance. It brought a joyful smile to her face, finally brought the fans to their feet and propelled her from fourth place to second. Ito has since said that landing that jump was as important to her as the medal. Not only was she the first woman to land it in competition, she was now the first to land it in the Olympics. More important, perhaps, it was an accomplishment she did not feel obliged to share with all of Japan. It made her Games.
"Of course I know some people aren't happy because they wanted me to win the gold medal," she says. "But I'm very proud of what I did."
Since Albertville, Ito has retired from amateur competition. She never expected to make her fortune from endorsements, since foreigners and cutesy Japanese starlets are the best vehicles for selling products in Japan. Ito has made a cake commercial and a milk commercial, and she's a spokesperson for Prince Hotels. She also skates in a Japanese ice show and, someday, would like to skate in professional competitions.
"The feeling across the country is about 50-50 these days," says Junko Hisada, a top official of the Japanese Skating Federation. "Half the people will always feel Ito failed, but the other half are proud of her. The people closest to her know all she had to go through."
Ito, 23, has also been working in Japan as a TV commentator, covering everything from sumo wrestling to volleyball to the Summer Olympics. At Barcelona she had the opportunity to view the Olympics from the other side of the microphone. "I recognized in other athletes the pressure that I'd felt," she says, "especially in gymnastics."
Kristi Yamaguchi had a very different Olympic experience. The great trick for her was convincing herself she was the underdog, despite carrying the title of reigning world champion into the Games. Yamaguchi had upset an injured Ito at the 1991 worlds in Munich. The press was happy to oblige her underdog hankerings: Nearly everyone picked Ito to finish first in Albertville, Yamaguchi to finish second. And the modest 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., was mentally prepared to live with that result. The next Winter Games would be held in Norway in 1994, just two years away, so Yamaguchi knew she would have one more shot at a gold medal, win or lose in '92.
Not burdened by high expectations, Yamaguchi set her sights on enjoying the Games. At her parents' insistence she marched in the opening ceremonies although her figure skating competition wouldn't start for another 11 days. (Meanwhile, Ito was training in Mègève, France.) Yamaguchi stayed in the Olympic Village, went dancing with other athletes, but by the time the real partying began, it was time for her to focus on skating. "I remember thinking, This isn't fair," she says. "I want to enjoy the Olympics too."
It was a wonderful attitude to have, and it translated onto the ice. Yamaguchi's clearest memory from Albertville—more vivid than having the gold medal placed around her neck—came moments after she had finished her long program, when she was leaving the ice, waving to the crowd. The pressure, at last, was off. But, far from feeling relief, Yamaguchi experienced a sharp sense of loss. "I knew I'd done well, and I was happy for that. But I remember thinking, Is that it? This is the Olympics. You've always dreamed of it, always, your whole life. I didn't want it to be over yet."
These athletes dream of the Olympics, not the gold medal. And for good reason, since with gold medals come headaches previously unimagined. In Yamaguchi's case, after she returned home from Albertville, certain members of the business media predicted that because of her Japanese-American heritage she would never get the endorsement opportunities of previous U.S. figure skating gold medalists. At a time when Japan was being blamed for U.S. economic woes, the theorists opined, U.S. companies would shrink from an association with Yamaguchi. This was pure speculation, but it took on a life of its own. Yamaguchi, who had never felt the sting of discrimination, was suddenly being cited as a victim by prominent members of the Japanese-American community.
"At first I thought, Oh well, I never expected to have endorsements," says Yamaguchi. She had spent her whole life focused only on her skating. She didn't get in or stay in the sport for the money; she frankly never had given it much thought. "But it kept coming up so often," she says, "it began to upset me."
Post-Olympic endorsements were down for all athletes in 1992, probably due to the sluggish economy. Still, Yamaguchi did pretty well. She signed lucrative deals with Hoechst Celanese Corporation, which makes acetate fabric for fashion designers, and DuraSoft contact lenses. She has had glamorous four-page spreads in Elk, Seventeen and Vogue, has made a TV commercial for DuraSoft and has done the national talk-show circuit. At times Yamaguchi felt her life was spinning out of her control. "I was pretty overwhelmed by the number of decisions I immediately had to make after the Olympics," she says. "Before, there'd been only one way: to reach my skating goals. Now there were all these different ways I could go."
Turn professional or stay amateur? Remain near her coach, Christy Ness, in Edmonton or move back to California, to be near her parents? Should she sign this deal? Or that one? "Sometimes, when I was frustrated, I'd think, Why did I have to win?" she says. "I had one free weekend the entire summer. I thought, Is this what it's going to be like the rest of my life? My dream was to be in the Olympics. I never thought about afterward." It wasn't all a grind. Yamaguchi was part of the U.S. presidential delegation to Barcelona that was headed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. She flew over on Air Force One, traveled by motorcade and was accompanied by Secret Service men. She met fellow Olympian Prince Felipe of Spain. Met Magic. Danced with Spike Lee and Evander Holyfield. It was, all in all, a lot better treatment than she had gotten as a competing athlete.
"My friends back home know I've experienced a lot, but they treat me the same," says Yamaguchi. "I'm just an athlete. I don't think I've changed. It's still funny to have other people fussing over your hair, pretending you're a model for a day. I still feel I'm the same old kid, and someone who still wants to be one."
In September, Yamaguchi decided to turn professional, which makes her ineligible to go for a third straight world championship in March. Under a new ruling that was passed by the International Skating Union this summer, however, she can apply for reinstatement as an amateur and try to qualify for a spot on the U.S. team for the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. She isn't committing on that for a while.
"Any medal would have made people happy in '92," Yamaguchi says. "But in '94 it will be expected to be gold. I've never had that kind of pressure on me before."
If any athlete's head should have spun like a top following her Olympic performance, it was Shannon Miller's. On a strong U.S. women's gymnastics team, Miller came to the Olympics a second fiddle to reigning world all-around champion Kim Zmeskal. But Miller knew this was her Olympics too. "Other people may not have had high expectations for me in Barcelona," she says, "but I had high expectations for myself."
It was the opposite situation from Ito's. The American's goals and expectations came from within. And Miller, a gymnastics Cinderella, met them. In the competition of her life, she outperformed every woman gymnast in the world save one, the Unified Team's Tatyana Gutsu, and emerged as the most-decorated U.S. athlete at either of this year's Summer or Winter Games, with two silvers and three bronze medals.
What has changed in her life? It might be easier to answer, What hasn't? Miller is a star now. During this fall's 23-city tour by world and Olympic stars, a group that included such luminaries as Gutsu and Belorussia's Svetlana Boginskaya, the 4'8½", 76-pound Miller received the loudest cheers. When the advance ticket sales were slow, Miller was the gymnast whom tour sponsors flew in to do radio and newspaper interviews. Six months ago this slight, catlike waif could have paraded down New York's Fifth Avenue in her leotard without drawing a second look. Then, suddenly, young men were sending her their photographs—an envelope addressed SHANNON MILLER, OLYMPIC GYMNAST, EDMOND, OKLA., would suffice—or approaching her in hotel lobbies with a tentative "Are you who I think you are?" The 15-year-old Miller puts her fan mail and gifts in boxes and files the return addresses in her home computer so she can answer her fans in due time.
Quiet and unassuming, Miller smiles when asked if the sudden attention and celebrity have gone to her head. "I still go to public school," she says. "I still work out, my coach [Steve Nunno] still yells at me in the gym. My brother and sister still pick on me, and I still pick on them. Many of my friends have known me since I was in the first grade, and they still treat me the same. I've never been accused of being big-headed."
An honors student at Edmond North Mid High, Miller last fall traveled for the first time with a tutor, so she could keep up with her 10th-grade courses: world history, algebra, biology, world literature, Spanish and computer literacy. And she's saving money for college from the income she earned from the tour and from a Trivial Pursuit commercial she made. "I don't have much time for homework, with all the training, but somehow I make the time," she says. "I've learned through gymnastics that you can't wait until the last minute. I don't know if I'd be making straight A's if it weren't for the discipline I got from gymnastics."
When she speaks of the Olympics, Miller doesn't mention her medals unless specifically asked. She likes to talk about the Village, the athletes' beach and meeting the Dream Team. "It was everything I dreamed of and more," she says. "It was fun getting there and fun being there. I hadn't planned to keep competing until '96, but after the Olympics were over I didn't want to stop. It's so much fun."
Miller loved all of it: the post-Olympic tour, the camaraderie, the audiences, the travel, the training. "We traveled in a huge bus that had a kitchen and two living rooms," she says. "We were like a big family. I missed being with my own family, but I have the whole rest of my life to be with them. This is just a few weeks out of my life if you look at the big picture."
It is a big picture that will forever be colored by Barcelona.
Kim Zmeskal has a standard answer when asked if she's going to be in Atlanta in '96. "I'll be there," she says. "In the stands."
Her situation in '92 was the American version of Ito's. The reigning women's all-around world champion, Zmeskal was touted as America's best hope for gymnastics gold—a Mary Lou Retton clone. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, former mentor of both Retton and Nadia Comaneci, told anyone who would listen that little Kimbo was, mentally, the athlete who was the strongest under pressure he had ever coached. And Kimbo herself? She was convinced that the Olympics would be the best competition of her life.
It wasn't. Far from it. "At the Olympics, for the first time, I could feel people watching me," she says.
Like Ito, she fell on a move she could never recall even missing in practice, a cartwheel back handspring off the balance beam. Zmeskal was so surprised when she tumbled to the mat, she thought she might be dreaming. "I came off the podium thinking, That wasn't the Olympics," she says. "Because I'd always imagined the Olympics would be the best meet of my whole life. And it wasn't. I thought, The Olympics must be starting tomorrow." Dazed as she was, Zmeskal knew better. Her mother, Clarice, who was sitting in the stands, wouldn't have been covering her eyes if the Olympics were starting tomorrow.
"I was worried I'd let everybody down," says Zmeskal. "Bela. The team. The American people. How could I not? The television camera was right in my face." It was a face that showed shock, and that pained, frightened expression seldom left Zmeskal's countenance for the rest of the competition. It was the look we had seen before, on Ito. One side effect: Without "the new Mary Lou" to write about, many American sportswriters took women's gymnastics to task. The competitors, some argued, were too young; they trained too hard; they ate too little; and they put their bodies through too much. Karolyi in particular came under fire. "It made me so mad," says Zmeskal. "They don't understand what we get out of it. They obviously have never worked really hard for something. Then when you get it, it's the best feeling in the world. The best. We're all in this sport because we love it."
Despite her defeat, Zmeskal's memories of the Olympics are mostly good ones. She remembers walking into the therapy room and seeing Jennifer Capriati, a gold medal winner in tennis. Being waved onto the Dream Team bus by Larry Bird. Winning the team bronze medal. "The bronze medal was so cool," she says. "That was the best night of the whole year. It was my best performance."
Great athletes don't dwell on their mistakes. The media do. That's why so many athletes shun talking to reporters after a loss. Which is not to say the mistakes are stricken from memory. "I'm still having a hard time concentrating at school," Zmeskal, an 11th-grader, says. "Every so often I think about what happened, how things could have been different. I wonder what I'm going to do now. But it's weird. So many people have said I did great at the Olympics, I almost think I did do great. It's like they don't know I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to this summer. I thought everyone would be more disappointed."
So life goes on. Zmeskal cut her training, from eight hours a day to two, so she could enjoy a relatively normal junior year at Westfield High School in Houston. All these years people had been telling her how much she was missing of life by training hour after hour in the gym. So this fall Zmeskal decided to find out. She took a driver's education course and got her license. She went to some high school football games, jogged to stay in shape and braced herself for the overflow of thrilling, everyday activities that she had supposedly sacrificed for gymnastics. "After two weeks it was already boring," she says. "I used to dream of the day when I could just flop on the living room couch after school and watch television from 5 to 9 p.m. But now that I can do it, I'm not interested."
Zmeskal is debating whether to stay in the sport another year so she can defend her world championship next April in Birmingham, England. "I'm staying in shape so I can choose either way," she says. "But a part of me says that maybe it's time for me to do something else. I'm an athletic person. I've got to do something."
Zmeskal has thought of getting into diving, following the lead of former gymnast Phoebe Mills, who is on a diving scholarship at the University of Miami. But when her 13-year-old sister, Melissa, suggested Kim try out for the neighborhood swim team, Kim demurred. "I told her I wouldn't be any good at it," she says. "My sister jumped down my throat and said, 'Is that the only reason you do anything? Because you're good at it?' I didn't even realize I thought that way until I said it."
Like all 16-year-olds, Zmeskal is going through a period of self-discovery. "I think I'm going to be a very picky person," she says. "I guess it's because, as gymnasts, we were always worried about what other people were saying about us. We were always being judged. I find myself judging people the same way. People who don't get good grades at school, it's like, Well, why don't you? I can't help it. I had a B recently on an English paper. I was so used to getting A's, I was really, really upset. My friend, who got a C, said to me, 'Are you going to cry? Because if you're going to cry, I'm going to slap you.' "
So Zmeskal is learning to live with her imperfections. But—and this is the wonderful thing about an Olympic-caliber athlete—she has not learned to stop striving for perfection. Nor, one suspects, will she ever. She points to the boxes of fan mail that clutter her family's living room. "I've learned you don't have to win first place to win," she says. "People have been so supportive, it's almost like they feel it's good that someone doesn't always win. This hasn't been bad for me at all, not winning a gold medal. It's almost better."