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.
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."