LONDON — This might seem obvious … but we really are watching different Olympics, all of us, all around the world. Here’s the starting point: Gabby Douglas is obviously America’s new sweetheart after winning the all-around gold medal in gymnastics on Thursday. She’s huge. She’s on the front page of every newspaper. She’s on cereal boxes. She will be in commercials. She’s talking with Oprah. She’s besieged with Twitter congratulations.
How about here in England? Here in London?
OK, well, she’s on Page 7 of the Daily Mail’s Olympic insert, a 48-word item (11 of which actually relate to her) just below a bit about how soccer star Craig Bellamy is “humbled by his Olympic experience.”
She is on Page 22 of The London Times’ Olympic section after an almost two-page spread about Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons’ silver medal in judo. She is on Page 10 of The Guardian’s Olympic section after a two-page spread on Valentina Vezzali’s leading the Italian team to gold in the team foil competition.
I couldn’t find her at all in the Daily Express, The Daily Star, the Daily Mirror. She might be in there, somewhere. To be fair, it’s hard to find things between references to Simon Cowell’s stalker and the Bradley Wiggins drinking stories.
Now, you would certainly expect Douglas to be a much bigger deal back home in the U.S. of A. That’s obvious. But the point here is not that she isn’t AS big here as she is in America; the point is that, after winning the all-around gold in gymnastics, she barely registers a twitch on the celebrity scale here.
If you are asking how that’s possible, well, I’m pretty sure I can answer the question in two words: Katherine Grainger.
Don’t worry, it’s OK if you are thinking, “Um, who?” Don’t be embarrassed. There isn’t any real reason you should know the name. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Like I say, we are all watching a different Olympics.
Katherine Grainger is a British rower … and a legend in Great Britain. The last three Olympics, she won silver medals. The first silver — in Quadruple Sculls* in Sydney — was a huge surprise, and her response was pure joy. The second silver — in coxless pairs** in Athens — was not a complete surprise, but she was not favored, and so Grainger’s reaction was still a very happy one.
*Olympic Sculls are basically row boats in which the top of the boat is almost perfectly even with the water; this supposedly reduces the drag. In sculling, each person in the boat uses BOTH oars, which is what differentiates it from rowing. Quadruple Sculls have four rowers working in unison.
**Coxless pairs is two-person rowing in which one of the rowers is using a single oar to his/her left, the other to the right. Coxless refers to the fact that there is isn’t a coxswain there to shout, “Row! Row!” and keep the rowers in unison; they have to work together without the leadership. See, there’s all sorts of information here at Sports On Earth.
However, the third silver medal — in Quadruple Sculls in Beijing — was a bit of a nightmare. Grainger’s team was hugely favored, and it built a sizable lead. But then, much to the horror of the BBC announcers, a Chinese team caught up right at the end and won by a little more than a second (“Oh no! Oh no!”). This time, Grainger’s tears were not of joy. People wondered if she might not become the greatest rower to never win a gold medal.
This sadness was quadrupled because, by all accounts, Grainger is one of the world’s nicest and coolest people. She’s a legendary rower, and she has a master’s degree in philosophy (and is about to get her Ph.D. in law*). The stories about her and her family are so sweet that you want to have them all over for Thanksgiving. Just a couple: Apparently, an 11-year-old girl sent Grainger an autograph request by mail, and a few days later there was a knock on the door. It was Grainger herself delivering an autographed picture. Meanwhile, at these Games, her mother, Liz, was so caught up in the Olympics that she literally forgot her own 43rd wedding anniversary (that story was played up much higher than Gabby Douglas in The Independent).
*Grainger’s fellow rower, Anna Watkins, is about to finish her Ph.D. in mathematics, making them, as the BBC put it, “one very smart boat.”
It really cannot be overstated how much everybody here loves Grainger. When she appeared on the cooking show “Chinese Food Made Easy” with chef Ching-He Huang to learn how to cook a healthy version of sweet and sour pork, almost three million people watched. It was one of the biggest shows of the night. A cooking show.*
*Though, admittedly, healthy sweet and sour pork is a good draw.
Friday was her big day. On Friday, Grainger teamed up with Watkins to try to win gold in the Double Sculls — Grainger’s third event at the Olympics. The tension was high, more intense, I think, than Americans can ever really get about a single athlete.
Here’s why, I believe: Great Britain’s population is roughly 60 million, which is a lot, but it’s less than one-fifth the size of the United States. The way people in Alabama feel about Alabama football, or Kentucky people feel about Kentucky basketball, or New Englanders feel about the Red Sox — that sort of passion can cross this entire country.
I really think David Beckham is bigger here in England than any single athlete is (or can be) across the United States — even Michael Jordan, even Derek Jeter, even Tom Brady or Michael Phelps. The U.S. is so big and sprawling, we have so many sports and so many athletes. So many choices. There are not so many choices here.
Take Sir Steve Redgrave. You might know (and you might not) that Redgrave is widely viewed here as Britain’s greatest Olympian. He won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics as a rower (the last a dozen years ago in Sidney). He’s idolized here. Of course, we idolize past greats, too, but it’s different.
Let’s put it this way: Leading into Grainger’s emotional effort to win her first gold medal, the BBC did a long feature on Redgrave (who is one of the broadcasters). And — get ready for this — they did not mention his name once in the entire feature. Not Steve. Not Redgrave. Nothing. They did not say his name leading into the piece, and they did not say it coming out of the piece. At no point did they say, or have to say, “Steve Redgrave.”
If you live anywhere around here, you know Steve Redgrave by sight.
The buildup to Grainger’s race was emotional; Sir Steve himself found his voice shaking, the other broadcasters made clear what was at stake, the crowd was loud and worried. But it did not need to be worried. Grainger and Watkins took the lead right from the start, and even though an Australian team stayed reasonably close, they were never really challenged.
And the announcers shouted:
“Imagine what’s going through their minds now!”
“Let’s do this! Let’s finish the story!”
“We are applauding you!”
“At long, long last!”
“What we are seeing right now is that dreams do come true!”
“She’s Britain’s sweetheart, for sure.”
When Grainger and Watkins crossed the line first — the gold medal, at last — there was immediately an interview with Grainger’s parents (they were happy). Then Grainger came to the announcers’ booth, where she and Sir Steve embraced for 20 seconds — each holding on, Redgrave would say, so they would not just break down crying.
Then she walked over to the other announcer, John Inverdale, and he addressed her as “Olympic champion.” Grainger pretended to look around and she shouted, “Where? Where?” She then said that the gold was the people’s medal — it belonged to everyone in England. “They’ve all been a part of this,” she said.
“No,” Redgrave said. “Everyone will share this with you. But the medal is yours. And it is deserved.”
Then she went to the other media members. “I’m a bride at last,” she said, and they all laughed happily.
On my way to other venues on Friday, I heard people all over talking about how wonderful it was that Katherine Grainger won her gold medal. They talked about the grace with which she won. They talked about what a role model she is. At night, the BBC did a special feature on Grainger’s gold, complete with flowing music, and then another interview filled with tears. The Saturday papers will be filled with Katherine Grainger.
And back in the U.S.? Well, I doubt it will be in your local paper. I suspect it won’t get much time on television. We are watching our own Olympics.