by Richard C. Crepeau

JANUARY 30, 2019       archive

This is Super Bowl week, in case you hadn't noticed. This is reputed to be the biggest and best week in American Sport, and to hear the NFL tell it, World Sport. Perhaps, it is all of these things, but looking at this past week, it is difficult to imagine that this week will exceed last week in Superness.

Last Saturday, there were several major events worthy of attention. The world's richest horse race, the Pegasus World Cup, took place in Florida at Gulfstream Park. The two featured races of the day offered purse money of a combined $16M dollars, and, as a result, the best horses in the world came to South Florida.

The only problem was the weather. Rain made the dirt track sloppy and the turf track yielding and so skewered the competition. In the $9M dirt race, City of Light, winner of the Breeder's Cup Dirt Mile, bested Accelerate, the winner of the Breeder's Cup Classic, in a twelve horse field. It was an exciting day of racing with twelve races full of great horses producing great finishes and some upsets.

That same day at the Australian Open Ladies Final, Naomi Osaka collected her second Grand Slam title in succession. Her performance throughout the tournament was quite impressive as she demonstrated that her win over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open was not a fluke.

The following day, Novak Djokovic won the men's title for the seventh time by easily dispatching Rafael Nadal in straight sets. It was Djokovic's fifteenth Grand Slam victory and, perhaps, his most impressive. For two weeks in Australia, all the talk was how great Nadal was playing. It didn't seem to matter to Djokovic.

Earlier in the week in the woman's quarterfinals, Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova in a three-set match that ended in shocking fashion. Williams was leading 5-1 in the final set and had two match points that she failed to convert. Then, the real shock came as Pliskova ran off six straight games to take the match. It was one of those "I cannot believe what I just saw" moments.

This past week also featured some excellent figure skating with both the European Championships and the U.S. Championships being contested in Minsk and Detroit, respectively. One of the points of interest in the European Championships was the performance of the Russian women. The Olympic Gold medalist, Alita Zagitova, was in the field having just come off a less than stellar performance at the Russian nationals where she finished fifth. Perhaps of greater interest was the fact that the top three Russian women were not in Minsk as they were too young to compete in the European competition. Zagitova won silver in Minsk, finishing behind Sofia Samodurova. The Russian women finished first, second, and fourth. The silver medalist at Sochi, Evgenia Medvedeva, finished seventh at the Russian Nationals and failed to reach the European Championships.

In Detroit at the U.S. Championships on Friday, the Woman's Final was won by Alysa Liu with a dazzling free skate made, perhaps more so, by the fact that she is but thirteen years old and looks even younger. On the ice, she is every bit the mature champion, but that changes as she steps off the ice. After her brilliant performance, she was overcome with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably. After her score was posted, she again broke into tears. It was a moment of great joy and somewhat painful to watch. Liu will now carry the burden of U.S. Figure skating on her back going forward to the 2022 Olympic Games where no U.S. woman has won a medal since 2006. That will produce a lot of pressure in this event that U.S. Women once owned. Luckily, at this point, Liu can return to being thirteen as she is too young to compete at the World Championships in March.

How much pressure there is in competitive skating and what it can do to a teenager was illustrated this weekend in a story in The New York Times. Gracie Gold won the U.S. Figure Skating gold medal at age 18 in January of 2014. Three months later she finished fourth at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, her second Olympic competition. At the World Championships in 2016, she was favored to win the gold, but, after finishing first in the short program, she fell in the Free Skate and finished fourth and without a medal.

From this point on Gracie Gold went into free fall battling an eating disorder and depression. Time in a treatment center seemed to have helped, and this past summer she began to train again. She found, however, she was not yet ready for competition. In the midst of all of her issues, there was also a family crisis. Whether she will recover and get back to competition at the level she once was remains to be seen.

Other young athletes have gone through this sort of thing. It is not uncommon. So the presumptions being made about Alysa Liu's future need to be taken as purely speculative. Those around her need to do their best to support her and help her cope with all the attention she will now receive. Public expectations need to be tempered, and the media needs to exercise restraint. In our world of Social Media, the problems of pressure and criticism will increase moving forward.

This is not to suggest that there should be an age limit imposed on young skaters, although some will argue there should be one. Such a general rule is a mistake as every case and every athlete is an individual. However, parents and coaches must exercise their professional judgement, not so much on talent, but on physical and emotional maturity.

A star was born in Detroit, and it was a magnificent event to see. The hope is that Alysa Liu will be able to maintain her perspective and handle the pressure as she grows and matures so that her star will continue to shine, and she will be able enjoy her own talents and successes.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don't have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

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