When Michelle Kwan left the Winter Olympics with an injured groin, I thought of Dan Marino. The legendary Dolphins quarterback retired in 1999 with countless NFL records. But any conversation about Marino starts and ends with the fact that he never won a Super Bowl. Despite all those big numbers, he'll always be perceived as a loser.
Thank God Michelle Kwan doesn't play football. Her professional accomplishments are without peer: She has five world championships, nine U.S. titles, and has even appeared on The Simpsons. But those numbers are like gaudy passing-yardage totals: completely meaningless without the big prize. For all her successes, Kwan has failed to win gold in the only figure-skating event the world even pretends to care about. She is still beloved by her fans and regarded by skating experts as perhaps the most talented American skater ever. It is difficult to find anyone to speak an ill word of her. Which is impressive, considering that if she competed in any other sport, she'd be known for what she is: a gigantic choker.
Her first gag job came in Nagano in 1998. After winning both the world's and U.S. championships, she came to Japan expecting a coronation. But from the beginning, Kwan, then 17, had problems with her nerves. Where challenger Tara Lipinski charmed her fellow competitors by prancing around the Olympic Village, Kwan brooded in her room. After taking the lead in the short program, Kwan skated a safe, conservative program that implied the gold medal was a foregone conclusion. Her scores were just good enough until Lipinski dazzled the judges and spectators with everything Kwan lacked: risk, energy, and, most of all, joy. "It seemed like I was in my own little world. I didn't open up; I didn't really let go," Kwan said after taking home the silver.
It got worse in Salt Lake City. After firing both her choreographer and her coach a year before the Olympics, Kwan came into the Games heavily favored; in a sport where reputation is so important, it seemed like the judges were begging her to win. And she collapsed again. This time it wasn't a matter of being too cautious; it was a matter of falling down. (Sarah Hughes' blissful performance didn't help either.) For the second straight time, the sport's most talented, revered skater came to the Games with everything in her favor ... and left without the gold medal.
So, why isn't Michelle Kwan known as Peyton Manning, Scott Norwood, and Grady Little rolled into one? For one thing, we root for individual athletes differently than we root for teams. The only fans Michelle Kwan has really let down with her Olympic losses are hardcore Michelle Kwan fans … and those people are the freakish exceptions. For the rest of us, Kwan's collapses were cushioned by the fact that the winners, Lipinski and Hughes, were both apple-cheeked Americans. Who really cares who won? They're still from the good old USA!
There's also the fact that Kwan is a figure skater. For all the talk of her legendary "competitive spirit" and her desire to become "the Michael Jordan of my sport," she is an athlete in a sport that rewards victory but does not punish defeat. This has something to do with skating's primarily female fan base, generally a more forgiving lot than your average bunch of NFL fans. Also, like everything else in the Olympics, we only care about skating once every four years. Sure, that puts a lot of pressure on athletes like Kwan, who have, at most, three chances to succeed per lifetime. But it also means that her failures inspire sympathy rather than ridicule. For years, speed-skater Dan Jansen repeatedly missed out on gold when he was heavily favored. Once he finally won, it was as if none of the failures ever happened.
The Olympics, unlike every other sport, are set up only for positive stories. (Blood doping excluded, of course.) Jansen's career was nothing but losses … until he finally won. Immediately, those "losses" were transformed into "preparation for victory."
Kwan's injured groin will make her a winner, too. If she had actually competed in Turin—injury or no—Kwan had little chance of winning. Most likely she would have come across as slightly pathetic, an athlete past her prime, trying desperately to keep up with women half her age. Instead, she goes out as a semitragic story, an athlete denied her final opportunity at gold. A depressing storyline is transformed into an uplifting one, preferably one shot in soft focus and with roses being tossed in from just off-frame. Welcome to the Olympics, where there are no losers, only heroes.