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‘The Death Stare’

From the Catbird Seat

By Jeff Papas

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The Olympic Games have produced some very compelling television through their first week — and the Games will be nearly over by the time you read these words, so there’s probably more in store.

But there is a darker side to these games, and that’s unfortunate.

The home crowds have been uncouth at times. Their chants of “Zika” at United States women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo every time she touched the ball after the outspoken player’s pre-tournament comments about the virus were completely uncalled for.

The gymnastics crowd cheering mistakes made by American gymnast Sam Mikulak — which helped enable Brazilians Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano to medal in the men’s floor exercise on Sunday night — was ugly.

But others have helped provide additional ugliness, if you will. Solo herself behaved abominably after the Americans were knocked out of the tournament by a counter-attacking and defensive-minded Swedish team in the quarterfinals.

Her words, calling the Swedes “cowards” for their defensive approach to the game, weren’t called for either. That said, while uncouth, Solo’s words were little different from those of many major European coaches whose teams can’t find ways to defeat inferior opposition.

“Parking the bus” is a phenomenon common in soccer, when a team goes into a defensive shell. The term refers to rhetorically parking the team bus in front of the goal to describe a packed-in defense.

That’s what the Swedes did for long stretches of the match, and then caught the Americans out for a goal that made the United States “chase the game,” as the term goes. They caught, but couldn’t defeat, the Swedes and their inability to break down a stubborn defense was their undoing.

Solo was right in that the better team probably didn’t win. The way she chose to express her feelings was inappropriate. But it’s also not uncommon.

The coarseness in our world is well documented. The proper way to deal with it was the way Michael Phelps did with South Africa’s Chad LeClos before the 200-meter butterfly.

The story is now well known: LeClos shadow-boxed in front of Phelps, who responded with the now-famous “death stare” that is going to be an internet meme probably for as long as there’s an internet. Then he dealt with his opponent’s showmanship by shutting him up in the pool.

He didn’t scream. He didn’t get in LeClos’ face. Instead, he just got it done where it mattered the most.

Usually I’m not a big fan of trash talk. I think sports and sportsmen and women should be better than that. But in this case, I had no problem at all with the greatest swimmer of all time ending an argument that someone else started.

LeClos pushed Phelps’ buttons and Phelps pushed back in exactly the right way.

That’s why we have competitions, to see who is the best. Phelps showed it and responded in a way that was commensurate with his status as the most decorated Olympian of all time, and which reminded his trash-talking opponent that the way to hold such a discussion is in competition.

Just that simple. I wish more athletes would learn from that kind of example.

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