RIO de JANEIRO — The balance beam is the most Olympic event there is at the Olympic Games. Here’s what I mean: The Summer Games, by their nature, create a powerful illusion in our minds. It’s an illusion that grows the longer the Games go on. You might call it the illusion of normalcy.
See, by all rights, we should all be watching these Olympics, and every Olympics, with the same thought bubble over our heads. That thought bubble would read “IDOBELWIJSAW!?!?!!” This is a word I just made up to represent Jack Buck’s famous call during the 1988 World Series, when star batter Kirk Gibson came to the plate even though he had been declared medically dead. Gibson promptly hit a one-handed home run to win the game, and as the shattered remains of his body stumbled and lurched around the bases, Buck shouted: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”
That’s what we should all be thinking at every moment of every Olympics: I don’t believe what I just saw.
We watch Olympic athletes dive off 30-foot platforms (which is crazy enough) and then do 68 flips, with 94 twists, and then knife into the water without splashing like they are spies or something.
We watch them throw bowling balls 25 yards, which is longer than several recent Cleveland Browns quarterbacks could throw footballs.
We watch them take a large pole, the sort that people use to clean swimming pools, and then run up, stick the pole into the ground and somehow use it to catapult themselves over a bar 18 feet off the ground.
We watch them swim 200 meters of butterfly which, as anyone who has ever actually been swimming knows, is not possible. No human being can swim more than two butterfly strokes without giving up on the whole thing.
None of these things are plausible. None of them. We should be constantly boggled and wonderstruck. But, we are not built as human beings for endless wonder. We are not even built for temporary wonder. If someone ever builds a time machine, the only real question is how long it will take someone to complain about how uncomfortable it is.
And so, at the Olympics, we quickly move from awestruck to vaguely impressed and then to slightly disappointed. Monday, I watched a Chinese gymnast named You Hao grab two rings that were dangling from ropes, pull himself up, flip around, do a handstand, hold out his arms and turn himself into a human cross and them flip around some more and dismount with like two flips.
My jaw should have dropped to the floor like they do in cartoons.
Instead I thought: “Eh, he didn’t keep his body straight enough.”
That is what the Olympics do to us.
And this is why I love the balance beam. It is because no matter how jaded we may become at the rest of the Olympics, the balance beam NEVER stops blowing our minds. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it: The balance beam remains impossible.
Monday, American gymnast and superhero Simone Biles was trying to win her fourth gold medal in Rio, on the balance beam. She was the favorite. But there are no favorites on the balance beam. That thing hates everybody.
The beam is 16.4 feet long. More to the point, it is four inches wide. Four inches. A dollar bill is six inches long. A ballpoint pen is five inches long. Just to compare.
Oh wait, the new iPhone SE — you know, the little shrimpy one Apple released not long ago that looks like one of the old iPhones — is four inches long. So basically, that’s what we’re deal-ing with, a beam as wide as those shrimpy new/old iPhones. And human beings are supposed to jump, tumble, flip and hop on these.
Biles is the best balance beam gymnast in the world, which should be no surprise. She is so wonderfully graceful and stable on the beam that sometimes — this is absolutely true — people watch her perform on the beam and they just start to cry uncontrollably. I’ve received emails from four different people who said they did. In the qualifying round, where Biles scored by far the high score, her performance drew a standing ovation from the Brazilian crowd.
But the beam does not respect history or the past. It stays four inches wide. On Monday, Biles completed a forward somersault. And then, she lost her balance. She had to grab the beam just to stay on. Touching the beam counts as a fall, it’s a one-point deduction. And, like that, the gold medal was lost. But she’s SO good on the beam that even with that stumble, she won the bronze.
Fellow American Laurie Hernandez had a clean and wonderful performance and took silver. Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers, who actually had the toughest routine, nailed it and took gold.
And when it ended, I looked down at the beam I asked myself a question: Could I simply walk across the balance beam without falling? I decided yes, I could, maybe. The Olympics does give us delusions.