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Mikaela Shiffrin’s two weeks of pain don’t detract from a lifetime of greatness | Mikaela Shiffrin

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Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates one of her 73 World Cup wins

What price, hype?

When does publicity turn into crushing expectations that can make Mikaela Shiffrin or Simone Biles develop a sudden case of the yips or withdraw from competition altogether?

And is society getting any better at recognizing the humanity of those who walk the high wires of elite sports, where one momentary slip can undo a lifetime of work – if we define their work solely by what happens when people tune into the Olympics every four years?

We’re still obsessed with “busts” and those who “choke”. Great athletes’ careers are considered unfulfilled if they don’t win the biggest prizes – even in team sports, where one athlete can only do so much. One 2012 list of biggest disappointments included LeBron James, reasoning that he had never won a championship. Oops.

More disturbing is the tendency to apply the “bust” label to people who suffered serious injuries. Greg Oden, the No 1 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, has recognized that he’ll always be known as a “bust” even though his career was derailed not by a lack of skill but by seven knee surgeries. Bobby Hurley is sometimes considered an NBA “bust” rather than someone who was lucky to be alive after a horrific car accident early in his rookie season. A lot of baseball “busts” are pitchers whose arms were worn to death by demanding coaches well before they could reach the major leagues.

In some respects, we’re getting better. When we apply the term “GOAT” to Shiffrin or Biles, it means “Greatest of All Time,” not someone who gave away a victory.

But this is, of course, the era of social media. Shiffrin has made it known that she appreciates the widespread support she has received during her troubles in China, but she also notices the haters, most of whom are surely compensating for their own shortcomings by tearing down someone who has accomplished so much. Dealing with trolls is a skill she developed well before these Olympics.

Patriotism also feeds Olympic pressure. Lindsey Jacobellis was reviled by many Americans after a showboating move at the end of the 2006 snowboardcross final cost her a gold medal. Had such a move occurred in the X Games, it would’ve been seen as just one of those things snowboarders do. But she did it in the jingoistic setting of the Olympics, where fans are far less forgiving. She’s also the GOAT in her sport, but it took an unlikely gold medal this year to make people realize it.

The sports world also may not have fully appreciated the strains that top athletes face and given them the support systems they really need.

In the combined event on Thursday, Shiffrin set herself up for what would be, under typical circumstances, a surefire win. She finished the downhill with a significant margin over those who were good enough in the slalom to challenge her.

But she also gave an interview with NBC, saying it was difficult to shake visions of missing a gate as she had in the giant slalom and the slalom. Her attitude seemed chipper, but are those the words anyone would want to hear from someone whose only true opponent at that point was herself?

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates one of her 73 World Cup wins
Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates one of her 73 World Cup wins. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, the mental side of sports has moved far beyond fire-and-brimstone halftime speeches. The US women’s soccer team credited much of their success in their breakthrough years to one Colleen Hacker, a psychologist who won over the players with unusual tactics such as duplicating Rocky Balboa’s famed run up a series of concrete steps, drawing both humor and inspiration from what has become a sports cliche.

Did any US coach see Shiffrin speak and place a call to someone like Hacker?

We don’t know right now, in part because Shiffrin graciously refuses to make excuses. Search social media long enough, and in addition to those who spout their ignorance and hate, you may find people blaming the fake snow at Beijing 2022. Shiffrin says nothing of the sort, demonstrating far greater toughness than supposed tough guys like former MMA fighter Tito Ortiz, who would report to postfight press conferences with a sudden revelation of some phantom injury that kept him from winning.

In the case of the Olympics, athletes face greater pressures because the spotlight is so much greater every four years than it is in the rest of their careers. Shiffrin thankfully already has three Olympic medals to show to a public that knows little of her six world championships and three overall World Cup season trophies. She considered retiring after her father’s sudden death in February 2020, and if she had, her career legacy would’ve still been complete. Any medal, any world championship and any World Cup win she receives for the rest of her career just makes it more difficult for any future skier to match what she has done.

Such success, though, can make us think all of this is easy. Clearly, it’s not.

Many Olympic sports require confidence in being able to deliver clutch performances without error. That’s why we watch so nervously when a Nathan Chen or Simone Biles takes to the ice or beam. Chen has three world championships but fared poorly in the short program in the 2018 Olympics, ruining his chances at the podium despite a stellar free skate. Who watched Chen in Beijing without fretting that one slip of the skate would define his career in the eyes of people who don’t know what else he has accomplished?

By comparison, American team sports stars have much more leeway. An interception can always be followed by a touchdown pass. The best basketball players still miss roughly half their shots. Baseball greatness can be defined by 50 home runs over 162 games.

In the Olympics, we remember moments, and our minds often drift toward the negative. Dan Jansen’s falls in the 1988 Olympics, just after learning of the death of his sister, may linger in the collective consciousness more than the gold medal he won in 1994. Decathlete Dan O’Brien rebounded from his Olympic trials miscue in 1992 to win gold in 1996, but the former was a shocking result after a media blitz by Reebok featuring him as one half “Dan and Dave,” two favorites for 1992 gold.

Star athletes deserve the hype. It builds up their names and stories before we see them in the Olympics. It may even provide them with belated recognition for their accomplishments on stages most casual observers don’t see.

But these athletes also deserve support – first, to help them remain calm and confident in pressure-packed environments, and second, to empathize when their quests fall short for any reason we can or can’t find.

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