' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

O.J.: Made in America

Director Ezra Edelman takes the wide view with his documentary “O.J.: Made in America”, as its five comprehensive parts go to show. Edelman is not merely interested in the notorious trial in which his titular subject, football star and media personality O.J. Simpson, was acquitted of the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but interested in O.J.’s entire persona, and how his trial related to America, and how it still resonates today. Thus, Edelman begins with O.J.’s successful football run at the University of Southern California and then tracks him all the way to that cut-rate crime in Las Vegas populated by a band of wannabe Elmore Leonard characters that landed Simpson in a Nevada penitentiary. And while the middle parts do focus heavily on the crime and the ensuing court case, Edelman is not re-trying it. He operates from the assumption that more or less everyone watching assumes O.J. did it. Instead Edelman re-examines the trial’s larger context, and how Simpson, who in mantaining an elusiveness so as to foster some affable All-American brand (“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”), indvertently set himself up as the perfect vessel for a fierce morality play on race in modern America.

In allowing cameras into his courtroom to capture the so-called Trial of the Century, hapless Judge Lance Ito unwittingly authorized production on America’s first reality show, a terrifying thing to re-consider given how justice for two murdered people was on the line. And you are momentarily worried as “O.J.: Made in America” progresses that it too is forgetting about Ron Goldman. But that’s by design. He was, after all, tragically so, collateral damage in the absurd media spectacle, and Edelman wants that thought to linger, before he addresses Goldman, and in particular Goldman’s long-suffering family in depth. They get their moment, as they should, and among the most resonant details here is Ron Goldman’s father somberly remarking that his son’s dreams never went away. If in some ways O.J. was the American Dream gone wrong, it is important to never forget that Goldman was unfairly prevented from the opportunity of even trying to see his American Dream through in the first place.

The documentary does not, however, become as much of a referendum on domestic violence in America. It certainly does not shy away from the fact that O.J. physically abused his wife, and hearing Simpson, whose voice had been so indoctrinated into pop culture as good-natured, on 911 tapes shouting in the background gives you a window into the world she endured. What precisely led him to repeatedly injure Nicole is only tangentially raised, and O.J.’s friends, or his former friends, seem unable or unwilling to shed any light. Indeed, it’s truly jaw-dropping how many times O.J.’s confidantes admit blindness to Simpson’s worst attributes, and cop to their desire to repeatedly forgive and forget even as red flags were continually raised.

One of the jurors interviewed openly states that Nicole was at fault for not leaving O.J. earlier, unveiled victim blaming, before later conceding that she, and others on the jury, saw their letting O.J. off less as commentary on the poor argument rendered by the prosecution and more as payback for Rodney King and other injustices perpetrated on the black community in Los Angeles by the city’s police department. And throughout the documentary, Edelman expertly interweaves the LAPD’s story, what it did right, what it did wrong, interviewing a myriad of past members, including Mark Fuhrman, who is interviewed in depth, the infamous detective who found the bloody glove that perhaps would have done O.J. in if Fuhrman had not perjured himself on the witness stand and been unveiled as a racist. If in many ways Rodney King became the emblem of the abuse so many blacks suffered at the hands of the LAPD then Mark Fuhrman became the emblem of what many perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the LAPD’s rotted racist core, and Edelman captures how in many ways the trial of O.J. Simpson was turned around to become a trial against the LAPD with Mark Fuhrman as its star witness.

Fuhrman, in fact, is crucial to the film’s most polarizing moment, a recounting of the L.A. Riots and how members of the Black Community, engulfed with rage, vandalized and set fires within their own neighborhoods. Remembering this, Mark Furhman shakes his head, explaining that he cannot fathom how doing that one’s own community proves anything. The film then cuts directly to a black activist who explains that African-American citizens knew vandalism and arson was the only way their community would ever get attention. And in those two statements emerges the continual disconnect between whites and blacks in America, the inability, or unwillingness, to see the other side.

In standing back and casting such a wide net, Edelman’s film is able to see these two sides to the same story, and intrinsically asks us to do the same. When Judge Ito invited those cameras into the courtroom, he was operating under the influence that he could give a national tutorial on the process of the law. Instead he gave us front row seats to a national conversation on America’s original, enduring sin. If Simpson became an unwitting vessel for us to have that conversation in 1995, here he is again, in this incendiary summer of 2016, forcing the same questions upon us. The onus is on us to answer them honestly this time and do something about it; it always is.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday Morning Timeout

It's been a long week here at Cinema Romantico, what with the Crushing Post-Olympics Letdown™ transitioning directly into a why-won't-this-dissipate illness transitioning directly into a dishwasher malfunction which was like the callback to a joke earlier in the set that wasn't actually told, and all of that intertwined with the hideous late days of August which are, bar none, and even without Crushing Post-Olympics Letdown™ and a why-won't-this-dissipate illness, this blog's least favorite few days of every single year. And that long week, as you may or may not have noticed, contributed directly to our sparse content last week for which we roundly apologize. That we were able to serve an Old Fashioned was simply because we keep an Old Fashioned readymade under the bar for emergency situations. Now we have to make another emergency Old Fashioned which simply adds something else to our prolonged to-do list. So please, bear with us, give us another day, let us get our wits about us, and ingest our bloodstreams with a few more cups of coffee, and we will meet the high standard that you don't expect and that doesn't exist anyway beginning Tuesday, bright and early, and continuing on into the fall. (Fall? Are you out there? Oh sweet smells of autumn, just tease me, please, and tell me you're close.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Torrid Zone (1940)

It’s not critical tradition (law) to begin a review by digressing on the movie’s poster but hey, we here at Cinema Romantico serve our Old Fashioned any way we damn please. And this poster amuses and confounds me because to look at it would leave you with an entirely wrongheaded impression of what this 1940 William Keighley movie might be. There’s James Cagney, strumming a guitar, eyes closed, like he’s Captain Corelli and that’s his mandolin, and Ann Sheridan on his shoulder, looking like the rosy-cheeked girl next door, cuddling up to her beau, just hoping he’ll take her down to the soda fountain for a chocolate malt. And the grinning Pat O’Brien? Well, maybe he’s the soda fountain proprietor who just can’t get over how happy he is to see these two young kids in love, or the dad of the girl next door just overwhelmed with good tidings for these two lovebirds. But then you’d watch the movie and realize that O’Brien never smiles, Ann Sheridan ain’t so sweet and Jim Cagney never, not once, picks up a guitar. Marketing, man, that crap will mess with your mind.

The odd misdirection of this advertisement, however, is apropos of the film itself, one that seems dead set on making O’Brien the star before he suddenly hands the starring role to Cagney, while Sheridan, riffing on Jean Harlow in “Red Dust”, operates always between the two. O’Brien is Steve Case, a humorless fruit company magnate who oversees a banana plantation down Central America way. His foreman is Nick Butler (Cagney), who decides to quit for a straitlaced job in Chicago, only to be lured back by a big bonus for a few weeks work to deal with a persnickety revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), who has just escaped execution. Nick agrees, but takes Sheridan’s Lee Donnelly along with him, who Steve has just ordered to leave the Torrid Zone and never come back if for no other reason than a mischievous twinkle in her eye which lets you know that she is always in the mood to some start shit. Eventually, after getting cheated by Lee at cards, Nick tries to send her away too, though she still refuses to budge, lurking around the edges, and calling him out on his dalliance with a married woman.

This is, of course, literally a banana republic, with Steve’s company in charge, displacing locals from their native land, a cause that is taken up by Rosario, who is less a hardened revolutionary than a romantic, the kind dreamed up on the Hollywood backlot rather than culled from the annals of actual history. Still, even if “Torrid Zone” might not be that sympathetic to Rosario’s actual cause, it remains sympathetic to him, thankfully refusing to turn him into a cartoon villain. There is an early scene, in fact, when Lee and Rosario are locked up behind bars in the same place and become fast friends. There is a reason for this friendship and it is their mutual interest in mixing things up.

That is the foremost motivation in “Torrid Zone” – causing trouble. This Torrid Zone is filled with troublemakers. Everyone wants trouble; everyone seeks trouble; everyone finds trouble. This is why Steve Case has to be moved out of the picture midway through, until he re-surfaces at the end to get his, because he is the one character here truly intent on preventing trouble in order to maintain his operation. Oh, Nick might act like he wants to keep things on the straight and narrow, but we know that’s a lie as well as Lee does. That’s why she keeps poking and prodding him, and that’s why we know he will never take that job in Chicago, which he doesn’t. He belongs in the Torrid Zone. They all do.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Freedom's Fury

"Water polo," says American swimmer Mark Spitz, narrator of the 2006 documentary "Freedom's Fury", "is a punishing sport, combining violence and finesse, endurance and strategy." It is also, he goes on to note, a sport where so much takes place just out of sight, below the water's surface, where players kick, claw, scratch, and do God knows what else, all to get the upper hand. Those dueling notions, what is so obvious at first and what is not, are also at the heart of the Olympics, where sport takes center stage even as politics forever lurk just out of sight, and sometimes eclipse the original athletic-based intent. Never was that more apparent than in the game that director Colin Keith Gray's film chronicles - the semi-final water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne.

"Freedom's Fury" may start in the pool but it quickly moves on land, summarizing with reams of archival footage how during WWII the Nazi forces were driven out of Hungary by the Soviet Union, who subsequently, as one of the doc's myriad talking heads puts it, "forgot to leave." Instead the Soviets implemented their own government, politically and culturally repressing the Hungarians in the process. Athletics, as is explained, became one of the very few outlets Hungarians had, and there was no sport at which Hungary excelled more than water polo. How, exactly, a landlocked country like Hungary came to be a world power in a pool-set sport is only vaguely explained, disappointingly limited to the broadest of analysis and purple commentary like "It was in our blood." Still, it makes clear that Hungary achieved great success at the game because of forward-thinking training regimens and in-game strategy.

They were so good, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a place that, as David Maraniss noted in his book "Rome 1960", used "sports as propaganda to prove the superiority of the socialist system," sent its water polo team to Hungary to learn from the best and therefore exploit the best's  which made the 1956 match something of a mentor vs. protégé affair, which all alone would have upped the dramatic stakes, except that abundant extra and real world drama too hold when, in the months just ahead of the Melbourne Olympics, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 erupted.

The entire documentary is building toward the clash in the pool, of course, a clash that Hungary won 4-0. The focus, however, is not so much on the specifics of how the game was won but the one image that made the game famous – that is, Hungary’s Ervin Zador, after being sucker punched by an opposing player, opening a gash in his eye that bled profusely and into the pool. This indelible black & white photo provided the game an eternal moniker – The Blood In The Water Match. It’s funny, though, because the Hungary players interviewed actually somewhat dismiss the violence of the moment, labeling it as the sort of thing the sport, in any circumstance, fuels, and that the media took the breathtaking photo and ran with what they perceived it symbolized. It’s an interesting moment, a documentary purporting to be about this event, essentially muting the meaning of the event.

Indeed, despite ostensibly being the doc’s crux, the match doesn’t feel as important as how the movie concludes, when we see the two teams re-united many years later, in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain coming down and Hungary gaining independence. This heartfelt meeting, however, also betrays the lack of a true Russian voice throughout the film. The closest we get is Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premiere Nikita, whose smile as he speaks seems to betray almost a kind of embarrassment That the documentary is slanted toward Hungary is no surprise and not wrong, but the conciliatory conclusion would have been enhanced from honest voices on the other side, about what they felt back then and how they feel now. Their meeting does not seem to suggest that what’s past is past, but that there is still something valuable in discussing that past, looking it in the eye, and then moving forward. Seeing this conclusion taken in conjunction with all that came before reminded me of how the invaluable Louisa Thomas closed her piece in The New Yorker about the recent Wimbledon finale between American Serena Williams and German Angelique Kerber: "We sometimes project our problems onto sports. But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out."

Monday, August 22, 2016

T-Rex: Her Fight For Gold

T-Rex of the title of Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper’s documentary is the pugilistic nickname for Flint, Michigan’s Claressa Shields, who at the London Olympics, at the mere age of 17, became the first American woman to win Gold in women’s boxing, which made its debut at those same games. It might seem like a spoiler to reveal in the opening paragraph that she wins Gold since, hey, isn’t that what this documentary is all about? “Her Fight For Gold”? But it’s not really a spoiler, not even if you somehow avoided all sports press clippings in that last 4 years. And it’s not that the movie establishes straight up front that she wins, because it doesn’t. But the doc does place the match directly in the middle, building toward it and then pivoting off of it, because “T-Rex” seeks not simply to capture a Gold Medal winning moment. It seeks to capture how the lives of these athletes that consume us for a fortnight go on before the Games and go on after the Games. Claressa is 19. She’s a young woman. She’s Gold Medalist but damn she’s got a lot of life left.

It would have been so easy for this documentary to devolve into a feature length NBC Olympics puff piece. I don’t disagree with those pieces, but I disagree with their presentation, the way in which they transform every single athlete’s life and subsequent event into a fairytale. Claressa Shields winning Gold was not a fairytale. She was a skilled boxer, the best in the world, and she proved it. And though she had to overcome obstacles in life to get there, “T-Rex” never sentimentalizes this journey, balancing out lyrical shots of falling snow and shadow boxing with frames of the harsher side of life. At one point, they Canepari and Cooper fill the frame with the Flint, Michigan water tower and just let it sit there for a few seconds, letting it sink in that we know what’s coming even if they don’t, as if there is always something else to contend with where Claressa comes from.

Her parents are divorced, and while we don’t spend much time with them, we spend enough to get the gist, like a wrenching scene when Claressa’s sister stands on the sidewalk outside their house and winds up in an ominous verbal altercation with her mother’s current boyfriend. It’s short-lived, but it feels ominous. You know this is the norm. Claressa, meanwhile, winds up living with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, a former boxer. He had to retire and take a regular job, and he admits on camera to every coach’s yearning to tutor a champion, yet he never ever comes across as someone molding his charge in his image. He comes across as matter-of-fact in coaching as he does in parenting, equally making demands that Claressa might not like, but that he genuinely feels are best for her. This includes a boyfriend, who doubles as her sparring partner, who Jason doesn’t want her to see because he feels it affects the push & pull of his gym. That this never quite gets resolved feels true to the spirit of the film, where a life’s journey winds and weaves, and nothing is ever quite settled in stone.

When Claressa becomes an Olympian, she is forced to leave Jason behind, figuratively, because the coaches are obligated to be official appointees by Team USA. Still, he’s there, in the stands, and afterwards, giving her, the movie makes it seem, as many pointers, if not more, and if not more wise, than those of her “official” coaches. Not that Claressa or “T-Rex” mine too much drama out of this. The drama is in the ring, where the soundtrack, restrained but sharp, helps to wring real theater even when you know the result, allowing you disappear into the fight, as if it’s happening in real time. The climactic match, however, they handle a little differently, content in the advanced knowledge of her victory, rendering it as coronation rather than will she or won’t she? And when she does, it is the very genuine joy practically emanating from her visage, and the way she ecstatically bounces on the podium, that gets to you. Oh dear me, it’s hard not to believe in the Olympic Movement in those moments.

What follows afterwards isn’t a fall so much as the way in which the cloud of normalcy just sort of re-settles over Claressa. There is an indelible shot of her sitting on the couch, the Gold Medal in her lap, which evokes the sensation of “Well, what do I do with this thing now?” She yearns for endorsements, but they are not forthcoming. In one scene she and Jason meet with members of USA Boxing and they tell her to stop telling the press she wants to beat people up. She agrees, but reluctantly, and the look on her face, her eyes tilted toward the floor, isn’t a pout but a kind of WTF? Even so, important milestones beckon, like prom and graduation. And in these moments a paradox emerges.

In the hard won if healthy state of mind she displays, it is hard not to feel that true fame and fortune not finding her has allowed for that attitude. At the same time, when you see her continuing struggles, when you see her taking her mom to pay a bill at a collection agency, you cannot help but want fame and fortune for her more than anything.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Care Bears on Fire

There was a moment during the United States Women’s Volleyball Team’s tense semi-final match with Serbia when coach Karch Kiraly, a legend of indoor and outdoor volleyball, called timeout. His team gathered around him. For a moment, the NBC announcers went silent and we heard Kiraly unfiltered. He told his team they were a family. He explained that this familial structure they had built was specifically for moments like this, to combat adversity. They need only rely on one another to do what they needed to do. If another coach in another sport at another time had spoken those words, I might have dismissed it as hooey. But by Thursday, after watching every single one of their games in Rio, I’d seen enough of this team to know it was true.

The Olympics are that much more fun when you have a team. You pick a team, whatever the sport, whatever the country, and you temporarily transfer all the emotionalism reserved for your official team and make this Olympic team your team for a fortnight instead. Sometimes you choose your team in advance, like I did with the U.S. Men’s Water Polo squadron of 2012. Sometimes you choose your team on a whim, like I did with the Swiss Women’s Curling Team in 2014. This year I picked my team ahead of time. This year I picked the United States Women’s Volleyball Team. And though they were referred to, by custom, as Team USA, I naturally decided that was too staid and unbecoming of a team so spectacularly righteous, and thus re-imagined their moniker as The Care Bears on Fire.

The Americans might not have seemed at first glance to possess as much volley balling verve as, say, the flair-full Brazilians, especially given how much Kiraly and the NBC announcers, Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett, referred to the American “system”. Somehow the term “system” just makes them feel more American, like Nick Saban and his monstrously unexciting sounding “process”, even if so many other volleyball teams have their own systems. But there is some truth to the tactical sameness of their “system.” They forbade, as Sunderland and Barnett repeatedly pointed out, any kind of riotous jump serving because it wasn’t as efficient. And while other teams could occasionally become dependent upon individual brilliance, setting a great player and simply letting her go get it, the United States stuck to the belief that systemic adherence would yield rich dividends.

Not that the Americans were rigid automatons. Look, I’m a Sports Emotionalist, first and foremost, and if The Care Bears on Fire just played white collar volleyball I would have bailed match one for Puerto Rico and its resplendent ABA-ish uniforms. In fact, Barnett explained that in the Olympic run-up he spoke with the mighty Foluke Akinradewo who said she loved this team because it let her act like “a big ol’ weirdo.” “What’s a big ol’ weirdo look like?” Barnett said he asked. “A lot of dancing,” she replied, “off rhythm.” She may as well have been speaking for the whole team; The Care Bears on Fire loved to dance.

While the six players competed on the court, the reserves, always at standing and at the ready if called upon, had choreographed dances for each individual player that were busted out in the wake of any point or great play. We didn’t see enough dancing, frankly. I wanted an iso-cam on the dancers. Kelsey Robinson became my favorite player not simply because she’s an ex-Cornhusker, and not simply because she was The Microwave, by which I mean she channeled Vinnie Johnson in instantly effecting results off the bench, and not simply because once when she made some dig that defied the eye the camera caught her mouthing “wow” to herself as if she didn’t even believe it, but because the dance in her honor was my favorite. It was sort of this little shoop shoop ba-doop, once to the right, once to the left. When Kelsey subbed in against China last Sunday, my favorite match The Care Bears played, and never came back out because she took over, it’s possible I tried out the shoop shoop ba-doop a couple times in my living room, though I’d never admit it.

The Care Bears on Fire were founts of this sort of joy. Any time a player substituted in or out there was an exchange of high fives between the whole team. Before every point was played there was a round of low fives, a constant “let’s get ’em.” And at the end of each point, there was either a celebration, often rendered in striking slow motion, giving full weight to the gigantic emotions splayed across the players’ faces, if they won. And if they lost, there was a huddle, typically packed with just as many smiles as a point won, and even occasional laughs that seemed to imply something along the lines of a jocular “can you believe I just f***ed that up?!”. This was particularly crucial. There was an incredible capacity for well-adjusted, even fun-loving, resolve. A point lost was gone, though not necessarily forgotten because it might have suggested a space for strategic correction, and now it was time to play the next point. In America, where so many of our sports are ensconced with unmerciful whining about everything that has already happened, this “the next point is a new point mentality” was a breath of fresh air.

That mentality had benefited them throughout the tournament, through which they had traversed with a perfect record of 6-0, and it seemed extra critical in the hella dramatic fifth set in the semi-final against Serbia, which we return to now, after The Care Bears on Fire had gone up by one set, only to lose Akinradewo to injury and struggle, going down 2 sets to 1, only to rally to even it at 2 sets all, and then take the lead in the fifth set, three precious points away from the Gold Medal match, when Serbia made a run and Kiraly called timeout and told them they were family.

In the Sports Movie, that’s enough. The Care Bears on Fire would go out and win. Instead, they kinda cracked up. They lost. And they took it hard. They shed some tears. And I liked that they shed tears because it simply reinforced the realness of the emotion that was so prominently on display throughout Rio. Forty eight hours later they played the Netherlands for Bronze and won. I was not surprised. After all, that was why they built their familial structure, to combat this kind of adversity. Next point, new point. Now, let’s dance.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Faster Higher Stronger

At the end of the Men’s Decathlon, the mettle-testing two-day event spanning ten different events of track and field, American world recorder and defending Olympic champion Ashton Eaton entered the final challenge, the 1,500 meters, with France’s Kévin Mayer unexpectedly snapping at his heels. To win Gold, Mayer had to outrun Eaton by seven seconds in their four laps of the track. As the race commenced, Eaton did as expected, locking into place directly behind Mayer so that if the Frenchman made a push to try and garner seven seconds distance, Eaton could respond. Mayer, however, did not have the legs to go for broke, and so Eaton would have done fine to remain just off his competitor’s shoulder, stay within seven seconds, pragmatically get the job done. But then, with roughly 300 meters left, and no need whatsoever to push it, Eaton pushed it anyway, going up a gear, passing Mayer, surging forward, around the final turn and down the stretch. Eaton did not win the race itself, but he finished ahead of Mayer, which seemed to be his intent. Afterwards, in the obligatory out-of-breath post-race interview, when asked where he found the strength, or some such, to keep going, he name-checked his competitors and his wife and the whole United States (really!), and maybe he meant that, but to me he looked less driven by Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, etc., than by an intrinsic embodiment of Citius Altius Fortius.

Citius Altius Fortius was the jejune sounding ideal proposed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, as the sporting celebration’s motto, the one that dictates Faster Higher Stronger. Not, as Donald Sutherland so memorably explained in “Without Limits”, being “faster, higher and stronger than who you're competing against... Just faster...higher...stronger.” That idea can be hard sometimes to wrap our heads around in a shouty society where everyone wants to pit someone against someone else, and where you are either a winner or a loser. In that moment, however, Eaton lived it.

Last Friday, Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia shattered the 10,000 meter world record that had stood since 1993. But what I found just as compelling was the plight of American Molly Huddle. I had high hopes she could land on the podium; a lot of people had high hopes she could land on the podium; she had high hopes she could land on the podium. But in the race’s early stages, the pace was positively furious. The giant pack of runners got strung out quick, and Huddle clung to the back of the lead pack, intent on not letting them go. Problem was, as NBC’s Tim Hutchings pointed out, Huddle was at a pace well past that of her personal best. To keep going with them was folly; to fall back was to bid the podium goodbye. A minute or two passed and the inevitable slowly played out. She fell back, and as she did, the cameras lost sight of her, partially because there were so many entrants in the field, and people were getting lapped, and there were runners everywhere, and the camera was most intoxicated by Ayana who was refusing to let up in running away from everyone. Even so, in the end, despite earning no medal, Molly Huddle broke the American record in the event by a fairly shocking ten seconds.

Her post-race comment wrecked my heart: “I just couldn’t hang with the top three. I just…” And then she paused, trying to concoct a delicate way to phrase it, but there is no delicacy for such a harsh truth. She said: “They’re better runners.” Maybe they are, but no American had ever been better than her and, as such, she had never been better than herself. She went faster, and sometimes being faster is as good as being fastest.

Usain Bolt wanted to go faster in his 200 meter final. It is and has always been his best event, the one where his majesty, his length and physical imposition, is on starkest display. He ripped up the turn like he always does, poetry in furious motion, but the last 100 felt oddly less dominant than usual, even if he finished, as he generally does, leagues ahead of everyone else. The guy whose transcendence partially stems from never appearing to try looked like he was really trying. He actually grimaced, he pushed all the way to the finish line, and he even leaned. Afterwards, he expressed happiness for the win, of course, but he also admitted disappointment at his stellar yet pedestrian (for him) 19.78. “I wanted to go faster,” he confessed.

“My body wouldn’t respond to me,” he continued, “so I guess it’s just age and all around taking a toll.” It was weird. I had to come to grips with it. Maybe I expected too much of him; maybe he expected too much of himself; maybe it was just the natural course of things and Usain Bolt - yes, even him - is getting the athletic version of old. Still, in dismissing what he had accomplished, in expressing disbelief at his body’s refusal to follow him where he wanted it to go, he summed up a strange, beautiful truth. His opponent was never the other runners because he was too advanced for them, and his opponent was never the clock because he always seemed capable of defying time when he ignored showboating. No, Usain Bolt’s primary competition was his idea of his own ability and his body’s capacity to assert that idea.

Usain Bolt was always running against himself.