Redemption, Olympic style

I’ll admit it: my favorite Olympic event is women’s gymnastics.  (It would probably be basketball if I could watch it for free.)  Why not men’s gymnastics?  The mercenary answer is that in recent Olympiads the women have been the more likely medal contenders (no disrespect to Danell Leyva).  But that’s not really it.

The women’s competition seems to be packed with more human drama, with higher highs and lower lows.  It’s easy to get caught up in the so-called “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”–especially in the days since Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, two high-flying pixies who broke the unwritten rules by actually smiling and waving to the audience.  The crowds were instantly hooked, and now, the expectations have changed: we don’t just want prowess, we want personality.

This year’s early drama was the story of Jordyn Wieber, who had been hyped as the face of Team USA in women’s gymnastics.  She had hoped to be America’s next Nastia Liukin, winning the gold in the women’s all-around.  But her performance in the prelims didn’t live up to the hype.  There were no major mistakes, really, only an accumulation of small ones.  Sadly, though her final score was fourth best, she was disqualified from the all-around competition by a simple rule: no country is allowed more than two athletes in the event.  Wieber was narrowly edged out by two of her teammates–including Aly Raisman, her Olympic roommate.

Awkward.

Not surprisingly, the storyline then became one of possible “redemption.”  Would she be able to put her disappointment behind her, and redeem her poor performance by coming through for her country in the subsequent team competition?

In a word, yes.

Behind the aerial acrobatics of specialist McKayla Maroney, USA dominated the vault.  Russia then chipped away at the lead by their superiority in the uneven parallel bars.  But the Russian women suffered major mistakes on the high beam, flinging the doors wide for Team USA: all the US gymnasts turned in solid performances, including Wieber.

By the time Team USA reached the floor exercise, they could only lose the gold by making serious mistakes.  Gabby Douglas took the floor and delivered an inspiring, crowd-pleasing performance.  Then it was Wieber’s turn.

As she began her routine, her face was a study in intensity; I can only imagine what was going through her mind.  But when she finished her first tumbling run, nailing the landing, she knew: everything was going to be fine.  You could see it in her face, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.  From that point on, she was all joy.

Raisman was the last to go.  Though she only needed an unthinkably low score for the team to win gold, she also began with an expressionless mask of concentration.  But when the final tumbling run was done, before the dance flourish and the turn to the judges, tears of relief had already begun to flow.

Mission accomplished.

The five women held hands, looking up at the scoreboard, waiting for the official confirmation of their victory.  Some still seemed anxious, as if fearing it was all just a dream.  But not Wieber.  She was all smiles, basking in the victory.  And when at last “USA” went up on the board, the first to embrace, standing side by side, were Wieber and Raisman.

Redemption.  For a Christian, it’s a word that carries deep theological significance.  But it’s also an everyday word, meaning to buy something back, or to exchange one thing for something else of value.  We redeem coupons.  When I was a kid, we redeemed trading stamps–Blue Chip, S&H Green Stamps, and many others–an early form of today’s club card.  Stores would give you actual stamps to be pasted into booklets, then you would go to a “redemption center” to exchange books of stamps for merchandise.

It’s also the word we use when a person’s story takes an unexpected downward slide and we look for the reversal.  The Russian gymnasts were not merely disappointed in their performance; they were heartbroken.  You can bet they’ll be looking for redemption.

What did Jordyn Wieber redeem?  What did her performance buy back?  Her reputation in the eyes of others?  Her self-confidence?  Her camaraderie with her teammates?  All of the above?  Whatever the truth of the matter, there must be a point at which the sins of the past are let go for the full import of redemption to dawn.

Joy is the result.

May the same be true for us.