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Why we cheer

Whether they are underdogs who have overcome great adversity, aging performers clinging to their youth, symbols of nationalism or simply close acquaintances, the athletes at the Olympics in Beijing will give viewers plenty of reasons to root for their success

August 03, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

Sello Maduma comes from one of the black townships of Pretoria, South Africa, a place called Mamelodi where most children live in a world circumscribed by decades of racial segregation and poverty.

"Not many people expect someone from the townships to be on the Olympic team," Maduma said.

Especially not in fencing.

Soccer is the sport of the townships. Maduma, 21, was lured to fencing eight years ago by a recruiter from a local sports club.

Now he is the first black male fencer to make a South African Olympic team.

No matter how far he goes in the competition, Maduma knows he already has reached well beyond the borders of the township where he lives with his mother and two younger brothers on a family income that allows them, in his estimate, to "just survive."

"The opportunity of being in the Olympics is something so big -- it doesn't get any bigger than this," Maduma said Friday by phone from South Korea, where the South African Olympic team has been training. "It is an overwhelming feeling, something I have to take with both hands and make the most of."

It is athletes with stories like Maduma's who give fans someone to cheer in the Olympics, even as they have been beset by doping and biased judging and bid-city vote buying scandals and commercialization, even as they have become less relevant to the X Games youth of the developed world.

An early-round match is probably all Maduma will have, given his minimal experience in international competition. That may be enough.

"I would like to be a symbol to give other kids in the townships hope," Maduma said.

"Root for the underdog," said 1992 Olympic figure skating silver medalist Paul Wylie. "Especially root for athletes from countries where just showing up in Beijing is a miracle, like the Zimbabweans, and hopefully, the Iraqis."

To Wylie, that means someone like Maduma.

Or like 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, resettled in the United States after a decade spent as one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan.

Or Natalie du Toit of South Africa, who will swim in both the Olympics and Paralympics, qualifying for the latter by virtue of losing a leg after a car ran over her seven years ago.

Inspirational stories

"Root for the athletes who inspire us," said Susan Brownell, a former high jumper who has become a leading authority on sports in China.

That could be the women of a certain age, 49-year-old French cyclist Jeannie Longo, competing in her seventh Olympics, and 41-year-old U.S. swimmer Dara Torres. Both already have won Olympic gold medals, yet they drive themselves onward out of a combination of obsession and passion.

Or it could be the gymnastics grande dame, 33-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, a 1992 gold medalist who is beginning anew in Beijing after having competed once for the Unified Team cobbled together from the remnants of the Soviet Union and three times for her native Uzbekistan.

This is to be Chusovitina's fifth Olympics -- a record for a female gymnast -- but first for Germany, the country that took her in five years ago and provided medical assistance that saved her leukemia-stricken son, Alisher.

Alisher is now a second-grader and a gymnast. His mother is still "the very best gymnast on the [German] team," according to German gymnastics official Gert-Peter Brueggemann.

Unexpected heroes

"The Olympics tend to mint a different hero in the one you least expect," said Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon business school. "The magic of the Games is that there is a Rulon Gardner, a Mary Lou Retton or Billy Mills waiting in the wings."

Gardner beat the unbeatable Russian, Alexandr Karelin, for Greco-Roman wrestling gold in 2000. Retton is the kid from West Virginia who won the gymnastics all-around over the favored Romanians in 1984. Mills scored one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history at the 1964 Summer Games to become the only U.S. winner of the 10,000 meters.

Of flag and country . . .

In Beijing, where the Games open Friday, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' well-publicized attempt to equal or surpass historic greatness -- the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics -- is guaranteed to attract attention.

But we must wait to see who will surprise us, as Notre Dame fencer Mariel Zagunis did when she won gold in 2004.

"We -- as everybody else in the world -- root for athletes because of nationalism, pure and simple," said University of Michigan political science professor Andrei Markovits, author of books on sport in American culture.

"There are some wonderful Cinderella stories, but basically we root because we identify with them belonging to a flag."

. . . and neighbors and friends

Such identification can go beyond flags. Markovits will root for Phelps because he spent the last four years at Michigan. SUNY-Brockport University sports sociologist Merrill Melnick will follow U.S. pole vault champion Jenn Stuczynski of nearby Rochester, N.Y.

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