Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
Happens Every Four Years
Work ceases. TV goes on. I tolerate the steams of commercials and NBC's infinite stockpile of heart-wrenching stories about the athletes, their parents, pet, song, library card number, favorite brand of mustard. Like a blitz of Hallmark cards.
For two nights I watch the Olympics. Not the Equestrians or the NBA All-Stars ransacking squads from Third World countries. Just women's gymnastics.
Been doing it since Olga Korbut charmed the world 40 years ago in Munich, followed by Nadia Comaneci's first perfect 10 on the uneven bars in '76. Even before her score went up, and with zip knowledge of the rules, I knew I'd seen a miracle.
I've watched the women gymnasts ever since. Last night during the team competition, I think I figured out why.
Skills and artistry, sure - especially since I couldn't conceive of trying such stunts - as when McKayla Maroney rocketed off the vault last night and looked for a split-sec like she wasn't coming down. And most of them are so tiny. Gabby Douglas is 4-11!!
All factors. But it's the eyes that grab me, those haunted, ancient eyes.
They're so expressive that announcers could cut the gab about degrees of difficulty and point deductions - nay, cut the gab altogether: just show the performances and those amazing eyes.
They tell of the sacrifices, the years of trial and error (it's easy to forget that each has probably fallen off a balance beam or pommel horse more times than she can count), the hopes that drive them, the colossal pressure of competing for her country.
When the lanky Russian woman scored a miserable 12-something - the announcer called it a "train wreck" with a soupcon of anti-Russki glee - her eyes could have played Medea.
The gymnasts are coached to portray a positive face always. They are competitors and international figures and must behave within claustrophobic restrictions. They also have lessons in "attitude." When you semi-flub a routine, act like you just nailed that puppy!
Sometimes you can see them remember to fake an optical glimmer, a second or so after the fact.
But among their impressive talents, the women gymnasts are lousy actors.
Their eyes betray them every time. Watch when they complete a routine. No matter how positive their body language seems - shoulders back, up-jutted chin - or no matter how many teeth they show, the eyes tell the score they gave themselves.
Best of all: when they win, in the moment that victory is certain, their eyes exude the Divine Spark.