What my favourite olympic competitions all have in common is the fact that they all involve an absolute mastering of body and mind, a perfect orchestration of every muscle, every sense, every part of the brain for a single movement - for it to be perfect, in time and space. Every bit of effort, hours of training, the repetitions, the let-downs, they must all disappear behind the instant and the gesture we get to see.
I get so thrilled watching how focused the athletes are when they are getting prepared to jump, the way they place their hands, how they bend their body. I try to find, in the real world, a shape that compares to the delicate curve of the gymnast's back, in the moment the competition is finished, he raises his arms and thanks the audience. I try to see, in the eyes of the jumper, the perfect line he draws in the abyss' direction. Focus, focus, focus. You can't erase it and do it over. Everything can't be done over, everything happens, in fact, there and it is lovely, even the mistakes, the failures, the falls.
Nadia Comaneci, the Iron Cross and Greg Louganis are my holiest olympic trinity.
The former, Nadia Comaneci, is a prodigious Romainian gymnast, who became a legend when she earned, for the first time in history, a score of 10 (a perfect performance) in the uneven bars, in the Olympic Games in Montreal, in 1976. We were at a time when there was something called an 'Eastern Europe', and that's where Nadia was from, the sorrowful country of Ceausescu. The score boards weren't even ready for such a score and simply showed a "1.00" instead. Nadia was 14 years old at the time, and in her tiny and childish face you could only see her dark, firm eyes, calling all the determination, the technical mastery and lightness to herself, becoming one of the best-known athletes in history.
Regarding the Iron cross, I imagine there are very few exercises as violent as this one - for the physical strength it demands, on the one hand, but also for the strength not to shake (how can you control muscles and nerves you're not even aware exist?), to simply look as if they are resting. The italian gymnast Yuri Chechi (a redhead, imagine that!) was, in the 1990s, one of the champions in this competition, his iron crosses are remarkable, such as this one in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, where he stands in the position for 7 or 8 minutes and is still able to smile and greet the audience.
Finally, there the American jumper Greg Louganis. Louganis is almost too beautiful for me to find him handsome. But he is. And his beauty did not go by unnoticed to Playgirl magazine, for which he posed at the height of his career - a few years before he publically announced his homosexuality and announced he had Aids. His personal history is full of fighting for recognition and acceptance (for himself and other) and the ability to achieve the perfect jump. One of the most famous moments of his career took place in the Seoul Olympics, in 1988: in one of the preliminary jumps, Louganis hit his head in the board and, although he had a brain injury, took part in the competition until it was finished, winning a gold medal.
There are many jumpers that I watch and can't tell, as a lay person, whether they're really good or really bad. I like them and that's it. But Louganis was different, although I'm not quite sure why. Before one of his jumps we know we are seeing something else. The only thing I can compare it with are the movements of dancers: the mastery of the body reaches a level only different from magic, because we know it's not part of the rules of the game. In the 1930s, director Leni Riefenstahl saw the potential in this powerful alliance between complete domain and total abandonment in the dive towards emptyness, the body that for a few moments only exists in the air, free, and she captured it in the final scene of Olympia (after 3:00, especially).
But back to Louganis. I saw him throwing himself from the top of a diving board once: straight down without any pirouettes, spreading his arm and letting himself fall. It was the closest anyone came of flying, it was the closest I came of seeing anyone float in space, only a body without machinery or slow motion effects. To this day that is the image I religiously keep in my memory and moves me as a moment of pure beauty I watched live and will never see of the like again.