Dara Torres and Other Elite Athletes
The New York Sun 25 July 2008, T E L E V I S I O N
How the Best Beat the Rest
By BRENDAN BERNHARD
With “the Games of the XXIX Olympiad” (as Bob Costas would say) looming ever larger on the horizon, a new documentary, “Elite Athletes,” provides a welcome measure of insight into what it takes to become the kind of athletic powerhouse soon to cavort ’neath Beijing’s temporarily de-polluted skies.
The documentary makes its premiere on Friday at 8 p.m. on the cable channel Treasure HD and over the Internet (on which much of the Olympics will be shown, so you may as well get used to it), at TreasureHd. com.
Due to a sometimes confusing number of coaches and trainers mouthing off rapidly about different sports, this one-hour documentary occasionally feels like a cross between a science class and a motivational seminar as the viewer struggles to keep up. Nonetheless, “Elite Athletes” — the first in a series of documentaries entitled “How the Best Is Done” — does do that relatively rare thing, which is to take you behind the scenes and show the extraordinarily complex science behind the production of topdrawer athletes in dozens, if not hundreds, of sports.
An example of that “science” would be the swimsuits that will be on display at this year’s Olympics, in what should amount to an extended advertorial for Speedo. Since the company introduced its body-length LZR Racer hydrodynamic swimming costume in February, 48 world records have been broken, with all but four of them coming from athletes wearing the new suits. Constructed of water-repellent fabric and combined with silicone panels and ultrasonically welded seams to reduce “drag,” they help move people from one end of the pool to the other faster than at any time in history.
One person certain to be wearing her Speedos is 41-year-old American phenom Dara Torres, who recently broke two American records in the 50-meter sprint despite having given birth two years ago. Along with American fencing champion Tim Morehouse, she gets top billing here, with Treasure HD’s publicity material promising that both will “reveal the training regimens, tips and secrets” that have made them worldclass athletes.
Mr. Morehouse, a modest fellow, credits his success almost entirely to dedication rather than talent. But perhaps the dichotomy is false. As the tennis champion Ivan Lendl once said, the ability to work extremely hard is itself a talent. Either way, the program makes it clear that to become a professional athlete, you must be willing to practice the same actions over and over again to an extent most people would find simply intolerable, for reasons that range from aching limbs to mind-numbing boredom. Ms. Torres, the subject of widespread admiration, publicity, and suspicion — can a 41-year-old really swim fast enough to beat girls less than half her age without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs? — is evidently saving the tastiest parts of her reputedly revolutionary training routine for an anticipated post-Olympics fitness video, though we do see her performing a number of exercises on those blue balance balls seen in Pilates studios (balance balls and medicine balls seem to be the height of fashion right now, judging from this film), in combination with substantial hand weights. Aside from the information that, due to age, she spends exercises less — but in a more concentrated form — there’s not much insight here for the curious fitness buff. The oldest swimmer to qualify for the Olympics, Ms. Torres is briefly interviewed poolside, and her most telling comment is that she simply loves being in water. She broke her first world record at age 14, and her coach says she has never been out of shape in her life. One would like to believe her success is 100% legitimate, but the documentary fails even to acknowledge the darker, chemical side of sport — particularly as it pertains to the Olympics. We are told that due to the advance of technology and science, “the limits of the human body keep getting pushed,” but anyone following the Tour de France, for example, with its repeated and sordid drug busts, would take a pretty dim view of that squeaky-clean interpretation of “science.” There’s no reason why a film like this should pick on Ms. Torres simply because of her age, but not to at least address the topic can only seem evasive.
The most fascinating thing to emerge from “Elite Athletes” is how totalizing training has become. We get an inside look at the IMG Academies, the world’s largest multisport training institution, where up-and-coming stars are even instructed in role-playing and the use of facial expressions to release tension and win over reporters and fans. The array of sport-specific exercises designed for those going into tennis, golf, basketball, soccer, football, boxing, etc., is something to behold, as is the attention paid to mental conditioning, “nerve,” and the ability to think, relax, and execute under pressure.
“From a neural standpoint, we all talk to ourselves,” IMG director Trevor Moawad says, explaining the concept of mental conditioning. “Some people estimate that it’s anywhere from 800 to 1,400 words a minute at the subconscious level, and what we tell ourselves creates a three-dimensional picture — that’s a fact — and those three-dimensional pictures affect our emotional state. And our emotional state, no matter who you are, affects how we perform.”
Perhaps this is motivational speaker boilerplate (not being a devotee of the genre, I wouldn’t know), but if you think about it, for example, in terms of this month’s epic Wimbledon final, and the verbal flickers and shadows that must have passed through the minds of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the crucial, dying minutes of the match, it’s quite fascinating. I would guess that what was in each player’s mind during the concluding five minutes probably decided the outcome.
Since I’ve rather neglected Mr. Morehouse, the fencer, let me just say that I once met a world champion fencer of Eastern European extraction at a party in London when I was 15. He was a huge, imposing man with a heavy black mustache, and he gazed down at me as if I were a human flea. To whatever I said, he replied with a contemptuous “Hmm,” thrusting forward his jaw while he did so, as if he had never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. There was no doubt he considered himself well above the run of ordinary mortals. After watching “Elite Athletes,” I’m inclined to think he might have been right about that.