Kim is a North Korean weightlifter. Earlier today, he competed in the 62-kilogram division (~136 pounds). He’s one of my favorite athletes of the Olympics so far, and his performance exemplifies many of things we love come to love about Olympians. Let’s use Kim to try and define the elements of an Olympic sensation.
Part of what draws attention to athletes, aside from their on-court/field/pool/weight-lifting mat performances, is some sort of easily recognizable hook. In this case, Kim hails from North Korea. North Korea’s athletes are generally viewed with some combination of admiration and concern, because, Westerners fear, the consequences for their not succeeding at the Games are far more costly than they might be for others. At the same time, the nation is overachieving at the Games so far, with more medals than host Great Britain. So, without knowing anything more about Kim Un Guk than his nationality, we immediately have a point of interest.
A dedicated watcher of the Olympics could literally see a thousand different athletes over the course of two and a half weeks. Only a few will stand out, and the ones that do tend to be effortlessly magnetic. It’s hard to describe, exactly, but the way Kim approaches the podium — a shambling, bashful shuffle, complete with a couple of waves and a monastically intense pre-lift face — has an eye-catching virtue to it. Before he even lifted, and without knowing anything about him, I started paying attention, even though I had no idea who the dude was.
Of course, none of this matters much unless the athlete then achieves at a high level. Kim Un Guk not only won gold in his weight class; he also set a world-record, lifting 327 kilograms (approximately 720 pounds) between the snatch and the clean-and-jerk combined. Few athletes become emblems for losing unless they do so in a tragic way, or were already famous to begin with. If you’re one of those who has no previous name recognition across the world, you’ll have to step up.
If your accomplishment can be conveyed through a photo, you’re halfway there. Part of the problem — and the beauty — of the Olympics is the insane amount of content, with so many athletes competing in so many events over so many weeks. A good image will cut across media and the Internet even quicker than a story. By creating one of those indelible photographs, the kind that last long after the Olympics end, an athlete can often luck into becoming a symbol.
This step isn’t nearly as easy as you might think. “Oh, celebrate!” you say. “I know how to celebrate!” *waves arms around* *spikes football* *pops bottles*
NO. That kind of celebration in the Olympics will just make people think you’re a dick. What most people want to see from their celebrations is some reflection of the Olympics’ scrappy, amateurish feel: enthusiasm, rejoicing, genuine excitement usually involving human beings who the athlete has affection for. Italian fencer Elisa Di Francisca’s running and jumping ecstasy after winning gold is one great example, and Kim Un Guk’s hands-up sprint from the stand is another.
Voila: now you have an Olympic hero.