Monday, August 18, 2008


Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill de book.
Won't you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? -
cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom. (Bob Marley - Redemption Song)
I said yesterday (I'm not sure if my wife heard it, I may have been talking to myself - I do that a lot while contemplating Olympics coverage) that it would take no time before Al Trautwig said that Alicia Sacramone would be looking for redemption in the vault finals in gymnastics. (Alicia's the young woman who fell off the balance beam while competing in the team qualifications, possibly costing the American "women" the team gold medal.)

As it turned out, I didn't even have to wait for Al, as the announcer promoted the event by intoning, "Alicia Sacramone looks for redemption in the vault final."

Let's look at the definitions for the word "redemption" (we'll actually look at "redeem").
  • To recover ownership of something by paying a sum.
  • To set free, rescue or ransom.
  • To save from a state of sin (and from its consequences).
  • To restore the reputation or honour of oneself or something.
(By the way, these are all transitive, so Alicia can't really look for redemption, she can only hope to redeem herself.)

Neither of the first two seems to apply here, though one does wonder if the Chinese team might favor one of these ("Win gold, or your family disappears under the Three Gorges Dam!"). So we're left with one of the latter two definitions.

"Redemption" is actually one of my pet peeves, as it is a word used to describe any opportunity to do well after having done poorly. Sports announcers use it all the time now, in their usual effort to create drama where the actual drama likely suffices. I don't come from a particularly religious background, but "redemption" has, at least to me, always carried fairly strong religious overtones, one of the reasons the Bob Marley song I quoted above has such resonance.

That leads us to the third definition, that of saving someone from a state of sin. The wide receiver who drops a ball, the slugger who strikes out, Sacramone, they probably aren't being given the opportunity to do that. Given the false importance with which we weigh down our fun and games, we can't rule this out as the relevant definition, but I prefer to think we're not that quite gone.

So we come to the last, "To restore the reputation or honour of oneself or something." (Yes, it's a British definition, but it's the most concise and complete I found.) This is very likely the one that the commentators intend to use, but it is at least as irrelevant as any other.

To anyone other than gymnastics fans, Alicia Sacramone had no reputation until the NBC cameras first focused on her in Beijing. Yes, she's wearing a USA uniform, but that, in and of itself, doesn't give us the right to assign any particular expectations to her.

If she has no reputation, then there is no need for her to restore it. She owes us nothing, save perhaps an honest effort, certainly not a certain score on the balance beam. I've done nothing for Alicia Sacramone, so my job is simply to admire what she does without placing the burden of my hopes and dreams on her.

If Sacramone feels she needs to redeem herself in the eyes of her parents, who have supported her all the years of her life, or for her coach, who has given untold hours toward her success (but was paid for it), that's between her and them. My guess is that this Brown student who has also found the time to pursue a world-class gymnastics career has already paid them many times over, but that's their business.

To trot out a word of such importance and serious import, and misapply it so casually, actually makes me a bit queasy when I hear it. Alicia's accomplished more "for" the United States than most 20-year-olds, and she has a right to fail or succeed without feeling as if she's let 300 million Americans down, the vast majority of whom never heard of her before a week ago.

(By the way, there are a number of articles on the Web implying that there should be some consolation for Sacramone in being Googled for her hotness. I don't know her, of course, but I'm guessing that she's not quite so shallow as to see the search histories of adolescent minds as replacement for a lifelong dream that didn't turn out as she had hoped.)

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