LULU MILLER: Dum dum dum ...
LATIF NASSIR: I feel like I'm in an elevator or something. I feel like I'm in a lobby.
LULU: Hi, this is Lulu.
LATIF: Hey, it's Latif.
LULU: And this is the last episode of Radiolab for the year of 2021.
LATIF: And it's been a—wow, it's been a year. Like, Lulu, do you remember last year at this time?
LULU: Yeah, there was so much burgeoning hope.
[NEWS CLIP: Pfizer and BioNTech has shown early promise.]
[NEWS CLIP: Moderna announcing its vaccine.]
[NEWS CLIP: Johnson and Johnson's vaccine is being called a new weapon tonight. This time it's just one shot.]
LATIF: Yeah, it was vaccine after vaccine after vaccine.
[NEWS CLIP: Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.]
[NEWS CLIP: Sputnik V vaccine.]
LATIF: Anything was possible.
LULU: Sleeves were coming up. Needles were going in.
[NEWS CLIP: Vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don't get sick.]
LULU: There was this moment of excitement.
LATIF: Yeah. Like we can lick this thing.
[NEWS CLIP: Unless something very odd happens, I would say that it is pretty much over.]
LULU: And then ...
LATIF: And then we did it. And now it's all solved and everything's great. It's all over. Terrific.
LULU: Not quite.
LATIF: I know.
LULU: The pandemic just won't leave us.
LATIF: Right. I mean, some of it was not our fault. I mean, some of it was our fault as a human species, some of it was not our fault. But regardless, as we've been looking back on this year, the second one in a row that has felt like it hurt. Like, it started with so much promise and we're ending with a whimper. We've realized that, you know, this year has been a flop. It's been a flop of a year.
LULU: Yeah. So here at Radiolab, as this crappy year comes to a close, we decided to pay homage to the flop itself—this very common and yet very seldom celebrated human experience of flopping.
LATIF: So without further ado, we bring you …
LULU: Not just one, not just two, but ...
LATIF: Six flops.
LULU: Six flops.
LATIF: Flops that are in the ocean.
LULU: Flops that are on basketball courts.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: I'm not sure he got hit in the face. That's a sell job right there.]
LATIF: Flops that are on stage in front of millions of people.
LULU: Flops in the White House
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Disgusting disappointment.]
LULU: But not in the way you think. Six flops of various shapes, forms and velocities. Hoping that, as we flop our way to the end of the year, it might be nice to flop with others.
LATIF: And it might give us a little insight into what's on the other side of a flop.
ANNIE MCEWEN: Are you in pain?
LULU: So who has our first flop?
SINDHU GNANASAMBANDAN: I have it. It's me. [laughs]
LATIF: Hello. Who are you?
SINDHU: Hello. My name is Sindhu Gnanasambandan.
SINDHU: Thank you!
LULU: Whatcha got? Where are you taking us?
SINDHU: We are going back to the early 2000s. To this show American Idol.
LULU: Of course.
SINDHU: Which was one of my favorite shows growing up.
SINDHU: And, you know, you probably know how it's set up. It's pretty simple: contestants go in front of these three judges, sing a song. Sometimes they're great. Sometimes they're really not.
SINDHU: And the performance that I remember most from the show is actually one of these flop auditions. And that's the one I'm gonna tell you about.
SINDHU: So this flop happened in September of 2003.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paula Abdul: Hello.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: Hi.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paula Abdul: How you doing today?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: Oh great, thank you!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paula Abdul: You're doing great?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: Great to see you guys.]
SINDHU: This skinny Chinese guy wearing black pants and this blue short-sleeved shirt walks on stage.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Cowell: William, why are you here?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: I'm here to sing to America.]
SINDHU: Answers a few questions from the judges ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Cowell: What are you going to sing?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: I would like to sing Ricky Martin's "She Bangs."]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Cowell: Fantastic.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: I hope you all enjoy it.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Paula Abdul: Okay.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Randy Jackson: All right, let's go.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: All right.]
SINDHU: ... and starts singing.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] Talk to me, tell me your name. You blow me off like it's all the same. You lit a fuse and I am ticking away like a bomb. Yeah, baby.]
SINDHU: He's bouncing around in this, like, kind of awkward way. You can tell he's trying to dance but it's not really working.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] She bangs. She bangs. Oh baby, when she moves, she moves, I go crazy. 'Cause she looks like a fly but she stings like a bee.]
SINDHU: And eventually ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Cowell: Thank you.]
SINDHU: The judges cut him off.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Cowell: William, it's one of actually the worst auditions we've had this year.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.]
SINDHU: And for some reason, this flop by this guy, William Hung, more than any other flop in maybe the history of the whole show, it went viral.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: Let me just say, I have no professional training in music. Okay. [singing] Talk to me, tell me your name.]
SINDHU: There's an SNL sketch about it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: She bang, she bang! Oh baby, when she move, she move. You blow me off like it's all the same.]
SINDHU: People made parodies ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tell me your name.]
SINDHU: ... making fun of his voice.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Saturday Night Live: He's not from China, he's from Singapore, 'cause he sings really poor.]
SINDHU: His accent.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: I already gave my best.]
SINDHU: Even his teeth.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Saturday Night Live: And then we're gonna take some carrots and tomatoes and put it with the William Hung chopper!]
LULU: What did you think of all this when you saw it happening?
SINDHU: I mean, I was just a kid. I probably just laughed with everyone else but, you know, watching it now, it really just makes me sad.
LATIF: What is sad about it?
SINDHU: I mean, I think why he was so laughed at was because he sort of fit this, like, nerdy Asian stereotype.
SINDHU: And, like, I grew up in this place that was filled with people who were Asian American and, you know, just like a very immigrant community.
SINDHU: And as an immigrant watching TV and, like, especially a show like American Idol, it's sort of this way to answer this question of, like, how am I supposed to be here? Like, what is liked, like, what's good, what's lovable?
LATIF: I feel that so hard. Yeah.
SINDHU: And American Idol is the cleanest version of that because you literally get someone just like going and being themselves and then three people being like, "That was good. I liked this, I like what you're wearing. I like how you talk. I hate this!"
LULU: "I don't like this."
SINDHU: Yeah, exactly.
LATIF: That's so funny because it's like an American Idol, it's like your American paragon of what it is to be an American.
SINDHU: Right. Right. And, you know, William Hung ...
LATIF: Didn't fit the part.
SINDHU: Right. He didn't fit. And, you know, I thought when this whole thing happened, you know, when America essentially told him, "William Hung, you don't belong," I thought he'd just, like, disappear. But he sorta did the opposite of that.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Oh, William Hung's coming! Yay!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: William Hung in the house.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Leno: He's become an overnight pop cultural phenomenon, ladies and gentlemen.]
SINDHU: Which was so strange to me.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] Talk to me ... ]
SINDHU: Like, he goes on all these big talk shows and performs "She Bangs" in malls, concerts, sports games.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] Like a bomb. Yeah, baby.]
SINDHU: He does the halftime show at a Golden State Warriors game, a concert at the Rose Bowl with Janet Jackson and Maroon 5.
LATIF: Oh my God!
SINDHU: It's like he's reliving the nightmare of that American Idol audition over and over and over again.
SINDHU: And I just—like, I never would have done that. You know, I was the kind of kid who if I got one answer wrong in class, I wouldn't want to go back the next day. And this guy was, like, going back to school, jumping on the desk and just, like, shouting the wrong answer again and again and again. It's like he's immune to being humiliated.
SINDHU: And I've always wondered, like, how? How did he manage to respond this way? So ...
SINDHU: William, how's it going?
WILLIAM HUNG: Good!
SINDHU: I called him up.
WILLIAM HUNG: Just a moment, let me fix my background.
SINDHU: Yeah, sure.
SINDHU: He's 39 years old now. Lives in Jacksonville, Florida with a friend.
SINDHU: After the whole American Idol thing, he tried to become a high school teacher, but that didn't quite work out. And now he's a professional poker player.
SINDHU: Did you just make your bed?
WILLIAM HUNG: Yeah.
SINDHU: I asked him how he ended up auditioning for American Idol. And he said it's not like he grew up wanting to be a performer. He moved to the US from Hong Kong when he was 10 and had a really hard time fitting in.
WILLIAM HUNG: You could say that I'm more of a loner. My best friends were my teachers.
SINDHU: He got bullied in middle school.
WILLIAM HUNG: Probably just because I'm Chinese or Asian, because I was the only Asian in my class.
SINDHU: And college wasn't much easier.
WILLIAM HUNG: I didn't know how to make friends socially.
SINDHU: But then one day he's walking into his dorm and this poster catches his eye.
WILLIAM HUNG: A picture of a guy with a microphone, the red curtains behind it.
SINDHU: And it's this poster for this talent show that his dorm's holding. And he decides on a whim to sign himself up.
WILLIAM HUNG: It's like a new opportunity.
SINDHU: He used to love doing karaoke with his parents.
WILLIAM HUNG: The way I saw it was I had nothing to lose.
SINDHU: He chooses Ricky Martin's "She Bangs."
WILLIAM HUNG: I just tried to mimic Ricky Martin's dance moves.
WILLIAM HUNG: So like, "She bangs, she bangs." [laughs]
SINDHU: And when he gets on stage ...
WILLIAM HUNG: I see people were dancing with me. They were so excited. And then at the end, people were giving me loud cheers and applause. Like "Yay! Woo!"
SINDHU: And he ends up actually winning the whole show.
WILLIAM HUNG: I was like, "What? Really?" [laughs]
SINDHU: Yeah, he wins a DVD player.
WILLIAM HUNG: So that—so it's one of those nights that you feel like you were on top of the world.
SINDHU: Later that week he's watching Fox News, which he watches every night, and he sees an advertisement for auditions for American Idol.
WILLIAM HUNG: I was like, "Wow, maybe there's an opportunity there."
SINDHU: And, you know, he's still, like, riding off the high of, like, winning this school talent show.
WILLIAM HUNG: I could win big, right? Nobody knows.
SINDHU: And he's like, "You know what? This is the next step. I'm gonna sign myself up."
LATIF: Hell of a next step, yeah.
SINDHU: And you both saw how this went. Though ...
WILLIAM HUNG: It was so weird and funny. Like, Randy would hold this white sheet of paper.
SINDHU: It's interesting to hear William recount what happened.
WILLIAM HUNG: And then Simon was, like, frowning like this and was, like, crossing his arms. [laughs]
SINDHU: He seems ...
WILLIAM HUNG: "No. Well, that's the surprise of the century."
SINDHU: Almost amused.
WILLIAM HUNG: I know I didn't do well on the audition. You know, I was nervous, my movements were very jerky. If you use the standards, saying good, it wasn't good, but I could live with it. It's okay. [laughs]
SINDHU: Tell me more about your emotions of that day.
SINDHU: And we talked about all of it. You know, the jokes people made about him ...
SINDHU: Did you at any point feel humiliated?
SINDHU: The big performances of "She Bangs."
WILLIAM HUNG: I was just excited.
SINDHU: And when I asked him about people making fun of him ...
WILLIAM HUNG: I kind of just like one ear in, one ear out. [laughs]
SINDHU: But that doesn't hurt you? That doesn't hurt your feelings?
WILLIAM HUNG: No. They want to laugh at me, that's fine. Because they enjoy watching or listening to songs, you know, to my style of "She Bangs," whatever.
SINDHU: Hmm. But I wonder if you can talk about even one specific moment that either was painful or humiliating or, like, angering to you.
WILLIAM HUNG: I really don't have that, Sindhu. And that's a good thing. There were some interesting experiences for sure, but it wasn't like anger. How to say it? It's not so impactful that I had to think about it every day.
SINDHU: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah it's just amazing because humiliation is a really hard feeling for most people, and it definitely is for me. And, you know, I fear it a lot. And that is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because it seems like you're sort of impervious to it or that you're able to perform some type of alchemy to turn it into ...
WILLIAM HUNG: [laughs]
SINDHU: I was asking him in all these different ways, and I was really starting to feel like he was somehow immune, until ...
SINDHU: Through all of this, did you ever cry?
SINDHU: ... I asked him this.
WILLIAM HUNG: No.
SINDHU: Not once?
WILLIAM HUNG: Nope. Not for American Idol, no.
SINDHU: Hmm. What's something that has made you cry?
WILLIAM HUNG: Ooh. [laughs] Very hard. Very hard. There were a few moments that made me cry. I remember one day I spent a lot of time after teaching, preparing the next lesson.
SINDHU: This was after the Idol stuff settled down. He was training to become a teacher.
WILLIAM HUNG: The next day, I was like, "Okay, these things will go well." I was optimistic. But then, you know, the kids just decided not to follow me. You know, they saw me more like a funny entertainer, a celebrity. They didn't see me as their teacher. And then my master teacher called me out, and, "Step aside. Like, I'm taking over, da da da da," right? It wasn't—it wasn't a good scene. It was—it was an embarrassing scene to me. So yeah. And then he told me he would fail me if I don't improve. I cried after I got home because that really hurts. That's not a fun thing to hear.
WILLIAM HUNG: It felt real, you know? That's like, "Oh my gosh. I did all this and you say this is not good enough? Okay." I felt that was big—a bigger embarrassment compared to my American Idol flop.
SINDHU: Why did that feel like a bigger flop to you?
WILLIAM HUNG: Because I worked so hard to get to where I was. I was ready to graduate. I seriously considered taking on a high school teaching position after I was done. But after that experience, that changed my mind. It's like, "Okay, I don't want to go through this ever again."
SINDHU: Hmm. Yeah. I mean, I guess that makes sense that that feels more like a flop because I guess with a flop you need to have a ton of expectation and hope and, you know, you have to care a lot. And then you have that crushed with, like, a huge disappointment, like a total failure. And I guess this experience you had as a teacher does fit that definition way better.
WILLIAM HUNG: Yeah, I agree.
SINDHU: But the thing is, like, for me, there's like one more component to the definition, which is like, the audience. Like the group of people who are watching you fail.
WILLIAM HUNG: Yeah. Yeah.
SINDHU: And to me, like, that's almost everything. Like, it would matter so much to me that American Idol was in front of millions of people. But you don't seem to weight that component very much. And I just like—why do you think that is?
WILLIAM HUNG: Well, like I mentioned, for my American Idol audition I just focused on having fun, enjoying the moment. And that's it.
SINDHU: Yeah. But well, I guess another way to ask this, like, so the story we're making right now together, it's actually like the first ever story where my voice will be, like, a big part of it.
WILLIAM HUNG: Oh!
SINDHU: You know, millions of people will be listening to this. And that's really scary to me. Like, you know, I guess I'm asking you all of this from a place kind of of wanting to learn from you: how do you not let the fear of judgment from all those people—and really for you not—I mean, not just the fear of it but, like, the actual judgment—how do you not let that totally crush you?
WILLIAM HUNG: Ooh, I like this one. So I would say I choose to embrace my identity. I choose to embrace my past, my present, my future. It's a choice. Like, I don't—I feel like I'm not the norm of whatever. Whatever that means. Like, back then, I was not the norm. Now I'm still not the norm, and that's okay.
LATIF: Did you find that helpful?
SINDHU: I mean, kind of? I don't know. I think what I realized is that what he did to this question and kind of all my questions ...
SINDHU: Is he sort of just rejects them.
SINDHU: And I think it's because these questions kind of assume that what the judges or the audience, like, the people out there, you know, America, they assume that what America thinks matters.
SINDHU: And I don't know. I just don't think that's how he operates.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] I pay my dues. Time after time. I've done my sentence.]
SINDHU: And I feel like every time I listen to one of his tracks ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] I've made mistakes.]
SINDHU: He's actually made some albums, which I've kind of been listening to a lot. It sort of reminds me that William Hung is a way to be in this world.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] But I've come through.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, chorus: [singing] To go on and on and on and on and on.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] We are the champions my friends.]
LULU: Producer Sindhu Gnanasambandan. When we come back, way more flops. Aquatic flops, Olympic flops, NBA flops. More flops. A lot more flops.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, William Hung: [singing] We are the champions. We are the champions. No time for losers because we are the champions of the world.]
LULU: Next flop comes to us from editors Soren Wheeler and Alex Neason.
SOREN WHEELER: All right, Neason. You there?
ALEXANDRIA NEASON: Yeah, I'm here.
SOREN: Did you have like a hot start that you had in your head? Or should I just kinda get us kicking?
ALEXANDRIA: I mean, I have some stuff that I want Latif and Lulu to watch.
SOREN: Oh, okay. That'll be ...
ALEXANDRIA: But you can go. But go. Let's go.
LULU: Ready ready ready?
SOREN: Okay. Yeah, so ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Russell Westbrook from just inside half-court!]
SOREN: So I guess I'd say that this one is about the flop as a lie told through the physical movement of bodies.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Oh!]
SOREN: On the basketball court.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: What a change with no regard.]
ALEXANDRIA: Wait, wait, wait. Do you guys even know what a flop is in basketball?
LATIF: A flop? No, I don't think ...
ALEXANDRIA: So ...
SOREN: You wanna school 'em, Alex?
ALEXANDRIA: Yeah. Let's just, like, show you ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Thomas has space for a moment.]
ALEXANDRIA: ... what we're even talking about. So this is a clip of Marcus Smart, guard for the Boston Celtics. He comes to the basket for a rebound ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Crowder ...]
ALEXANDRIA: And ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: No!]
LATIF: Oh, man!
LULU: That was extreme.
ALEXANDRIA: He seems to, like, bounce off the Atlanta player, does this flailing pirouette out of bounds.
LATIF: It's like he decided to do a high jump in the middle of a game or something.
ALEXANDRIA: So that's a flop. It's when there wasn't a foul or sometimes any contact at all, but the player falls and flails dramatically to try and get the ref to think there was a foul.
SOREN: Yeah, it's like putting on a show. Like, "Ow! He got me!" You know, like, "Oh my God, he pushed me over!"
LATIF: I feel like I know of this in soccer but I didn't know that it was a thing in basketball.
SOREN: Yeah. No, it's a thing in basketball too, for sure. It always has been.
ALEXANDRIA: Yeah. But right around 2012 or so ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Take a breather and look at our national television big board.]
ALEXANDRIA: ... it seemed to be sweeping the NBA like some kind of plague.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Are you kidding me? We got flopping as a major issue and we're going to the big board?]
ALEXANDRIA: At that time ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Oh my!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Okay, this is theatrical right here. Watch this.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Oh! Oh yeah, I forgot. I've got to sell it more.]
ALEXANDRIA: The flops were just getting, like, especially flagrant, and people were tired of seeing them.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Flopping is not a plus in this game.]
ALEXANDRIA: In part because it looks stupid, but also ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: It just ruins the game!]
ALEXANDRIA: ... because people thought it was bad for the game.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball player: You know, it's not fair.]
ALEXANDRIA: That it's disgusting, cheating.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio host: You would punish. You would like to punish the floppers.]
ALEXANDRIA: And it needed to be stopped.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, caller: I would like to eliminate it from the game.]
SOREN: But then, along came a guy named ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mark Cuban: Are you serious? Are you really that clueless?]
SOREN: Mark Cuban.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mark Cuban: What the hell is that? You don't ever use facts. You don't ever use substance.]
ALEXANDRIA: The guy from Shark Tank. And he's desperate to put an end to the madness.
SOREN: And he also happens to be a billionaire and owns the Dallas Mavericks.
PETER WEYAND: Yes, well ...
SOREN: I have to say in my head, I imagine like a limo rolling up on your lab.
PETER WEYAND: No. Mark Cuban just emailed me. That's how it started.
SOREN: So this is Peter Weyand. He's a biomechanics researcher at Southern Methodist University.
ALEXANDRIA: So you just opened your email one day, and it was just like, "Mark Cuban."
PETER WEYAND: Yeah, one evening I was like, "Oh!" And I showed it to my wife and was like, "Does she think this is really Mark Cuban?"
PETER WEYAND: And she said, "Yeah, I think it is. You should probably answer that."
ALEXANDRIA: That's funny.
SOREN: And basically he says, "Look, this flopping stuff is getting out of control."
PETER WEYAND: He was concerned about the integrity of the game.
SOREN: You know, we got all these big, huge guys that are sort of falling over all the time and flailing. And so I'm gonna throw you a bunch of money and you are gonna prove scientifically that these guys are flopping.
KEN CLARK: [laughs] So sadly, since I am a Shark Tank fan, I've never met Mark Cuban and ...
SOREN: That's Ken Clark. At the time, he was a graduate student in Peter's lab. And so he and Peter got together, thought about it and they were like, "All right!"
KEN CLARK: This'll be fun.
PETER WEYAND: We have the equipment, we have the tools, so let's do it.
KEN CLARK: Absolutely.
SOREN: All right. So what did you do?
PETER WEYAND: We crashed into each other over and over and over again.
KEN CLARK: We played human billiards.
PETER WEYAND: Yeah, exactly.
SOREN: The idea was if they could figure out what a normal, non-floppy collision looked like, well then they could spot when something fishy was happening. So ...
PETER WEYAND: We set up big crash pads in the lab.
SOREN: They'd bring people in. They put, like, the little sensor things on them.
KEN CLARK: We have a motion capture system.
SOREN: They got the cameras and they just have people run into each other.
KEN CLARK: Well, to do that ...
SOREN: Smack, smack, smack.
PETER WEYAND: In a whole variety of ways.
ALEXANDRIA: Oh, my!
KEN CLARK: Subjects of different sizes.
SOREN: Like, a little guy runs into a big guy.
KEN CLARK: With different incoming velocities.
SOREN: You try it really fast, now you go really slow, or you just push on 'em.
KEN CLARK: "Well, what are you doing today?" "Oh, we're just putting on some, you know, video game suits and running into each other the whole day." Yeah.
ALEXANDRIA: They even built a metal and plastic person. They called it Gus.
PETER WEYAND: Gus, he was just a galvanized structure with a piece of plywood in the middle.
ALEXANDRIA: To, like, knock him over.
PETER WEYAND: I wanted to put a San Antonio Spurs jersey on Gus, but the members of the crew said, no, that's pushing it too far.
SOREN: So they do all these tests and here's what they come up with: guys falling on their butts all the time, that's not actually a reliable sign of a flop at all. If a player has their feet planted and their weight on their heels or whatever, it doesn't take much force to knock them over.
PETER WEYAND: It's not much. It's not much at all. If they don't move their feet, bam, over they go.
KEN CLARK: Yeah. Absolutely.
SOREN: So that's gonna actually happen a lot in the natural course of a game. But the thing you need to watch, according to Peter and Ken, is the arms.
KEN CLARK: All of the excessive upper body motion.
SOREN: The histrionics, yeah.
KEN CLARK: Yeah, the histrionics, really.
ALEXANDRIA: The natural reaction when you're hit and falling backwards is for you to take your arms and reach backwards to brace for impact. And so if a player's flailing with their arms above their head all crazy …
PETER WEYAND: Nine times out of 10 ...
ALEXANDRIA: ... that's probably a flop.
PETER WEYAND: ... they're putting on a show.
SOREN: The problem is even that doesn't really help much because a guy could actually get fouled and sort of flail his arms just to, like, draw attention to it.
ALEXANDRIA: Right. So they write this whole report up. They even made like a video, and they gave it back to Mark Cuban. And this was not what Mark Cuban wanted to hear.
PETER WEYAND: He was hoping for more—something more concrete and actionable to sort of stamp out this epidemic of faking. But, you know, we can't change the science.
LULU: So this whole experiment was itself kind of a flop?
SOREN: [laughs] Well I mean, yeah. Maybe a little bit. But the interesting thing was that Peter and Ken told us that a scientific, hard science, spot-the-flop kind of thing actually might be possible in the not-too-distant future.
KEN CLARK: It's not far-fetched to think that we could have instantaneous velocity on all 10 players on a basketball court at any given time.
SOREN: And all you would need is just like a tiny little bit of math.
KEN CLARK: You know their mass, you know mass and velocity, you know instantaneous momentum. You go off some basic assumptions that momentum in a collision's gonna be conserved.
SOREN: Then you just have computers that are sort of tracking and crunching all those numbers.
PETER WEYAND: Based on the sizes and velocities incoming and outgoing.
KEN CLARK: And if there's more momentum coming out of that than going in ...
SOREN: You just send a little signal down to the ref right there on the court.
KEN CLARK: Beep beep. You know, bell goes off in the ref's earpiece and says, "Hey, that was a flop!"
ALEXANDRIA: Then just like, [buzz]. A big old like X. Like, that was fake.
PETER WEYAND: Yeah, and then they just put it on the big screen, right?
SOREN: Like Family Feud when you get it wrong.
PETER WEYAND: Right. That's right. [laughs]
TYLER TYNES: To think that someone like Mark Cuban would spend his infinite amount of dollars to find out the core cause of flopping instead of why his team can't win a championship again seems to be a bit of a waste of money, don't you think?
ALEXANDRIA: Okay, so after talking to Peter and Ken about what they did, we were kinda letting ourselves imagine—at least in theory—the game without flops. So we decided to put this idea in front of my friend Tyler Tynes. He's a sports writer at GQ, and I was like, "Tyler, like, what do you think?"
TYLER TYNES: I don't think anyone in this country, if they have any sense about themselves, would look at you in your face, sit down and tell you they enjoy flopping. But flopping is part of the game. It has always been part of the game.
ALEXANDRIA: And he was kinda squishy on this.
TYLER TYNES: Well, I think the thing where I come from is that flopping by nature is sucker shit. It is naturally detestable.
ALEXANDRIA: So he hates flops, but at the same time, part of the beauty of the game for him is just letting players play it however they're gonna play it.
TYLER TYNES: And so the issue actually isn't with players, the issue is with the league that incentivizes this type of entertainment. So if Trae Young or Draymond Green or Marcus Smart flails a bit differently than maybe some of our heroes of old, the reality here is that it makes money when you flop. The teams are better if you flop and you can get a three-point shot.
ALEXANDRIA: We have incentivized sports in America to be like win win win win win by any means necessary, but flopping is by any means necessary.
TYLER TYNES: And so is the core of this actually the players?
SOREN: Well, but if—you could decide whether the system is gonna incentivize a flop or not, right?
TYLER TYNES: For sure.
SOREN: You could change the system so it doesn't incentivize it. And I'm just kinda curious, like, would you rather see a game with no flopping?
TYLER TYNES: No.
SOREN: And actually we heard the same thing ...
PETER WEYAND: No. It just doesn't feel right to me, you know, having grown up playing basketball.
SOREN: From both Peter Weyand and Ken Clark.
KEN CLARK: No, I don't think so. Not in my mind.
TYLER TYNES: I don't like adding police officers to the sports that I watch. You know what I mean? Like, we have changed how we talk about basketball, and flopping and the policing of flopping is a part of that, where the way—like, how you identify who a basketball fan is now has changed. Who enjoys basketball? Who runs these teams? Who now are the presidents of these front offices?
TYLER TYNES: These are white kids who wanted to be Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and never could. And now they have the cultural cache and the power to say what is important within our athletics. And it is how we get to something as serious and non-serious as flopping. Where it should be just a part of the art form. It should just be fun. But instead it's become policed. Now you're a bad player if you flop. Now you don't care about the art of basketball if you flop. Now, even for someone like me, I'm calling these people out they name because they flop, right? It's not the trueness of how we believe basketball is supposed to be played. And so to me at least, the issue is that why don't you just care if these boys is playing basketball or not?
ALEXANDRIA: I hear you. [laughs]
TYLER TYNES: [laughs]
ALEXANDRIA: It's interesting because when I came into—when we started working on this story, my feeling about flopping was pretty much centered around James Harden, notorious flopper. And he would look so smug about it and it would just grind my gears, and I would just be so incensed by it. So when we started working on this, it was really a moment for me to sit and think about, like, what kind of basketball game I actually want. And so I arrive at this place where I'm like, flopping just feels like it's just part of the theater and the drama of, like, what makes watching a game so exhilarating.
TYLER TYNES: Watching James Harden ...
ALEXANDRIA: Oh my God.
TYLER TYNES: ... figure out how to be an insurance salesman with these flops.
TYLER TYNES: It was kind of magical because you knew he was going into the game and had no care about the rules of the game. And that level of anarchy, that level of just self-assuredness and that you were going to break the game in some respects? That was cool. And so my thing is that I don't care if you flop. It's a part of how you're gonna get over in this game. I ain't gonna say I respect the thing, though.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: No, no, no, no, no. He's grabbing his head!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: That's a flop, dude.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: He didn't hit his head.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Come on!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: He didn't throw him!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Watch his feet, his legs forward and loses his balance. That was a flagrant flop.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, basketball announcer: Oh, he got a foul! Are you kidding me?]
MATT KIELTY: Hello?
MATT: Hey, everybody's here.
LATIF: Next, producer Matt Kielty and contributing editor Heather Radke.
LULU: Yeah, so, what—what do you guys have?
HEATHER RADKE: I actually feel like this is gonna be close to Lulu's heart. I've been thinking about Lulu the whole time.
LULU: Hmm. Really? Ooh, okay.
HEATHER: It's about a ragtag group of women making their way in the world today.
LATIF: I already hate it. I don't know. I already hate it.
LULU: [laughs] Latif is out.
LATIF: I'm just kidding.
LULU: All right, so ...
HEATHER: So we're gonna take you back to 2001.
MATT: To a group of ragtag young women.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Total ragtag.
MATT: One of whom was Kate.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Kate Darmody Burke.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: So how do you want me to ...?
MATT: However you want.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: I'll go with Ashley Gersuk Murphy.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: I'm Shelby Chlopak.
MATT: And Shelby.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: Oh, gosh. I screwed that up.
MATT: So Kate, Ashley, Shelby.
HEATHER: And all three of them were lacrosse players. Okay, so lacrosse. It's like sticks with little nets. You throw a ball around.
HEATHER: [laughs] Okay. So all of them had finished high school, and they all wanted to play lacrosse in college. But, you know, they weren't gonna play at, like ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Lacrosse nation.
HEATHER: University of Virginia or …
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: On top of the mountain once again, Maryland.]
HEATHER: University of Maryland.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Is your national champion.]
KATE DARMODY BURKE: These very storied programs.
HEATHER: They weren't getting recruited by these top schools.
MATT: They kind of figured they would just, like, play at some small school, stay somewhere near home.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: Yep. Well, so insert Kelly Amonte Hiller. You could call the Mia Hamm of women's lacrosse.
MATT: Two time player of the year.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: National champion at Maryland.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: She came to one of my soccer games.
MATT: She was going around the East Coast trying to recruit women to come play for her at Northwestern University.
HEATHER: But the problem was Northwestern didn't even actually have a team.
MATT: Yeah. Because Northwestern, it's in the heart of the Midwest just outside of Chicago. And back then, lacrosse was not a Midwest sport. It was an East Coast mid-Atlantic thing.
HEATHER: But Northwestern had hired this, like, first-time head coach to basically build a program from scratch.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: She was like 26. "Oh, you're like a little kid!"
MATT: But when she went recruiting, she would ask these girls point blank ...
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: "Do you want to be a national champion?" And we're sort of like, I mean ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: I remember giggling and laughing, but there was no smile on her face.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: I thought this lady is crazy/I love her.
MATT: So she managed to get a team together.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Just picture a lot of really intense, short East Coast ladies making their way to the Midwest. [laughs]
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: She was pulling people from everywhere.
MATT: She got these twins who she found on the street just jogging.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: Asked them if they wanted to play lacrosse. They thought lacrosse was a town in Wisconsin.
HEATHER: They don't even have a practice field.
MATT: They practiced on the flag football field.
HEATHER: But early on, she sat them down and she said to them ...
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: We will be national champions. And we need everybody to buy in. You know, I say "Jump," you say "How high?"
SHELBY CHLOPAK: She had us boxing and doing yoga and meditating.
HEATHER: They did these things called affirmation circles.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: And we would go around and tell each other positive things about us. You know, "Oh, you're so fast, Jenny." "Your shot is so strong, Ashley."
MATT: And Kate told us ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: We drank the Kool-Aid. She told us we could do anything, and we really just believed her.
MATT: And so that year, this group of mostly freshmen hit the field—and they lost a lot of games. They go five and 10.
LATIF: Five and 10. Five wins. 10 losses.
MATT: Five wins. 10 losses.
MATT: It's pretty bad. Their second year, they go 8 and 8.
MATT: Third year, they go 15 and 3.
MATT: Which means they made it to the playoffs, but they ultimately lost in the quarters to UVA.
LULU: I went to UVA, so I could be, go Hoos!
MATT: But then their senior year, they go undefeated.
MATT: And they actually make it to the national championship game where they have to play UVA again.
LULU: Are you building up a Mighty Ducks here? But then they get to the finals and blow it?
LATIF: Quack, quack, quack.
LULU: Like, is that the flop?
MATT: No, no, no. They win.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: The Northwestern University Wildcats!]
MATT: They win. They win the championship. The bench clears.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: First time in a championship game, and national title winners!]
MATT: They're, like, hugging, crying, jumping, laughing.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: I mean, it was the most incredible. You know, I now have two children and that's pretty incredible, but truthfully, the most incredible experience of my life. We went nuts.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: And then I will never forget being in the locker room, and Kelly talking about just how proud she was and then we get to go to the White House.
MATT: Which is where the story sort of flips.
HEATHER: It's July, 2005. They go to DC, they get all dressed up, and they go to the White House.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: It smelled and felt distinguished. You know, it's the White House.
HEATHER: They get to see Lincoln's bedroom, they walk around the Rose Garden.
MATT: And then they get ushered into this room where in the corner ...
SHELBY CHLOPAK: There's almost stadium seating, kind of bleachers.
MATT: So the whole team goes over, takes their place. And then in walks George W. Bush.
HEATHER: He's got on a suit and tie.
MATT: Comes over, congratulates the team. They give him a couple lacrosse sticks.
HEATHER: And then some photographer says ...
SHELBY CHLOPAK: Okay, everyone look up here.
MATT: Three, two, one, snap. A few days later, Shelby gets a call on her cell phone.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: That I didn't recognize the phone number. And I picked it up, and it happened to be some reporter. I don't really recall from where. And then she was asking me, you know, just different questions about winning a championship and going to the White House. And then all of a sudden it took a turn because she said something of "Did anyone say anything about your foot attire?" I said, "Excuse me?"
MATT: And the reporter went on to say, "Well, in the White House photo, you were clearly wearing flip flops."
SHELBY CHLOPAK: And that could be considered disrespectful or inappropriate. And I'm like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm sorry, I have to go."
HEATHER: She hangs up. And she's like, "Oh God!"
MATT: Because she wasn't the only one who was wearing flip flops that day.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: No.
MATT: Kate was one of them.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: My cell phone starts ringing at five in the morning.
MATT: It was a reporter asking her about her flip flops.
HEATHER: She says a day later ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: The story broke.
MATT: First it was in the Chicago Tribune.
HEATHER: Then USA Today.
MATT: "White House flip flops flap."
MATT: "White House footwear fans flip flop kerfluffle."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: Ladies, good morning to all of you.]
HEATHER: Kate and Shelby were on The Today Show.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: You don't wear flip flops to meet the President of the United States.]
HEATHER: And their mothers are on the show.
MATT: The mothers are on the show, the coach. And then a ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: ... shoe expert.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: You know, I would have chosen something that was a closed toe.]
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Saying that we should have been wearing a full-heeled closed-toe shoe.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: Dos and don'ts for flip flops. You would put the White House on the don't list?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: I would put it on the don't list.]
MATT: All because of this photo where a few young women are wearing flip flops.
LATIF: Wait, actually can you show me the picture?
MATT: Yeah, hang on. Or maybe just Google.
LATIF: Okay, hold on I'm just searching "lacrosse White House flip flops."
MATT: Are you searching?
MATT: You'll see the picture.
LATIF: I see the picture.
MATT: It's a totally innocuous ...
LATIF: Such an innocuous picture. It's like such a generic photo op photo of the president holding two lacrosse sticks. And then all these women.
MATT: But look at their feet, Latif.
LATIF: But it's just so—it's just so nothing.
MATT: Oh, is it, Latif? Is it really nothing?
LATIF: Yeah. It seems so nothing.
MATT: Have you considered ...
LULU: Wait, do you guys, as humans, Matt and Heather, do you actually think it matters? Really?
HEATHER: What do you mean? Matters in what sense?
LULU: Well, to Latif just being like, "Ugh, who cares?"
HEATHER: I don't—I don't think it matters. Like, I don't think they should have been shamed for wearing flip flops at the White House. But I think it very much matters that these things happened, because it tells us something about us.
MATT: Yeah, and so to that point, we ended up calling up ...
MATT: Oh, Alexis is back.
ALEXIS COE: I'm back.
MATT: Oh, Alexis is back.
ALEXIS COE: Hi!
MATT: This presidential historian, Alexis Coe.
HEATHER: Because as we kept reporting on the story and trying to answer Latif's question: why does this matter? We kept coming back to the scene of the crime: The White House.
MATT: If we just go back. Let's go back to, like, the early—like, the formation of the White House.
ALEXIS COE: When Washington first took office, the White House was an idea that they would get to.
HEATHER: So at first when Washington was president, he lived ...
ALEXIS COE: In New York.
HEATHER: And then in Philadelphia.
MATT: But he knew that there needed to be a permanent residence for the President.
ALEXIS COE: A presidential house, as they would call it.
MATT: And his big thing was, whatever they end up building ...
ALEXIS COE: ... there can be no markings of monarchical rule.
MATT: Like, no gilded doors and a big arched gateway.
HEATHER: He was like, "I'm Mr. President."
HEATHER: It's not a presidential palace.
MATT: Because the idea is that the government, the democracy is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people.
ALEXIS COE: But Washington was in a tricky situation because he liked the finer things in life. He liked sumptuous fabric, plush suits, purple carriages.
HEATHER: The example Alexis gave us that's, like, excellent for this very thing is for his inauguration ...
ALEXIS COE: He orders a simple, home-spun, brown suit. But if you look down at his shoes, he's wearing diamonds.
HEATHER: Shoes with diamonds on them.
ALEXIS COE: He's wearing diamond buckles.
LULU: Wow, G.W.
MATT: And so, under Washington, what we ultimately end up with for a president's home is definitely not a palace, but it's also—I mean, it's a mansion. When it was built, it was the biggest house in all of DC.
HEATHER: It's like a conflicted, confused space all the way through.
HEATHER: You know, the White House is built by enslaved people. The first handful of presidents besides Adams are all slave-owners. They're like fancy Southerners who are trying to, like, figure out how to also be democratic, which is like, these are like the primordial problems of American democracy. Like, who gets to be inside of it and who's not inside of it? It's like all the stuff that's kind of like baked into the formation of the country is also baked into the formation of the White House.
MATT: And so, this is where it gets kinda fascinating because, for example, both the House and the Senate have rules for dress code. Like, they have dress codes, they have rules for decorum. Like, the White House doesn't have anything that's codified.
MATT: And so what the White House becomes is this space where in each administration they can sort of dictate what the White House ought to be, and kind of like demonstrate what they think our country should be.
HEATHER: You know, it's played out in, like, what Christmas trees the First Lady chooses and how you know ...
LULU: Yeah. I was immediately thinking about that. Melania's trees.
HEATHER: Yeah. And there's like—you know, George Bush banned blue jeans in the White House, but Obama would let staff workers work without their suit jackets on. Like, all these questions of formality and taste are really questions about, like, what is the White House, and in some sense, like, who is America?
HEATHER: And the lacrosse players, when they flopped onto the floor of the White House, they were kind of unwittingly walking right into the middle of this question.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: You know, there wasn't a set of rules where it felt like we were doing something wrong.
HEATHER: That's Kate again.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: I had no idea until my brother was the one that yelled at me. [laughs]
HEATHER: I mean, they thought they were wearing nice shoes.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: Yeah, you know the more I reflect on it ...
HEATHER: Shelby again.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: I wonder if anyone would have even thought twice about what a men's team wore on their feet.
HEATHER: And I think one of my favorite things about this whole thing is that when these women went on The Today Show ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: What would you do if your kids were going to the White House?]
HEATHER: When they were basically asked to appear on national television to apologize for having worn flip flops to the White House, this ragtag group of women who had won this national championship against all odds, they walked up onto the stage at NBC's Studio 1A in New York City wearing matching ...
SHELBY CHLOPAK: ... matching flip flops.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: At any point when you got to the White House, did you look around and say, "Ooh, maybe this is a little inappropriate?"]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: Not at all.]
ARCHIVE CLIP, The Today Show: No? No? You wanna think about that, ladies?]
HEATHER: And that was– you did that on purpose. That was sort of like ...
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.
LATIF: All right. Okay. So next up we are going to a place where flip flops are not only allowed, they are celebrated.
LATIF: The pool.
LATIF: "Fun" is not exactly the word I'd use to describe this story. It's a—it's kind of a story of an ethical conundrum. That's how I would put it. And it involves an Olympian, a global pandemic and—because I roped him into it, our colleague David Gebel.
DAVID GEBEL: [laughs]
LATIF: Oh, and a flop, too.
LULU: All right.
DAVID: Latif calls me and he said, "Have you ever heard of Greg Louganis?" And I said, "I'm a gay man who's 64. Of course I've heard of him!" [laughter]
LATIF: Okay, so we're talking about the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
[NEWS CLIP: Welcome to day four of our coverage from Seoul, Korea.]
LATIF: Greg Louganis is both a platform and springboard diver. And at the prior Olympics he'd gold medalled in both.
[NEWS CLIP: No diver has ever won back-to-back golds. Greg Louganis is expected to do that here in Seoul.]
GREG LOUGANIS: Going into the 1988 Olympic Games, I was the favorite.
DAVID: That's Greg.
GREG LOUGANIS: And then in the prelims—fortunately, it was prelims ...
DAVID: Something Greg never expected to happen happened.
GREG LOUGANIS: Yeah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: We're at the diving venue, Jamsil indoor swimming pool. The preliminaries of the mens' three-meter springboard.]
LATIF: Greg has done eight dives. He steps up to the board for his ninth dive.
LULU: Wait. I feel like I need a visual. What does he look like then?
DAVID: Oh my gosh. He's like, Hollywood handsome.
DAVID: Wavy, dark hair. Fit body like the Calvin Klein ads in Times Square. And you can see his concentration. Like, the whole world falls away, but the whole world was actually watching him.
LATIF: And then ...
GREG LOUGANIS: I got set.
LATIF: Takes three steps.
GREG LOUGANIS: Jumped up off the board.
LATIF: About six feet up in the air, swings his legs over his head, starts a back flip, goes around once, twice ...
GREG LOUGANIS: And then I heard this big hollow thud and I go crashing into the water.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Oh God!]
DAVID: You see people sitting in the stands and their hands are over their mouths in shock.
GREG LOUGANIS: I was thinking, what the hell is that? And then I realized that was my head.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Now we'll go back and look at it in slow motion. What happened?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Greg did not get his weight far enough over the end of the board. Watch his hips in relation to his heels. Right there, his weight is too far back.]
LATIF: Kind of amazingly, he just pops up out of the water.
DAVID: Yeah, and he swims to the edge of the pool.
GREG LOUGANIS: I made my way over to my coach, Ron O'Brien.
DAVID: And the coach is pushing the blood up into his dark hair so that the blood running down his neck isn't showing.
LATIF: Turns out he split open his scalp at the back of his head. So he walks away from the pool.
DAVID: Gets brought back into a training room.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: A strong medical staff was there…]
DAVID: And they stitch him up.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Four temporary stitches.]
GREG LOUGANIS: The first emotion that I felt was, I was embarrassed. And of course the world's watching.
LATIF: But there was one thing the world didn't see, and that's actually what drew me to this story, because inside this very public moment, this very public flop was a secret that Greg wouldn't actually reveal until years later.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Walters: You hit your head. And there may have been blood in the water. Why were you terrified?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: Because Ron O'Brien and myself were one of the few people in the stands that—that knew that I was HIV positive.]
[NEWS CLIP: The man considered to be the greatest diver in Olympic history has announced today that he has AIDS.]
DAVID: So when Greg finally reveals his status to the world in 1995 it was huge.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: Please welcome Greg Louganis.]
DAVID: He was on all the shows. He was on Oprah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sally Jesse Raphael: Greg has come forward ...]
DAVID: Sally Jesse Raphael.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sally Jesse Raphael: He is publicizing a past ...]
LATIF: And in these interviews, these same questions or kinds of questions keep coming up.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Larry King: How would a smart guy like you practice unsafe sex?]
LATIF: On Larry King.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: I'm not following.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Larry King: How'd you get AIDS?]
LATIF: And then, once you knew you had it and you were going to the Olympics, Barbara Walters asked, why didn't you tell anybody?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: I didn't anticipate hitting my head on the board. I didn't anticipate, you know, blood. That's something that you don't—I didn't think about at the time.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Walters: But you didn't tell the Olympic Committee.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: No.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Walters: You didn't tell anyone.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: I was encouraged not to.]
LATIF: Greg told Barbara that he had told his coach but almost nobody else. Because, like, if he was—if he was HIV positive, he wasn't allowed in the country. That would have been a—he probably would have been barred from the Olympics. He probably would have been ...
LULU: Wait, wait, wait. He was in Seoul but he—if he had disclosed his status, he wouldn't have been allowed?
DAVID: There was a list of countries that had it announced, "You may not enter the country if you test HIV positive."
DAVID: And if he had announced it while he's there, he would have been sent home immediately.
LATIF: But Barbara Walters just kept asking him.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barbara Walters: When you hit your head and there was blood perhaps in that water, what did you think?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Louganis: That's where I became paralyzed with fear.]
DAVID: I watched that going, "Stop beating this guy up for 10 minutes of his life."
LATIF: Yeah. I mean, it is hard to watch. And I think even then, like, people mostly knew that HIV couldn't even be transmitted that way.
LATIF: Like, the pool was so big, the water was chlorinated. You know, so it does—there's part of it that does feel like it's just like everyone ganging up on the gay guy.
LATIF: But there is—I don't know. There is one part of it that feels like a fair question to me, and that's, like, when I think about the doctor, right? The guy who was stitching up Greg's head, he wasn't wearing latex gloves, and so he was stitching him up. Like, if he had pricked his finger with that needle, he—he could have contracted HIV.
LATIF: To me, that moment, that—that is very morally complicated.
GREG LOUGANIS: Yeah, one of my fears was, you know, well, what is my responsibility knowing that I'm HIV positive?
LATIF: Yeah. Was that like a [gasps]? Like, was that like a—like a—like a—like a ...?
GREG LOUGANIS: No. It just is. It's like, what—what do I do? What's—what's the next right step?
LATIF: Did you know the doctor wasn't wearing gloves?
GREG LOUGANIS: I didn't see it. I had my face down, and I didn't have eyes on the top of my head. And that's just it: you don't know what you don't know. You're dealing with this situation in that moment.
LATIF: What is your—like, just walk me through your internal monologue.
GREG LOUGANIS: Well, you know, the thing is, I mean, one thing that I learned just through practice, through my years and years and years of performing, is always asking myself, "What do I have control of?" Usually not much. Okay, there were no latex gloves. Okay, that's not in my control. And so it's basically letting it go.
LATIF: After we talked to Greg, I just—like, I kept thinking, like, he's—he's right. There's nothing he could've done about the accident, nothing he could've done about the doctor not wearing gloves. But I did keep thinking, like, he did have control over whether or not he told the guy.
DAVID: Yeah, but you're making it sound so simple. Put yourself in his shoes. Put yourself in his Speedo.
DAVID: And think about what just happened, all that's at stake.
DAVID: You know, when he came out as HIV-positive and gay, I'm relieved and feeling like I'm not the only one who's thinking about this kind of thing. I think me and HIV-positive people around the world—because I tested positive in '87, a little earlier than he did.
DAVID: And I got this job to sing at Tokyo Disneyland, and I needed this job really badly. And I was very familiar with that list of countries that you're forbidden to enter. And Japan is on there too. And I'm coming into Narita Airport outside Tokyo in this very formal, very polite English but Japanese thought kind of sign. It says, "Hello. If you are HIV positive, please step over here and register." And I remember walking under that going, "You have gotta be kidding me. I am not saying a word." So when I'm hearing Latif go back about "What were you thinking at the moment," well, you kind of think about that moment every day of I'm in the kitchen and I'm having dinner with friends and I cut myself and what do I do? I'm not gonna announce to everyone I'm HIV-positive, but I'm gonna make sure I clean it up, run it under water, get it bandaged up and have my heart stop pounding. So to zoom in on "Did you make the right choice in that moment when you're getting stitched up?" is an understandable question but I mean, think about all the secrets you gotta keep because you have to keep them.
LATIF: The part of that that I, like—yeah, that I, like, really hadn't considered was this feeling that it's like this one moment however, you know, highly public it was, it was just like one moment in a string of so many moments like this.
LATIF: So I guess to end the story of this moment, what happened next?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: They checked him over.]
DAVID: Okay. So Greg finishes getting stitched up, and he goes to talk to his coach.
GREG LOUGANIS: He said, "You know, you can pack up, you don't have to get back on the board."
DAVID: We could just go home.
GREG LOUGANIS: But I was in fifth place. I turned to my coach and, you know, said that we've worked too long and hard. He said okay.
DAVID: They're not gonna go home. They're gonna keep going.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: He will continue in the competition.]
DAVID: So he gets back on the board.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: He has two dives remaining.]
GREG LOUGANIS: I heard an audible gasp from the audience.
DAVID: I remember watching it, and I just held my breath for you to take that next dive.
GREG LOUGANIS: Yep. Yeah, because you didn't know what was gonna happen, right?
GREG LOUGANIS: I didn't know what was gonna happen either. But it's the Olympic Games.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Yes!]
DAVID: First dive? Nails it.
GREG LOUGANIS: It was the highest-scoring dive of the Olympic Games.
DAVID: Does the next dive.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: What an athlete!]
DAVID: And he's going to the finals.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Definitely in the finals.]
DAVID: Next night in the finals, he wins gold in the springboard. And then ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: The final dive of his competition.]
DAVID: He's up for gold on the platform.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: His last chance.]
GREG LOUGANIS: A dive takes less than three seconds.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Louganis wins his second gold medal of these Olympics, becoming the first man to win both the platform and the springboard competition in two Olympic games.]
LATIF: Coming up: two more flops. One into the water and one out of it.
LULU: Lulu. Radiolab. That was me flopping. It's a flop show. Flop show! All right. Our next flop comes to us from ...
RACHAEL CUSICK: Flippity floppity.
RACHAEL: Flippity flop.
LULU: Yeah. Producer Rachael Cusick.
RACHAEL: Okay, I'm gonna start this by telling you about a time when I didn't flop but I wished I had.
LULU: Oh, the flop that got away!
LULU: All right, Rach. Please explain.
RACHAEL: Okay, so last summer I was in Utah with a friend, and it was just brutally hot.
TAMAR: It was so hot that we were in a parking lot, and the temperature read 114 degrees.
RACHAEL: That is my friend who I was with. Her name is Tamar. And Tamar being Tamar, she went onto Google and found a public pool for us to go to. So we drove a few towns over, put on our bathing suits and walked out on the deck.
TAMAR: And it's clearly like the place to be on a day like today. Pool noodles slapping the water and, like, all this laughter.
RACHAEL: And the centerpiece of it all was the diving board. Now Tamar is, like, immediately giddy.
TAMAR: These are my people, the people at the diving board.
RACHAEL: She leaves me behind and gets in line with ...
TAMAR: A range of six year olds to 12 year olds.
RACHAEL: She got onto the highest diving board and jumped. And she just looked so happy. Like, so perfectly carefree. But that's not how I felt at all.
RACHAEL: Growing up, I just was the one in my family who was the heaviest and in my friends who was the heaviest. And so as I grew up, the pool was where I was at my most vulnerable. Like, there wasn't any hiding from clothes. And so I kind of trained myself to be as small as I possibly could at the pool. So that day in Utah, I'm at a crowded pool of strangers, and I'm like, "How can I get myself in that pool as fast as possible but also, like, as quietly as possible?"
RACHAEL: I'm, like, looking at the pool, searching for the corner furthest away from the eyes at the diving board. Like, the cool lifeguards, they were off to the left. I gotta, like, stay away from them. Meanwhile, I was 25 years old. I am, like, a great person. Like, I should not be strategizing away from the lifeguard in the bucket hat, but that's where we were that day.
RACHAEL: And then I see that there's, like, awkward kids in the corner. So I head their way. I looked both ways to make sure no one's watching me, and then slowly, carefully, like I'm putting a potato into a pot of boiling water, I slink my body into the pool.
LULU: So it's just disappear?
TAMAR: You know, this entire time, Rach, just so you know, were just kind of like bathing with all of your body submerged except for your shoulders and your head.
RACHAEL: [laughs] It was like an alligator.
TAMAR: You looked kind of like just—not sad, but just let down. I feel like almost you shut down in a way.
RACHAEL: And she was right. Like, I felt defeated, like a kid who got bullied by myself.
LATIF: Yeah, that's not good. That's not good.
RACHAEL: It wasn't good! So—so that was what happened back in July. And then this flop show comes along, and pretty much the minute we get this prompt ...
[YOUTUBE CLIP: Oh! Whoo!]
RACHAEL: I turned on YouTube and started binging videos ...
[YOUTUBE CLIP: It's our eighth annual pedestrian belly flop competition.]
RACHAEL: ... of belly flops. And I was spending hours doing this.
[YOUTUBE CLIP: That was postcard belly flopping!]
[YOUTUBE CLIP: I will show you how to do it from any height.]
RACHAEL: I watched people who were giving tutorials.
[YOUTUBE CLIP: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to Oslo, Norway, world championship of ...]
RACHAEL: I learned that the Norwegians have a national sport dedicated to the belly flop. I ...
[YOUTUBE CLIP: Signature move!]
RACHAEL: ... became ...
[YOUTUBE CLIP: The starfish!]
RACHAEL: ... obsessed with the belly flop. And I didn't even know why. Like, I'm staring at these videos of belly flops the way that you stare at your fridge when you're really hungry and you don't even know what you need to eat. But then I watched this one video. It's of these manta rays that jump out of the water and then they, like, kind of sail and then they plop down like a pancake.
[YOUTUBE CLIP: The higher they leap, the bigger the bang.]
RACHAEL: These manta rays and their belly flops, they are the opposite of me in that pool last summer. And watching them, I was like, "I want someone to teach me to do that."
RACHAEL: All right after you, folks.
CHRIS MILLER: Okay.
RACHAEL: Here we go!
RACHAEL: And so ...
CHRIS MILLER: All right.
ANNIE: Okay, let's go change. We'll see you in a minute.
CHRIS MILLER: Yep.
RACHAEL: Annie McEwen and I ...
ANNIE: You never know where life will take you.
RACHAEL: ... drive up to Boston and belly flop with the ultimate belly-flopper.
CHRIS MILLER: I'm Chris Miller. I'm—I'm Lulu Miller's father. [laughs] And I think that's why I'm here, but it is true that I have been belly-flopping for about 70 years.
LULU: As I know, you guys were like, "We need someone." And I was like, "I've got a real B-lister." Like, he's got no plans. And it's one of his only interests. [laughs]
ANNIE: Oh it smells like a pool.
RACHAEL: Oh it smells great.
CHRIS MILLER: I don't even need my own towel.
RACHAEL: So the three of us meet up at a hotel pool.
ANNIE: Should we test the water temperature?
CHRIS MILLER: Oh, I'm sure it's gonna be—oh, it's a bath.
RACHAEL: We're out on the deck, and even though it was November, the pool was empty. Like, no one was there. I still felt that feeling from the summer lurking.
RACHAEL: I'm afraid to, like, even try.
RACHAEL: But honestly, the minute that feeling bubbled up for me, Lulu, your dad was like ...
CHRIS MILLER: Do you want to have a demonstration first?
RACHAEL: Oh, can you demonstrate to start?
CHRIS MILLER: All right. It's just a matter of starting to dive but not arching.
RACHAEL: And he just kind of ...
RACHAEL: ... flings ...
ANNIE: Oh my God!
RACHAEL: Oh my God!
RACHAEL: ... his body.
RACHAEL: No way! That was the most impressive thing I've ever seen!
RACHAEL: And it just is—it's dazzling.
ANNIE: That kind of looked awful.
RACHAEL: And then it was my turn.
RACHAEL: Oh God, am I gonna—oh, this feels like big leagues.
RACHAEL: So I kind of stand like a plank with my feet at the edge of the pool in the deep end.
CHRIS MILLER: Now don't bend your knees.
RACHAEL: Chris is coaching me from inside the pool.
CHRIS MILLER: You don't have to control anything on your body. You just do it.
RACHAEL: Then I kind of surrender to gravity, and then just let my head ...
RACHAEL: Oh my God. Oh my God!
RACHAEL: ... get carried down.
RACHAEL: Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!
CHRIS MILLER: Yes! Yes!
RACHAEL: And the first thing I heard when I popped my head out of the water was ...
CHRIS MILLER: That was perfect!
RACHAEL: ... Chris cheering me on. And so there was this weird tension between, like, pure pride and ...
RACHAEL: That hurt my head a little bit.
RACHAEL: ... pain.
RACHAEL: Do you not get, like, a smack in the face?
CHRIS MILLER: You get a smack in the head. You know, there's always a price for pleasure.
RACHAEL: But soon the pleasure of the flop outweighed the pain of it.
RACHAEL: One, two ...
ANNIE: That felt like a little not painful enough.
RACHAEL: And so I just kept flopping.
RACHAEL: Okay. All right.
ANNIE: Uh-oh. Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!
RACHAEL: Oh my God, that was amazing!
ANNIE: Oh my gosh!
CHRIS MILLER: Do that again quick before ...
ANNIE: Go, go, go, go, go!
LATIF: How many times did you belly flop?
RACHAEL: I would say at least, like ...
RACHAEL: One, two, three. Whee!
CHRIS MILLER: Yeah!
RACHAEL: 15 to 20.
CHRIS MILLER: Okay, that was good.
ANNIE: What does your body feel like right now?
RACHAEL: My body feels like it's been smacked by, like, one giant palm.
CHRIS MILLER: Yep, that is—you know, and that means you're doing it right.
RACHAEL: Every time I would emerge being like that was the most painful thing that's ever happened.
ANNIE: Your chest is getting a little red there.
RACHAEL: Oh yeah.
CHRIS MILLER: Try again.
ANNIE: Oh! [laughs]
CHRIS MILLER: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!
ANNIE: Oh my God.
RACHAEL: But we'd do it again.
RACHAEL: And again.
ANNIE: Oh, shit!
RACHAEL: And again.
CHRIS MILLER: But now you can do this with running.
ANNIE: I understand less and less.
RACHAEL: Meanwhile, Annie's standing on the side being like, "I have no idea what's going on."
ANNIE: It's the worst! Ahh! You guys are masochists!
RACHAEL: But it didn't matter because it felt like I was making up for all the years I didn't get in the pool that way.
RACHAEL: One, two, three ...
CHRIS MILLER: Go!
RACHAEL: And I was feeling freer.
CHRIS MILLER: You are a hero!
RACHAEL: Eventually, I became one with the flop. And Chris and I took on the pool just like the manta rays.
CHRIS MILLER: Should we do a double flop? Okay.
RACHAEL: One, two, three. Ahh!
ANNIE: Good job!
RACHAEL: And when I emerged from that last flop I felt—at least in that moment—triumph. But also the worst headache I've ever had in my life. [laughs]
LULU: Oh God!
RACHAEL: Yeah, I think there's gotta be a PSA announcement at some point. [laughs] My entire front of my body is popped blood vessels. Like, my legs are still blue.
LULU: Oh my God!
LULU: Oh my God!
RACHAEL: I, like, called my doctor the other day and I had to, like, have the most shameful intro on the phone to be like, "So I was, like, repeatedly belly flopping on Monday night, and I just want to know, like, do you think I need to come in for a scan?" But I think it's okay. She thinks it's fine. And I just need to take it easy the next few days.
LULU: All right. Thank you, Rach. Thank you, Dad. I think. And for our final flop, I'm gonna flop us right on out of the water onto land. It is time ...
LATIF: What does that mean?
LULU: I mean, it's time to look at a fish flopping around awkwardly on land—a fish flop.
LULU: Okay? All right. So you know this is kind of ...
LATIF: I don't—I don't think I've ever seen this before.
LATIF: No, I don't think I've seen that.
LULU: Okay. Well, allow me to conjure it for you. Picture a beautiful, scaled creature lying on a dock, trying to move. Heaving up and flopping down. And heaving up and flopping down. Getting nowhere, you know?
LATIF: Like a last gasp kind of thing.
LULU: And I think since the first time I saw it, its just been burned into my brain as the saddest, most pathetic movement in nature. However, a few weeks ago ...
LULU: [singing] Rolling on up on the Shedd Aquarium.
LULU: ... I met someone who watches fish flopping ...
LULU: Thank you for bearing with me.
LULU: ... almost every day.
LULU: Great to meet you.
RACHEL ZAK: Yes, you too. I know!
LULU: And she completely reframed how I see it.
RACHEL ZAK: My name is Rachel Zak, and I'm a senior aquarist on the special exhibits team at the Shedd Aquarium.
LULU: Oh. Hello, turtle!
LULU: So Rachel walked me around all these massive tanks of clownfish and sharks.
RACHEL ZAK: And I'll show you the ribbon eels.
LULU: Sea dragons and pufferfish.
LULU: He looks like a grumpy frog.
LULU: And first of all, she explained that every species of fish has its own little distinctive flop.
LULU: Would an eel flop? Or would it just, like, wriggle like a snake?
RACHEL ZAK: Oh no, they—they flop.
LULU: And the thing that really holds them all together is that none of them, none of these flops are what she would call pathetic. In fact, when she sees a fish flop, she thinks ...
RACHEL ZAK: That's an awesome behavior! That's exactly what they're supposed to do.
LULU: ... it's part of how they survive.
RACHEL ZAK: Flopping is effective. Like, a fish that you drop on a pier flops enough to make its way to the end of the pier.
ALICE GIBB: I mean, there's an achievement there. So there's a real—there's skill. There's technique. There's just a ton of power.
LATIF: It's just flailing, right? Like, how much technique is there?
LULU: Well, the voice you just heard is Alice Gibb, a biologist at Northern Arizona University, who for the last decade has been filming fish flopping on desks in her lab.
ALICE GIBB: So let me tell you about flops.
LULU: She filmed all different kinds of species, and when she played the videos back in slo-mo and watched what's really going on inside that motion, she saw that the fish is doing something that seems impossible.
ALICE GIBB: Have you ever watched somebody dribble a basketball, and they start it flat on the ground and they tap it just gently? And if you tap it and tap it and tap it, you can start the ball bouncing up and down in bigger and bigger and bigger arcs.
LULU: So the fish somehow ...
ALICE GIBB: ... bounces itself.
LULU: And at a certain point, they kind of jerk up onto their tail.
ALICE GIBB: It's almost perpendicular to the ground at this point.
LULU: And then they launch forward, often into the water.
RACHEL ZAK: Fish didn't learn to flop because we dropped them on decks, right? Fish learned to flop for many different reasons.
LULU: Grunion, which is a kind of fish, actually flops out of the water for their babies' sake. So they'll, like, flop up onto the sand, lay eggs so underwater creatures can't get them and then flop back down into the water.
RACHEL ZAK: They're rock stars.
LULU: Or there are other fish ...
RACHEL ZAK: Killifish.
LULU: That flop because they live in these tiny little pools, and sometimes there might only be one in a tide pool.
RACHEL ZAK: And the males, they need to find females to breed with.
LULU: And they'll just kind of flop, like, 10 times the length of their body into another pool.
ALICE GIBB: In a human-centered world when people talk about "I flopped down on the couch" or something, seems to imply maybe an uncoordinated movement that then is followed by no movement at all.
ALICE GIBB: Right? Like, it sort of implies that you've hit a dead end.
ALICE GIBB: But that's not what's going on with the fish on land, right? Because even the flops, which I think are called "flops" because they appear uncoordinated, they have the ability to maybe take something that could be a dead end and turn it into another chance.
LATIF: But like a fish flopping back into the water, like, how often could that possibly work?
LULU: Okay, well, probably not that often.
LULU: But sometimes! But not that much.
LATIF: Yeah. But you know—well, the thing it makes me of ...
LATIF: Is like, when you think about us, like, we were ocean creatures at the beginning before we became land creatures. And for us to have gotten to the land at all ever, like, that was probably the first way it happened. Like, we're only possible because of fish flops. That there was this moment, there was this pivotal fish flop without which we would not exist.
LULU: Yeah. Yeah, that's beautiful. We don't need to say anymore.
LULU: All right. That'll do it!
LATIF: This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Soren Wheeler, Alex Neason, Tanya Chawla, Heather Radke, Matt Kielty, David Gebel, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick and Pat Walters. With additional sound design and mixing from Jeremy Bloom.
LULU: Special thanks to Katelyn Murphy, Dana Stephens, David Novak and Pablo Paner-Stillman.
LATIF: And thank you for listening on what was a—probably felt like a very flimsy premise at the beginning. But ...
LULU: And it kind of maybe was.
LATIF: We'll be back with more episodes next year.
LULU: Next year! Bring it on!
[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer, and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tayna Chawla and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]
[RYAN PERCY: This is Ryan Percy calling from Stowe, Vermont. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
[JAD ABUMRAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.