Choking is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we avoid at all costs.
With the possible exception of quitter, there isn't a more devastating label we can put on an athlete.
Cheater, druggie, selfish, clubhouse lawyer, wife-beater ... all are more forgivable offenses in the world of sports.
There is no denying choking is as much a part of sports as sweating. To me, though, there is no shame in it. The stigma is so unfair because buckling under pressure is normal. Even for a world-class athlete, extraordinary pressure frequently yields less than ordinary results.
It was painful to watch American gymnast Alicia Sacramone of Winchester, Mass., struggle throughout the Olympics. Clearly, the pressure got to her.
Who can blame her?
The pressure is extraordinary on an elite athlete ... especially in an individual sport. When I was 20, my knees would buckle in fear if I had to stand in front of the class to do an oral report. With the world watching and a nation pinning its jingoistic hopes on her, Sacramone had to perform in front of a packed gym 6,700 miles from home.
Nail the routine and you are America's darling. The thousands of hours performing under the tutelage of insufferable coaches, the endless travel hours, the constant pain, the hundreds of thousands of dollars your family spent nurturing your career all will have been worth it.
Muff it and you've only let a few people down: yourself, your family, your team and your country.
And 20 is ancient for a gymnast. That's why the 16-year-olds (or in the case of the Chinese, the 11-year-olds) tend to dominate. They are too young and naive to realize all the pressure and danger.
The pressure seems perverse in gymnastics, where the athletes are so extraordinarily young and freakishly tiny.
That's why America rallied around Sacramone: saluting her for her grace under pressure (following her routines, that is) and for being such an impressive scholar-athlete with her Olympic and Brown pedigree.
She might not have won the gold, but she was a champion in every other respect of the word.
The sporting public isn't quite so forgiving when the choker is a whiner. Sergio Garcia couldn't drain a 1-inch putt into the Grand Canyon if it were for a major title. While Sacramone was apologetic and humble, Garcia's act of blaming the golfing gods and everybody but the man in the mirror long ago grew old.
Contrast him to Greg Norman, the poster boy for choking.
Everybody feels for him because he's a genuinely nice guy and his name is most closely associated with the word choke. It was difficult to enjoy his Cinderella run at the British Open this summer because of the inevitable horrific crash. Sure enough, rubberneckers couldn't take their eyes off his final round 77.
But how many other golfers without the name recognition struggle to make the big putt? Watch any Grand Slam event, the answer is almost everyone of them. Same with NBA players hitting big free throws in the waning seconds and NFL kickers booting the game-winning field goal, etc., etc.
Some people thrive on pressure — Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, David Ortiz, Reggie Jackson, Robert Horry and Adam Vinatieri come quickly to mind — but most simply cope with it.
Track announcers crow about sprinting champions hitting an extra gear which enables them to leave the competition in their wake. In truth, they actually decelerate less than the competition. That's like pressure in sports, those whose games suffer less win. But only rarely do people improve with pressure.
Sometimes, the pressure just isn't there. Did Michael Phelps thrive under pressure or are his abilities so prodigious that he could just overwhelm everybody like Mike Tyson in his prime?
What makes it even more stressful for Olympians is you may only get one chance on the world's biggest stage. Contrast that to pro sports where every year you start with a fresh slate. Peyton Manning was a choker until Super Bowl XLI, his ninth professional season. Sports Illustrated, in so many words, once called Magic Johnson a choker. Five more titles made that label seem silly.
Until this year, if you had to put together a list of NBA players coming up short when it mattered most, the top three may have been Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Put them together, though, and they became The New Big 3, NBA champions and one of the most heartwarming stories in sports.
Did they all become Mr. Clutch at once? Or maybe it was a mother lode of talent and them each getting yet another crack at exorcising their demons.
Too bad somebody like Sacramone can never remove that scarlet letter "C" from her leotard.
Michael Muldoon is sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune. E-mail him at email@example.com.