(The Root) — The Olympics and presidential elections have more in common than we sometimes acknowledge. Both take place every four years. Both are fiercely competitive. Both cost a great deal of money and take years of sacrifice and preparation to make it to the finish line. International eyes watch both competitions out of curiosity and diplomatic self-interest. But perhaps the biggest similarity: One error can make the difference between becoming a lifetime legend and ending up a long-forgotten footnote in history.
Though he wasn't actually competing in the 2012 Games, Gov. Mitt Romney (who is competing in the 2012 presidential campaign) recently got a crash course on this last point. His gaffe-plagued London trip is considered one of his campaign's lowest moments to date, by both conservatives and critics alike. His earlier-than-usual announcement of his vice presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, seems to reinforce the notion that after hitting rock bottom in London, Romney's campaign needed a dramatic pick-me-up — fast.
So in celebration of the conclusion of the Olympics, and the fact that this year's games gave the media not only the biggest sports story of the year but also one of the biggest stories of the presidential campaign so far, here is a list of Olympic athletes and their political counterparts, on the campaign trail, on the hill and even in the White House.
Feel free to weigh in with your own suggestions in the comments section.
President Barack Obama and Ashton Eaton, Olympic Decathlete, USA
Michael Phelps may have won the most medals and Usain Bolt may have broken records, but decathlete Ashton Eaton proved that he has the most endurance. Eaton won gold in the decathlon, completing 10 events over two days, among them the long jump, the high jump and the 1,500-meter.
After spending the last three-and-a-half years as one of the most under-siege presidents in U.S. history, President Obama likely feels as if he has survived the ultimate test of political endurance. The president and Eaton share similar backgrounds (black fathers and white mothers). Additionally, both are known for being less flashy and temperamental than some of their counterparts, to the criticism of some of their fans and the relief of others.
Gov. Sarah Palin and Lolo Jones, Olympic Hurdler, USA
Lolo Jones, the darling of the 2008 Olympics, has emerged as one of the most controversial figures of the 2012 Games, accused of falling back on her good looks and charm to compensate for a lack of talent and substance. Sound familiar? Four years ago Palin was the conservative political darling and one of the most famous and influential women on the planet.
This year? The former Alaska governor had to wait patiently to find out if there would be a speaking slot for her at the Republican National Convention. She also recently fended off criticism from the last Republican vice president about her readiness for the ticket. Today the woman once known for her ability to make or break conservative candidates with her endorsement (remember Christine O'Donnell?) is now more likely to wind up in the news for her wardrobe and eyeglass choices.
Sen. Rick Santorum and McKayla Maroney, Olympic Gymnast, USA
It has been said that how someone handles defeat tells you more about that person than how he or she handles victory. McKayla Maroney's mother has probably reiterated this sentiment more than a few times in recent days. Maroney's sourpuss expression upon losing the gold medal she had her heart set on has eclipsed her silver-medal-winning performance on the vault. Though the front-runner, Maroney proved that that she's human and she fell, ending up with a silver medal instead, and an entire Tumblr devoted to her facial expression on the podium — an expression that screamed anything but "sportsmanship."
Similarly, since his bitter loss to rival Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has been virtually invisible on the campaign trail and on air, where the Republican nominee could benefit from Santorum's presence, particularly with the political base. It's likely that Santorum knows a thing or two about Maroney's scowl. He's probably been sporting a similar one the last couple of months.
Rep. Paul Ryan and Hope Solo, Soccer Player, USA
Upon helping the U.S. women's soccer team win its third Olympic gold medal in a row, Hope Solo solidified her place as the best goalkeeper in the world. She's known for deflecting shots from opponents not only on the soccer field but on social media as well. Solo infamously got into a Twitter beef with soccer legend Brandi Chastain for the latter's criticism of the current U.S. team's play.
The Romney campaign is crossing its fingers that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will be just as aggressive, if not more so, than Solo. The role of any VP pick is to serve as the campaign's primary attack dog. Ryan has already shown that he has shades of Solo in him, with some stinging attacks on President Obama. The verdict is still out on whether or not he will be enough of a savvy goalkeeper and attack dog to lead the GOP to gold.
Vice President Joe Biden and Ryan Lochte, Olympic Swimmer, USA
When a photographer captured Ryan Lochte winking and pointing confidently shortly after winning his first gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, the photo was destined to become one of the defining images of the swimmer's career (along with the one of him sporting a customized "grill" in Team USA colors). They say pictures are worth a thousand words, and this one seemed to say the following: fun, charming, a tad cocky and a bit of a troublemaker.
Vice President Joe Biden has been known to embody those qualities himself and to wink and point for impact, too. But also like Lochte, Biden has struggled to keep his foot out of his mouth and to emerge from the shadow of a much more famous teammate: in Lochte's case, Michael Phelps; in the vice president's case, President Obama.
Gov. Mitt Romney and Stephan Feck, Olympic Diver, Germany
Stephan Feck recently lived every Olympian's worst nightmare. He turned in not only a disappointing performance but what some are calling the worst Olympic performance of its kind — ever. His Olympic dive was so terrible that it became a media sensation, watched by thousands who simply couldn't believe it was really as bad as everyone says it is. (It is. See for yourself.)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can relate. His trip to London was plagued by one gaffe after the other, leading Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer to quip, "All Romney has to do: Say nothing. It's like a guy in the 100-meter dash. All he has to do is to finish; he doesn't have to win. And instead he tackles the guy in the lane next to him and ends up disqualified. I don't get it."
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.