Saturday, August 23, 2008

Olympic Fever

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for the Olympics.

It goes back to spending Saturdays with my dad after my parents were divorced. He always did his best to entertain us, my sister and me, on his extremely limited budget. This involved lots of movies, games of miniature golf, visits to various Home and Auto Shows, and hours lounging around the pool. But it almost invariably included a late afternoon session with ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

Every four years, that meant the Olympics. But actually, "Wide World" was a kind of perpetual Olympics, in the way that Disney's Epcot is a perpetual world's fair. We followed all kinds of sports we never would have noticed before, just because that was what we did together. Over time we got to see all the competitors who would be in the next Olympics while they were still working their way up in national and international events. By the time the actual Olympics rolled around we didn't need the "up close and personal" interviews to know the back story, because we'd watched it unfold. We knew them all by sight and first names, the skaters, the swimmers, the luge specialists and ski jumpers, the gymnasts and track stars.

Back then the host was always Jim McKay, and his opening refrain of "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat" became as emblematic as the trumpet fanfare that accompanied it. It was the era of Greg Louganis, the invincible perfect dive artist, who we watched from his first events as a scrawny kid till the heart-stopping final one many years later, which he won in spite of cracking the back of his head against the dive platform.

This is what's great about the Olympics. There's always a story like that, or several of them. This year we have Michael Phelps surpassing the 36-year record of Mark Spitz -- but back then we had Mark Spitz. Or Wilma Rudolph, astounding everyone with her speed on the track. Or Mary Lou Retton finally besting the East Europeans in gymnastics. Or Bruce Jenner unexpectedly taking the decathlon. Or any number of other names that would make you say "Oh, yeah" if I mentioned them.

It was also the era of the Cold War, and the Olympics was one of the platforms on which the international struggle was played out. The Soviets, their shirts emblazoned with the cryptic "CCCP," were the ones we loved to hate and loved to beat. Not that it was easy, or even possible. Back then US athletes had a lot less support than they do now (unless they played football or baseball or basketball). They pretty much had to train themselves, or be part of an athletic club, and work on their skills in their spare time. They also tended to be under-aged compared to their more sophisticated rivals, because once they grew up they had to retire from sports to make a living.

Their counterparts from the USSR, while technically "amateur" because they weren't in professional sporting events, obviously trained full time under state support. (The rules requiring "amateur" status were eventually abandoned by the Olympic Committee in the 1980's, largely because too many ways had been found to get around them.) Not only that, but they and their Eastern-block cohorts were notorious for rigging the scoring to their advantage, and always seemed able to pull a medal out of a close contest. And of course many contests were not even close. The Soviet and East German and Romanian gymnasts looked flawless, while ours always faltered and stumbled to a distant finish. In many events the US contestants were non-starters.

How times have changed. Now, with Bela Karolyi having transplanted his gymnastic magic to our own fertile soil, and with the US Olympic Committee having mastered the art of supporting their athletes with big corporate sponsorship, suddenly it's between the US and China in the number of medals won, with Russia several notches down. Between the collapse of their old social order, and the dismemberment of the empire splitting their athletes among several new countries like Ukraine and Georgia, the Bear just ain't what he used to be. Representatives of the new Russian Republic even had to undergo the embarrassment of competing in the 1992 games without a national anthem. But in the true spirit of the games, they never got a warmer reception.

So anyway, all these years later here I still am, watching from my own couch now and asking my grandchildren what their favorite events are. (They like gymnastics, swimming, and beach volleyball best.) In this world of vanishing traditions the Olympics seem to be one worth making the time for. You can call it corny, and the nationalism gets a bit thick at times (not to mention the kind of fascistic New World Order thing that's going on now), but in the end what carries the day is not the hoopla but rather the fortitude and sportsmanship of the individual athletes.

It comes down to the same thing the ancient Greeks admired when they created the original Games -- human beings testing the limits of their abilities, challenging the very gods on Olympus. Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a Michael Phelps or a Dara Torres. Someone unexpected does something impossible, and the world roars. Winners are gracious, and losers take their hats off to them -- life the way we wish it was, the way we sense it could be.

Or how about the other day, when Usain "Lightning" Bolt from Jamaica sailed away with the hundred meter dash, coasting for the final ten while looking behind him to find out why he was all alone. Chills! And always the promise of more to come. This is a guy who might do the 100 in 9 seconds flat someday, if there is ever anyone who will give him a run for his money.

And yeah, I'll be watching for that.

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