With a tip of the propeller hat to the Beijing Olympics, I wore a USA hockey jersey to a training class today (I was one of the co-instructors; we all wore hockey jerseys representing USA, Russia and the Ukraine). Right theme, wrong Olympics, but for some reason I’m finding it hard to get excited about these Games. Some of the malaise is that the summer games don’t thrill me the way the staggered winter events do; my mental images of the Olympics involve a snowy mountain, cold weather, down jackets emblazoned with small flags wrapped around athletes enjoying a guilty hot beverage. Lake Placid, Garmish, Salt Lake City, Torino. When I think of Los Angeles, Sydney, and Beijing, I think of humidity, oppressive heat, and traffic jams.
I’ve also been looking for the “story” of these games. For years, I’ve tried to balance the horrors of the 1972 Munich Games, which left a deep impression on this 10-year old kid, with the 1984 Los Angeles Games, ones I watched as I packed my things to move, at last, out of my childhood home into my first “real” apartment. Mary Lou Retton proved that in a world of infinite possibilities, sometimes the impossible happens. Summer events since then: doping in track, a USA basketball team that seems to play only when it feels like it, with no sense of playing for something more valuable than a contractual bonus, and baseball’s denouement as an Olympic sport.
The Olympics has also intersected my job as Sun is providing online infrastructure for the 2008 Beijing Games. I’ll be tracking the more obscure events online, both to follow the sports where the unknown athletes (and countries) compete and also to make sure the online experience remains one of which Sun and NBC will be proud.
Bottom line: I’m looking for a hero or heroine. I want to cheer for our gymnasts, watch Michael Phelps prove that the Chinese fixation with the number eight is well-placed (it works for this snowman), and hope that the USA basketball team demonstrates that professional athletes can have an affiliation with a power higher than money: national pride. My personal hope that figure skater turned triathlete turned cyclist Kathryn Bertine would compete at these games ended when Bertine failed to qualify as a cyclist, a two-year training and travel odyssey that she documented wonderfully for ESPN’s E-ticket. Read all 13 parts; it’s a novella-length story with all of the Greek drama you can digest. And of course I’ll follow the Israeli delegation, competing in gymnastics, sailing, judo, and the steeplechase, among other events, because hearing “Hatikva” played at the medal ceremony pushes 1972 further away.
Why all of the fuss over the Olympics? Why would anyone want to train for years, travel halfway around the world, and compete under duress with a billion Internet viewers watching? It’s not like there are endorsement deals for medalists in sailing – Americans want their heroes to play sports that are accessible and recognized, the precursors for commercialization. But that hits the distinction between a professional athlete and an Olympic athlete (with all due respect to hockey players, who are among the few who carry both roles with respect): Olympians are trying to prove they are the best, in the world, at what they do, and do so carrying their country’s shield and colors, not those of their team, college, or corporate sponsor. Everyone has had that longing, at one time or another, to be the undisputed best, whether in sailing, judo, basketball, selling Internet infrastructure, or writing short stories. When it comes down to matters of our own mental and physical facilities, we all dream.
Despite not making it to Beijing, Kathryn Bertine conveyed the moral of her mental and physical voyage quite simply: “Above all else, we owe it to ourselves to show up for our own dreams.” And the Olympics remind us to take that advice to heart, every one of the other 1,420 days between staggered torch lightings.