Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oh, Those Golden Rings

I admit it, I'm a sentimental sop. That Chase Mastercard commercial - you know where you see the couple get engaged and married and have kids and grow old and grey together - is just the latest of a thousand ads that choke me up every time I see them. I'm a sucker for this stuff; my heartstrings may as well be glow-in-the-dark red with a billboard next to them emblazoned with the words "pull here".

So when the Olympics come around, now every two years, you can find me in front of the tele. I love the "human interest" stories, a snapshot into the lives of these athletes; the network knows we will care about each athlete once we "get to know them" and therefore want to WATCH. I know it's a trick, and I don't care. I love the drama they put into it, the music and the voice-over narrative, telling a tale of hard work, grit and determination.

It seems like most of my friends could care less about the Olympics. It makes me wonder if the games have lost some of their mass appeal, but I realize in a world this diversified, everything has lost its mass appeal. So if they'd rather waste their primetime with Survivor, that's their choice.

Globally, these Olympic games are a special part of history which weaves its way into our American pop culture. Who can forget Mary Lou Retton on the Wheaties box? The Jamaican bobsled team? South Park has ensured that almost no one in my generation will forget figure skater Brian Boitano, and I'm sure most of you will wince and touch the back of your head when you read the name Greg Louganis. Even if he fails to medal in these games, Nike's clever "are you a bodeist" ads might stick Miller to your brain, and if you've seen it once, you will never forget the stumble of Lindsey Jacobellis, demonstrating quite literally the old scriptural adage "pride cometh before a fall".

It was four years ago now that my ex said to me "Nobody cared about figure skating until the Tonya Harding controversy. It took a violent act to get people to watch the sport." I was speechless; the statement was too ludicrous to even bother arguing with. Uh, does the name Dorothy Hamill mean anything to you? Even if people don't care as much about the Olympics anymore, we've all seen at least a snippet of Michelle Kwan on skates, and seeing her step down from the team this year was sad not just to the competitive skating community, but to anyone paying attention.

When I was a kid, the Olympic games were the one area in which the cold war really was fought - in head to head competition, or lack thereof via "boycott". The medal count was the biggest part; winning was more than just athletic victory- it was political as well. Maybe the games have lost their edge to some people, not having that anymore... Not me. I like being able to see the Russians and Germans and Chinese as PEOPLE, not genetic-freak superhumans produced by the enemy. There is a pride in representing your country and cultural heritage that ought not to be tainted by hate of another's. We still see the medal counts for each country, but not often, and I'm glad to no longer care about them.

The Olympics are a chance to see the best of the best compete in events we might not normally watch. They really are about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, a chance that comes for most of these athletes just once in a lifetime. From the examples that came to mind while writing this post, I see that my interest in the games is not merely about winning... Jenny Thompson has won more medals (12) than any other American, and more gold (8) than anyone in the history of the Olympics, but the long program skated by Evan Lysacek in Torino may remain just as etched in my mind. The medal stand is about talent and performance, but the Olympic dream is about courage and desire, the sacrifice of much for the achievement of just one moment of glory. This is why I watch.

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