The 2014 Winter Olympics officially began yesterday, and like millions of Americans, I will, for the next two weeks, race home from work each day so I can flop on the couch and watch NBC’s prime time specials with Bob Costas and Mary Carillo and all those other recognizable faces (and puzzling ones—Cris Collinsworth?) NBC trots out for the occasion. It’s completely out of character for me—I typically dislike watching too much TV, despise burnings lots of electricity, and generally think that watching sports every night is a waste—yet I wouldn’t wish it any other way. Thus, a post about the Olympics seems appropriate.
Why, exactly, are the Olympics so great? Well, to begin with, as I sit here watching the biathlon (it’s on as I write this), it makes me think about the last time I encountered all these spandex uniforms with countries’ names on them, and what was going on in my life back then. I watched most of the Vancouver Olympics in Ryan Gym at Haverford, with my sister and friends. Bode Miller, after flaming out spectacularly in his first Olympic showing, came back big, winning gold, silver, and bronze. For the first time in years, our American female ice skaters failed to medal (although Evan Lysacek won gold on the men’s side). Most heartbreaking of all, Sidney Crosby and the Canadians beat our male ice hockey players in what was probably the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever watched. (What am I saying? That was absolutely the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever watched. This might be because I don’t actually watch hockey.)
But that’s not all I remember. I remember exactly what section of my thesis I was working on at the time because I would halfheartedly try to edit it during the prime-time coverage. I remember that I was applying to law schools, and that I was working the late night shift at the science library (I would spend the last few hours of prime time coverage trying to find illegal ways to watch the NBC Olympic coverage online).
Certainly much of the joy of the Olympics comes from the national team spirit they foster. I love how it feels as if we become a more united country during the games, with people suddenly becoming intensely pro-American and seeming to care deeply about the outcome of all the races, matches, and routines (what do you call what the figure skaters do?). This is unlike other major American sporting events like the Super Bowl and World Series, which many people watch yet don’t particularly care who wins). It’s far more fun to watch sports when you genuinely care who wins, and it’s even more fun to watch sports when you know that everyone around you is cheering for the same side. Given that I grew up in a community split between the Eagles, Steelers, Ravens, Penn State, and Green Bay (don’t ask me how the Packers snuck in there), it’s nice to just think that, for two weeks at least, we’re all cheering for America.*
Take Michael Phelps success, for example. While I am an avid swimmer and enthusiast of the sport, I realize that most people find it far less interesting than other sports. Swimming opponents argue, perhaps not entirely without reason, that watching people dive in and swim across a giant pool is not that interesting. Yet who doesn’t remember the thrill of the 2008 US-French 4×100 men’s freestyle relay, when our US men beat the Frenchmen, who had spent the entirety of the Olympics—up to that point—taunting and trash-talking our team? Was anybody in America not talking about it? No matter what you feel, or know, about swimming, that race was so phenomenally exciting that it would greatly surprise me if any American watching it wasn’t truly excited and wholeheartedly cheering for the good ole’ US of A. I remember I was with my family when it happened, and we went from being dejected by the near-certainty of defeat (to the French no less), to suddenly erupting with joy when Jason Lezak pulled out that incredible comeback.
The Olympics suffuse our existence for two weeks every two years. They don’t pop up often, but when they do they’re usually memorable. And every two years, I’ll think back in time to what my life was like two and four and six years ago, where I was and who I was rooting for. Fifteen years from now, who knows how much I’ll really remember about my first year of being a supposedly grown-up, married person. What I do know is that I’ll be able to reconstruct at least a little bit of it by starting with what I remember about the 2014 Winter Olympics and everything else that was happening to me at the time. I find that comforting.
* This is also the only time where Tanner and I wholeheartedly and unabashedly share the same rooting interests.