I had a hard time tearing myself away to write this. The German and Russian women’s ice hockey teams are facing off in the living room downstairs. Normally, ice hockey leaves me cold — I never watch the Flyers. But every four years, I clear my slate for ice hockey — men’s and women’s — and curling, and biathlon, and Alpine skiing, and all sorts of other obscure wintry goings-on. It’s time for the Olympics! And I love the Olympics more than I can say.
It’s not because I’m a fervid patriot cheering for the home team. I don’t give more than a passing glance to those annoying “total medal count to date” reports that NBC is peppering throughout its broadcasts. As often as not, I find myself cheering for someone from some other country — like, say, 15-year-old ice princess Yulia Lipnitskaya, who marked her Olympic debut with a gold medal, or charming Canadian skiing sisters Maxime, Chloe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe. And it’s not because I’ve sat through a 20-minute bio-pic of the obstacles they scaled on their way to Olympic competition. Thank God NBC has cut down on that crap this year. What thrills me and makes it hard to get up from the couch is the realization that these athletes are giving it their all.
We don’t see that so much anymore. We see, instead, even athletes who are paid sums of money beyond our comprehension hot-dogging their way through games. Or we watch kiddie-sports where no score is kept and everyone wins a medal, so no one’s feelings get hurt. Or we watch professionals win a game and proceed to trash-talk their opponents, thus making it hard to share in their triumph.
Or maybe it’s triumph itself that’s hard to come by these days.
We’ve all become such small parts of so much larger wholes, little cogs in big, complicated wheels. No one notices when we do our best and try our hardest, so we … well, we give up trying that hard. We let ourselves be content with getting by, go from day to day to day winging it instead of having a dream and fighting to make it happen.
But the Olympians among us never give up. They never let the dream die.
Try to remember how much you loved playing — well, whatever sport it was you played, back when you were 10 or 11. Or maybe it was a musical instrument. Maybe you painted, or danced, or sang. At some point, you realized you weren’t the best at what you were doing, or you just got tired of the endless repetition of practice, practice, practice, and you quit. You moved on. You came in from the cold.
The Olympians never did that, either. They stayed out there in the snow and ice, years and years — decades, even — after the rest of us folded our hands. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not strong enough. Not stubborn enough, maybe. But I admire those who are. I admire them especially when their sport is obscure, when the financial payoffs are negligible, when even the glory is pretty much reduced to one moment on a podium and your name in a record book nobody will ever crack.
Back when my son was in Cub Scouts and I went to the award ceremonies, one by one, as the boys earned a new badge or honor, they’d run up to the front of the room, grab a special decorated staff, hoist it high in the air, and shout with all their might: “I DID MY BEST!” Unfailingly, this made me cry. There was something so raw about their pride and celebration. They weren’t boasting about their ability; they were toasting the effort they’d put in.
The Olympics are like that.
I’ve heard people theorize that we only watch so we can see them fall. I don’t believe that. I don’t want them to fall — but if they do, I want them to scramble back up and carry on. And they nearly always do. They’ve come too far, all of them, skiers and skaters and bobsledders and snowboarders and biathletes and lugers (lugists?), to give up now. Every four years, they invite me to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit — to watch them shout “I did my best!” from the bottom of a mountain, the side of a half-pipe, the center of a rink. Every four years, they make me cry. And I want them to.
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