Our relationship with the Olympics has gotten complicated.
Millions of people will watch the Opening Ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro tonight, but how many people will be whole-heartedly, unabashedly excited? With more and more tough-love scrutiny (read this and this), not to mention the banning of over half of the Russian team due to doping, it’s understandable that for lots of folks, gold medals have lost their sheen.
While we can all probably agree that the Olympics are far from perfect, can we also, just for a moment, be okay with that? Acknowledging the regulations that are too stringent for some and not stringent enough for others; the triumph or folly of selecting Rio as the host city; the controversies that I’m sure will pop up over the next couple of weeks – acknowledging all of these, and setting them aside, can we get back to basics?
This is a celebration. Every four years (let’s consider the Winter and Summer Olympics as two separate entities), each nation’s top athletes compete for the chance to represent their country in global competition. It can be harsh: some athletes train for years only to have a bad day at the Trials, and poof! Dream deferred, or flat-out done. For the ones who do make it, though, it’s arguably the experience of a lifetime. Their hard work and dedication – because it DOES take hard work and dedication, despite the scoffers and the cynics – deserve to be recognized.
And what about us, the spectators? To paraphrase Gladiator, ARE WE NOT ENTERTAINED? Well, sure, we’re entertained. But it goes beyond that, at least for me and, I’m confident, lots of other people. When we watch the parade of athletes at the Opening Ceremonies, or the homestretch of a particularly close race with medals at stake, or the commanding flourish of a great gymnastics floor routine, we’re transported.
Correction. We can be transported if we want to be. If we allow ourselves, we can let go of cynicism and complication, whether or not it’s related to the Olympics. Instead – even just for a couple of hours! – we can embrace simplicity, because that’s what these athletes are doing. Forget politics and the economy and other grand puzzles: they are quite simply doing incredible things with their bodies. Period.
It’s at once humbling and inspiring to witness. How many of us have cheered until we’re hoarse, or wept, while watching athletes at the Olympics? How many of us have reached for our running shoes, or swimming goggles, or tennis rackets, before those athletes are even done competing? How many of us have shared unforgettable moments with friends, loved ones, or perfect strangers because of those athletes?
I for one will cheer them on.