Alright, full disclosure to start with. I love the Olympics. I love everything about them, from the pagentry of the Opening Ceremonies to the ridiculousness of people winning medals for jumping on trampolines, I just think every minute of it is freaking cool. It’s just a general love of competition and seeing people excel that draws me in, same as it does with watching any other sport or reveling in some new technological advance or even just watching my sisters become better dancers. I love it when people achieve things.
But, as I’ve gotten older and more….well, I won’t say “more libertarian” because that sounds a little too holier-than-thou for my liking, but more thoughtful on my own independence, I’ve noticed a bit of an aversion to events like the Olympics popping up in my mind. For a while, I let it get the better of me and I avoided the Olympics altogether. As a result, I missed out on a great deal of the 2000 Sydney games and the 2004 Athens games. Which, in retrospect, is incredibly stupid. I missed out on following some great performances those years. For instance, in both 2000 and 2004 Valentina Vezzali put on dominating performances in Women’s Foil (fencing), winning an individual gold medal for Italy each year. Fencing is probably my favorite of the Olympic sports, yet because of this weirdness I was feeling I missed out on following her runs as they happened. In hindsight, that really sucks.
My discomfort came from feeling like I “had” to pull for the American competitors. Not because they were the best, but because they were American’s. But over the years, in both the winter and summer games, I found myself drawn to athlete’s from other nations. One that stands out is from the 1996 games when Deon Hemmings became the first Jamaican to ever win a gold medal in any event. I remember thinking “how cool would it have been to watch the first American win Olympic gold?”. Quick trivia: according to my best Google skills, that would be James Brendan Connelly at the 1896 Olympics in the triple jump….so that at least covers the modern era.
I liked cheering for these other athletes, I liked the feel good stories that surrounded them so often. But I liked it even more when I was cheering for an American. I mean, c’mon, Barcelona in 1992? I loved watching the Dream Team decimate opponents left and right and I know good and well that I wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much if it hadn’t been Micheal Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Carl Malone doing the decimation. I was a freaking eight year old boy from North Carolina in ’92. Micheal Jordan was my life as far as sports were concerned at that point.
But I just felt weirded out by automatically discrediting the other competitors at the games for the sole reason that they weren’t American’s. That bothered me, and I let that get the better of me for a while. It was that magical time in a person’s life when they just don’t want to like anything anyway, so it was an easy feeling to give into. But at the same time, something else happened. I became a member of the North Carolina heavy metal scene. Without going too much into detail, the experience of being in a local band instilled a sense of camaraderie in me. I found myself favoring music made in NC, not because it was specifically better than anything else, but because I was just proud of my fellow Tar Heel musicians because they were Tar Heels. That didn’t stop me from liking music made by people in other states or countries. It was just an added little wrinkle, an extra connection, that made it better. And if I could enjoy NC music better than anything else while still enjoying music made elsewhere, why not apply that same thinking to the Olympics (or anything else for that matter)?
So then the 2008 Beijing games came along. Micheal Phelps won his 8 medals and Usain Bolt became the fastest thing on two legs. Watching Bolt tear up the track was incredible and will stand out for the rest of my life as one of the greatest athletic achievements I’ve ever seen. But when the Men’s 400m relay swim race was on, I was hoping just that much more for the American team to win for no reason other than Phelps was an American and I wanted to see an American win 8 medals. And then the French team fell behind, and it was awesome to watch.
We can argue about the cost, hassle, and overall uselessness of the Olympic games plenty. And there is such a thing as being too obsessive about one’s own culture. There’s nothing wrong with a little flirtation with nationalism, however, so long as it doesn’t become a barrier to appreciating an achievement in general. The primary reason for appreciating any achievement should be the achievement itself, whether it be in a sporting event or in a new scientific discovery. But that extra little feeling of connection, or maybe even just context when it comes to something like the “Miracle on Ice”, based on nothing more than a geographic and biological luck of the draw? Go ahead, enjoy it. It’s ok.
It is just a game, after all.