The curtain has fallen over the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and I suddenly feel like my world is going to be emptier for it.
The Olympics, be they summer or winter, do so much more for the world than just bringing young athletes together to compete on the grandest stage of them all. They do more than elevating normal people to the pinnacle of sports stardom or bringing the well-known-in-the-sport competitor to the lime light for a brief moment, allowing them to get recognized for their obscure athletic pursuits.
For two weeks, I was wrapped up in the stories of the people involved, whether they were American, Canadian, Chinese, Japanese-defected-to-Russian, Canadian-defected-to-Australian or one of the many winter sports-dominating Nordic nations. For two weeks, it didn’t matter what was on TV. I was watching the Olympics. It didn’t even matter what event was on (though I did take a powder to crush Bioshock 2 while the Men’s Short and Long-Program Figure Skating was shown), I was watching. From curling to biathlon, nothing was too obscure for me to watch with intent.
The human interest stories which make the Olympics somehow more real than the modern world of the big ticket professional sports are part of the big draw for me. Also, the sort of one-and-done thrill of victory/agony of defeat thing does it. Every time someone jumps off the ramp in the moguls, your heart stands still waiting for them to land of beef it. Every time someone came around the Georgia Death Curve in the Luge or the 50/50 turn in the Bobsled, you wonder if they’re going to lose control. Every time a figure skater goes for that triple toe loop, you are held in suspense to see if they can land it.
Normally, none of these sports would concern me. But, because of the prestige of Olympic gold, I was drawn to it. All of those moments were tense ones because, if you were watching, you knew that one tiny mistake, one fall, one spill, one false move, and it was all over. There were no second chances. There were no do-overs. An athlete could potentially get their revenge at a World Cup of whatever their event was, but it would never replace their failure at the Olympics. True redemption is four long years away. Too long for some who may be too old or may not qualify next time.
I understand the plight of the US Men’s Hockey Team taking a crushing defeat on a soft goal off the stick of Pittsburgh’s own Sidney Crosby in overtime. I understand the sour taste in their mouths as the representative from the Olympic Committee put the silver around their neck and shook their hands. I understand why Ryan Miller cried like a baby, even as he was named MVP of the Tournament. It took four long years to get to this point and it will be four long years before there is another chance to gain that gold.
The US hockey team should take heart, though, considering many sports writers and hockey aficionados didn’t even expect them into the medal round and had no idea that they would be the tournament’s number-one seed. It stings to lose in the finals (especially to lose in overtime in the finals) but, in the Olympics unlike any other sporting event, you are always recognized for second and even third place. There is no runner-up Stanley Cup or Lombardi Trophy. The only reward given to prove that you made it all the way to the end before losing are conference trophies which, usually, are not touched, hoisted, carried, or kept. Olympic Medals, even those not made of gold, are forever.
It may be a “kick in the groin”, as Brian Burke (GM of the US team) put it, to go home with a silver medal after assembling possibly the best US hockey team in years, built out of the vast NHL roster of American-born players. Such is the agony of defeat. Someone in that game had to go home with the silver. Though they were two evenly-matched teams supported by outstanding goaltending, there could only be a happy ending for one country.
The thing is, when I went to work the next day, there was still a buzz about the previous night’s game. People who I know to actively dislike hockey were talking about what happened in that game before the pomp and circumstance of the Closing Ceremony. They remarked, as I did, of the pained expressions on the faces of the Americans. They talked about what a hard fought battle it was within the last five minutes and got goosebumps just as I did when referring to Zach Parise’s tying goal with less than thirty seconds left. What a game, what a moment. I’m sure once the sourness is rinsed from their mind, the US team will realize as a whole that they just participated in one of the greatest hockey games on record.
Over the Olympic span, I found myself talking about more obscure sports that I would never watch with people who I know are generally not interested in sports.
The Olympics are a different thing from the pro-sports spectacle. They have the ability to unite the world in discussion more than the best Super Bowl or World Series or Stanley Cup Final. Even if you’re not necessarily patriotic, you can still watch in amazement as athletes from all over the world, some of whom are, three out of four years, average Joes who spend their free time honing their skill in speed skating or shot-putting or cross-country skiing combined with rifle shooting. Summer, winter, doesn’t matter.
There are Olympians who are probably doing the same jobs as you right now, somewhere in the world. You may not know them to see them, but they’re out there. They may be gold medal winners but you won’t recognize them on the street. Not every sport gets their own Wheaties box for recognition. Somewhere, there’s a dude who won a gold medal in skeleton or pole vaulting and is back to being a wage slave just like you and me. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole deal.
There is a human angle to the Olympics that there isn’t in professional sports. These are not unapproachable Gods or media juggernauts. These are not people who are eating in unimaginably expensive restaurants or sitting in the VIP area of the club. These are probably people who would be right behind you at the end of the line on the wrong side of the velvet rope. Except, that is, for the “dream team” sports. Even then, if there’s one pro on a team of college kids and amateurs, that pro is providing these people with a taste of what it’s like in the bigs. Unless they’re a douche. I’m looking at you, Jaromir and Alex.
Real people play here. Real dedication is seen here. Stories were abound of first-time Olympians sleeping in the family car with their parents so that they could afford to train. Competing on this stage should, on it’s own, be an incredible thing. But, there must be no taste sweeter than gold. To know that the hours and hours of dedication to one thing could officially make you the best in the world, even if it’s by one hundredth of a second or point-zero-one points from the judges, must be the greatest feeling in the world.
At this point in my flabby, smoke-filled, and under-exercised life, the only way I’m going to make it in to the Olympics is if I can get really good at Curling over the next four years.
I’m forming a team. Sochi, here I come. Who’s with me?
Keep fighting the good fight.