I have a confession: I love the Olympics.
Judging by the social media snark I’ve seen floating about, I admit this at the risk of costing myself some sports cred – not that, after almost 20 years as a sports writer, I worry much about all that. But in light of Facebook posts in the vein of “Are the Olympics over yet?” and links to articles with titles such as “Why Women Watch the Olympics – And No Other Sports,” I still utter my opening sentence with a slight tremor of trepidation.
But I have always loved the Olympics. Like many in my generation, my defining Olympic memory is of pint-sized Mary Lou Retton hurtling her powerful body through the air toward a gasp-inducing perfect 10. That wow-this-is-cool image has been solidified by the grace of Katarina Witt, breathtakingly elegant even without the spangled skating costumes that made a 10-year-old girl salivate with envy; the tearful triumph of Dan Jansen; and the courageous determination of Kerri Strug, to name a few. The recent exploits of Michael Phelps, as well as several stars with area connections to my former newspaper whom I’ve been lucky enough to interview (swimmer David Walters, sprinter LaShawn Merritt), coupled with my eagerness to see how other athletes I’ve been privileged to cover – hammer thrower Amber Campbell and 400-meter specialist Francena McCorory, in particular –fare in 2012 have only served to increase that excitement.
The Olympics, though, are more than just pageantry and Paul McCartney – not to in any way denigrate Sir Paul. They have provided a background for some of the most unforgettable moments in both sports and human history. Who can forget the grainy black-and-white newsreel images of a defiant Jesse Owens, refusing to bow his head and bend his neck to Adolf Hitler? Is there a more powerful photograph in athletic memory than the black-gloved, sky-raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos? Forty years ago, the Olympics served as a horrifying example of how sports and politics can collide with disastrous force in the Munich tragedy, and 16 years ago, Muhammad Ali provided a rock-solid symbol of silent hope that spoke volumes in every language.
This is why I love the Olympics. Because they matter, and they show people of every nationality why sports matter. It can be easy to forget, in the ballooned biceps of Barry Bonds, or the relentless hounding of yellow jersey-wearing heroes, or the bounties marring the pigskin memories that bind together fathers and daughters, that some people do play for the love of the game, and nothing more.
I, for one, find that worth watching.