And... the Olympics are finally over. Even if you weren't fully enraptured in Olympic Fever, it was a breath of fresh air to turn on the TV or read the day's list of headlines and not have it full of the usual supply of political antagonism, shouting fundamentalists or human tragedy. Yes, bad things still happen when an athlete is standing on a podium to receive a medal, but the way nations can put issues aside for a few precious days every four years and just cheer someone on, is a reminder that given the opportunity, we can all be better, and believe in the ideal of what it means to be a champion.
Now that we're returning to a more normal pace, it makes you wonder why the Olympics remain relevant after so many other traditions seem to fall by the wayside? A cynical and truthful answer is that there's so much corporate sponsorship behind this machine, it's just too big to become out of fashion. But I think people tune in because it's one of the last outposts of genuine human achievement. No reality television meltdowns, no celebrities that may play heroes but have done nothing heroic themselves. We watch athletes compete with the weight of their nation's hope on their shoulders, and win or lose, they always seem to maintain an otherworldly sense of grace and dignity. Athletes achieve a mythic status in the global arena and they bring the best out of everyone.
I was living in Los Angeles when the 1984 Olympics came to town. The city was overtaken by excitement. I was only about eight years old, but we were collecting and trading Olympic pins at school like little Breaking Bad drug dealers. My grandfather visited us and he went with my father to whatever events they could get tickets for. I managed to see a track and field event at the stadium, and I was able to see Carl Lewis win a gold medal. It was a long day sitting on hard seats, my mom laid out very stern expectations that we were there for the long haul, no leaving early if the weather was hot, I got tired or bored, so I knew to be on good behavior that day. For all the complaining people do now about the pre-recorded, truncated Olympic coverage, sitting at a live event is a very long day, and it's nowhere near as neat and editorialized as what you see on television. On the day I was sitting in the stadium, I didn't always know what was happening on the field, there were a lot of things going on at once, but when Carl Lewis won his race and we all stood for the national anthem, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and tried to retain as many details as I could. From that point on, I knew I was hooked. Even if I never saw another Olympic event in person, I wouldn't miss the opportunity to get swept up in the storm of the summer games.
We don't have to think about this again until 2016 when the Games kick off in Rio. We'll be a few years older and likely still wondering why a giant Voldemort showed up in London and hoping some nation will wow us the way Beijing did for its opening ceremony. But the lasting impression of any Olympics is that for all the corporate sponsorship and big money that drives this global event, the noise falls away when we watch our athletes compete. In that moment, all they have is dedication and their training; they are heroes in the purest form. It doesn't matter who they vote for, who they love, or where they came from -- they are Americans, we treasure them as our own, and we celebrate them, regardless of a medal because they had to be champions just to be there. So here's to the Games, because it's the one time we can separate ourselves from petty arguments and be vulnerable enough to invite the possibility of hope.
Jaunty Fine Print: type graphic by Denise Sakaki