I have been enjoying the Olympics – summer and winter – for as long as I can remember, although images of long-ago Games are inextricably intertwined with “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” from the old Wide World of Sports program I regularly watched.
The recent winter games were no exception. I certainly relished the two-week respite from ongoing political intrigue and thoroughly appreciated the international contesting of winter sports. By the same token, I was also ready for the closing ceremonies when they finally appeared on my television screen.
As usual, I anticipated the opening ceremonies. And as usual, I drowsed my way through the pageantry depicting the history of the host city: I regularly lose focus during the wood nymph and ancient spirit sections of any opening program. But I always love the production numbers choreographed for hundreds of dancers, and this year I was dazzled by the drone formations that morphed from winter athletes into Olympic rings.
Eventually I caught my second wind for the parade of nations. Watching the shining, optimistic faces of the best-of-the-best athletes marching behind their national flags provided an uplifting sense of international spirit.
For me, the absolute high point of that first evening came in the form of the specially-chosen athletes who carried the Olympic torch up to the cauldron where the flame would burn for the entirety of the Games. Particularly moving was that delivery by two Korean hockey players – one from the North, one from the South – together holding the torch as they ascended the steps.
It will come as no surprise that my favorite discipline is figure skating. I am as delighted by the lifts and throws of the pairs as I am by the beauty and grace of the ice dancers – although none of them can compare to Torville and Dean in their “Bolero” routine of the 80’s.
But it is the men and women singles skaters who thoroughly impress with their artistry and athleticism. The double jumps first accomplished during the year of my birth have become the routine triple and quadruple jumps of today: it is more than amazing to watch these skaters vault themselves into the air, whirl themselves around multiple times, and plant their blades back down on the ice – all in time to their background music.
Somewhere along the line, I lost track of the various skiing events. After a while I just saw people hurtling downhill at breakneck speeds, jumping into nothingness, or completing impossible midair spins. As confused as I became by the blurred lines between skiing and snowboarding, I was grateful for excellent commentators who explained standards and techniques so well that I could sort of distinguish a medal-winning run from a merely good one. Still, I had to consciously check whether the athletes were on one board or two “blades.”
The little bit of bobsled, luge, and skeleton I saw scared me silly, what with all that crash-defying speed through a tunnel of ice on some version of a child’s sled. Regardless of position – on the back, face down, huddled with teammates – it all seemed like an icy accident waiting to happen.
I managed to watch just enough hockey to see the U.S. ladies achieve their long-sought victory over the Canadians. I find it next to impossible to discern plays in this sport, which to me resembles keep-away with sticks and a puck. I was, however, able to keep up with the shoot-out that brought gold-medal smiles to the faces of our American representatives.
Another winter Olympics has come and gone, and I have yet to develop an appreciation for curling. However, the American guys who won gold this year seemed like a decent bunch – even when they received the women’s curling medals.
I did, however, gain new respect for cross country skiing. Exciting races abounded. There was the Norwegian guy who overcame an early fall to win gold. In the 50-kilometer event, the skier who led for most of the race had to settle for silver after he decided against a pitstop for new skis. And the American women brought home rare gold medals as they eked out a photo-finish victory. By the way, the best adjective to describe any cross country event: grueling.
It was during the closing ceremonies that I once again realized how often sports mirror the larger arena of life itself. Is not life often a series of unexpected events, just as we watched sure winners beat out by unheralded newcomers? How often was the difference between gold and silver – or important life events – measured by the smallest of margins?
Although I find no need for a medal count by country, I do realize that once every few years it is important to allow athletes – and countries – to celebrate national pride and respect for athletic achievement.
And on that huge, international stage, I recalled again so clearly what my students and I discovered each year during our travels: far beyond what rulers and regimes would have us believe, among the peoples of the world there are far more similarities than differences. The Olympic Games give us the periodic opportunity to understand that truth through the language of sports.
The Olympic flame has been extinguished for now, but here’s hoping the spirit of international understanding and cooperation will continue to at least flicker across the globe.