Winter Olympics Thoughts

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

That was the memorable intro to the ABC Wide World of Sports, a great TV show that ran on late Saturday afternoons in the 1960s-1990s. It catches what the Olympic Games are all about. There are many reasons not to watch the Olympics. Here are some (you may others to add):

  • They are too nationalistic.
  • There is widespread cheating.
  • There is illegal doping.
  • Some of the events look like they were invented by people doing too much doping.

And yet, there are so many good reasons to watch, namely:

“The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

I don’t love the agony of defeat, but the great majority of athletes that make it to the games go home without a medal. And the much greater crowd of athletes that train for the games don’t even make it on to their national teams. It’s that way across the board. Tomorrow, as I write this, the Rams or Bengals will win the Super Bowl. Back in September, 32 teams started the season with high hopes. Thirty-one will have ended the season without the big trophy. Athletic competition teaches us that we aren’t very likely to win the last race, the big prize, the ultimate goal.

In these games, at the mid-point, I was most moved by what happened to Nick Baumgarten. Nick has been a crazy snowboarder for almost two decades and has been on US Olympic teams since 2012, but without a medal. He made the team again this year at the age of—get this—40. On Thursday night, our time, he finished tenth in the snowboard cross men’s singles. And he wept before the NBC interviewer and millions watching, as he saw his last chance for a medal slip away. Nick is bigger and older than most in his sport, so his agony was all the more pronounced. But, he then got placed on the snowboard cross team event (one woman and one man form a team) with the gold medal winning Lindsey Jacobellis, herself 36, racing against youngsters. He won the men’s race and then watched at the finish line as Lindsey won the women’s race. Tears are flowing. Nick will return to Iron River MI with a medal: a gold medal. Though I am 35 years older than Nick, I think I’m his age as I watch him in this crazy, exciting event in which I want to compete (and believe I would be about as good as Nick). Nick has broken numerous bones and endured operations over the years. And the hours and hours and hours of training. And the personal expense. And the sacrifice. He had good reason to call it a career after not winning a medal four years ago. But now he knows “the thrill of victory” and that on the biggest international stage there is for athletic competition.

I continue to be troubled by the nationalism, commercialism, politicization of these games. And I think ice dancing should not be a medal sport (my wife loves ice dancing and I can’t convince her about this!). I want the majority of events not decided by nationalistic judges. I want most events decided by what happens on the playing field: who crossed the finished line first, who jumped the highest, who hit the most targets, etc. I trust Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to tell me what happened on the ice in figure skating, but I don’t always trust the judges.

Maybe we should blame the ABC Wide World of Sports for some of this. They found quirky events in Podunk places and made us care. They showed us people striving for the thrill of victory and far more often dealing with the agony of defeat. For that I am glad. Let the games continue. And keep room on the team for an occasional over the hill but not admitting it athlete like Nick Baumgarten. After all, he is about my age.

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