Why I love the Olympics: An American Perspective in Europe
A hockey fan since the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup run in 2002 and a great lover of Milan Kundera’s writing, Lani Seelinger naturally started taking Czech as soon as they offered it in her sophomore year at Northwestern University. That began her deep love affair with the Czech Republic, where she is now living as a graduate student in Political Science and Central European Studies, soon-to-be tour guide, and translator.
Although I don’t specifically remember it, I must have fallen in love with the Olympics sometime around the 1998 Games in Nagano. I would have been ten years old at the time, which makes sense, because my most immediate reaction to seeing the events there was to create similar events for my Beanie Babies with my brother – ski jumping them down the bannister, for example. The Olympics only last for two weeks, but this way we could extend them.
I readily admit that I have a pretty serious obsession with the Olympics. Whatever’s on, I’ll watch it. Any choice between two events automatically becomes heart-wrenching. Arbitrary decisions to support certain countries over others become permanent. Nothing is more frustrating than a spoiler, which is why I abandoned my Twitter account during the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The question of why, though, is still a difficult one. How can you explain love? You can list the pieces, but the whole is still going to be greater than the sum of the parts. Always an amateur athlete myself, the incredible displays of athleticism, the amazing capabilities of the perfectly trained human body of course comprise part of it. But they’re not just doing it for themselves – they’re doing it for their countries, and their countries share in their joy when they succeed and maintain a sense of pride even when they fail.
That connection between country and sport – where else can you find that to such an extent? The history of the Olympics is riddled with moments where political events took place on the field – or court, or rink – instead of in boardrooms or on battlefields. Think Jesse Owens becoming the most successful athlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to the dismay of Hitler, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute during their medal ceremony in 1968. Maybe the Cold War never saw a shot fired, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t battles – no one can hear the story of the 1980 Miracle Game between the US and the USSR and argue that it was just a hockey game.
We all have our favorite moments, the memories that we too are able to claim because the athletes were doing it for us. We remember the victories, the close defeats, the silvers that should have been golds, the heartbreaking injuries, the camaraderie and teamwork between athletes even of different countries, the celebrations, the ridiculous outfits at the ceremonies. I’ve got specific things in mind for each of those, and I’m sure you’ve got your own. Where else can you get all of that, stuffed into a two-week period when you’re allowed to let it take over your life?
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is the athletes’ parade at the Opening Ceremonies, my favorite part of the whole thing. You’ve got hundreds of athletes from dozens of countries, each of whom has dedicated his life to a sport, knowing that he may or may not win, but that it’s worth it to compete. But during that parade, the events haven’t happened, so the gold belongs to all of them. They made it. And by watching them, in a tiny, tiny way, we made it too.