For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of the Olympics, especially the summer Olympics. Oh sure, I love the ice skating in the winter games (doesn’t everybody?). To this day, the single most significant, moving, memorable Olympic moment for me is still that of watching ice dancers Torville and Dean of Great Britain deliver a gold medal performance to Ravel’s “Bolero” in Sarajevo in 1984. Rarely has any artistic performance moved me to tears even when I’m in the live audience, much less while watching it on TV! Torville and Dean was not only the first non-Russian ice-dance team to capture an Olympic gold medal, but the spontaneous two-minute standing ovation they received from 10,000 spectators in the arena was also a first.
Nevertheless, it is the star power of summer Olympians that remains in my memory even as I watch the current events unfolding in Tokyo: gymnastics — Olga Korbut, the Russian Olympian called the “Sparrow from Minsk” winning three gold medals in Munich, 1972 (which she later sold as a US citizen at auction in 2017 because she was almost destitute); 14 year old Nadia Comãnece of Romania (Montreal, 1976) winning three gold medals and scoring perfect 10s (she also became a US citizen); Mary Lou Retton of the US, known for her big smile and perky disposition, who won 5 medals including a gold on the balance beam after landing on one foot because of a sprained ankle (Los Angeles, 1984). And now, of course, there’s Simone, a champion among champions and gymnasts for much more than just medals.
I think my keen interest in the summer games might be because I spent most of my life teaching and grading papers, and so really only had the leisure time to follow the events closely in the summertime. Once my Mother retired and got older, I would come down to Texas for an extended visit during July or August. She particularly loved all the back-stories of the athletes, especially the underdogs or those who had overcome great odds to make it to the Olympics. I did too. As we watched day after day, we began to feel we knew some of these competitors, had a vested interest in their success or failure, and cheered them on with as much arm-chair enthusiasm as devoted fans cheer on their favorite football or baseball teams.
Those “personal connections” fostered interest in sports like track and field that I was never particularly interested in at all, but yet … I can still see in my mind, for example, the wild, gasping, overjoyed face of Michael Johnson as he sprinted across the finish line in his gold running shoes to take the gold medal in the 400 meter in Atlanta in 1996, thus becoming the first man to win gold in both the 200 and the 400 in the same Games. (He won gold in the 400 again in Sydney in 2000). I can also see the tears running down Johnson’s face when he cried on the podium in Atlanta during the medal awards; my Mother and I cried with him. I watch track and field events all the time now, even know a good bit about the various events and heats and placements and relays, and find myself rooting for my favorites who have come up through the trials. I even got teary today, for example, when Allyson Felix, a 35 year-old new mother, won her 11th Olympic medal in her fifth Olympics, thus becoming the most decorated track-and-field star in history. Good for her, for the US, for women everywhere. Go Felix!
One of the Covid casualties of the Tokyo Olympics, besides the obvious absence of cheering crowds, is what I see as a rather disjointed reportage of the events. NBC’s coverage, spread over several different channels each seeming to cover different types of competitions, is hard to follow — and don’t get me started on the the insistent, unrelenting nighttime coverage of the bikini-clad women in beach volleyball almost every single night on the major network NBC channel (even though the American women did ultimately won gold). Please. But beyond the uneven coverage, it’s those “up close and personal” features of individual athletes that I miss the most. Yes, I understand that Covid prevented journalists from having the access or the technical personnel to cover them all, but it’s too bad. Part of the joy of the Olympics is the vicarious experience engendered in spectators like me who aren’t physically present. We want to cheer our favorites, our heroes, our champions even when they aren’t Americans.
NBC Universal paid more than $1 billion to run some 7,000 hours of Olympic games in Tokyo, yet viewership is averaging about 16.8 million a night, a sharp drop from the 29 million viewers of the Rio games in 2016. TV ratings for the opening ceremonies last week were the lowest in 33 years. Again, I understand, but I also fear the distant drumbeats of doom arising even now as to the viability of the Olympic games going forward in the 21st century. The financial and economic risks for host cities are so great, and the growing political issues over human rights and repressive government regimes are so intensifying that threats to the future of the Olympics are, indeed, very real.
The summer games are extravagant and expansive: they typically involve more than 200 participating countries and more than 11,000 competitors, compared to the winter games that involve roughly 92 nations and about 3,000 athletes. (Latest figures from 2016 and 2018, respectively.) So far, the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles are considered the model for financial success, in that they used existing facilities and enlisted corporate sponsors. Otherwise, most host cities go way over budget, with Montreal (summer, 1976) registering the highest overrun ever at 720% over budget. (Obviously, figures aren’t available for Tokyo yet.)
Whether it’s Covid restrictions or civil rights legislation or college educations, everything these days seems to boil down to money, which is a shame. A major reason that the Olympics are so inspiring and refreshing is that, for the most part, the athletes are amateurs. They are not in it for the money, for big team owners or corporate sponsors, but for their own personal achievement and national pride, much like the motivations of high-school athletes and teams. Even when pro athletes do get involved, such as when the men’s basketball team won gold today under our own San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, there is reason to celebrate their uncontaminated spirit of genuine sportsmanship.
This is what the Olympics mean to casual viewers like me who aren’t particular sports fans, to spectators the world over who gain new insights into various countries and cultures, and to young people looking for future inspiration and role models. The Games are a celebration of excellence, of human perseverance and an indomitable human spirit. We need that, especially now.