I am 33 years old. I first remember watching the Olympics when I was 5, though I had no idea what was happening. There was a magic to the Games, though. A sense that, even for a few weeks, the world can appreciate the best of what we are. I don’t know if it’s growing older or the feeling that the world keeps getting darker, but 2020 needed the Olympics. This morning, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach agreed in principle to postpone the Games until the summer of ’21 in effort to forego the danger of exacerbating the COVID pandemic. It is the right decision, but I’ll tell you, True Believers, it hurts.
I was seven years old in the winter of 1994. These were the first Games I recall quite well. I remember sitting on the floor in front of the couch in our apartment in Hobart, Indiana. I didn’t know about Dan Jansen losing his sister to Leukemia the morning of his 500 meter skate in 1988. I didn’t know that his career had been a series of slips and near-misses. I knew he was from my country, and I wanted him to win the gold. Then, it happened. It was the moment I fell in love with the Olympic Games. I was a child, not aware of so many burdens that hang on the shoulders of adults. I didn’t know sports yet as a euphemism for human struggle or any of that extracurricular metaphysics that we apply as cynical adults.
It was simply, purely, magical.
Two years later, just my luck, the Olympics were in my country. The ’96 Games were played in Atlanta. I was nine, and the Games were everywhere. My school, Northview Elementary in Valparaiso, Indiana, even had our own Olympics before the school year let out. So there I was, July 19th, glued to our 26″ Magnavox, watching the Opening Ceremony. I still remember the first time I heard “Summon the Heroes,” the theme of the 26th Olympiad. It sounded like Star Wars music to me, which at the time (and still), was my other obsession. Well, it turns out I was on to something, as I eventually found out it was the same guy- someone I may have mentioned on this web site before.
Oh man, I would ride my bike up and down Albert Street, wind in my hair, humming that tune. I felt like an Olympian myself. I tried to watch every event. This was before NBC had a dozen channels to operate with, so the main network sports were the heavy hitters- basketball, track & field, swimming, and gymnastics. Table tennis would have to wait several years for broadcast, much to my father’s dismay.
That year, the hero was Michael Johnson and his magic golden spikes. Much like speed skating, there was a tension in the air, knowing the race itself would only last moments. The race was for the 200 meter gold medal. I can still remember standing, holding my breath while watching the barely 20-second race.
Johnson’s triumphant shout with his arms spread wide was mimicked into oblivion that summer. I remember doing it after making a basket in the hoop on our garage. He was a real, genuine sports hero in an event that gets no TV time but a week every four years.
2000 brought the Olympics to Australia, and unfortunately that meant the Games were played later in the calendar during the school year. To get the opportunity to go down to the library and watch the Olympics on lunch, you had to write an essay explaining why you should get the privilege. Not many thirteen year-olds cared much for the Olympics, but I still felt the need to go above and beyond in my declaration of love for the Games. That was the first piece of sports writing I had ever done, and much like this here, it was a love letter to the event itself.
You see, time moved on and life got more serious, cluttered, and stressful. By 2004, I still adored the Games, and watched as much as I could, but it didn’t feel as magical as it had when I was younger. Was I growing out of my youthful saccharine view of sport? Maybe, but it just wasn’t as meaningful.
I had bigger fish to fry- I was nearing the end of my high school career and had some major decisions to make about my future. The world was in a completely different place than it was just four years prior, and the adolescent abiding by what I thought were the rules began to morph into a greater understanding of the world.
I began to see the Olympics from a new perspective- as a political statement. I read about Jesse Owens, Munich 1972, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The world I lived in was a comfortable place. It wasn’t just that people were fighting for this or killing for that. It was that the spirit of the games that I had known for so long, that I loved and cherished, was something else. It was the grandest of stages, capable of spreading a message to the world in an instant. Some used it for solidarity, some for fear, others for triumph in the face of hate.
The cynicism and need to question authority and the status quo were now apart of my understanding of sports, and four years later, none of the controversial sentiment was lost on me.
2008 felt like there was a cloud over the games, given China’s stance on what our side of the globe considered human rights. I was much more aware of that then I was about much of the events that were to come. No one, however was prepared for two men to rattle the sporting world that summer- Usain Bolt of Jamaica and Michael Phelps of the United States.
They became must-watch TV in an instant. The rise of Youtube and the 24-hour sporting news cycle provided a vessel for more people to watch the Olympics than ever before. America was in the middle of two wars, and public support was not as fervent as it was four years prior. When Michael Phelps was in a gold medal swim, everyone had an American flag in their hands and an eagle tattooed on their face.
I was at Diamond Jim’s, a bar in Crown Point, Indiana, the night of the 4×100 Mens freestyle relay. The whole bar was watching. It was the only thing on TV there. Phelps led off and gave the US a lead, but the French team was on their tail. By the time Jason Lezak, the anchor of the team, was in the pool, their lead had evaporated. Lezak dug as deep as a man’s soul can traverse and swam one of the fastest 100 meter freestyles the world had ever seen. He had caught up with Alain Bernard as the race came to a close. Bernard stretched out. Lezak gave one last stroke instead of stretching for the wall, and in turn, it meant the difference between gold and silver.
The bar erupted. I remember strangers high-fiving and hugging like the Bears had won the Super Bowl. A “U-S-A! U-S–A!” chant filled the place. For a brief moment, its all anyone cared about. That national pride permeated the country, and Phelps was on his way to a record eight gold medals.
The pool gave way to the track, and the world was given the fastest man any of us had ever seen. It wasn’t just that he was fast. Usain Bolt was charismatic, cocky, and seemed to be the fastest man alive with ease. It wasn’t just that he would win, but by how much.
The golden spikes had returned, and their rightful heir had left jaws agape across the globe. He celebrated before crossing the finish line in a race that takes 9 seconds. He had a signature celebration. He was a titan among normal men, and his journey, like Phelps, was far from over.
By the time the London Games of 2012 began, I was living in Chicago. I could stream Olympic table tennis and watch recaps of events on my phone. Technology allowed for a much more passive engagement of sports, but I was no less entranced by every clip I could get my hands on. Phelps and Bolt, again, dominated their sports.
Life changes fast, and the constant of the Olympics every four years really sets that in stone.
In 2016, I was a few months away from buying a house with my girlfriend, now wife. We watched the Opening Ceremony from her living room. My stepdaughter, then only eight, watched with a similar wonder that I had all those years back. She didn’t understand why the Brazilian dancers didn’t wear much, but after explaining their culture to her, she started to appreciate the grandiose nature of it. Of course, she didn’t stay awake for the full ceremony. The parade of nations really fills out an evening.
Of course, Phelps and Bolt were there, one last time at their peaks, but it wasn’t their show to dominate. The summer of 2016 was when America met, fell in love with, and idolized Simone Biles.
Standing just 4′ 8″ tall, Biles was a diminutive powerhouse. She was a bonfire of athletic prowess- both graceful and visceral in equal yoke.
We watch the Olympics because there is a chance we will see a human do something we’ve never seen before; something we hadn’t even imagined. When Biles set her mark for her floor routine in the all-around competition, I had no idea that I would see one of the greatest athletic performances of all time. Gymanstics is a young woman’s game, and at nineteen, Biles was at the exact peak of her power.
The magic, the virtuosity, the wonder of sport. Everything the Olympics had introduced me to over two decades earlier was there, again, before my eyes. She had rekindled that feeling I cherished from my youth.
The 2020 Olympics were postponed today. I write this, early on Tuesday morning from my kitchen table, converted partially into a home office. My infant son is crying in the next room as my wife tries to console him with a bottle. The company I work for and the city I live in are all adjusting to the Coronavirus pandemic. It seems to be the only thing there is to talk about right now. After all, sports across the globe are suspended indefinitely in an unprecedented show of concern for the health of every human.
The Games will happen. As sure as there is winter, so shall there be spring. Life will return to some sense of normalcy. Someday, the Olympic flame will fly above Tokyo, Japan. Below it will be someone who will capture the dreams and imagination of the world, even if for just a fleeting moment’s time. There will be anticipation and splendor of the world coming together to celebrate the best of what we are.
That, my friends, is something always worth the wait.