Every four years those familiar trumpets begin their spirited John Williams salute, and my out-of-shape heart skips a beat: It’s the Olympics! The most Important Sporting Event in the World! It’s a magical rite of passage that is a class apart from any other world championship (yes, we are saying that earnestly). You don’t have to be a sports-stats junkie to appreciate the symbolism of those rings, the intensity of physical battle, or the unmitigated glory of Michael Phelps’s abs. And that’s what’s so great about the Olympics: They are Sports for Everyone.
Do you want high stakes? Take the women’s gymnastics team, all first-time Olympians: I actually felt physical pain while watching gymnast Alicia Sacramone as she fell off the beam and crash-landed her tumbling routines — she collapsed in devastation, having practically handed her team’s gold medal to China. Did you like watching Barry Bonds chase the home-run record? Then you have to follow Michael Phelps’s attempt to knock off Mark Spitz. Love stories of overcoming adversity? There’s beach-volleyball player Kerri Walsh, whose shoulder surgeries have resulted in a threateningly kick-ass shoulder bandage that looks like a tattoo from hell. Want controversy? Join the rest of the world in getting worked up about the prepubescent little things the Chinese seem to be throwing onto the uneven bars. Or if you’re just an adrenaline junkie, there’s Jason Lezak, the 32-year-old whose surge on the final leg of the men’s 4x100 relay brought his team such a giddy win.
The best part? This theater is neatly packaged into a convenient two-week prime-time bundle. We all love our hormone-defying little gymnasts, but do we really know them without the tear-jerking backstories and montages that NBC helpfully provides? It’s a minimal-commitment soap opera for people who aren’t True Sports Fans.
True Sports Fans argue that it’s the prepackaging and the brevity that keep the Olympics from being really about sports. But isn’t dutifully plopping oneself down at the bar to watch every game possible more about keeping yourself in front of the television with a beer in hand for as long as possible than, well, sports? And let’s not forget that the big guys — Kobe, LeBron, Nadal — are out there participating in these games. You gonna tell them that they’re not playing for real sports fans? I’m not sure they’d like to hear that.
The Olympics opens up the sporting masses to something much bigger than professional sports, and it exposes us to a vibrant world we would otherwise know nothing about, one in which people willingly devote their entire lives to fencing or Ping-Pong. The Olympics reminds us: These people exist. It’s a world where something as confusing and weird as gymnastics scoring has broken the heart of American sweetheart Mary Lou Retton. How can you look away from that?!
Hokey as it may sound in the age of HGH omelettes, the Olympic Games are still an ancient tradition, surviving through unpleasant politics, war, and violence. But the Games go on, and it’s hard, on a citizen-of-the-world level, not to feel a little proud of that. We all may eventually nuke each other to high hell, but when it’s time for the shot-put, may peace forever reign! Hey, Georgian and Russian beach volleyball ball players even hugged before their match yesterday. Georgia won. —Jessica Coen