A few weeks ago I undertook the massive endeavor of cleaning out my closet, a task somewhere around six years in the making. In one box, among the myriad nondescript birthday cards and school papers, I found a collection of newspaper clippings from 2004, several of which had pictures of a young girl, clad in sparkling red spandex, face strained in the tight and self-oblivious concentration only an Olympic athlete will ever understand completely. Her name: Carly Patterson. Not long after the photograph was taken, she was wearing a gold medal around her neck. I had a picture of that, too.
As I put the clippings aside, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an eager adolescent me, starstruck and probably nursing a crush, carefully cutting through the special edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal to extract what I no doubt thought I would cherish forever. Two years later, the clippings had already disappeared into the dark clutches of my closet, and Carly Patterson quietly retired from gymnastics.
The summer games came back around, as they are wont to do, in 2008, and I cheered with the world for other athletes, for the fresh young faces which would grin at me from the cereal aisles of grocery stores for the next few months. I yelled at my television when Michael Phelps reached for the edge of the pool…first again, and again, and again. I fumed like a drunk fan at a Yankee/Red Sox game at every seemingly biased call against our gymnasts. I watched soccer for the first time — women’s soccer, no less — and gasped in amazement as Cristiane bicycled one of several impressive shots over dismayed Nigerian heads. And as it all wrapped up, I bought a collection of John Williams-conducted music to keep the spirit alive a little longer.
And so tonight, sitting with my family, cheering Lochte toward a new world record, praying for Orozco’s heel not to betray him, gritting my teeth as an Australian took less than fifty meters to change the course of the 400 relay, I recognized a truth about myself: I love the Olympics.
Specifically, I love the summer games. Now, figure skating still takes my breath away, but perhaps all the gloves and gear and goggles detract from what it is about the Games I love: the sheer beauty and power of the human form pushing and testing and breaking the limitations that four years’ time have dared to pretend unbreakable.
There’s something gorgeously ethereal about it all too, something that even the awful tape delays and advertising barrages and gaudy commercialism can’t strip away: a sense of unity through time and space. Despite the bruises and scars of war which have, at times, temporarily marred the Olympic Spirit, it remains at heart a proverbial armistice, a celebration not merely of national pride but of humanity, of the global community at large.
It is a reminder of a heritage going back not just the 120 years or so of the IOC but through millennia to the roots of the Western world, to people who wouldn’t have understood the word “athlete” because for them the games were simply an exercise in the skills they used annually to defend their city-states and their honor. The first Olympians were citizens first and foremost, of places like Athens and Sparta, sure, but above all they were Greeks.
Today competitors hail from roughly two-hundred different nations, diverse in many ways but one: they are human. It is the common denominator, the equalizing factor which renders the Games viable and therefore worthy of our attention. It is what takes away the sting of loss and replaces it, almost instantly, with an unexpected pride in the victor, whoever he or she is, because through our shared humanity we recognize the magnitude of the achievement and take joy in having witnessed it.
It is not running fastest, but faster.
It is not soaring highest, but higher.
It is not being strongest, but stronger.
“The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” So says the Olympic Creed: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
The pundits will focus on medal counts, on favorites and underdogs, on the challenges and the heartbreaks, and let them have those things. For the rest of us, there is the indomitable spirit of participation, the inspiration of a woman being all she can, of a man leaving nothing to chance, of a team embracing, of a nation triumphing, of a world rejoicing. There is a reminder to better ourselves, to test our limits, to pursue greatness, to achieve excellence. Faster, Higher, Stronger. Citius, Altius, Fortius.