In Love with the Olympics

As I’m writing this, the Olympics are on.  My brain is only half concerned with what I’m writing.  The other half is with Bob Costas and London and the women swimming the 100M backstroke.

It’s only the second full day of the Olympics, and my productivity is plummeting .  I started this weekend with a lot of free-time and a long list of things to do.  The only things crossed off the to-do list are things due today (which I did today, during men’s volleyball) and physical necessities such as eating or sleeping.  Yes, I put those on to-do lists.  I like to cross things off.

I’m Olympics-obsessed.  Today alone I watched swimming, gymnastics, synchronized diving, cycling, water polo, and volleyball.  I have cable, no athletic ability, and no life, the necessary trifecta to fall madly in love with international athletic events.

Okay, so it doesn’t really make sense.

When I say I have no athletic ability, I mean it.  I played t-ball for half of a season, and volleyball for one season, both of which I hated.  I know a few of the reasons I was never a contender.  I’m not competitive or persistent.  I tend to quit when things get too hard. The biggest reason, though, is I just hate sweating.  I mean, you’re damp and drippy and smelly.  I’d just rather avoid that as much as possible.

But mention the Olympics, and my poor athletic track record is meaningless.  I’m all in.  I’m sold.

There’s just something about it.  Maybe it’s the spectacle, the fact it opens with a big, artistic party wherein country names I’ve never heard before are mentioned.  It could be the international aspect, getting a glimpse into how countries interact.  Maybe it’s the fact that the Olympics focuses on events that don’t normally get televised.  Or individuals with individual fascinating, heart-breaking stories.

But I think I’m mostly enamored by how hard these athletes work for one chance in the spotlight.  One chance that may only be 3 hours (as in cycling), or 6 minutes (as in rowing), or 10 seconds (as in swimming) long.  That’s all they get.

Some get more than one chance, but four years is a long time.  A lot of life happens in four years.  Bodies break down.  Priorities change.  Competition heats up as upstarts take their place at the top.

Most Olympian athletes never see a podium.  Most never see a camera.  Or an advertisement deal.  We don’t know their names.  For every celebrity swimmer, there are dozens of archers and shooters and badminton players who work hard for the same medals but with less glory.

They train for four years, in whatever state their country is in.  Bombed out gyms?  Running down dirt roads?  Leaving their families?  It’s all secondary for the glory they may receive.

Every day, in the gym or the pool or the track, for hours on end.  Their bodies are their temples, and they work them until they shine.  Lifting weights, running laps, doing pull-ups.  Practice after practice.  The only ones yelling at them louder than their coaches are their own minds, saying, “You have one chance, one chance, one chance.”

There’s something that drives these athletes.  Something that makes them want to be the best, not only in their state, or in their country, or in the world, but the best Olympian.

Part of it is about luck.  A twist of the knee, a mistimed turn, a shift in weight; all of those things could switch you from being the frontrunner to overrated.  It’s frightening and oh so thrilling.

Every four years, the national heroes are swimmers and high-jumpers and cyclists.  I pretend that this is all that matters.

The world stops to watch.  It’s not like bombs aren’t going off in Syria or Iraq, that nuclear weapons are suddenly disarmed, or that the AIDS epidemic has suddenly been solved.  And I’m not naïve; I’m sure tensions are likely high in the Olympic Village, as countries in close proximity are ones that not only compete on the court but also in reality, with guns and foreign policy instead of bows and javelins.

But the Olympics aren’t about that.  They’re about sport and the joy of pushing yourself farther than you thought you could go.  Or at least that’s what I’m guessing.  I don’t really have any idea.

I’m challenged by the idea that there are people in this world who work their butts off for one chance every four years.  One chance that they are not guaranteed.  What am I doing that risks that much?  How am I being disciplined and using my gifts to push myself?

I’m no Olympian.  My short-lived t-ball career proves that.  I’ve always struggled with pushing myself because I’m afraid I’ll break.  But the human mind is stronger than I assume, and I think I let myself off the hook far too often.

So I may go to the gym in the morning: not because there’s a small child over in Britain who is going to do amazing things on the parallel bars tomorrow, but because for the last three years, she hasn’t gone to the mall with her girlfriends if it competes with her training times.  I can learn something from her discipline and her faith that it’s all going to be worth it.  The risk will be worth it in the end, and if it doesn’t pay off in the form of a medal and national anthem, I will have learned something.  Become stronger.

But there’s no rush. I’ve got fourteen more days of events to watch from my couch, where I will be eating chocolate and posting random Tweets.  I’ll just start this whole discipline thing after the Olympics, okay?  I have gymnastics to watch.

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