Leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, my social studies teacher had us do a project – we had to pick a country (that wasn’t the US) and do research on their government and history and culture, then track their athletes throughout the Games. The bigger, more glamorous winter countries – Canada, Sweden, Russia – were chosen quickly, and I ended up with two comparably smaller nations to research and follow – Great Britain, whose only Winter Olympians I knew were Torvill and Dean, and the Czech Republic, in its first Olympic appearance after Czechoslovakia’s split and the home country of my (then) favorite hockey player, Jaromir Jagr, who wouldn’t even be competing, because the NHL wouldn’t send its players for another four years.
For years, probably until my parents finally moved six years ago, I still had that school report. I had cut out the medal predictions from my father’s Sports Illustrated. I had drawn a map and flag of each country, and I had tracked their successes – though not many, to be honest. Great Britain won two bronze medals that year (one going to Torvill and Dean in their comeback), and the Czech Republic won zero.
Still, those are the first Games I strongly remember. I remember pieces of earlier Olympics – the archer lighting the cauldron in Barcelona, for example, or bits and pieces of Scott Hamilton or Katarina Witt skating – but the 1994 Games are the first I remember paying attention to. I remember other athletes and other medals – Oksana Baiul and Picabo Street and Alberto Tomba and Gordeeva and Grinkov and Peter Forsberg.
Yes, I remember watching Forsberg before he ever set foot on NHL ice. I remember watching the end of the gold medal game with my dad. I want to say it was a Saturday or Sunday morning. I don’t remember anything except that goal, but I remember that goal. ²
I love the Olympics. Despite their many, many issues – the debt incurred by nations trying to outdo each other, the corruption of the IOC, NBC’s effing tape delays – I love them. I love them because, beyond the commercialism and corruption, there really are genuine moments of joy you don’t get anywhere else in sport. I love that, for two weeks every four years, the tiniest, most obscure of sports gets its time to shine, and for those two weeks, you can have a spirited discussion with a friend about the intricacies of curling. I love the Olympics not just for athletes like dominant Michael Phelps or Apolo Ohno or Shaun White. I love them for Bode Miller, who has had more ups and downs since 2002 than I could begin to count, but who at any moment might showcase the most brilliant skiing you’ve ever seen. ³ I love them for the athletes whose names I’m just learning or don’t even know yet – for Sage Kotsenberg and Yulia Lipnitskaya and Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney, mere children who have already astonished me with their talent and grace. I love them for the artistry of a perfectly executed triple toe loop or a 1620 Japan Air, for the mental toughness at the end of a grueling 15 km cross country race, for the recklessness abandon required to point yourself down a mountain traveling 80 mph, with nothing but a thin pair of skis keeping you upright.
I’m an Olympics geek. I could rattle off every host city since 1980. I will watch nearly every sport NBC will broadcast. I’ve had the privilege of visiting three Olympic host cities, including one spectacular day of the Summer Games in 2004. Seeing the Olympic Flame burning brightly, in whatever crazy form the host country has built, gives me goosebumps every single time.
I’m not a particularly patriotic person. I don’t cheer exclusively for the United States, and I will never apologize for that. I cheer for competition, for hard work and reward for that hard work, for teammates who help each other and countrymen and women who will fight each other to the bitter end, only to embrace at the finish, regardless of results. I cheer for those moments that transcend sport – for the Miracles and the Kerri Strugs, for the Cathy Freemans and the Jamaican bobsled teams, for Alex Bilodeau and his brother. And I cheer for countries in which I’ve spent a lot of time – France and Greece and, yes, Canada.
During these two weeks, when the flame is lit, I don’t care about all of the issues the Olympics have. I’m all in on the competition. I’m all in on the human interest stories. I’m all in on the pageantry. In a year, I’ll probably have forgotten half of the names I’m learning this week, but wherever I am in 2018, I’ll be reminded by Bob Costas of a young snowboarder who won me over in Sochi and I’ll think back to where I was at that moment. That feeling will never leave me. It still hasn’t, going back 20 years to a relatively insignificant school project, the one that first got me hooked.
- Faster, Higher, Stronger, the Olympic motto, in Latin, which is a language I always love hearing but sadly we have no reason to use any more. Is there a bring back Latin campaign anywhere? I’d sign that petition.
- Sweden has the best hockey jerseys of any country, hands down. Also, how did we ever watch hockey in standard def?
- I could try to write an entire post about why I love Bode Miller so much, but Grantland did it already and it’s very much worth a read.