The Olympic Games fascinate me, even though I’m not generally interested in sports. My favorite team efforts are not found in stadiums, arenas, or ball fields, but rather in Lincoln and Kennedy Center or a Broadway theater. The excitement of an excellent performance, however, is a common denominator of the Metropolitan Opera, a ballet company, or the amazing feats of the Olympic athletes.
I didn’t have a sedentary childhood, but there was nothing particularly athletic about it. My family followed the Philadelphia baseball teams on the radio and once in a while went to a game, but I don’t remember much else capturing our attention. Therefore it is surprising that my mother wanted each of her children to earn a varsity letter. We all attended Abington High School where the sports letter “A” was adorned with a ghost, the school mascot. My oldest brother Don played tennis and was a fine swimmer; he was awarded a letter in each sport. Dorothy also earned hers in the pool.
My brother David managed to acquire a track and field letter through persistence more than athletic prowess. I remember he once finished last in a cross-country event and reported at the dinner table that he had raced against time, and time had won. I asked him about his team experience recently and he said:
I was a half miler and high jumper. I remember leading the pack for the first lap of a half-mile race, and then I pooped out and quit running. A couple of my favorite girls in my class came running over to see what happened. They had been cheering me on. So much for fortitude and competitive juices! I had learned quickly that I could run to exhaustion and, knowing I was there, do the sensible thing and quit running while I recovered.
I was in high school before Title IX (the law that ended gender discrimination in public school activities) and I only remember field hockey, softball, and swimming being available for girls. Unfortunately nothing involved bike riding or hiking, my two favorite forms of exercise. Mother encouraged me to go out for swimming since I was at home in the water and had not shown any aptitude for field games. I couldn’t master the breathing for the crawl but soldiered on in back- and breaststroke, although I never achieved enough speed for competition. The swim-team manager had graduated, and I knew that managers also earned letters so I asked the coach if I could try out. That position certainly matched my skill set. I loved the job of recording everybody’s lap times and the points earned for dives; very soon I understood degrees of difficulty and the fine details of leg and arm positions. My other managerial responsibilities included cleaning up after practices and making arrangements for away meets. Since I worked out with the team during their warm-up time, my mother was well satisfied. I topped off the experience by using the time on the bus going to meets to knit a maroon sweater to match my coveted letter.
Bill and I discovered the joy of watching the Olympics in 1972 when we drove Kevin to Pittsburgh to start college at Carnegie Mellon. We stayed with my cousin Dick’s family, and they had a large television tuned to gymnastics when we arrived. At that point in our lives we didn’t have a TV and were unaware of what we’d been missing. We bought one a few years later, and I’ve been a devoted Olympian spectator ever since; I try to keep my schedule clear for both winter and summer games.
There is much about the choices made in broadcasting the games that irritates me, and I just have to live with that. My cable package only gives me NBC without the affiliates (MSNBC, NBC Sports, etc.). My eyesight makes watching on the computer screen tiring and frustrating. I check the schedule and stop whatever else I’m doing to concentrate on swimming, diving, track and field, or gymnastics and any of the more esoteric events that make it onto the broadcast channel. I like beach volleyball, which is only two players on a team and looks like fun, albeit demanding, but I skip the other team games. I grieve that very little of the equestrian, fencing, or archery competitions are available to me. I did tune in for the bike race, mainly because it took off from Buckingham Palace, but it was filmed from behind and showed continuous footage of riders bunched so closely together that it was impossible to get any sense of individual achievement. They were racing for hours, but I was done with it in about ten minutes.
I am committed to this international event for both intangible and concrete reasons. The Olympic Village created for the participants becomes a United Nations of athletes. I dislike the way politics is often highlighted in commentaries, but as a spectator I often notice the bonds of friendship across nationalities, such as when a US swimmer wished a Chinese competitor good luck. At a time when armed conflict in all parts of the world is a regular feature of the daily news cycle, we have this long respite every two years when we can turn our attention to the peaceful competition of the world’s best athletes and celebrate their amazing accomplishments.
Recognizing excellence in most any endeavor quickens my interest. As an unapologetic word lover, I checked my thesaurus and found this list of synonyms for the word "excellence": distinction, quality, brilliance, greatness, merit, caliber, eminence, skill, talent, virtuosity, accomplishment, and mastery. Yes, the Olympians of today, like their precursors who honored the gods of Olympus, are at the pinnacle of their sports. Among a group of finalists, often only a few seconds or points separate the winner and the one who comes in last. They are all masters.
For the past six months I’ve been reading various books and articles related to brain function, neuroplasticity, and the changes in brain structure that accompany mastery (summed up for me in the easy-to-grasp theory that it takes 10,000 hours of concentration to achieve virtuosity in any given field). I calculated that I had done the time with knitting over the past seventy years, but it was for recreation—I wasn’t necessarily striving for excellence. Athletes sometimes refer to the desire to reach their personal best that keeps them pushing through the exhaustion my brother wrote about. I can claim that intensity only about writing. Even though I become exhausted much sooner now than when I was younger, I do have much stiffer standards for writing than knitting.
Clearly some of the athletes will have to work through the pain of a less than perfect performance or losing to another athlete who is simply better. However, in the little interviews popping up on NBC, person after person says, “It is such a honor just to be here, no matter who wins.”
These gifted young adults with their finely-toned bodies and healthy faces are so thrilling to watch, I forget the aches and pains of aging, stretch out the stiffness from sitting, and get back out there to walk. This morning I heard an Olympic poem on NPR that referred to the athletes as those “who look beyond the horizon.” Knowing that it helps with posture and alignment, I typically try to keep my eyes at skyline level as I walk. This time I turned my attention to the other meaning of horizon, “the range of one’s knowledge.” Athletes striving for perfection look beyond the horizon to imagine what is possible, to embrace the adventure of discovery. But the athlete must also learn the awareness of now, living fully in this moment with your body and your intention. In those competition spaces, noisy with the passionate shouts of spectators, the world sees those inward moments as the Olympians claim their inner space just before the dive, the vault, or the start of the race. What had been beyond the horizon is here and now.