I love the Olympics! Always have.
And when my travels take me to a city that’s played host, I can’t help stopping to breathe the same air and snap a picture where the sporting youth of the world once assembled!
I’m thrilled we’re on the eve of the Olympic fortnight – but as the torch has been making its way to the stadium in Sochi, I’ve felt my usual concerns creeping in. Will there be too much commercialism? Will an event be tarnished by someone’s breaking the rules? And, most important, will everyone on this big international stage stay safe?
I’m concerned. And yet every time the Games begin, the ideals they’re meant to showcase warm my heart like I’m standing right beside an Olympic cauldron. I believe in the promise athletes make to participate with integrity for the glory of sport and the honor of their teams. And I trust that good things – great things – will happen.
As a little girl, I had dreams of being an Olympic athlete and standing on that top step as our national anthem played. As with other of my childhood notions, though – like of being an actress and a princess and someone who kept her room clean – it didn’t come to pass.
I was passable at standard sports like running and swimming and, for some reason, I was terrific at kicking a kickball (maybe I should put that on my resume). But a basic pattern with me was to take a keen interest in a sport or discipline – right up until I was informed I’d have to narrow my focus and practice long and hard to become great at it. Not quite able to summon the single-minded effort that greatness demands, I’d just kind of drift off in search of more activities to try. Small wonder that I’ve only made it to Olympic venues as a tourist!
Still – Olympic ideals can be enacted on small stages too.
Back in grade school, I participated in what was known as the “Little” Olympics. The youth of the city of El Cerrito would gather at the high school field once a year and compete in events like broad jumping, running, and (my specialty!) kickball kicking. The top prize was a shiny medal with the profile of Amos Alonzo Stagg on it that hung from a red, white and blue ribbon. While I probably should have been striving as the motto goes to be “faster,” “higher” and “stronger,” the truth was that if I got one of those medals – or maybe a pretty colored ribbon – I was happy.
A different Olympic motto came into play though once when, at the age of about seven, I was set to compete in a heat of the “50 Yard Dash.” The organizers must have felt that the word “dash” (more than, say, “race” or “sprint”) best captured an event where a mess of un-coached kids scampered down a straight section of track. (I also competed in the “75 Yard Dash” but, in my case, calling it the “50 Yard Dash Followed by 25 Yards of Slowly Petering Out” would have been accurate as well.)
Actually, I was a decent runner and won my share of races. (Although, there was one girl who always seemed able to beat me – I may not be super-competitive, but I sure still remember her name…) On this particular day, I began my “dash” promisingly – but then I collided with a girl in the lane next to mine and took a tumble, winding up in a tangle of skinny limbs and a cloud of lane line chalk.
My brother Rich was there with my mom, and he came rushing out of the stands to scoop me up and carry me off the track to assess the damage. Beyond a scrape or two, the only real harm done was to my confidence. And I got shakier still when an event official came over and offered me the chance to run in another heat.
At that tender age, I had no idea how rare a thing in life a proper “do over” was. Rather than jump (or dash) at the chance, I instead looked to my brother for guidance. Rich felt I should get back out there and give it another try – and since he was a whole eight years wiser and more experienced in these things, I accepted his advice and shyly agreed to race again.
Next, Rich gently broke it to me that I was the one who’d strayed out of my lane and caused the collision with the other girl. That was a real shock. I’d accidentally taken out a fellow competitor! Suddenly, the lanes on the track looked to me to be the width of balance beams – how was I going to stay in one…?
But Coach Rich got to work as he so often did forming a plan of action. He told me he’d stand just beyond the finish line right in the middle of my lane and all I’d have to do was stay focused and run straight for him.
“You can do this,” he assured me. And when you got an assurance from Rich, you tended to believe it.
When my name was called again, I nervously approached the starting line, scraped knees shaking and grit from my spill on the track still crunchy between my teeth. I glanced at the girls on either side of me, then squinted down my lane. There stood Rich as promised, arms folded and giving me a single encouraging nod. Heart pounding, I waited for the gun, took off from a standing start, ran like the wind – and stayed in my lane all the way.
Another Olympic motto puts forth the idea that the most important thing is not to win but to take part.
I honestly can’t remember the outcome of the race, or if one of the medals or ribbons I’ve saved in a box was earned in those 50 yards. The certainty I do carry is that on that day, I picked myself up from a fall, went back to the starting line and, with my big brother’s help, did the very best I could to run a straight race.
Some days in life, that’s as much as we can do.
And, oh, do I enjoy watching real Olympians testing the limits of what they can do! Images of some performances along with the stories behind them have stayed with me over the years – and I never know where the next ones will come from!
Like the perseverance of speed skater Dan Jansen who finally got his gold in Lillehammer, or the figure skating performance of Elizabeth Manley who snuck in and charmed us in Calgary while we were busy looking at “Carmens.” From the redemption for ski jumper Masahiko Harada who flew to victory with his Nagano teammates, to the new and provocative stylings of ice dancers Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo.
And, of course, nothing compares to the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid!
Yeah, some tarnishing may happen. But over the next two weeks I’ll be keeping a hopeful eye out for those wonderfully bright moments when the very best move as swiftly, fly as high, and are as powerful as humans can be – and who do, indeed, compete with glory and with honor.
I love the Olympics! Always will.