The 30th Summer Olympic Games come to a close on Sunday in London.
In his latest episode of "A Fan's Notes," commentator Victor Wishna tells us why we even the least athletic of us can find something powerful in the Games' message.
"Inspiring” is one of those words we looove to over-use.
“That speech was inspiring.”
“What an inspiring sunset.”
“Ohmigod—The Hunger Games? Sooo inspiring!”
But even hardened cynics—not that I’m one, of course—can’t deny that the Olympic Games are a wealth of inspiring moments. I don’t mean those made-for-TV ones. We don’t tune in to see Ryan Seacrest. We watch to see dreams come true, to see dreams get dashed—we do.
But why? Every four years, for two weeks, we lock in on sports that most of us couldn’t care less about the other three years and fifty weeks. In fact, when it comes to the Olympics, I don’t have much interest in any game—basketball, soccer, tennis—that I can watch the rest of the year. Because for most of us, even those of who are sports fans, it’s not about sports.
We watch to marvel at people who have single-mindedly committed themselves to test the limits of what is humanly possible, in very specific ways. Swimmers traverse the length of the pool—an OIympic-size pool!—with one or two breaths. Gymnasts and divers know they will be judged not on their greatness but by how many hundredths of a point they fall short of perfection.
Witnessing that life-changing, life-affirming satisfaction of achieving a certain goal is something we all can identify with. And…making us believe that anything is possible is…what sports [at its best] does best.
With the exception of maybe skeet-shooting or dressage, these games are for the young—the very young. Katie Ledecky, who won a gold medal in the eight-hundred-meter freestyle, isn’t even old enough to drive herself to swim practice.
And when asked about their own inspiration—by Bob Costas, himself still of indeterminate age—every member of the women’s gymnastics teams cited the Olympics she had seen as a child, which was, you know, like a whole Olympics ago. Some could remember watching as far back as the 2004 games in Athens, at least on video.
Really, unless you’re still in grade school…the Olympics is about inspiring the next generation.
Now that I’m a dad, that’s not completely metaphorical. But unless the IOC sanctions toddling, our daughter’s got some work to do.
My wife and I have discussed which semi-obscure athletic endeavor we might impress on her: Archery? Canoeing? Fencing? Windsurfing’s cool, but maybe not the best choice for a little girl in Kansas. I suggested the ten-meter air rifle, but that was shot down. There’s always dressage, but…we’d have to get a horse. She just turned one, so I figure we’re looking at twenty-twenty-eight before her first real chance at a medal.
[And hey, a little synchronized swimming or competitive trampoline can’t hurt with college admissions and scholarships.]
Leading up to London, U.S. track star Lolo Jones got a lot of hype, mainly, for getting a lot of hype. It makes sense that her event is the hurdles. In most reports, her upbringing was “hardscrabble;” after a heartbreaking misstep in the Beijing Olympics and spinal-cord surgery a year ago, she wasn’t supposed to make the team this year. She wasn’t supposed to make the final. And as these games conclude, she’ll be known for missing a medal by one-tenth of a second.
“But,” she told NBC in a sincerely tearful interview, “maybe there’s a little girl out there who doesn’t think she can be an Olympic athlete and she sees all the things I’ve struggled through to get here…yeah, I didn’t run away with a medal, but there’s lessons to be learned when you win, and there’s lessons to be learned when you lose.”
As a sports fan, as a writer, and as a dad, it’s those difficult moments when hoped-for glory falls just out of reach that I find most compelling.
All of us will face hurdles in life. It’s how we respond that gives us all a chance to be inspiring.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan. He lives in Leawood. You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.