It’s that time again, the three week period where I clear the decks to make room for as much TV as possible. I love the Olympics, summer and winter, and when they’re on, that’s what I’m doing. It all started the summer of ’84 when I was tiny and living in L.A. with my parents, the center of that season’s action. My memories are hazy at best–Mary Lou Retton on the Wheaties box, Greg Louganis springing high, disappearing without a splash, Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” playing against fireworks erupting across the sky. What lingers is the sense of excitement that buzzed across the city that summer, the thrill of being up close and personal with history in the making, the dazzle of watching the human body perform exceptional feats of athleticism. Even a four year-old could pick up on that.
The first Olympics I remember clearly are the first Winter Games after the decision to split summer and winter across four years, alternating every two. Lillehammer 1994, site of the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama. The botched knee-smash, the plaintively entitled cry of “why me!?”, the suburban princess squaring off against the trailer trash. My thirteen year-old self was captivated by the theater of the women’s figure skating competition. I can remember clearly Tonya beginning her routine to a bizarre musical selection from the “Jurassic Park” soundtrack (which had been my favorite movie the previous summer), blowing her first jump and blaming a busted bootlace. I will never forget her anguished face as she plopped her skate (foot, leg and all) in the judges’ faces, pleading with them to examine the bad lace, begging them to let her start over. They relinquished and she finished eighth.
And there was Nancy, in her studded ivory costume, sailing across the ice like the knee smash orchestrated by Jeff Gillooly never happened. She was smug and determined and made of ice. But she was no match for the trembling, vulnerable sixteen year-old Oksana Baiul, who to me looked like a poodle in pink feathers. A trembling poodle who was flawless and nailed the gold.
I was sick as a dog the summer of ’96 (with mono, it turned out, a consequence of making out with too many guys at summer camp), laid up with recurring fevers and sore throats, perfect Olympics-watching conditions. I’d seen the banners proudly proclaiming “Atlanta 1996” in the Hartsfield airport during my childhood summer visits to my grandparents. I would be sixteen that year, and the idea of a teenage life blew my little mind. Well, here it was, replete with a terrorist bombing. As I drifted in and out of feverish sleep on the couch, the elite swam and dived and ran and vaulted before me. I was too sick to truly enjoy and absorb the action, and what a glamorous teenage life indeed.
Nagano and the train whistles. Picabo Street in the Chapstick ad. It was senior year of high school, and while I’d spent much of the months leading up to these Winter Games holed up in my room on the phone, it was now family time, all the time. Our only TV was in the living room, and so if I wanted to watch, I had to join the general population. I recall watching hours of bobsled and luge, accompanied by the cacophony of wooden train whistles the spectators favored (in Lillehammer it was cowbells). My folks and I glued ourselves to the screen watching hour upon hour of action, until we knew the commercials line for line. And when Tara Lipinski beat out Michelle Kwan for the gold, my mom and I protested endlessly, though I think we knew in our hearts Tara skated the cleaner program. No one could deny the absolute grace with which Chen Lu accepted her bronze, treating it as though it were gold.
A tradition was born that year, unbeknownst to us. No matter where we were, my mom and I would make sure to be together for the Winter Olympics. She flew to Seattle from Athens, GA to watch Salt Lake, aka All About Bode. She flew from Athens to Phoenix for Torino. We found ourselves both living in Seattle for Vancouver, and she flew to Phoenix from Seattle for Sochi. We sat in restaurants and bars and each other’s living rooms, staring at the screen, recounting memories of games past. One year we hated Apolo Anton Ono and couldn’t stop mocking him and letting him under our skin. Four years later we loved him, realizing it wasn’t he who had grown up, but we. The Winter Olympics were a way to be together.
Unity is what I love about the Olympics. Despite the doping controversies, the boycotts, and the ugly politics inherent to the Games, the fact that the world community is more or less willing to come together every two years to enjoy a few weeks of astonishing athletic grace and prowess renews my faith in humanity. Around what other cause do we rally so fervently, with such positive attention? We become bogged down by the violent, atrocious, negative state of the world the media portray, and while things really are that bad, we still have the Games. If we were really that bad we wouldn’t be able to hold them. The Olympic Village would be the stuff of nightmares, of war. Our collective love of elite sport is something we have in common, and celebrating it is something we’re doing right.
I look forward to the Olympics every two years with dreamy anticipation, sure I love whichever season is approaching the most. If it’s the Winter Games, those are my favorite. No wait, it’s the Summer Games. The Summer Games are my favorite. The Winter Games are my favorite. Whichever games are on, in front of my face, are my favorite. They have my rapt, reverent attention for their duration.
This year I am on the edge of my seat, chills running down my body as I watch state-of-the-art gymnastics as demonstrated by Simone Biles. I remember how Gabby Douglas took my breath away in London on the uneven bars, and how I could have watched Aly Raisman’s intense black-eyed gaze for hours as she waited for her musical cue to launch her floor routine. I think back to the soft summer days before my wedding when Nastia Lukin and Shawn Johnson owned the gym, and we were just meeting Ryan Lochte’s delicious form. I’m happy to see Michael Phelps out of retirement, back for more decoration, his creepy mother edged into the corner of the frame by his fiancee and baby. And Katie Ledecke’s confident enthusiasm as she snaps another world record.
My husband scrambled to set up cable the morning of the first events. Not being TV people otherwise, I’d asked him to deal with the invariable frustration of set up by the time the Games began. I have the TV in the work break room blaring the coverage, sneaking in a few times an hour to watch beach volleyball (I miss Misty, and I’m happy to see Kerri back). I will come home each night for the next couple of weeks and turn it on the moment prime time begins, and watch it all day on the weekends. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing, and I can’t hardly wait until Pyongyang and Tokyo.