While I watched the opening ceremonies I wondered what it was that compels the whole world to care so much, still, this far into the future of the original Olympic games? Why are we so enchanted? After all these years, why are we still a captive audience? Regardless of the history, regardless of culture or country, humanity as a whole seems to need these games.
In May 2013 I spent five days with a group of American students at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. For five days we lived like Australia’s national athletes in small, spartan dorm rooms which consisted of a single bed against a bare, white cinder block wall, a wardrobe, a desk and a sink with a mirror. While comfortable, it’s not exactly charming as far as accommodations go and a long way from luxury. For three meals a day, we ate with the athletes in the cafeteria, a menu which was studied and decided by nutritionists (read: nothing particularly exciting). We attended lectures, toured the facilities and watched athletes train. During my five days there I learned about a whole other world I would never normally have a peek into, that of the life of the athlete.
It is a life that goes a little something like this: breakfast before 8am, training, lunch, training, dinner, sleep. They might go home on a weekend, but typically they don’t spend much time away from the Institute. One Australian swimmer spent twelve years there. They said the laps she swam in the pool over the course of twelve years equaled that of the earth’s diameter. That’s almost 25,000 miles. Impressive to say the least. But I also wondered why? Why would you sacrifice everything the world has to offer just to swim its circumference?
Yet this is part of the draw, the fascination the rest of us have in an athlete’s regard, especially the Olympians. They spend countless minutes, days, weeks, months and years with their heads underwater, in helmets, under a hood, focusing on one little point like the figure skaters who spin round and round manipulating centrifugal force. All this time and dedication, for what? I suppose, for the love of the sport. For the challenge. For the opportunity to compete and for the chance to win. To be the absolute best in the world and to be able to say THAT at a dinner party for the rest of your life.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s not like I really follow these sports on a regular basis. To be honest, I don’t really care about female half-pipe skiing. Yet when it’s on the Olympics, I admit that suddenly I’m a passionate expert. We all are. For a few weeks, every couple of years the world fancies themselves as loyal speed skating fans. We might even secretly fancy ourselves as Olympians. As if, maybe, we might have an ounce of that kind of drive, discipline or determination. We can’t help it. We revel in association of our country’s beloved champions.
This is why I think we love the Olympics. It gives us hope. Ridiculous as it might seem, hope just the same. Yes, there are other reasons–the camaraderie, the sense of community that global competition conjures, the patriotism, the men in tights…. The figure skating. But the truth is that these athletes inspire us. They break records which is to say they do what’s never been done before. The make the impossible possible. We watch them execute a perfect triple lutz and we’re like, “Oh…if they can do THAT, I can ______” and maybe we fill in the blank of whatever thing it is we feel is impossible in our own lives.
Perhaps this is what the athlete already knows. It’s her secret. The mantra going through her mind as she propels herself over and over again, lap after lap, pulling herself through the pool day after day, year after year. She thinks, I’m doing this to show everyone–not just that I can, but that it can be done.
This is the gift, the legacy of the Olympics. The athletes in their god-like abilities, show the rest of us — mere mortals — our own human potential. In their muscular bodies of zero percent fat, they are temples, the purest public display of spirit and heart we’ve got on the planet. They are the finest example of what can happen when we believe in ourselves and do our own hard work. No wonder we’ve been watching the games for thousands of years. It is indeed a powerful spark which lights that flame time and time again. More than the competition of the games, it is the notion of possibility and the spirit of hope which keeps the torch lit.