Olympics: Why we fall in love with it every time

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 13, 2012

By Geoff Calkins
Scripps Howard News Service
LONDON — It was after 3 a.m. one night, at the beach volleyball venue, and I didn’t know exactly where to meet the media bus, so the venue manager said he’d walk there with me. He was headed back to his place anyway, he said. He’d be glad for the company.
We talked. It turns out he had quit his previous job to work for six months on the Olympics. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.
He had a family to worry about. But he wouldn’t have missed this for anything.
“Just to be a part of this,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”
It is, too. The Olympic Games are inspiring.
That’s why we fall for them, every single time. That’s why they captivate us.
Less than three weeks ago, people in this city were moaning about the traffic and fretting about the astounding expense and raging over a perceived slight by Mitt Romney.
Now they’re celebrating a cracking good Olympics.
No, that wasn’t the formal label given to London 2012 by International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge — he went with “happy and glorious” — but what about these Olympics was formal? It began with a ceremony in which the Queen “jumped” out of a helicopter. It was presided over by Boris Johnson, the London mayor who ventured over to beach volleyball one day and said the players were “glistening like wet otters.”
These really were happy and glorious games. Even the bad news was high comedy.
American judo athlete Nick Delpopolo was sent home after testing positive for marijuana, and blamed it on “inadvertent consumption of food that I did not realize had been baked with marijuana.”
Yes, Delpopolo tested positive for brownies.
Which is not to say there weren’t great athletic moments during the two weeks. There were. Two of the greatest Olympians ever competed in these Olympics. Michael Phelps finished his incomparable swimming career with 22 medals, 18 of them gold. Good luck to anyone who aspires to top those numbers. Usain Bolt became just the second runner in history to defend his 100-meter title and the first to defend the 200.
Of course, Bolt then celebrated by doing pushups on the track. At this point, his schtick is as much a part of him as his legend. And as great as Phelps has been, this Olympics was less a demonstration of his dominance than a demonstration of his fallibility and resilience.
Phelps actually lost a race, the 400 individual medley. He was chased down at the end in the 200 butterfly. So when he came back to win individual gold medals in the 200 IM and the 100 meter butterfly it was somehow even more compelling.
We like the struggle. We are drawn to the struggle, every bit as much as the triumph. And in these Games, maybe even more than most, the struggle was part of the fabric.
McKayla Maroney missed a vault she never misses. Jordyn Wieber, the defending world champion, didn’t qualify for the gymnastics all-around competition. Gabby Douglas was brilliant one day, falling off the beam the next.
U.S. sprinter Manteo Mitchell finished his part of the 4×100 relay with a broken leg. A Saudi woman competed — and lost — in judo.
Chinese star hurdler Liu Xiang blew out his Achilles tendon in a second straight Olympics.
The American wrestler who won a gold (Jordan Burroughs) said he’s never been in a real fight. The American diver who won a gold (David Boudia) admitted he used to be terrified of heights. The female Irish boxer who rallied her nation (Katie Taylor) wouldn’t have been allowed to box in the Olympics even four years ago.
These were the memorable moments from these Games, as well as nearly anything involving British competitors. It would be incorrect to say that the London Games had the best venues or the best scenery or the best food or the best organization. But the best fans? Maybe. Every event was supported, often with breathtaking volume.
“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard,” said U.S. decathlete Ashton Easton, talking about the track venue.
Said gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin: “You just had to pretend they were rooting for you, and it was fine.”
She laughed at that. It was a great year for the Americans, who upset China in the medal race, with 104 medals, 46 of them gold. But it’s telling none of those victories produced the moment of the Olympics.
That was shared by a white sprinter from South Africa born with no legs, and a black sprinter from a country that had never won a medal.
The white runner was Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner,” who fought for years for the right to run in the games. The sprinter was Kirani James, the ultimate champion, from the country of Grenada.
You wondered how the other athletes would treat someone like Pistorius. Or, you wondered until James asked Pistorius — in the ultimate sign of respect — if he’d be willing to trade bibs with him.
“As soon as we crossed the finish line, we’re friends,” said Pistorius, simply. “It’s what the Olympics is all about.”