The Olympics are more than just athletic contests. They’re an unlikely moment of grace and connection, even for those of us at home on the couch.
Women dance around the Olympic flame burning in a cauldron, during the handover ceremony in Athens when
Another Olympic summer is already here. They seem so long in arriving, yet I always think, “Already?” The length of four years can bracket many of our personal “eras”—high school, college, a presidency. My memory loops back to 1996, with its indelible images of victory, defeat, grace and failure. And oxygen tanks.
Not at the Games—in Atlanta that year—but in our living room.
That hot Brooklyn summer, a dear old friend, an iron-willed sprite named Merian, had been released from the hospital after a crisis with emphysema, and sent home with two intimidating tanks of oxygen: a small one to keep tethered to her nostrils with a coiling tube, and a big one to refill the small one. Shortly thereafter, she lost her apartment, and was too fragile to battle New York’s brutal real-estate market in search of another. So Merian was living, basically, on our couch.
Bonding over the “Magnificent Seven”
Even breathless and homeless, Merian was a cheerful and resourceful guest. An unlikely sports fan, she couldn’t get us excited about her beloved Knicks or Yankees, but every night we shared a glorious time rooting for Team U.S.A. That year, all eyes were on the “Magnificent Seven,” our women’s gymnastics team. We hollered and cried together when tiny Kerri Strug, after sticking her vault on an injured ankle, was carried by her coach onto the podium for her medal. Merian, prisoner of her body, lost herself joyfully in the turning, flying athletes, the feats of endurance and strength and skill.
The nightly Games were our shared distraction from her crisis, but more: a reminder of the endless replenishment of life and youth. By summer’s end, when the gymnasts were gone from Atlanta, Merian was gone from our living room, carried downstairs as lightly as Kerri Strug by a paramedic to an ambulance and thence to the hospital ventilator unit where she would live out her remaining days (with, whenever possible, a Yankees game on the TV set above her bed).
|As these super-athletes’ feats are beamed across the globe, so many of us hold our collective breath—in living rooms and beach houses, hospitals and prisons, anywhere there’s a screen.|
The Olympics are faltering in the ratings these days, and many dismiss the Games as commercialized, irrelevant, or worse. But “unreal” as they are, the Olympics remain one of the few culture-wide experiences that we can all share in something like real time. Other mega-events hold some of that power, but no World Series or Super Bowl aspires to global reach or the glory of ancient Greece. As these super-athletes’ feats are beamed across the globe, so many of us hold our collective breath—in living rooms and beach houses, hospitals and prisons, anywhere there’s a screen.
Each stellar routine, record-breaking dash, or podium moment intersects with millions of ordinary lives, lifting our sights every four years from our daily drama and often bookmarking a time and place forever. The Games are indeed bizarre and contrived, the events esoteric (synchronized swimming?), and the entertainment value inconsistent. But I believe they retain the power to dissolve our selfish concerns into a fleeting glimpse of idealism, hope and triumph (not to mention chin-quivering poise in the face of cruel defeat).
The games are a gift of transcendence
Have the Olympics ever been an unlikely channel of grace in your life? Ever had an Olympic season that intersected with some personal pentathlon of endurance, an epic stumble or victory, a delicious private joke you shared with another or a transformative epiphany you never shared with anyone? Was it Munich or Moscow, Seoul or Sydney, Athens or Beijing? Perhaps it’s the very idea of the Olympics that strikes a chord: the gift of some transcendence, even with scoreboards and Lycra costumes, that spills over into our own lives, where the toughest moments usually go unremarked and uncelebrated.
This summer promises to be another timely arrival for the Olympics as I journey with my dearest friend through a recurrence of her very serious illness. So far, it’s been a season of private loss and sorrow, and of public cynicism, vitriol, and terror in the news. Call me corny or gullible, but I can hardly wait to hit the couch—with friends and family next to me, I hope—to make ruthless fun of the opening ceremonies … and then to root for the finest athletes on earth. Light that torch in Rio; we’ll look up from wherever we are, and be watching, together.
The Olympic Flame at Praca da Candelaria downtown Rio de Janeiro during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alexander Hassenstein | Getty Images
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