The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.
We feel the Olympics more than any other sporting event. We cry with Jess Ennis, with Ali Raisman and Jordyn Wieber. We roar with the weightlifters, shotputters, and hammerthrowers. We clap for achievement, redemption, and sportsmanship and send our hearts out to the bitterly disappointed. We watch as the hairs on our arms stand at attention as we wait for the gun in the 100 meters.
It is at these moments of common feeling – of compassion – that we feel our common humanity, the spirit that the Olympic Games exist to celebrates. The members of the crowd are witnesses and the swell and ebb of their emotion are as central to the games as the athletic contests themselves. The Olympics is a time to remind us of those human feelings that we share and a time to share them together in a celebration of human achievement and feeling.
Words have always done an inadequate job capturing that swell of emotion that sweeps through an athlete, a crowd, an audience, a country at these seminal moments. But still we must try. For even if we cannot bottle this strong draught of feeling, we can bear witness and try to use what poor tools we have at our disposal to say how it felt to be here and to try to evoke for posterity a shadow of that feeling we had in London.
The Thrill of Victory
We’ve often heard that the winners write history. In the Olympics, at least, this is true. For all the montages, sob stories, and puff pieces the Olympics churns out every year, the Olympic heroes of yesteryear who still stand out today are the ones with a gold medal to their name. “Higher Faster Stronger” is a comparative motto, not an objective one. The medal table doesn’t measure feel good stories or moral victories. No, much of the thrill of the Olympic games is the chance for gold and to stand for one second at the top of the podium.
But what does it take to get to the apex? For some (the Bolts or Phelpses) we can only be witness to the winners of nature’s lottery, the outliers in physique, speed, and natural ability. For others (the Blakes or Hoys), we see the product of years of unrelenting training and the result of the never-ending quest to draw more out the self. Most (even those named above) are some mixture of the two.
But in victory, at least, the athletes are the same. The feelings of release, of exceptionalism, of superiority are there on the faces. And as we watch, we too are swept up in it, too – we feel the sense that we have seen something, felt something that will not again be repeated.
London, like all the Olympics was full of these moments. Here were a few that resonated with me, and the feelings that went with them:
Andrew and I snagged tickets for the US Women’s Soccer Final. With the entire US boxing team already eliminated, this was our only chance to hear the sonorous strains of the Star-Spangled Banner. But to even make the final, the US first had to get through Canada, who seemed to forget they had beaten the US exactly zero times in the two teams’ previous 27 meetings. The inspired play from Canadian Christine Sinclair provided our northern neighbors with 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads, all on goals from Sinclair. But the US team just wouldn’t die. And when Alex Morgan’s flying header in the final minute of overtime found the back of the net we fell into paroxysms of joy.
Perhaps the most awesome moment we witnessed wasn’t Andy Murray defeating Roger Federer, wasn’t Usain Bolt flying away from the field in the 100 or 200 meter dashes, wasn’t Gabby Douglas on the parallel bars. Instead, it was Russian weightlifter Tatiana Kashirina in the snatch portion of the competition. After watching Chinese lifter Zhou Lulu, who is herself about as big as a mountain, hoist 146 kg (over 300 lbs), the more slight (and I use the term loosely) Kashirina put up 148, 150, and 151 kg in awesome succession.
This last lift, which broke a world record set seconds before, involved Kashirina lifting the massive bar into a squatting position in a seeming stalemate before unleashing a huge bellow and hoisting the bar to a standing position. The Hyde Park crowd was delirious, simply for the sheer absurdity of it.
Do you ever feel nervous for somebody else? Gymnastics always brings out that feeling for me, as the slightest stumble, slip, or wobble is punished by the unyielding apparatus and even less forgiving judges. In the women’s gymnastics team competition, the US performed brilliantly, building a seemingly insurmountable lead. But as the Russian team crashed and burned (how awful must it be to give a performance that immediately leaves all of your teammates in tears), I was still on pins watching Ali Raisman do the final US floor exercise.
I needn’t have been, as Raisman jumped, tumbled, and pranced her way to a sterling routine, one which would eventually win her the US’s only individual event gymnastics gold. Determination gave way to tears (of joy this time) as she finished with a final flourish.
Don’t drop the baton… It is amazing that after running 90 meters at the limits of human speed, track athletes can possibly pass a foot-long stick of metal to another sprinting human being, all while staying within the 20-meter exchange zone. But somehow they do it. After watching the individual 100-meter final, which included both 3 Americans and 3 Jamaicans, Andrew and I decided that the 100-meter relay might be the best track race ever. And with the confluence of good individual performances from Americans Tyson Gay, Ryan Bailey, and Justin Gatlin and the injury to Jamaican sprinting legend Asafa Powell, it seemed like it might actually be a competitive race. Then Yohan Blake got the baton. Then Usain Bolt got the baton. End of story.
The US tied the previous world record time and still was not even close. Yet next to the sheer excellence of the Jamaican team, defeat didn’t matter. It would have been amazing to watch with no competition at all.
The Agony of Defeat
Years of watching the Olympics have made the tears of joy and the exhilaration of sharing a victory with our favorite athletes seem almost routine. But this presentation of the games (let’s call it the NBC version) misses out on almost the entire spectrum of emotions present at the games. The chagrin of being bested. The satisfaction of performing one’s best, even in defeat. The bitterness of feeling that something has been left on the table.
In the US we are often overwhelmed with victory, simply because there is a lot of it. The US has been at the top or near the top of the medal table for almost every summer Olympics of my lifetime. It can seem unfair to not cover the tale of someone’s victory to highlight an occasion where another came up short. But to miss out on the sorrier side of the games cheapens the emotional experience of observing them. In the US, our experience of the games is often a victim of our own success.
For every tale of David Boudia, there is Tom Dailey, the young UK diver came in third in the men’s diving, and couldn’t have been more excited about it, leaping joyfully into the pool with his coaches and fellow teammates. And for every Jess Ennis heptathaloning to victory and bringing her audience to tears, there was the bitter words of Andy Turner captured for live TV. “It was rubbish, that. The start was absolutely shocking. I don’t know what happened. I’ve let myself down and let my coach down. I’m gutted. I didn’t feel as nervous today. I really believed that I could make the final. I’ve had a rubbish season from start to finish. I feel like I’ve let people down.”
It’s not often you see the normally savage dogs of the British media stop to comfort their interviewee, but when they do, it makes you take notice.
Watching the BBC cover the Olympics was an amazing experience. First – almost everything was covered live, and the BBC often had the first position in line to speak with the athletes, catching them when the emotions were the most raw.
Second – they were unstinting in their questions. They didn’t sugarcoat failure or avoid talking to athlete’s whose performances had gone awry. It was almost uncomfortable for someone used to NBC’s saccharine coverage to see athletes put on the spot and asked to discuss their emotions. But it was also amazing to see how each athlete responded to disappointment or failure.
And finally – the British athletes were more interesting. In the US, our athletic culture is almost purely professional. Even our Olympic athletes have the adapted the high-gloss coat of American professional sports that often reduces their interviews to the most tired sports clichés (“I’m looking to go out there and execute my gameplan,” “We just gotta give it 110%,” “It’s going to be about who wants it more.”). This may maintain the inoffensive veneer needed to be in the next Subway commercial, but it will never move the audience like listening to Mo Farah, Lizzie Armitstead, or even Andy Murray (himself a full-blooded professional) talking about what the experience of the Olympics meant to them.
And moved we were. Watching the Olympics one gets a sense for just how well these athletic competitions fit with the ethos of the Ancient Greeks. The quest for glory. The moments of comedy and tragedy. The unbridled emotion. The humanity of feeling it all together.
Reflecting on the games’ ancient roots, I was reminded of the end of the Iliad. Here, after discovering that neither rage nor the total victory over Hektor and Troy can quench his sorrow over the death of his friend Patroklos, Akhilleus spends a moment of common sorrow with Prium, the enemy king whose son he has just killed and mutilated. In this unlikely moment of common sorrow, he finally finds some peace.
When we see the stories of the athletes in defeat, we are reminded that these god-like figures are still human, and still feel the same pain the rest of us do. Like our own lives, the games feature a full range of emotions. The real secret of the Olympics is that it is just as much about the losing as the winning.
Now with the Olympics behind us, it is tempting to speculate about what their legacy may be. But if the experience of London has taught me anything, it is that for all the emphasis on glory and making a name for the history books, the Olympics are a moment captured, the thrill of the present, the feeling of being there.
Some of the moments we witnessed may live on for posterity in our common memory. Some may not. But at least for myself, these memories will be markers for a specific feeling, archetypes of emotions that I can identify in my own personal life.
Whether you love sports for the gladiatorial combat, the definitive result, or the quest for glory, you love it for the drama. You love it because somewhere in these athletic gods you see the same feelings you feel every day. You feel that in some way, we are all Olympians.
Thanks London for a epic for the ages.