Growing up, I didn't pay much attention to the Olympics, or sporting events in general. There was no particular reason for this. While other kids were playing basketball, I was off, wandering through the woods, playing pretend. While other kids dreamed of being Michael Jordan and playing for the Chicago Bulls, I dreamed of being Indiana Jones and exploring lost cities. When I ran into sports kids on the playground there would be a brief exchange of glances and then we'd part ways, shaking our heads. Sports/pretend? That's got to be boring.
As I got older, I became more interested in physical activity ( I got into jogging and weightlifting ) but I never really understood other people's passion for sport, the obsession with wearing sports jerseys, the collecting of baseball and basketball cards, or the endless speculation on current and future sporting events. My head was off in the clouds, and as I grew, my childhood love of pretend translated itself into maturity through books.
My first real exposure to the Olympics came when I was in college. One night, my friends and I were sitting around in our dorm room. It was late, and there was nothing to do, so we were flipping through TV channels, trying to find something to watch. As we roamed through the channels, we flipped by the Winter Olympics.
“Hey, go back,” one of my friends said. “What was that?”
We had stumbled across a game of curling, what I still believe is one of the most bizarre sports in the Olympic repertoire. We watched as grown men got down on their hands and knees and pushed large polished rocks down a sheet of ice towards a circular target. We were mesmerized.
“Is this really an Olympic sport?” somebody asked.
We got on the internet. It was indeed.
What began as incredulous disbelief slowly turned into earnest excitement. Although we didn't understand everything that happened, we were swept up by the enthusiasm of the players. We watched as the athletes aimed their stones with patience, foresight, and skill, and when something amazing happened, we found ourselves cheering, somewhat to our own surprise. Later that night, as we got ready for bed sometime near one o'clock in the morning, we found we were still talking about what we'd seen.
“That was pretty amazing,” someone said. All these years later, I still have to agree.
After I graduated from university, I moved to China. At home, a person has their choice of friends, but when traveling abroad, people who would not otherwise spend time with one another find themselves lumped together. Many of the friends I've made during my time in China have been Brits, and if there's one thing I've learned about the Brits, its that they love their sport. Although I didn't have much interest in it myself, I'd humor my friends and join them in pubs to watch football or rugby. The connection that runs through British society because of their shared experiences in sport amazed me. They could talk for hours about players and games dating back to times before they were born. I would find myself wondering, as I had when I was young, where does all this passion come from?
I think it comes from our societal love of heroes.
When I thought back and tried to define my reason for loving books, I discovered it was because I loved stories of heroes. Stephen King once described the fantasy genre as stories of “blood and thunder and armies and dragons.” In those stories, no matter how dark the road, or how evil the villain, there was always hope. If the hero was strong enough and brave enough, he'd win the day. And more than anything, I believe that people want the stories of heroes to be their own stories, even if they won't admit it.
Sport provides us with stories that are equally incredible, if not more so for being real. While athletes are far from perfect individuals, they embody the traits that many of us wish we had more of: determination, courage, and fortitude.
Consider the story of Jesse Owens.
Owens was the first black man to receive a gold medal in Olympic history. He competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany, where, at the time, Adolf Hitler was in power. Hitler, wanting to showcase the superiority of whites over all other races, boasted that German athletes would sweep the field, defeating other people of inferior colors. Owens defied him, taking home four gold metals for America. Despite Hitler's rage, Owens became a crowd favorite, and many Germans came up to Owens on the street, asking for his autograph.
While I am not that enthusiastic about the Olympics, that doesn't lessen my belief that we need them. We need heroes. We need people that can inspire us to believe that life is ours for the taking, and that with some strength and determination, we can overcome. The Olympics provide us with a an example of human potential and a rod by which we can measure and spurn ourselves on. In this years Olympics I've particularly amazed by Im Dong-hyun, the legally blind Korean. In the opening days of the 2012 Olympics, he broke the world record in archery.
After hearing Dong-hyun's story, I am left asking myself: If a blind man can become the world's greatest archer, what then is my excuse for not reaching the limit of my own potential?
The answer of course, for all of us, is that we have no excuse. And the hope that our heroes rekindle within us is that, with enough strength and determination, we'll win the day in the end.