I have always loved the Olympics. It is four days post-Rio and I am already experiencing withdrawal. Like all of the past Olympics I have followed, this one became an obsession, with nightly viewing of events and keen interest in the athletes’ backgrounds and inspiring stories.
In these troubling times and during one of the most contentious of political seasons, this Olympics not only served to unite our fractured nation, but also, brought families together, bonding us in a special way that other national events—sports or otherwise—could not.
Prior to the proliferation of electronic media, thousands of cable channels, live streaming as well as hundreds of computer and mobile phone apps, families would gather around the television, brimming with national pride, and watch top athletes from around the world compete. Even though today’s technologies make it easy to watch continuous coverage of the games all day and all night from a phone or laptop, there remain many families who convene and watch the old-fashioned way—in their living rooms on live (or seemingly live) TV. Fortunately, mine is one such family.
As avid sports fans, our family watches NFL football; we love the annual spectacle that is the Superbowl. We meticulously research the college basketball teams in the NCAA tournament and pore over our March Madness brackets. We particularly enjoy following the NBA (despite being long-suffering NY Knicks fans) and view every playoff game no matter where we are. We watch the tennis “Slams” and the golf “Majors.” Basically, we follow all sports all the time.
Yet, something feels different about the Olympic games, though it is neither the sports contests themselves nor the outcome. It is something more. The uniqueness of the Olympics is rooted in the exceptional athletes who, unlike NBA and PGA players, are generally out of the public eye. The vast majority are only in the public view for two weeks out of every four years. During that time, we become immersed in their “back stories”—their work ethic, the sacrifices that they and their families make, the extraordinary effort expended, the physical and mental strength required and the toll it takes on their bodies—all in hopes of representing their country and challenging other top athletes from around the world.
Certain Olympic athletes like Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Kerry Walsh Jennings and the USA women’s gymnastics team, do become mega-superstars, with lucrative sponsorships, commercial endorsements and national tours. But the vast majority do not win medals. They do not become superstars, and their Olympic experiences do not make them rich. They are passionate about their sports, strive to be the best they can be, and view the Olympic games as the pinnacle of competition… this, in and of itself, is reward enough. The unwavering dedication and sacrifices like pre-dawn daily workouts, continuous travel, school tutors, and missed rites of passage like homecoming and prom, are well worth it— for the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. For these athletes, and for their families who have guided and supported them every step of the way, the realization of this dream is priceless.
The Olympics has always been the ultimate “family event,” as the entire world tunes in to watch. Family members of competing athletes are in attendance in support of their child, grandchild, brother, sister or cousin; as fans, we get to know these families as well as the athletes themselves. A different, though equally important, kind of family bonding also occurs at home for the viewing audience. Our family reveled each night in the Olympics, enjoying each competition and discussing the events and athletes with great enthusiasm. We even enjoyed watching sports we have never seen played competitively, like archery, table tennis and badminton. Never mind that we were sleep deprived, having stayed up until the wee hours to watch the gymnastics, swimming, diving, track & field and, of course, the midnight beach volleyball “parties” live from Copacabana beach… but it was all worth it. We never tired of listening to the “Star Spangled Banner,” as the USA won medal after medal.
And, as we congregated around our TV like days of old, raptly watching the competitions and unique stories unfold, I smiled contentedly with the realization that family togetherness was back in full force in the USA. I will miss feeling the distinctive pride of being an American and cheering for all these awe-inspiring athletes whose talent, spirit and personalities filled our homes and hearts for two weeks. I will miss the comfort and camaraderie of sitting around the television, enjoying unforced, organic family time.
Thankfully, two years from now we will get to do it again… I am already looking forward to the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang.