The Sochi Olympics

BLOG #8, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
February 19, 2014

Another Winter Olympics is almost history. And it will be sad to see it end. Sad because in all the world there is nothing like it. Oh there are so many stories to tell in such gatherings.

Yesterday, anchorwoman Meredith Viera was asked by Matt Lauer what impressed her most about this particular Olympics. Without missing a beat, she shot back: “The people.” “The Russian people.” She noted their deep unabashed pride in their nation, the evident pleasure it gave them to show visitors around or tell them about why their nation is special, unique.

During the last couple of weeks, a number of the pundits have pointed out another key variable in this particular Olympics. The opportunity to once again feel proud of their country. For the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt a terrible blow to Russians’ feelings of self-worth. We chuckle a little and say, “Get over it! You’re still the largest nation on earth.” But to them, it’s like large sections of their heart have been torn out. Just imagine if we had lost such a land-mass: Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Armenia (11,506 sq. m.), Azerbaijan (33,436 sq. m.), Belarus (80,154 sq. m.), Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Georgia (26,910 sq. m.), Kazakstan (1,049,150 sq. m.), Kyrgyzstan (76,640 sq. m.), Tajikistan (55,520,sq. m.), Turkmenistan (188,450 sq. m.), Uzbekistan (172,740 sq. m.), Ukraine (233, 100 sq. m.). Total 2,025,354 square miles. That’s the equivalent of two land masses the size of Argentina! Not counting the Eastern Europe satellites. No wonder that Vladimir Putin is trying hard to reestablish Russian pride as it was before 1991.

But back to Sochi and Winter Olympics. Watching both the national (think medal count) and individual stories play out, we’re seeing a continual interplay of triumph and tragedy, euphoria and heartbreak. Just one little misstep or stumble separating a gold medal from elimination. All the harder to take such a loss given the single-minded day by day effort, practice, and struggle necessary to even qualify to be an Olympian. And the more the media hype before the slip, the more devastating the fall.

Another reality is that the vast majority of participants have no illusions as to the odds of their making a podium. They train and come to an event such as Sochi for one reason: being a part of the greatest show on earth for two weeks. The camaraderie, the friendships, the experiences, the romances, the memories–all these are guaranteed to change their lives forever. And every two years of their lives, when a summer or winter Olympics rolls around, they vicariously live again the thrill of being part of the world’s largest and greatest tests of strength and skill.

And how could we possibly forget the stunning beauty of the magnificent snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, now limned in our memory banks forever.

As for we the viewers, we too are changed because we not only learn a great deal about the host nations, we too vicariously experience all the emotions, all the highs and lows, the Olympians do. Each of them becoming a part of us – for always.

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The London Olympics — A Retrospective

BLOG #35, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE LONDON OLYMPICS
A RETROSPECTIVE
August 29, 2012

What a show London threw for the world!

And that’s one thing London appears to do better than any other city in the world, unexcelled as they are in royal pageantry.

Every four years of our lives–barring world wars–, the world gathers for another Olympics. The Winter Olympics, since they disenfranchise the Southern hemisphere countries, can never be truly global. In today’s electronic world, it would be almost unthinkable for any nation to do a no-show for a Summer Olympics for its very place among the family of nations is at stake; not to show up would represent a worldwide black eye. Indeed, these Olympics can truthfully be said to represent the most-watched spectacle on earth. Hence the sheer amount of money and effort expended for bragging rights for specific events.

Each Olympics of our lives gifts us with a new set of heroes and heroines. The coin of the realm is medals, with Gold equating the laurel wreaths of ancient times. One moment, an athlete is unknown; only seconds later, the athlete’s name and image is transmitted on every computer screen in the world. One moment, an athlete may be facing a minimum wage future; only seconds later, endorsements worth millions! No wonder they cry, when they have to settle for fourth place, for not to earn at least a Bronze is to be saddled with an achievement that doesn’t even make a blip on the media screen.

Especially is this true in the U.S., where, sadly, the only medal that appears to count is Gold. On talk shows, Silver and Bronze winners rarely are even approached for interviews. This is, of course, a far cry from the Olympic ideal: To be honored for the effort represented by the achievement of edging out their competitors in their native countries–and thus earning the right to show up in the quadrennial Olympic parade of nations. Tragically, this U.S. led perception that only Gold counts has seeped into the global Zeitgeist and distorted it as well.

The Olympics creates its own royalty. In this respect, case in point is Ethiopia’s most famous runner. So idolized is she that in her home nation she has achieved such a level of idolatry that she is treated as though she were empress of that former monarchy.

The same is true with the so-called “fastest man on earth,” Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Yet even he had to re-earn this status, beating out an up-and-coming Jamaican who had defeated Bolt in Jamaican pre-trials, proving that past laurels are ephemeral at best: lasting only until someone else comes along who proves better, stronger, or faster.

Or if further proof of fame’s short shelf life were needed, we’d need look no further than Michael Phelps, the Superman of swimming. Even though his supremacy in prior Olympics had seemed absolute, he came into the London Olympics under a cloud of doubt, which early meets did little to dispel as in several cases he failed to medal at all. The big question had to do with whether archrival Ryan Lochte might supplant him. But then Phelps awoke, and the lion roared once again, and he finished his astounding Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 Gold, making him perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. At least for now. Next Olympics, in Rio, it will be someone else’s opportunity to shine and inevitably Phelps’ medals will lose their luster. As Robert Frost famously put it in his poem by the same name, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Prior to the Olympics, all around the world, in each nation, as Olympic tryouts took place, those who excelled became locally famous, high hopes held out for the best of them. This local fame crescendoed as each team was sent off to London. In some cases, this early fame proved to be justified; in the majority of cases, it would not, and that early fame wouldn’t even last long enough to accompany the athlete back home.

We couldn’t help but note this phenomenon in the case of our state’s Wunderkind, Missy Franklin, temporarily lauded nationally, lauded as well in Colorado. In her case, however, the hype proved to be justified for she went on to win five medals (five Gold and two World Records). More significantly than that, however, she emerged from the games as America’s new sweetheart, her infectious joie de vivre lighting up every room and venue she entered; and not coincidentally energizing every team meet she participated in. Just as significant, if not more so, had to do with her parents’ determination to value their daughter’s right to a normal growing up over the siren call of professional sports and the money it could shower upon her if she’d just renounce normal girlhood in favor of becoming a cog in professional sports’ straightjacketing and mass-produced squirrel cages, akin to the State-run sports programs operated by medal factories such as China and Russia, in which the athlete’s parents are provided few opportunities to interact with their children.

Nor should we forget the way the so-called “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas, captured the adoration of every little girl in the United States.

A serendipity had to do with the sight of the world’s most iconic couple, William and Kate, reveling in the sights and sounds of the games like any other couples sitting in the stands.

These, of course, are but a few of this year’s crop of Olympians who capture–at least temporarily–hearts all around the world.

See you in Rio!

HERE’S TO THE LOSERS AT VANCOUVER

No, that’s not a misprint. It’s just that there were a lot more losers than there were winners at the 21st Winter Olympics. And thanks to our digital age, when a hundredth of a second may separate a Gold Medal winner who can then earn millions in endorsements from a loser who is forced by that fraction of a second to return home to cold shoulders—well, this makes the Olympics not only fascinating but riveting.

As for the venue, my wife and I love Canada—we have to. It all started when a Canuck named Duane captured our daughter Michelle’s heart and ventured into the lion’s den so he could ask permission to marry our daughter. His voice was near breaking, just as mine was when I asked Connie’s father if I could marry her. We have to be kind to Duane, for we may need him when we move north because of global warming. And we have two half-Canadian grandsons who, like their father, are rabid ice hockey and soccer players/fans. The three of them would have sulked for four years had Canada lost to the U.S. in that ice hockey Gold Medal match. It lived up to its hype, that thing so rare in sports: an absolutely perfect match between two great teams.

Another reason I measure my life by Olympic showdowns is because they accelerate life to the breaking point: when so much is at stake, when you have trained to the exclusion of everything else for four long years, just to prepare for a few minutes of action, the pressure to succeed may become all-consuming. And since so many nations value winning Gold over everything else, the system guarantees a disproportionate number of broken hearts.

It’s mighty difficult not to overreact when all your dreams are but shattered shards at your feet. Like Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko did when he lost Gold to Evan Lysacek in Men’s Figure Skating. Lysacek really rose in my estimation when he refused to take the bait when interviewers tried to get him to balloon Plushenko’s cutting words into a feud. Merely smiled and said he’d always admired and looked up to Plushenko—and still did. Then there were those who broke, like U.S. skier Julia Mancuso who was already green with jealousy over her beautiful teammate and Sports Illustrated swimsuit pin-up girl/Gold Medal Winner Lyndsay Vonn getting a disproportionate share of media attention. When Vonn crashed into a fence and thus aborted Mancuso’s run for Gold., Mancuso’s cup boiled over into spiteful words. As for me, I self-righteously condemned her for such poor taste—until I remembered something even more ignoble in my own past. The time I’d desired a college division chairmanship so bad I practically lusted for it. So when one of my best friends got it instead of me, in my raging jealousy I wrote him a note that pulverized any joy he might have had over landing the position. That ill-fated note destroyed our friendship, and represents one of the defining moments of my life, a Rubicon if you please, when I was forced to re-evaluate all my life’s priorities. And then there was U.S. Figure Skater Rachel Platt who was unfairly downgraded by judges in their evaluations. And how could anyone forget the sight of the great Dutch skater Sven Kramer who was only seconds from Gold when he discovered his own coach had given him the wrong lane instructions—and there he sat, head in his hands, all his dreams bleeding onto the floor.

And even that queen of figure skating herself, lovely Kim Yu-Na of Korea, admitted during the competition (before she won Gold) that she was terrified of failure, convicted as she was that so high were expectations that if she returned to Korea without that Gold Medal, her fans would abandon her.

For all these reasons, my heart goes out to the losers at Vancouver, for they are the ones America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, must have been thinking of when she wrote these lines:

“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory.

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!”