The year was 1984….
I was almost 10 years old and I had my first full-blown case of Olympics fever.
The Games were hosted in Los Angeles that year, and I remember the strong sense of national pride emanating from both young and old across the country. It was good to be an American, and our athletes gave us much to celebrate.
Carl Lewis blazed up the track at LA Coliseum in the same events Jesse Owen ran in 1936, earning himself four gold medals. Greg Louganis dominated in diving, striking gold in both the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events.
And then there was America’s Sweetheart – Mary Lou Retton. The Soviet boycott of the ’84 Games left the gymnastics field wide open, earning Retton the first-ever women’s individual all-around gold medal. The men’s gymnastics team took home team gold as well, but who can forget Retton in her star-and-stripes leotard smiling from the Wheaties box?
The ’84 Games weren’t without controversy. I still remember watching the highly-anticipated women’s 3,000-meter run showdown between Zola Budd of South Africa and Mary Decker-Slaney of the United States. Budd’s story was interesting in that she had applied for British citizenship after South Africa was boycotted from the Games due to apartheid. And she had broken Slaney’s record in the 5,000-meter earlier that year, setting up a race for the ages.
But, the bare-footed Budd and American-favorite Slaney had a series of jostling moments during the race that resulted in Budd tripping Slaney and Slaney going down with a hip injury, unable to complete the race. Amid boos from the crown, Budd fell behind herself, finishing seventh.
The drama of that race and the interesting backstory of Budd sparked curiosity in me for the stories behind the races, events, games, and contests. Still to this day, my favorite part of the Olympics is the storytelling. Hearing how an athlete overcame adversity to arrive on this worldwide stage stirs my applause, and suddenly I’m cheering for Joe What’s-His-Bucket from Who Knows Where to win it all!
That’s not to say my USA pride doesn’t run pretty deep. For my 10th birthday, just two months after the ’84 Games, I received a USA windbreaker jacket similar to this one.
I wore that thing into the ground. Sports-team loyalties tend to ebb-and-flow as we age, but the love for the Red, White, and Blue is forever.
I pretty much love everything about the Olympics. From the opening ceremonies full of fanfare, culture, music, and the parade of athletes to the actual games themselves, I’m an Olympics-junkie for two weeks every two years. As soon as the timpani booms launch us into John Williams’ iconic Olympic Fanfare and Theme, I’ll be sucked in, having discovered a sudden, new fascination with fencing, water polo, or trampoline gymnastics. Not even another bout of Bob Costas’ pink eye will keep me away.
I enjoy sharing the Olympic games with my kids, too. Everyone’s favorite events like track and field, swimming, diving, and gymnastics will be broadcast in prime time, so we’ll watch those together, sporting our patriotic clothing and competing in our own living-room versions of the events.
My older kids will recognize countries they learned in Geography and my youngest will be appalled that we could cheer for anyone besides the United States.
They’ll see athletes at the top of their games giving 100% and witness both the joy of winning and the agony of defeat. After all, only three medals are awarded for each event, and so the lessons in perseverance and dealing with disappointment are plentiful.
Together we’ll watch to see who emerges as the national favorites of the 2016 Rio Games. Swimmer Katie Ledecky is a strong contender to dominate in the pool, while Michael Phelps, competing in his fifth Olympic games, is sure to grab headlines.
But, my money is on gymnast Simone Biles who looks untouchable in her quest for Olympic gold. Millions of 10-year-olds across the country will remember her fondly 30 years from now, just like me and Mary Lou. Having caught “Olympic Fever,” those same 10-year-olds will faithfully watch the games until they are adults and have children of their own.
Oh, Olympics, how I love you. And my prayer, especially this year when we could really use some unity, is that through your two weeks of sporting events, our country will become one.
USA! USA! USA!
Cue the National Anthem (and the hot wet tears).