The Winter Olympics start in Sochi, Russia, today and, once again, I won’t be competing.
It was only about five years ago, when I had already passed my 50th birthday, that I actually realized, gee, I really never would be running, skiing, swimming or luging my way to glory and a gold medal. Talk about bummer moments of self-realization.
Not that I had ever in any way been involved in competitive athletics at a level beyond neighborhood games as a kid and adolescent. When I came of age in the '70s, participating in organized athletics still wasn’t cool if you had any sort of alternative culture leanings, plus Title IX, which became law in 1972, was barely being implemented yet.
I had, however, always been a natural athlete and repeated studies have shown that anyone with even a trace of athletic ability thinks they are way better than they are. Only a true professional athlete understands how gapingly wide is the gap between themselves and a merely gifted amateur. Whenever regular folk are surveyed, even weekend warriors well into middle age tend to say that, yeah, with just a little more practice they could probably compete at a professional level.
Olympic athletes are, of course, the absolute best in the world at their individual sport. They train and train and then they get to measure themselves against other athletes from Albania to Zambia and every country in between, all of whom have been doing exactly same thing.
And that’s the magic of the Olympics. Sure, as a viewer you mostly root for athletes from your own country but there’s always a competitor from somewhere else who has such a fabulously improbable story (remember England’s inept ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards back at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics?) or shows so much heart (South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, before he fatally shot his girlfriend, running on his artificial legs in the 2012 London Summer games?) that you can’t help but cheer for them.
The TV coverage of the Olympics knows exactly how to make us care. Producers learned to spotlight the stories of individual athletes, pulling at the heartstrings and cueing the inspirational music, going back to ABC’s coverage beginning in 1964 Winter games in Innsbruck, Austria. NBC, which has had the rights to the Summer Olympics since 1988 and the Winter Games since 2002, barely tinkered with the formula other than to take advantage of technological improvements that allow viewers to get even closer to the action.
In the end, though, the Olympics are about how each individual athlete performs when tested on the field, in the pool, on the ski slope or on a bobsled. Sometimes the nice guys win, sometimes the braggarts. Whoever triumphs, it’s thanks to a mix of natural talent, dedicated training and, on any given day, a certain amount of luck.
Enjoy the next two weeks of watching the world’s best athletes ski, skate, snowboard and compete in the various Winter Olympic events. Just don’t let yourself get too Walter Mitty about it.
When it comes to the Olympics, the best we middle-agers can hope for is to be inspired to haul ourselves up from our armchairs and go hit the gym a little harder. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll even take up cross-country skiing or learn to snowboard. The truth is that, at this point in life, it’s really more about showing mettle than winning medals.