I’M OVER THE OLYMPICS

Though the only sports I follow on a regular basis are college football and OKC Thunder basketball, there’s something about the Olympic Games that has always captured my attention.

Like most, I find myself watching incredibly interesting and exciting events like the biathlon where people cross- country ski, stop, shoot guns, and do it again three more times. Or sit transfixed through heart-pounding curling events.

A year prior to opening ceremonies, there are competitions for places on the teams that will represent the U S of A and proudly wear the uniforms of the team. Making the team is such an honor. Just being able to represent one’s country and walk into that 40,000 person arena with lights flashing as a part of the national team is something to recant to children and grandchildren.

For months of advertisements and interviews with our Olympians, we’re told it’s “all about the sports…the athletics.” A time when people of all races, creeds and national origins put aside their differences to compete.  How all the snow boarders, or down-hill skiiers, or gymnasts compete together all year long and are friends outside of the competition arena. Sports brought them together. They train together. Nationalities mean nothing.

And then the games begin.

During the opening ceremonies, every time a country that split from Russia entered the arena, there were remarks about their relationship with Mother Russia, the hostilities, differences in political leanings, and how that could impact each team’s competition against her former home country. So much for bringing us together.

The first thing we hear after the games begin  is that a US athlete won the first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics in the first-ever some-kind-of-snow-boarding event. Yeah, US! The next day when the medal count came up, it was broadcast loud and clear that Russia, the home country,  won not even one measly medal on the first day of competition. It’s no wonder the stands are empty…all the Russians are home hanging their heads in shame. How can Putin show his face? Show up for the events where his stars are competing? Of course, someone-with-a-microphone-in-a-warm-building-who-will-never-see-a-live-event announces that Putin only showed up for the team skating competition once it was established that Russia would win the gold.

My daughter, Abbi, trained with Shannon Miller. It was heady stuff for a kid to train beside, and be in pictures of state champions along with a National, World, and Olympic champion. But after Shannon’s first Olympics, I started to get ticked off.

Shannon, in her first year of eligibility to compete at the world level, took the silver on balance beam. Afterwards, some dip-stick reporter asked her how disappointed she was to only place second. Shannon, one of the most soft-spoken people ever, tried to explain to the person holding the microphone that she was honored to be a part of the team and to bring back the silver for them. The reporter turned back to the camera, shook her head, gave a “more later,” and signed off. Shannon went on to win more medals that year, but that stuck with me.

Watching downhill skiing a couple of days ago, there was a woman who won the event in the last Olympics and came back to take gold one more time before retiring. She placed third. When she realized there was no more gold in her future, she bent over, turned away from the cameras, covered her face, shuddered, and wept — her body heaving under the pain. The commentators, of course, played it for all it was worth. What a horrible failure. Only the bronze.

Our women’s curling team choked in their match against Switzerland. The talking heads gave tortured reports through the whole seven whatever-they’re-calleds about Switzerland being off their game, and how the US should be walking away with the win, and how each of the people-getting-down-on-one-knee-and-sliding-the-round-thing was losing points for their team. Showed a close up of one of them apologizing to another team member for missing their mark. We lost 9-4. Yes, WE. As a country.  Good Grief.

The heir-apparent to Apollo Ono in speed skating only placed fourth in his first event on the ice. How sad. And it’s the best of his four events. He’s already been counted out. May as well back out of the rest of the competition, take the long plane ride home and hope no one recognizes him.

Sisters win Gold/Silver in a down-hill event…but the third sister finished out of the medal count. Isn’t it a shame?

But then, there’s Julia Mancuso. She was slated to take Gold in the Down-Hill Combined, but won the Bronze. She was so excited. It was her fourth Olympic medal. She didn’t care what color it was. She was on the podium. She jumped up and down when she saw her time, and then her score. She was more elated, more animated, more thrilled than the women who took the gold and silver. In her heart and mind, she had won. She had a medal. For herself, for her team, and for her country. Isn’t that what the Olympics are supposed to be about?

Of the thousands upon thousands of kids who spend untold hours practicing/working out/being on special diets/being injured and having surgeries/entering competition after competition, only a handful ever get to wear the Olympic uniform. Of all the little girls who dream about competing as an individual ice skater, only two or three from each country are chosen. That’s it. And of all the ice skaters from all the countries that compete, only about 12 make it into the finals, and only three receive medals.

None of our cross-country skiers, male or female, has ever won an Olympic medal. And yet they compete. Of all our Olympians, only a few can come back with medals, and at best, only a third can possibly come home with gold.

Yet, for about 18 days, all we hear is medal count. Surprise wins. Embarrassing losses. Great victories. Missed opportunities. What happened to the Olympics being an event that’s supposed to bring the world together? If that’s true, why do we need medal counts anyway?

Because the reality is that some of these athletes were plucked from their mother’s arms as young as three or four years old to train and live with strangers. Some would never see their parents again. But the parents are rewarded with large apartments or houses or financial compensation. These athletes receive huge bonuses for each medal won. They’re rewarded with the best living conditions their country can afford. They’re celebrities who are national heroes. God help them if they lose to some Italian or American who had to pay most of their own way. It hasn’t been that long since American athletes were not allowed to accept endorsements or make commercials to pay for their training. So God help the competitor whose country has supported him all his life if he can’t beat a kid who had to pay his own way.

But there are others. Those who can’t make the team in their own country and compete under another flag because that country or tiny island is a parent’s country of origin. They know they have no chance of winning. Or standing on a podium. For them, it’s about competing as an Olympian. Skating on Olympic ice. Tumbling on Olympic mats. They compete, knowing they may not even make the final event. For them, it really is all about the sport. Just going to the Big Dance is all that matters. And hopefully, performing to the best of their abilities.

I guess it’s all for the best in the end, but I’m kind of over it. I love a good competition. Hell, I’ll take you on in scrabble or gin any time you’re ready.

And Abbi? She quit gymnastics at Level 7 as a state champion. Replaced it with cheerleading, diving, power tumbling and ice skating, and settled in on competitive cheer and pom (dance). She was selected as an All American several times and won a number of National Championships — including Collegiate National Dance Team, Collegiate National Small Co-ed Cheer, and Collegiate Academic National Champion. As a collegian, she was on scholarship that wasn’t great, but it paid for her books. She went on to coach at the collegiate level. During high school and college, she coached up and coming munchkins and taught them to win and lose with class and grace. Now, she owns her own businesses — LA Dollhouse that represents dancers, models and specialty acts, and Dollhouse Productions that produces shows. Athletics and competition set her up for life.  Taught her to set goals, reach them, and set new goals. It taught her how to lose, pick herself up and try again. And how to win gracefully. It taught her that success doesn’t come overnight, and that chasing a dream means not going out as often as others and that sometimes she needs to shop at Target instead of Bloomingdales. Designer purses and shoes are purchased at a consignment shop that gets stuff from movie and tv show sets.  But that’s OK. She’s making her mark in the entertainment business in the big pond of LA. She’s doing what she loves to do and demanding that life pay her to do it. And she’s willing to put in the work and pay her dues to make that happen.

And that, my friend, is what athletics are supposed to be about. Not being shunned by one’s country if they come back without a medal, like some are forced to do. Not being told, like the German women’s ice hockey team, that if they don’t come back with a medal they’ll lose their funding. Not “how did it make you feel to lose?” when they win a silver or bronze medal. It’s about preparation for life. And about learning to give your all, knowing it might not pan out. It’s about the roller-coaster ride.

Now, if we could just get the commentators for the Olympics to understand that.

Until next time, take care of yourself. There are people who love you….you just may not know who they are.