Veronica and I were on opposite sides of the Olympic argument that waged in Boston last year. She (with good reason) was concerned about the potential costs and problems for the city. I, on the other hand, grew up in LA. It’s hard to explain what it’s like for a nine year old kid who loves sports to watch the Olympic Torch running just a few blocks from your house because the Olympics are in your city.
I will always remember the 1984 Summer Olympics. There are names there that will stick with me for the rest of my life: Greg Louganis – the diving legend won Gold at a competition where tickets were hard to come by but my grandparents were at some of the diving events; Edwin Moses hadn’t lost at the 400M Hurdles since 1977, but the U.S. team had skipped the Moscow Olympics and he wanted that gold (and he got it); Mary Lou Retton – the 16 year old who became the first U.S. woman to win the all around gold was my height although she was six years older; Mary Decker-Slaney was from Orange and she ran for a rival high school but was a big favorite until she fell during the race, giving life to a picture that has lived on (taken by David Burnett of SI); Rafer Johnson, the 1960 gold medalist in the Decathlon, who lit the torch, something my mother predicted. and of course, Carl Lewis, who would begin an Olympic career that has rarely been equaled, equalling Jesse Owens’ 4 gold medal performance from 1936.
I have been a passionate sports fan my entire life. Various sports have given me moments that will live on in my head for the rest of my life, whether they be in basketball (“And now there’s a steal by Bird!”), in football (“Pass is intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler!”) or baseball (“Ortiz into deep right field! Back is Sheffield! We’ll see you later tonight!“). I’ll never forget KJ dunking on Olajuwon, Laettner hitting the shot against Kentucky, Elway leaping for the end zone, Murray winning Wimbledon or being at a game that sent the Red Sox back to the World Series. But the most moving moments in sports always seem to come from the Olympics.
Think of little Kerri Strug making that vault to bring home the gold for the team. She wasn’t the star of the team – that was Shannon Miller and young Dominique Moceanu, but she made that vault so the whole team could win. Think of the sheer joy on the faces of the Dream Team – certainly three of the greatest players of all-time playing together, but Charles Barkley emerging as the star of the team and the league heading into an MVP season. Remember Derek Redmond’s father coming out on the track to help his son limp home and finish the race in 1992. There was the energy from Michael Phelps when the team won and he took home that eighth medal. Andy Murray became the first Brit to win the men singles gold in over a century and he did it in London. David Beckham, perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, went soaring up the Thames with the torch. Best of all, there is the moment to beat all moments, Janet Evans, passing the torch to Muhammad Ali.
After the fun and amazement of 1984, I was all set for the Olympics in 1988. It wasn’t all great – the amazing win by Ben Johnson in the 100M was so fast that it wouldn’t be beaten for over 20 years, but it was also fueled by doping and his gold medal was taken away just days later. Greg Louganis, who my little sister had a big crush on, would hit his head, in an accident reminiscent of one that once killed a diver. The U.S. Basketball team lost to the Soviets who were lead by Arvydas Sabonis, who at that time, before injuries took their toll, was like a 7’3″ version of Larry Bird. On the other hand, those Olympics were when I developed my massive crush on Janet Evans. She was adorable, she was only three years older than me, and she even went to a local high school just a few miles away. And Steffi Graf, one of my favorite tennis players of all-time would cap the greatest single year in tennis history by adding a gold to her Grand Slam, the only Golden Slam in tennis history. NBC would also do wonderful recaps of the last 24 hours and I can still hear the music in my head but couldn’t find any videos on-line.
1992 wasn’t all about the Dream Team, though that’s mostly what I (and most people) remember. Janet Evans would earn another gold medal. Gail Devers would win one of the closest 100m races of all-time. Carl Lewis would as well, in a 4×100 race I will always remember. I watched it in Oregon, having just moved there, watching with my dad, my brother and his new wife Peggy. They were on the last leg of their honeymoon and had actually watched the race live in Canada that morning. Once the baton was handed to Lewis, it was an obvious U.S. win, but it looked like a possible world record, and my brother had the grace not to ruin the suspense for me and my dad as they set the record. There was also, of course, the inspiring story of Derek Redmond, who finished the race.
I don’t remember so many of the individual moments from 1996. Carl Lewis would win one final gold in the long jump. Michael Johnson would run a 200m final that would defy belief. But really, it would be all about two moments – that moment when Kerri Strug put her mark on sports immortality, and that amazing, incredible moment where I watched my crush running up the stairs before handing off the Olympic flame to the only person I could have accepted other than her at that moment.
In 2000, I didn’t have much interest in the Olympics. I had a brand new job, I had a not-as-brand new girlfriend. My beloved track and field was mired in doping problems. The basketball team wasn’t anyone’s idea of a dream. So, the Olympics just existed in the background for me. The same thing happened in 2004. I had a brand new baby in my hands, less than two months old. I was preparing for full-time in grad school, had just travelled across the country with the baby to my sister’s wedding. I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics. I was too obsessed with the Red Sox and Thomas and winning the election (2 out of 3 isn’t bad). So, it wouldn’t be until four years later that Michael Phelps would remind me what I was missing.
In the summer of 2008, I was working, but it was for AAS, and it was only part-time, so I could watch Thomas. So I was at home by early afternoon most days and I could watch the Olympics. And Michael Phelps was the obsession of the world. He was going for 8 gold medals and I somehow managed to time things so that I watched him win all eight. I posted my list of the best Musicals the day after he won the final medal and I declared him the winner because I was used to him winning everything. Phelps achievement surpasses anyone in Olympic history, but it’s also a measure of him being part of a team. Not only did he need his teammates in order to win some of those, but he wasn’t even the anchor in the 4×100 freestyle relay. But there he is, with a look of sheer joy on his face. In the 100m butterfly, it was Phelps who made it on his own, by .01 seconds, one of the most amazing races I have ever seen. But it took the team to get him to that eighth and final medal.
Then came London. Not since I was a nine year old kid had an Olympics been held in a city I had been to (I wouldn’t visit Atlanta until 2002). I love London with a fierce passion and I remember a lot of it. The opening ceremony had great pomp and vigor, starting with a wonderful little video narrated by Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt (why can’t find a copy of it?). It had David Beckham racing up the Thames with the torch. The Marathon ran streets I have been on. Mo Farah would win the Gold in the 5000m for his country. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt would add to their resumes as the fastest humans on land and water. Allyson Felix would take the women’s 200m. The darlings of the world would be the Fierce Five, the women’s Gymnastics team. McKayla Maroney would do the greatest vault I have ever seen but when she would come in second, she would not be impressed.
I watched everything I could that summer. I was home with Thomas by 12 in the afternoon and I didn’t work Fridays, so I watched a lot, including a tennis match between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro that rekindled my old love of tennis. I watched archery and rowing and bicycling (which went within a few blocks of my sister’s flat). I even watched the U.S. swim team video to “Call Me Maybe“. That’s appropriate because, in spite of Phelps and Bolt and the Fierce Five, if there was one athlete at the 2012 Olympics that had me riveted it was Missy Franklin. The natural exuberance of the 16 year old phenom was just so much fun to watch.
I don’t know what will happen in Rio. There are massive concerns about the safety of the games and the health of the athletes, but the same concerns never turned out to be a problem in 2008. It will be the swan song for Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of any era, but who knows if he can go out with gold like Carl Lewis. I’ll have my eyes riveted on Aly Raisman, the rare gold medal winner in gymnastics to come back for a second try (thank you Tom Brady). I’ll keep watching Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin to see if they continue to make their mark with gold medals or world records. I will desperately hope that Murray and Djokavic play for the gold because I was denied that at Wimbledon and I could watch those two play all day. Most of all, I will enjoy myself watching sports in a way that only comes around every four years.