They’ve changed a lot over the years, with more competitions added. But the old favorites of gymnastics, track and field, ice skating, and skiing remain dear to most fans. And me too in times gone by. I continue to marvel at the athleticism required to meet the increased expectations necessary to receive a high score. Now days, though, I find gymnastics and ice skating difficult to watch as I understand better the dangers in the sport.
Amateurism was key early on. If any participant was found to take money, that is, be a pro, they were denied entry. I don’t know when that changed, but I think it a step in the wrong direction. There was just something positive about people training for the pure love of a sport instead of the money that can be made off it. Unfortunately, some countries, such as Russia and East Germany, essentially had professional teams with the country as employer. Going professional, then, might have been a necessary step to counter such shenanigans.
But the idea of the amateur is not lost, at least in spirit. These summer Olympics included archery, badminton, fencing, judo, skateboarding, and sport climbing, along with a host of other competitions. The winter games highlight biathlon, curling, and snowboarding. These are not sports that tend to thrust their winners to the back of Wheaties boxes.
These days I try to watch these offbeat sports more than the big draws. They receive less TV time than others, but I’ll grab whatever I can.
I have been struck by the fact that the athletes participating in them are as dedicated to their training and as motivated to getting gold as are the ones in the sports we hear most about. In this country and countries throughout the world they quietly prepare. They may have their own meets, but rarely if ever do they appear on ESPN or are featured in newspaper sports sections.
To me they represent the true spirit of the Olympics that existed in earlier days.
I was speaking with a friend about this year’s games. Like me, he has been an ardent fan for years. He said that it didn’t seem as interesting to him this year as in the past and he wasn’t sure why. I admitted I was feeling the same way.
I think one reason is that the live events began around 8:00 pm because Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of my local time. And my time for sleep is shortly thereafter, precluding watching most of the live coverage.
Another reason may be the lack of fans due to the toll Covid had taken in Japan. There have been reports of the negative effect this had on the athletes. It was clear how much they missed the presence of their families. I think it also had a negative effect on the observer. The cheering of those in the stands in some way acts as a representative of our own vocal support thousands of miles away.
Yet another reason is the abundance of commercials, a problem not confined to the Olympics but particularly noticeable there. I realize everything is so expensive now and it costs a fortune to broadcast from the myriad of sites where competitions occur. The funds have to come from somewhere and advertisements supply them. But it’s still annoying as hell.
But despite the time difference, the fan absence, and the ad preponderance, there is still something special about the Olympics, the amazing performances of the athletes, the gathering of cultures from around the world, the intermingling and mutual support of athletes from different countries, and, in the words from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
And I still check the medal count and take pride in the achievements of my country’s athletes.
Bring on the winter games in 2022.