Some of my friends find it odd that I’m an ardent fan of the Olympics, since I don’t watch much other sports on TV – or much TV at all. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, and I can’t tell you what celebrity got tripped up this week on “Dancing With the Stars.” But I can identify Michael Phelps in a lineup, and I know the difference between a Salkow and an Axel.
I come from a long line of semi-serious sports fans. I say “semi” because none of us were standouts in any particular sport, and we didn’t follow professional sports religiously. OU football was another matter; the only acceptable excuse for utterance of a curse word in our household was a Sooner fumble on the 2-yard line.
The Olympics were in a class unto themselves, for kids of my generation. They provided a venue to express mostly healthy nationalistic tendencies; offered a peek into the unfamiliar cultures of people from other parts of the globe; and bore unique witness to strange and exotic activities whose rules and intents we could never hope to fathom.
The best example of the obscure is curling, which has no bearing on what women do to their hair. Who would have thought entire countries could get whipped into a frenzy by a guy pushing a flat-bottomed bowling ball with a handle, down an ice-slicked alley, as two teammates frantically sweep the path of the oncoming puck? Curling is a winter game, and the only comparable summer contests – in terms of relative rarity, elusive purpose and inexplicable appeal – are rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming. These analogies don’t bother women, but tend to anger men, who likely consider the latter two “dame games,” whereas curling is deemed noble and manly.
For kids from Fort Gibson and other insular communities, the Olympics gave us our first exposure to people from other parts of the world. As second-graders, most of us had never met anyone from China, but we could observe that Chinese folks played basketball and ran track just like we did, although their eyes were shaped a bit differently, and none of them seemed to be blue. The Russians looked more like us, but they were dissimilar, too, as our parents told us. They were, after all, “commies,” and if their parents worked hard in the factory, someone from their government came to their door with a wheelbarrow, took everything they had, and gave it to a lazy family down the street. The same was true for the Chinese, who suffered the further indignity of being forced to wear those ugly jumpsuits like Chairman Mao.
The East Germans – whose modern mention draws looks of confusion from young people – were also “bad” in some vague way, although they looked just like their West German cousins. But the East German athletes got beaten or electrocuted if they didn’t win – or, like athletes from all the other countries “Behind the Iron Curtain,” they were sent to “The Gulag.” (I never could understand why anyone would make drapes out of metal, or what kind of sewing machine the seamstresses would need to pull that off.) Fortunately for the athletes Behind the Iron Curtain, they usually DID win, but that was only because their governments used all their tax money to train their athletes.
As time and the Olympics went on, we learned. I think the games are responsible for ridding people of many of our misconceptions and prejudices. The sight of an Asian athlete in a leotard or track shorts probably dispelled my suspicion that people from the Far East had horizontal cracks on their booties. Clips of exotic cuisine from other countries eventually compelled me to try some of them. And now that practically every country is multi-cultural and cross-cultural, there’s no way to identify an athlete’s home country by skin color, eye configuration, or even language.
We have come to appreciate the talent, the finesse and the beauty in the performance of all athletes, regardless of the flags under which they labor. We cheer always for our own, but also for the underdog, sometimes for the “home court” (this year, the British), and usually for the one with the gracious smile. We judge on charisma and merit, rather than on governments – and thank God for THAT, or American athletes would be reviled far and wide.
Some of us haven’t yet crossed over. I’ve heard comments about how athletes from some country or another “cheated,” because they had the audacity to beat “the best country in the world” – which is only the “best” for those of us who happen to live here. The topper, to date, was this astonished admission from a friend of mine: “I thought Montenegro was in Africa!”
There are still questions we can’t answer: Why do beach volleyball players wear uniforms that force the distraction of intermittently dislodging snuggies? Can a girl with ample breasts excel on the balance beam? Is Michael Phelps’ biological father a striped marlin?
Why do so many countries spend so much money on a competitive celebration that brings millions of people together in purpose and pride, exchanging the gifts of ourselves and opening windows onto the vistas of other humans and their traditions? If you watch even one night of the games, you’ll know.
Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press, and her evenings are booked for the next week.
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