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And the gold medal for watching the Olympics goes to…

London Olympics 2012

London Olympics 2012 (Photo credit: Andrea Vascellari)

Me! Team USA!

As a teenager, I found a questionnaire I filled out for school as a nine-year-old. Who was my hero? Nancy Hogshead, I wrote.

Nancy Hogshead? The name no longer meant anything to me. But it stayed in my head. Who was this person that I looked up to in 1984? That I valued more than my parents, or Madonna, or Garfield? And should I be embarrassed? It took the invention of the internet a several years later to figure out the identity of this hero I had long forgotten.

Nancy Hogshead won three gold medals and one silver in swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Ah, that makes perfect sense, I realized. That’s why I became an ace swimmer at UCLA and won those five gold medals in Atlanta in 1996. I knew I was in Atlanta in 1996 for something. Thanks, internet.

I can’t attribute a stellar athletic career to Nancy Hogshead, but she is probably responsible for something else: how so very much I love the Olympics. Watching them, that is. I haven’t missed a moment since 1984. And now, as they are set to begin on Friday, I have that happy, carefree feeling that I get every other year, because two solid weeks of fairly uncomplicated patriotism, loud athletic fashion, underdog glory, and a tiny hint of schadenfreude are on their way to my television screen. And computer. And iPhone. Oh, the coverage. I love television events that aren’t called programs, but “coverage.” They just go on and on…I can just melt into it.

And it’s just in time to ease me out of my Tour de France addiction. AND better yet! They are about to begin in my second-favorite city in the world! Which is perfect, because my first-favorite city and home metropolis, New York, probably could do without the aggravation of putting on an Olympic Games. Enough already.

So what can you do if you can’t wait till Friday, when you can obsessively watch each and every participating nation parade into the Olympic stadium so that you can pick out some early favorites and make a top ten best (and worst) team outfits list? And then plan a viewing schedule that best coincides with nap times and camp? Here’s how.

If Showtime is not showing a round-the-clock marathon of Bud Greenspan Presents: Tales of Olympic Glory, which as an imprecise but apt name for this television series, they are severely missing out on some good synergy…what? They’re not showing it right now? Oh. That’s too bad. Guess you’ll have to read this blog to find out what you’re missing.

The late, great documentarian Bud Greenspan made a TV series that showcased a collection of the most inspiring stories to come out of each recent edition of the Games. While b-roll and properly-licensed footage ran, an announcer gravely, deeply, and with little – no – zero emotion provided a voiceover telling stories of self-doubt which turned to triumph, or fear which turned to tragedy, which turned to glory. Stories of economic/national/parental obstacles, or bodily harm overcome. And so on. The modern Olympics, since they began, are filled with thousands of these stories. I don’t know about the original Olympics – they didn’t have Showtime then. But probably.

I love all of Greenspan’s documentaries, but every time I see that dear man’s name come up in my channel guide, I manage to see the same episode: Nagano ’98 Olympics: Bud Greenspan’s Stories of Honor and Glory. And each time I turn on this show to indulge in said honorable and glorious tales, I see the same two tales again and again: the American speedskater Kirstin Holum, and the Italian skier Deborah Compagnoni. Which is fine. I love those two stories.

Kirstin Holum was an American high school student from someplace, I forget where. Unfortunately I can’t find any of this on YouTube, as I was positive I would, so work with me as I try to conjure up the key details. She made it onto the U.S. Speed Skating team, blah blah blah, and competed against her rival, some Norwegian or possibly Dutch lady who was very good, and very complimentary toward Kirstin when she came in, I believe, sixth. After the race, Holum’s coach said something to her like, “Look! You get a certificate for coming in the top six! Yay!” And…that is it. That’s the whole story. No meth addiction to fight through, she wasn’t raised by wolves or anything; she was just a high school girl who got to the Olympics. Which is awesome. But then…

…we get to Bud’s wrap-up of the scene, as we watch Kirstin skate away to collect her certificate or whatever. Again, I paraphrase: “Kirstin Holum, one of the many in a firmament of stars, that break through the atmosphere, kiss us on the face, so that we make understand glory before she disappears back into the universe.” I kid, but I’m not off by much. The word “firmament” was definitely in there.

Now, this girl came in sixth in a pretty minor, as it goes, sport, and he’s bathing her with language usually reserved for Jesus. I am loving her achievement, but this firmament business is overmuch, wouldn’t you say? The tone of the whole series is this grave and earnest. And I don’t usually go in for grave and earnest, but I have to say, you’ve got me, Bud. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because that’s one of the best things about the Olympics, to me: let’s allow ourselves (and by ourselves, I mean myself) just a few unironic, earnest moments every couple of years. Let’s drop our masks, and revel in someone else’s success, be inspired by their efforts, and hope that it may mean something bigger.

I, personally, have no desire in my life to skate, or swim, or do any sport competitively, if at all, but if these Olympians can do it, then that makes me happy. And I guess that’s why my happiness for them is so uncomplicated: it’s envy-free. If I were settling down to watch two weeks of people going for glory in the fields of awesome blogging, say, or tantrum-free parenting, then I might find it a little harder to watch. And by the way, did you know that later, Kirstin Holum left the sport and became a nun? You go girl. Sorry about the Jesus remark.

On to story #2. Deborah Compagnoni, as deep, serious, voiceover man will tell you, was the “female Alberto Tomba.” You know Tomba la Bomba, right? Compagnoni is a child of the Italian Alps, and as voiceover man talks, she walks through the green, sloping Tyrol in an oversized, Benetton-esque sweater and faded jeans. The Italians would call that kind of girl acqua e sapone: soap and water, pretty and natural. Long story short, she’s tough as nails and came back from severe knee injury to win another medal in her third Olympics. She’s one of the most famous Italian sportswomen, and, as the internet told me, later went on to marry Alessandro Benetton, so she’ll never have to pay for those chunky sweaters again! This is a great, straightforward sports success story, but I have to tell you, if I am asked to fill out another questionnaire in my adult life, under “hero,” I’m putting Deborah Compagnoni! I have no good reason, really: she’s not curing cancer or stopping global warming. That I know of. I just would love to be an acqua e sapone girl growing up in the Italian Alps, then national sport hero, then fixture of the Italian social scene married to a fashion magnate! Wouldn’t you?? And she looks amazing! Come on!

So we’ve established that I love the Olympics because I 1) enjoy occasionally basking openly in the happiness of others 2) enjoy living vicariously through glamorous international types (which is also why I enjoy the Tour de France). There are lots of other reasons, but this has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say I hope to add more stars to my Olympic-watching firmament over the next few weeks: big, bright ones like la Deborah, and others that glimmer faintly from nunneries like Kirstin. Here’s to hoping that Olympic fever will catch on with my children, and they’ll find their own Nancy Hogsheads, for future questionnaires. Here’s to loads of the kind of drama that makes sport great; really baffling outfits; underdogs that stun the world, and oh yeah, I did say schadenfreude.

That’s for you, Mama Phelps. I’ve already seen enough of your mug on TV in obnoxious commercials, not to mention your attention-hogging in the stands while people are trying to swim in the Olympic Trials. Give someone else a turn, am I right, Mrs. Lochte? Enough already.

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