I have a confession to make. I cry during the Olympic games. It’s not out of sadness or regret. Rather it’s when I see a flip or a twist or an unbelievable move executed perfectly my throat gets tight and the tears flow from the sheer beauty and excellence I have just witnessed. Yes, we are Olympic nerds and the 2018 winter games are upon us. Bring on the podiums!
I’m not sure I was such an avid follower of the Olympic games when I was younger but back in 1984, the Summer games were being held in Los Angeles where my husband and I were living at the time and we decided we couldn’t be in the same city of such an enormous event and not be part of it. We became Olympic volunteers. That was one of the best decisions we ever made. For 16 days we were immersed in the blood, sweat and tears, the hopes and the dreams, the highs and the lows of athletes from around the world, many who could scarcely believe they had made it to the world stage. The energy in the city was electric. Strangers cheered events together in bars and pubs, restaurants stayed open way beyond their usual times, parties held by dignitaries and celebrities to celebrate these athletes were everywhere. We had amazing access to backstage activities as well as the drama and excitement of the competitions. It was one of the most thrilling events I have ever worked.
My assigned job was in one of the Olympic villages. I ran the video viewing room where athletes could come and watch themselves on video after their event or watch their competitors to prepare for their match with them. It was wonderful to meet athletes from around the world, cheer with them as they watched themselves and feel their excitement at even being considered an Olympic athlete no matter where they placed. Having family from different countries means I cheer for USA, I cheer for Canada, I cheer for Morocco. But I also cheer for the newcomer, I cheer for the underdog, I cheer for the veteran who knows this is their last Olympic games. It is a time to celebrate excellence but also to celebrate effort.
What the average spectator does not get to experience is the amazing camaraderie behind the scenes. Young men and women from all corners of the world becoming friends, sharing wins and losses, trading uniforms, t-shirts, pins. It is a beautiful, glorious blending of the world’s colors, just like the Olympic rings represent. We still have our own uniforms from that wonderful summer of 1984 and the pins we collected and the uniforms we were given. The memories of that time stay vibrant. It breaks my heart to have recently learned that for many athletes this celebration was a facade that hid their private hell of abuse. And yet despite that they only showed the world their strongest and fiercest selves.
Since I have become a parent, the Hallmark type commercials during the Olympics illustrating a parent’s commitment to supporting their children’s athletic dreams often has me in tears. Parents who patiently spend hours with their children teaching them their sport from toddlerhood, driving at all hours to practice near and far, toting coffee and snacks, often fighting traffic and fatigue but always encouraging their child’s passion, never knowing where that road will lead but having faith in the process. I have siblings who were sport parents and I too have been one and I can attest that we all had those secret Olympic dreams for our children too.
What had my eyes welling up this Olympic Opening Ceremonies was the powerful message and symbol of peace for the world. For months we have been on edge, hearing sabers rattling between this country and that one, fear of nuclear attack and retribution. Yet at these games, a divided country showed up as one united country wearing the same uniform, marching in together. Was this a savvy political strategy? Perhaps so, but it is one I found that I liked very much. The possibility of world peace was personified right before our eyes. I find it hard to understand why we could not all stand and cheer for that.
One truth these experiences have revealed to me is that we don’t need to look far to find common ground. The Olympics bring together athletes from different cultures and hundreds of stories to perform the same sports. Every person who has ever worked an Olympic games as a volunteer or a judge or an athlete feels the magic that continues long after the closing ceremonies. My brother volunteered in Vancouver 8 years ago and his experience mirrors ours in so many ways. It’s a unique bond. For now, though, it’s time to get back to watching today’s medal round events. That is, if the tears don’t get in the way.