Friday, February 19, 2010

Images of gold

Once again, we are in the midst of Olympic fever.

The Winter Olympics have a more limited audience than their summer counterpart, but they still have one of the biggest audiences of any sporting event. Few events define sports like the Olympics in either season.

Start with “Bugler’s Dream,” the song that has been used in Olympic telecasts since I can remember. Few songs are more recognizable, and none are more associated with a single event.

Then there are the events themselves. They are so varied that it’s hard to imagine there isn’t one that somebody isn’t interested in. Ever wanted to watch curling or skeleton? Here’s your chance.

And then there are the Olympic nations. While TV coverage is slanted toward the U.S. and the other countries that regularly face them, the Olympics are a great geography lesson.

The first Olympics I remember were the summer games in Munich in 1972, when I was six. My first knowledge of the Olympics came one Saturday morning in August when I was told that my cartoons weren’t on TV that day. In their place were, in the words of my mom, “all the runners and jumpers and throwers.”

But the first athlete I remember seeing that day was a swimmer who always seemed to win. His name would become immortal before the next week passed—Mark Spitz.

Over the next few days, there were not only runners, jumpers, throwers, and swimmers, but also gymnasts, boxers, wrestlers, divers, basketball players—and terrorists.

The politics of the games hadn’t quite sunk in to me yet. I had a vague idea that the U.S. was a “free” country and the Soviet Union was a communist country, but I wasn’t really sure what those things meant yet. But I was convinced that the Americans were the good guys, of course. And I had little knowledge of the situation in the Middle East that provided the backdrop for the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the Munich games. But I remember the reports on TV and I knew that some people had been killed. And I was left with a powerful image. To this day, my image of what a terrorist looks like is the picture of the ski-masked gunman standing on the Olympic village balcony.

Images are what each Olympic Games leave with us, and the Winter Olympics are no exception. The first winter games I remember were the Innsbruck games in 1976, which I associate with Franz Klammer gliding down a mountain en route to a gold medal.

The most indelible image has to be the U.S. men’s hockey team beating the Soviets in 1980. By then, I knew a lot more about the Cold War and the “us vs. them” mentality that came with every event in which the teams faced each other. I also knew that the Soviets had a huge advantage in many Olympic sports because professional athletes were not allowed in the Olympics back then. When the U.S. won that game, I knew that I was watching one of the greatest sports upsets in history.

World politics—and Olympic politics—are different now. The days of “us vs. them” are gone. When my favorite NHL team won the Stanley Cup, a Russian was named MVP—which would have been unimaginable just three decades ago.

While many things about the Olympics have changed, the images will remain, and this year’s Winter Olympics are sure to add more to our collective memories.

P.S. Jamie said that Johnny Weir got robbed.

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