As grand a spectacle as they’ve become — with more than six gajillion hours of television coverage! — there remains something quaint about the Summer Olympics. First of all, there’s the seasonal qualifier: the “summer games.” Life would be happier for everyone if we played more summer games. There would surely be less strife if we cared more about our time in the pool — or on the beach, with a volleyball! — than we did the politics of the day, to say nothing of the latest outbreak of disease or violence. Competition can be intense, for sure, but the Olympics are ultimately just two weeks of human beings playing.
The Summer Games, in particular, tend to leave us Americans with a star for the Wheaties boxes and soft-drink endorsements. Going back almost half a century, we’ve had Mark Spitz (1972), Bruce Jenner (as she was known in 1976), Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis (1984), the first and only true Dream Team (Magic, Michael, and Larry wearing the same uniform in 1992), Michael Johnson (1996), and Michael Phelps (2008). Now and then an “international” (to Americans) star grabs a seat at the table, as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt did four years ago in London (and will again this Sunday in Rio). The Olympics can also become a stage for infamy, from the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli wrestling team in Munich 44 years ago to cheats like Ben Johnson (1988) and Marion Jones (2000). There will be scores of gold medalists over this fortnight in Brazil, but one or two names will become familiar for posterity.
Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are the leading contenders for “Olympic darling.” Not even five feet tall, Biles will be a contender in all four women’s gymnastics events and Ledecky is the world-record holder in all three distance freestyle swims (400, 800, and 1,500 meters). Only at the Olympics — every four years — can two teenage girls seize the spotlight with the ferocity Biles and Ledecky will as they display talents developed through quadrennials (multiple) of training.
The Olympics also bring the obscure to the mainstream. When else might we turn away from Netflix long enough for some live judo? Did you know there are Olympics archers among us? Athletes who use bows and arrows with no deer in sight. They’ll be competing for gold in Rio. (One step further, there will be rifle competition at the Olympics. Tasteful in this day and age? I’ll leave that to you.) Men and women will ride horses, steer kayaks, bounce on trampolines (yes, trampolines!), and race bicycles, these two weeks being each athlete’s “one shining moment” in ways no college basketball player could imagine.
We’ll brush up on our geography as the Rio Games unfold. Can you point to Uzbekistan on a map? It’s the home of Oksana Chusovitina, a gymnast who happens to be 41 years old and will compete in her seventh(!) Olympics. Chusovitina was doing backflips at the ’92 Games in Barcelona, five years before Biles was born.
There are sports that don’t belong in the Olympics. Soccer has its World Cup and golf has four majors that pay winners seven-figure checks. Think Jordan Spieth would trade his Green Jacket for a gold medal? No chance. But these are the Summer Games. So we’ll cheer soccer players and golfers, too.
We’ve all done our share of running, even if it’s chasing an ice cream truck or fleeing a neighbor’s flesh-seeking canine. And whether at the beach or the hotel swimming pool, most of us have done versions of the breaststroke, if only to keep from drowning. With the exception of the high-flying (and sometimes leg-breaking) gymnasts, summer Olympians are typically competing within a familiar realm. As long as there are garages (for table tennis) and backyards (for badminton), each of us can claim to be an Olympian in training. And this, ultimately, is the magic of the Summer Games. We are the Olympics.