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It was 1968, and in the underoxygenated heights of Mexico City, sprinters rocketed, marathoners gasped, Bob Beamon soared, and Fosbury flopped. At six years old, watching my first Olympics on my parents’ black-and-white televison, I was as captivated by athletics as I was ignorant of political gestures like the famous black power salute. I was also ignorant of the Games’ quadrennial calendar: my father traumatized me with news of a mandatory wait until 1972, which seemed as distant to me as 1984 did in Orwell’s time.
When the Munich games finally arrived, ignorance of political action was no longer possible. I saw the grainy death-mask photo that has become the face of that Olympiad, and I heard Jim McKay’s elegiac reporting that so contrasts with the shrillness of news today. 1972’s ten-year-old was less assaulted by media than today’s kids are, and I thus had a better chance of intact innocence, but I understood something of timeless horror had occurred. And yet, at an impressionable age, I did not conflate the Games with evil.
For me, the Olympic spirit would resist the bleakness of death, government boycotts, doping scandals, saccharine human-interest coverage, an eerie encounter with Bruce Jenner, and the jarring presence of Ryan Seacrest. As a boy, I was thrilled by the idea of Olympic achievement, and looking back, I see how this childlike single-mindedness bears similarities to the Olympian’s monomania. The pattern of distractions I now call adult life is nowhere near as admirable.
But every four years, I get to again be the young man whose only hope of emulating Mark Spitz was a failed attempt at an identical moustache. I get to recall my crush on Olga Korbut, and how as high-school runner, I channeled Dave Wottle by wearing a golf cap. To this day, when I watch a teenaged swimmer destroy a world record, only after the race do my suspicions set in. While water churns or a body tumbles, an Olympic athlete does something all the pharmacology in the world couldn’t help me do.
This thrilling inferiority is what I feel as I watch this summer’s Games, and the same awe carried me through years when my Olympic fascination came under assault. In 1988, Ben Johnson ushered in the steroid era that included the McGwire-Sosa home run chase, the Chinese swim team drug debacle, the suspicious pre-Sydney withdrawal of Regina Jacobs, and the tragedy of Marion Jones. Meanwhile, television executives, perhaps fearing all competition was suspect, decided viewers preferred warm hearts to quickened pulses. Watching the Games became sentimental episodes briefly interrupted by sport; at the soft music, I changed channels. And in 2008, I met the hero of 1976, Bruce Jenner, after he gave a motivational speech at a convention. I looked into his face, but it was tanning-bed brown and surgically modified.
Also in 2008, recalling the boycott of the Moscow summer games and the irony of its motivation—an invasion of Afghanistan—I was depressed by politicians talking of a similar action against Beijing. That same year, a book called Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games was published. The authors, Tom and Jerry Caraccioli, profiled American athletes who did not go to Moscow. Some were bitter, others were more accepting, but all shared the disappointment implied by the book’s title: this was not their idea, but the unwelcome interference into sport by geopolitics. Thankfully, the U.S. Olympic Committee rejected a 2008 repeat.
This let me watch the Beijing games with the same fascination I had for the Mexico City ones. That today’s Olympians are professionals may make Avery Brundage do full twists on his eternal podium, but I like knowing that athletes can earn a living as athletes. There’s less soft music now, more sport, and when Bob Costas unconscionably invokes Idi Amin as the Ugandan team enters the stadium, shame on him, not the team. Bruce Jenner is a Kardashian now, but I forgive even this when I watch his 1976 triumph on YouTube.
In forty-four years, I’ve seen the presentation of the Olympics come under the influences of media and marketing that repackage much of modern life into the cynical pay-to-play neologism named edutainment. But when athletes perform, whether in a so-called marquee event or one deemed less mediaworthy, they make inspiring mockery of my own standards of sacrifice. At six or sixty, I will always have been an awed onlooker.