Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Golden Journey

TigerBlog is a big fan of the Olympics, though not quite as much as he was when he was a kid and thought the Olympics were the greatest thing ever.

His first Olympic television memories go back to the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, and he has been a pretty loyal viewer ever since. There were a few Olympics that he hardly watched back in the late '80s/early '90s, though now he's very much back on the bandwagon. It hasn't hurt that TigerBlog Jr. looks at the Olympics about the same way as TB did back in the day.

Through the years of watching the Olympics, TB has seen some of the greatest moments in sports he's ever seen. And he's not just talking about the 1980 Olympic hockey, to which nothing else will ever compare. TB saw a youtube clip of the final few seconds of the USA's win over the Soviets the other day, and even after seeing it a million times, it still has an effect.

There are other moments that stand out, too many to run down right now. Perhaps second behind the 1980 hockey, though, is Franz Klammer's downhill run to win the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, his home country.

Or, maybe it was Shun Fujimoto at the 1976 Summer Olympics. Fujimoto was the Japanese gymnast who competed in two events after suffering a broken kneecap and still managed to withstand that pain to help the Japanese to the team gold medal.

Much of TB's younger Olympic watching days was spent rooting for the Americans against the Soviets and the East Germans. For those of you younger than 35 or 40 or so, you can't possibly imagine how intense it was to root against the Soviet Union and East Germany in international competition, especially the Olympics. There was so much national pride tied into who won and who lost, and much of the 1980 Olympic hockey comes from that feeling as much as it does from the hockey win itself.

Today, that feeling isn't as powerful, if it exists at all. In fact, TigerBlog these days often wonders why he should blindly root for the Americans, no matter what. There are plenty of Americans that TB has met in his life whom he would root against in the Olympics.

What TB wants to see now more than anything else is 1) close competition or 2) perfection, regardless of the nationalities (for the most part).

The Olympics are fascinating on many levels.

First, for the most part, it's a bunch of sports that nobody cares about for four years. In many ways an interesting and unique set of sports that are fun to watch (snowboard cross ranking very near the top), but sports that nobody cares about nonetheless except when the Olympics are on.

Think back to the last Summer Olympics. Everyone was glued to the swimming, right? Michael Phelps and all? Well, will you watch swimming on TV between now and the next Olympics? No. Can you name anyone besides Michael Phelps who won a swimming medal?

Then there's the fact that your average Olympian has sacrificed so much of his/her life to get to the point of being able to compete on that level. It has been years and years, all pointing to one moment.

In many cases, that moment is over in a flash. The downhill is one of TB's favorite events, and it's over in a little more than two minutes. Moguls skiing? That's 20 seconds after a decade or more of preparing.

Plus, the outcome is so clearly defined as successful (won a medal) and unsuccessful (didn't win a medal). TigerBlog thinks the happiest people at the Olympics are the ones who win a bronze medal, because they have something to show for all of their sacrifice.

And those who finish fourth, often by a microscopic margin? Or fall during their run? TB has no idea how they go on. Their entire life has been devoted to one pursuit, and the validation of a medal is left dangling so closely. And this doesn't even take into account athletes who don't even make the Olympic team after trying so hard.

It's much different for Princeton's athletes, or at least it seems to be. The Olympics (not the NHL guys playing in the hockey tournament) seem to be about individual pursuits, years and years spent in a solitary effort to get to the top.

Sean Gregory, for those who don't remember, is a 1998 Princeton grad who was a member of the men's basketball team. These days, the man they used to call "Bones" writes for Time Magazine, and he did a series of pre-Olympic videos focusing on American hopefuls for Vancouver. In almost all of his videos, the athlete being profiled goes at it alone, often having to find unique training methods in non-wintery months. Included in the series was a ski jumper hurling himself time and again into a pool of cold water to perfect his technique.

Princeton athletes, overwhelmingly, aren't headed for the Olympics obviously. They're approach to sports seems to be coming through youth programs to high school and having the skill to play on the college level.

It appears, at least, that these athletes have spent their lives playing in team environments, on teams, against other teams, practicing as teams.

And, for the most part, they don't seem to be competing for that one single defining moment. They play a schedule. They play for four years.

In the last decade, 31 of Princeton's 33 teams that compete in Ivy League sports won at least one championship, and more than half of Princeton's athletes in the last decade won at least one league championship in their four years.

Is it the grand stage of the Olympics? No. You certainly have to hand it to the ones who have made it that far, the ones who bow their heads as that medal is draped across their neck.

Still, it begs the question of who you would rather be: the athlete who finishes 22nd in the Nordic Combined or the 10th place finisher in the 1,000-meter speed skating or even a medalist in the biathlon, or a member of a team at Princeton for four years?

TigerBlog loves the Olympics. It just seems like being a Princeton athlete - and the journey to get there - would be more fun.

1 comment:

Merc Morris said...

I second your choice of Franz Klammer's race and would like to share a video of that race narrated in German. Klammer's celebrity in Austria equated to that of Michael Jordan here. The following clip gives an idea of what medals mean to the home country. It's fun.