Why do we really love the Olympics? Matt Domino thinks he knows why.
You’ve heard this phrase a million times over the past five days, but I’m going to say it because I have to: Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all-time. Phelps could also very well be one of the twenty best athletes of all-time. And, at the same time, Michael Phelps is, by all accounts, a smug and unlikable guy—a dick.
On Friday night, I met my friend for dinner. We ate chopped liver sandwiches and smoked brisket sandwiches at Mile End in Manhattan. It was a nasty, humid, hot New York summer night.
At one point, my friend said, “You know what’s funny about the Olympics?”
“How you used to think of the athletes as like something so great. They were Olympians. But now they’re just people our age.”
“But that’s like the NBA. Like all sports.”
“I know, but it’s like when you look at a Playboy and see that the centerfold is 25 or 26.”
“You know what I mean.”
I knew exactly what he meant. It is well documented that, as you get older, the heroes of your youth, the people that seemed sacred, that seemed distant and true, become less and less so. Instead of just blindly revering them because they simply are, you begin to question them, prod them and even mock them. Michael Phelps won eight medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He then won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Then, afterward, photos surfaced of Phelps smoking weed at the University of South Carolina. He was caught smoking weed just like any other 22-year old and so now, we can always make fun of him because of that. And that’s fine because something about Michael Phelps smoking weed was and is funny. Whether its the fact that he has become the greatest Olympian of all time; the fact that he is a dick; or the fact that he has that weird, kind of coyote mouth, something about Michael Phelps smoking pot is funny.
Later that night, my friend and I went out to the bars and got drunk. We talked about girls and tried to meet girls and then we sat at the bar and talked about what historical figure probably had the greatest power over women. My friend said Elvis and I said Michael Jordan. Then we both thought maybe it could have been Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber. I suggested Michael Phelps and my friend shook his head, paused, and then shrugged, as if to say, “Maybe after all this…” And after we finished up at the bar, I made my way home and thought about Phelps and the Olympics and about how there was something more.
During the 2008 Olympics, my roommate and I made a pact that we would watch nothing else but the Olympics—for two weeks, our TV would show nothing else but Olympic events and coverage. So we watched Phelps, Nastia Liukin and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh win gold. We watched the Redeem Team and rowing. My roommate was stuck sitting through dressage on his off afternoons from work. The Beijing Olympics were exciting and electric. Part of that feeling was due to the mystery and the strangeness of China and part of that feeling was due to the storylines that unfolded over those two weeks in July and August. During those fourteen days in the summer of 2008, the Olympics were constantly on in the background of my life and the lives of all Americans. And ever since that time, I have always felt that the constancy that the Olympics brings with it also factored into that excitement.
Olympians are not exciting by nature. We know that they are always in training; that while we are watching basketball, baseball, football and hockey, they are waking up early to go through grueling sessions on the ice or in the pool or out on the track. We know all this, but we don’t care because there is no drama to constantly training to be at peak condition—we can’t follow that as fans. There is no drama of a legacy at stake over the course of a season or a playoff series. We don’t wonder if an athlete the caliber of Michael Phelps will “fulfill his destiny” the during a non-Olympic year the way we wondered almost every day whether or not Lebron James would “fulfill his destiny” from about 2008 to this past June. Its just simply not there.
Yet, when the actual Olympics roll around, Olympians are, by nature, very exciting. Obviously, this has to do with the spacing or inherent “rarity” of the event, but it also has to do with the constancy of the Olympics in our lives when they occur. As children, we watch the Olympics with our parents in small increments and we watch them with wonder. I still remember watching the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer every night with my mother. Nothing seemed more distantly beautiful or perfect than the Olympic Village at Lillehammer (who was fucking who—and where—now becomes a different question). The whole spectacle placed that Olympics at the pinnacle of my Olympic experience and imagination until the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
During the summer of 2008, I had just started my first office job in a small law office and looked forward to watching the Olympics each night while drinking beer. I knew that the games would be on all day and almost all night. Part of that had to do with the time difference between the United States and China, which allowed for the perfect mix of live coverage and previously aired coverage that helped blend the whole experience into just watching. I stayed up late to watch the basketball Gold Medal Game only because I love basketball so much. Otherwise, I was content to watch whatever event was on, whether it was diving, gymnastics, swimming, handball or beach volleyball. And since I was almost 23 years old and had already witnessed Lebron enter and dominate the NBA, I no longer cared or thought of Olympians or really anyone of my contemporaries as a true hero. What I got from the Olympics was the warm feeling of knowing it was on; of knowing that at a bar, people I didn’t know would be watching Michael Phelps with their own problems. They’d order beers, glance at themselves in the mirror, see the reflection of the pool on TV in the bar mirror and then tilt their heads back up at the screen. There would be celebrations at American achievement and jeers at Chinese dominance. That is what I learned during the 2008 Olympics.
This past weekend, after these 2012 games had already been on for a week, I did the following things in order: ate Mile End, got drunk, slept, woke up, cleaned my apartment, played pick-up basketball for three hours (including a full court pick-up game against a travel team of middle schoolers where I plowed over a 13 or 14-year old kid without remorse), drank a leisurely sunset beer with a good friend, went to bars in Crown Heights with old friends from college, chewed nicotine gum, slept, met up with one of my best friends and his wife, sat in a bar and talked about sports and memories and life and things we were going to do together next summer, had a large Chinese food dinner with my friend, his wife, his brother, his mother, his aunt, his younger girl cousin, his older guy cousin (who has become like my own cousin), and his cousin’s two-year old son. We ate moo shu pork, chicken with broccoli, egg rolls, moo shoo chicken, pork fried rice, soup dumplings, regular dumplings and searched high and low for some fried noodles. After we ate, we sat and watched the two year old roll around on the carpet and play with ball pillows. We teased him, tricked him, and made him run after the cat and the dog that were in the apartment. Perched on the wall was a big screen, high definition TV, playing the Olympics. When I got home, just missing the second round of down-pouring rain, I watched the newest episode of Breaking Bad—and during each commerical break, I switched the channel back to Bob Costas and the Olympics.
Michael Phelps may be a dick, but so are most of us. We tweet off color jokes about the Olympics and Olympians and the sex in the Olympic Village because we respect the Olympics and the athletes that compete in them. We make jokes because we are sad that we have lost the idyllic images of our youth. But most of all, we make jokes because we are humans and we are happy that the Olympics are a constant, a stable event that seems to heighten our lives for two weeks out of a larger, continuous and confused life.
In a few days, the 2012 Olympics will be over. Michael Phelps will be gone, his run as the best Olympian ever a distant memory. And we'll go to work, eat lunch, nap in the park and try to find that next thing to focus on, to look forward to and to make us feel better.