Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympiad

We'd been without a working TV for the better part of a year. Our old large screen analog set was still in perfectly good condition but the converter necessary for receiving digital signals broke down. We hemmed and hawed over getting a new converter, seems those devices are notoriously unreliable, and by the way, why spend x amount of dollars for a piece of junk when we could spend 2x dollars for a brand new digital TV, and so on and so forth. Besides, we were perfectly happy not having the kids watching inane TV shows; even the so called "educational' ones on PBS leave a lot to be desired. The kids seemed OK with it too, after a while.

A study in contrast: Horse Guards Parade, London, 2010
  At the time of this writing, it's  the site of Olympic beach volleyball
I set July as the deadline to purchase a new set because I wanted to watch the London Olympics. We visited London two (hard to believe) years ago and fell in love with it. Plus I've always been a bit of an Olympics geek. They've been a welcome part of my life since 1968, the first Olympic Games I actually remember. While lying in bed before I got up this morning, as a mental exercise, I tried to list in my head the locations of the games going back as far back as possible. I could recall the cities of all the summer games back to 1936 (Berlin), but wasn't too sure about the winter ones before 1968 (Grenoble). You can name me any Olympic host city in the past 44 years and I can recall some personal memory of it.

Here are some of the highlights:
  • Grenoble, 1968, the first Olympics I can remember, Peggy Fleming, Billy Kidd, and Jean Claude Killy were three of the stars. It was my first exposure to skiing, for a brief time I wanted to be a ski jumper. The highlight for my father and me however was when Czechoslovakia beat the USSR to win the gold medal in hockey, it was so big in so many ways, perhaps the actual reason the Soviets invaded my father's fatherland later in August of that year.
  • That October, the Summer Games in Mexico City took place not long after we moved to Oak Park and my life was in transition. My only memory of those games was the Black Power salute given by two American track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium.
  • I began high school in 1972. That was the year of Munich, and of gymnast Olga Korbut, whom I had a crush on. But those games will forever be marked by the tragedy that befell the Israeli athletes, an event that will haunt me as long as I live.
  • 1976 was the year of the American Bicentennial, the year I graduated from high school, and the year of Nadia Comaneci and perfection in Montreal.
  • Lake Placid, 1980, was the place and year of the Miracle on Ice, when a bunch of American college hockey players beat the mighty Soviet Red Army team.  I graduated from college and later that year the Americans boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow, over Afghanistan. Back in those days we supported the Taliban. Who says sports have nothing to do with real life?
  • 1984 was a very good year for me as my photography career was beginning to materialize. It was also a good one for Sarajevo who hosted the Winter Games. In eight years a Civil War would tear that city apart. What more can one say?
  • Barcelona in 1992 was one of the most spectacular sites for the games, especially the diving venue on Montju├»c overlooking the city. I would visit that site a few years later. My first wife and I separated not long after the closing ceremony.
  • In 1994 it was Lillehammer, Norway, or was it Albertville, France? Anyway they decided to alternate the Winter and Summer Games every two years and things got confusing, both with my life and the Olympics.
  • I remember two things about the 1996 Atlanta games. During the opening ceremonies, Muhammad Ali lit the torch. And I remember the bomb that went off in the center of town toward the end of the games. Between marriages, I was out with one woman during the first event, and another during the second. 
  • Remembering the location of the 1998 Winter Games was tough until I remembered I was in a truck on the Finland/Russia border waiting there all night to get through customs. It was bitterly cold and the drivers and I were chain smoking while listening to hours of live coverage of ski jumping on the radio, in Finnish of course. Oh yes, the games were held in Nagano, Japan. A lesser man would have sworn off the Olympics for good after that experience but not I. Later in St. Petersburg, I watched live coverage of the gold medal ice hockey match between Russia and the Czech Republic.  I imagined there would be public wailing and gnashing of the teeth in the streets after the Czechs won, but alas there was none. 
  • Sydney, 2000 was perhaps the second most spectacular setting for the Games. Haven't been there yet, but was not far away this year in Melbourne, the site of the 1956 Games.  2000 was the year of my second and final marriage and our tour of Europe honeymoon. One of the cities we visited was Rome, the site of the 1960 games. 
  • The games of Salt Lake City, 2002, were the saddest Olympics of my life as my father languished in the hospital after the heart surgery from which he would not recover. He so wanted to see those games and we looked forward to sharing them together. The games were on TV in his hospital room, but I'll never know how much of them he was able to take in.
  • Athens, 2004, and a couple of firsts: for the first time I watched an Olympics set in a city I was already intimately familiar with, AND for the first time I would share the games with my son, although at the age of three, he wasn't very interested.
  • Beijing, 2008, are the first Olympics my son remembers. He had a crush on gymnast Shawn Johnson but denies it to this day. The apple never falls far from the tree.
Told you I was a geek. But I'm not the first to measure my life by the Olympics. The Ancient Greeks measured time in four year periods called an Olympiad, beginning with the first Games which took place in 776 BC (B.C.E. if you prefer). That archaic measurement of time lives on today every year at Christmas during Midnight Mass in the Catholic Church. That Mass begins with the proclamation of Jesus's birth which relates the event with significant events in human history. The ancient text ties Christ to the Greeks with the words: "In the one hundred and ninety fourth Olympiad..."

Anyway, I bought a modest TV last week and at least three out of four members of our family have been glued to it since the opening ceremonies. Right now women's gymnastics are on, so far no potential love interests for my son, not that he'd ever let on if there were. Lots of great events, women's cycling, men's 4 x 200 meter relay, water polo, team handball, ping pong, rowing, and diving. The incredible performance of the British men's gymnastics team who unexpectedly won a bronze medal in their home country. Missy Franklin's magnificent 200 meter backstroke gold medal coming just 20 minutes after another race. A little while ago we saw Michael Phelps lose by 5/100ths of a second in the same race he won by 1/100th of a second in Beijing. Later, he and three teammates won the 4 x 100 meter relay by about 2 seconds, making Phelps the most decorated Olympian of all time. Wait a minute, the American women are about to win the team gold medal in gymnastics. Lots of tears for both the winners and losers as usual. Next week, track and field, it just keeps getting better and better.

I did have second thoughts about the purchase, we're doing a lot of sitting, not much doing. Although sometimes I'd rather be out and about on a beautiful summer evening such as this one, these games are special. My boy put it into perspective when talking about his little sister and said: "She's going to remember these Olympics for the rest of her life."

I guess the TV was a worthwhile purchase after all.

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