Why I can’t quit the Olympics

Erik Heiden in his golden yellow rubber suit. He’s a doctor now.
(Originally published February 12, 2108)

I’m in the midst of rediscovering my soul, and I keep getting distracted by sequins, and Norwegian curling pants, and guys in rubber suits riding down a giant flume ride track without the water…on their backs. I just can’t look away. Maybe the damned sequins and rubber suits are actually part of my soul.

Wait a minute…there is no ‘maybe’ about it.

IOC corruption. Doping. Corporate sponsorships for the shiny sports, while other athletes take out loans and mortgages just trying to get there. Cities going broke hosting the Games. It’s easy these days to slam the Olympics, and justifiably so—these things take all of the shine off of gold, silver, and bronze. But every two years, it seems, when it comes down to the Games themselves, I can’t peel myself away. I may roll my eyes at the Opening Ceremonies and the speeches and ridiculous mascots, but being an Olympics fangirl is just too deeply ingrained for me to leave it, and when the athletes take the stage, I am hooked. For me, Olympic memories are key parts of my childhood and early adulthood, and those narratives have not lost their shine over the ensuing years.

I remember only two things about the 1972 Games. At the corner of Broad and Sylvan Sts. in Columbus was Bill Spires’ Marathon gas station, where my mom would fill up the car. Bill himself often came out to fill up your car at the single set of pumps, cleaning your windshield with a squeegee (such fun for a five-year-old) and checking your oil. In 1972, he also handed out Olympics placemats, featuring the characters of the cartoon series “BC” as Olympic athletes, and my mom gave one to me for the craft table I had in the kitchen. That’s what I mostly remember about the Munich Olympics. The other thing I remember was just a name: Mark Spitz. When I started swim lessons, Mom joked about me “swimming like Mark Spitz.” (I did no such thing. I was awful at swimming, at least as a five-year-old “polliwog.”)


It was different in 1976. The Winter Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria. They were originally supposed to take place in Denver, but voters rejected hosting the Games after they had actually been awarded, a fact I discovered approximately a minute and a half ago. Whistler, BC was offered the Games after that, but they turned them down. The IOC, miffed, turned down an offer from Salt Lake City and went back to previous venue Innsbruck. I discovered figure skating during these Games. I’d barely ever seen the sport before, as is typical of many Olympic sports, particularly before the Games became such a moneymaking exercise for sponsors. I was a girl who took ballet lessons, and this seemed familiar to me, but…on skates? I watched it every chance I could, transfixed. This was the Dorothy Hamill Olympics (I’d shortly get my hair cut in a bob, in fact), but I also fondly remember the Soviet pairs skaters Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov. It was the idea of the Olympics that really caught my interest, more than any of the athletes, more than any single sport. I loved studying about the countries of the world, and I loved sports, and here they all were together. There were flags, and all kinds of different languages, and cultures to discover, not to mention weird sports I had never seen before, like luge. For two weeks, I could experience the world without leaving my dull American suburban town.
The Summer Olympics that followed were held in Montreal. I loved it all—swimming and track and especially gymnastics. I remember Nadia Comanechi and her perfect 10s, and remember ABC’s constant running of footage of her on the uneven bars to music they christened “Nadia’s Theme.” (I only found out years later that it was actually the theme song to the soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” Budgets weren’t what they are these days.) I was so taken by the gymnastics that I signed up for “Acro” lessons at the same studio where I took ballet. I later found out from the mean girls I was trying to fit in with at school that acro (acrobatics) was not “real” gymnastics, but I still learned how to do a backbend and a front roundoff.
That year, we took our family vacation to Montreal just a few weeks after the Olympics. I was such a fan by now that touring the echoing, empty venues where the events had been held was just about the best thing ever. It was the closest I have ever come to attending the Games, and I was even able to buy a leftover keychain of the Games’ beaver mascot and a t-shirt with the Olympic rings that I wore until it fell apart. I also got Gymnast Barbie for Christmas that year, who came with a full-sized gold medal I could wear. Oddly enough, her apparatus was the horizontal bar—one used only by male gymnasts.
After that, I was not just hooked, I was an addict. I followed all of the sports in the months leading up to the next Games in Sports Illustrated. For the winter Games in 1980, held in Lake Placid, I turned in every day to listen to Jim McKay from ABC do the commentary and watched all of the now-famous “Up Close and Personal” segments in which viewers met the athletes. We even played the “Olympics Theme” in orchestra (actually, the theme from Masterpiece Theatre—budgets still were not what they are these days). This one was an anomaly—it is not an Olympics I remember for figure skating. It was actually speed skater Eric Heiden in his bright yellow skintight suit who captured my attention. Heiden won gold in all five of the races he entered, from sprints to the gruelling 10,000 metre race. Yellow was very briefly my favourite colour because of Heiden. I plastered Sports Illustrated articles on him all over my bedroom walls. Unlike the majority of girls my age, most of my crushes were on athletes rather than pop stars or actors. Eric Heiden, with his huge, powerful thighs and floppy hair, was definitely one.
Oh, and there was one other thing. Hockey. The Miracle on Ice. And it was. 1980 was a strange year in so many ways. We had US hostages in Iran, the economy was in the dumps, and heroes were in short supply. We already knew that the US was likely to boycott the upcoming Moscow Olympics over the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, so this year, more than any other, the Soviets were the big, Red villains of the story. And a bunch of US college kids beat them. This was a seriously Big Deal. I don’t think many folks realize that before 1980, no one really ever chanted “USA! USA!”. Just wasn’t a thing. Americans were underdogs in the Winter Olympics and in the world that year, and the chant was an act of defiance. Now, it’s one of superiority, and has lost much of its charm.
There were no Summer Games that year, not for the US, because of the boycott. The only memory I have of those games is the stuffed mascot, Misha the Bear, that I purchased before the boycott was announced. I subsequently removed the belt with the Olympic rings the stuffed figure wore, as a gesture of solidarity. The USSR would get the United States back, of course, in 1984. In retrospect, I think these two years were largely responsible for solidifying my preference for the Winter Games over the Summer ones.
And the 1984 Winter Games were also amazing, the first Winter Games behind the Iron Curtain, and there were no boycotts. To the observer, the Sarajevo Games were a ton of fun, held in a charming, cosmopolitan city that, contrary to what Americans were told about Communist countries, didn’t seem so bad. Of course, Yugoslavia was “unaligned” and so, although Communist, was sort of OK. And in 1984, young Americans like me feared the Soviet Bloc more than anything, and were genuinely scared that nuclear war was an imminent threat. For the two weeks of the Olympics, we could forget about such things and focus on skill, speed, and artistry. To me, these Games once again were about skating– Katerina Witt, Scott Hamilton, and Torvill and Dean. And again—Katarina Witt, an East German, but so charming, so talented—made it hard to root against her. There was not to be a second Miracle—the US hockey team won just a single game, and the mighty USSR team returned to win gold.
By the Winter Games of 1988 I was living on the 7th floor at Taylor Tower at Ohio State. I remember our stunning bronze medal team performance in the Floor Olympics that year—the 7th was not one of the traditional powerhouses, but we pulled it off (partially due to a victory in bowling that I had played a part in). I knew now, had known for some time, that I was never going to be an Olympian, although many of them were about my age. The acro lessons had lasted only a year or two. Skating was certainly not in the cards in a city with just one rink, and I was already too old, anyway. I was no athlete. With the exception of the bowling, I had never been counted as good in any sport. But the joy of competing as a team, of being an underdog and pulling into the bronze position against the odds—I now had some small sense of what the Olympics were for athletes (minus the years of sacrifice and training, of course).
The Calgary Olympics were all about the Battle of the Brians, in their military-esque uniforms, so dashing and handsome. My roommates and I were glued to my tiny TV during those performances. Being Americans, we rooted for Brian Boitano and were ecstatic when he won the gold, and again, — for the last time–Sports Illustrated pages graced the walls of my dorm room.
One of my roommates that year was a little confused by all of this, however. “Why are the Olympics so special?” she asked. We tried, but for me, it was a little difficult to explain, in just one sentence, what’s taken me now two whole pages of text to describe.
“They just…are.”