Yahoo! Sports has graciously commissioned a discussion of our favorite Olympic moments, which I'll get to more directly right after the jump, but first, allow me a brief digression on behalf of those my age and younger. Like Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts," except a bit longer, and kind of getting around to making a point.
When people older than I talk about the Miracle On Ice, and how amazing it was to beat the Soviets and to feel like we'd basically won the entire Cold War right then and there, I sometimes think to myself how unfair it is that I was only one years old in 1980, and that by the time I was old enough to watch the Olympics, the United States had won the Cold War (it was only a matter of time after that damn hockey game); we were the lone superpower in the world; the Olympics were a spirited, but friendly and feel-good, showcase of elite athletic competition; and no one much cared about the Russians in the Olympics anymore, except perhaps to cheer with just a little bit of extra satisfaction when one of those gymnasts from one of those Soviet satellites no one could keep the names straight of -- and inevitably looked like she'd just been liberated from a dungeon -- won a medal -- which is to say, won a medal that no longer counted for the Russians. All of which begged the question for my generation of Americans: how were we supposed to experience a 'Miracle On Ice' Olympic moment?
There was a time there, where I thought we were going to have a new superpower rival to get fired up about, but.... we just decided just to let China beat us. And what passes for our worst enemies nowadays -- terrorists, terrorists, and... ourselves? -- can't be an Olympic competitors, of course... but worse, even if they could, instead of intoxicating hyper-nationalism, what we would really get would be... Dick Enberg, profiling the "courageous story of a young man prepared to give his life for what he believed in," and Bob Costas, as he serenades "the only man to take his own personal jet to the Olympics. From Wall Street to London: the remarkable story of the man who gave America collateral debt obligations."
So when people talk about the Miracle On Ice, that's why I'm left to wonder how it must have felt to compete against an opponent who isn't just another college, located across the river in a neighboring state... how engaging it must have been to have a rival who you wish a lot worse than to suffer another pouty-face meltdown in a BCS Bowl, and not to notice when a bird drops a deuce in his coffee cup... how electrifying it must have felt to compete against a rival who you don't just berate for being illiterate, and who does more than turn your insignia upside down in return... because the rival you are competing against is the world's other superpower, with whom you are engaged in an intense, worldwide battle for economic and military supremacy, with enough nuclear weapons trained on each other at all times to end the world a hundred times over.
And when you think about it that way, and then think about sporting competitions as proxies for this larger, immeasurably consequential power battle... you can understand why I'm sometimes tempted to think it rather unfair to us younger Americans that the country no longer has such a rival to spar with in the Olympics -- that we are denied the opportunity to experience competition so intensely, so importantly -- and to contemplate an Olympics where instead of a corporate-fueled event saturated with feel-good personal stories, feel-good competition, and even more feel-good advertisements, we could still experience the Ultimate Competition against the Ultimate Adversary. And then...
...well, that's usually when I think about things like Gulags. And Marxists. And GULAGS RUN BY MARXISTS. And I'm all too happy to pop open a Coke, turn on an oversized television purchased on over-leveraged credit, and listen to Hannah Storm tell me about some amazing kid from Russia, whose two dreams are to win an Olympic gold medal, and go to college in the United States.
Things could be a whole lot worse, and even if it makes for a different dynamic of Olympic competition, in the end, it's a good thing that the Cold War is long gone, the corporations won, the Gulags lost, and Europe will never again ride the austerity train straight through to the last stop in World Crisis.
(Wait, what? Where did that last one come from? Hello? Is this thing on?)
/vows to be more careful what he wishes for
Digression indulged, let's dive into favorite Olympic memories after the jump and in the comments.
Favorite Olympic Memories
The reason that discussion about intense rivalry even occurred to me is that as I sat down to write this post, I quickly recognized, first of all, that my Olympic memories were qualitatively distinct from favorite memories of favorite sports teams like UT football, and then second, upon reflecting on why that was, quickly realized that as much as the Olympic environment, it's the global environment -- and rooting for the US competing against Russia during the Cold War might even supersede the intensity of cheering for, say, Texas playing Oklahoma.
Perhaps it's not the same for others out there, but I would guess that many or most are like me in consuming the Olympic competitions differently than we do our favorite teams/sports. When I watch college football, I root intensely for Texas, and almost as intensely against OU, who sucks. When I watch the Olympics, I generally root for the Americans in the competition, but rarely if ever find myself fired up to see some other country flop; quite the contrary, as a general rule, I enjoy the impressive performances of athletes from other countries as much as I do an American's. Maybe it's a product of the relatively peaceful world those my age have grown up in, as I'm sure I'd root very differently if, say, al Qaeda fielded a squad. Or if I'd been old enough to see us beat Russia in the Miracle On Ice in the middle of the Cold War.
As much fun as is an intense rivalry, the double-good news in this case is, first of all, that it's of course hard to complain about a world with sufficient peace that I'm not rabid with hatred for other countries; and second, the Olympics don't need that element of competition to be interesting and riveting and dramatic in their own great way. It's a decidedly different kind of thrill to see some American athlete you barely know pull off a dramatic victory than to see Texas pull off 41-38 in the Rose Bowl, but both are fun and memorable in their own great ways.
Moreover, the structure of the Olympic competitions themselves provide for uniquely compelling drama in a number of ways. If Lebron James chokes in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, he is back on the floor six months later, and perhaps cutting down the nets as the NBA Champion within a year. Not in the Olympics, of course; this is it, for four years (assuming you can get back at all). In addition, the Olympics are a global competition, obviously. The New York Yankees are 27-time World Champions, but we mean they're the best team in the best league among the handful of countries that field serious baseball leagues. An Olympic champion is a very different world champion -- truly the champion of the world's tournament -- which isn't necessarily to say the absolute best individual or team in the world, period, but without question the champ of the world tournament to which every country brought their best. That's really awesome, and it makes the stakes for the competitors really high. Which makes for exciting and compelling viewing for the audience at home.
Although there's plenty more that could be said on the topic, let me also note that while I poked fun at the feel-good nature of today's heavily corporatized Olympics, the Olympics are and have always been filled with impressive and inspiring stories. For the reasons discussed above and more, to be an Olympian in your sport is to be at the pantheon, worthy of playing for the Greek gods. Athletes get one shot every four years, which means at most four to five shots in a career. All these athletes compete with one another across the globe in their various sports and leagues, but the Olympics are a rare shot at proving yourself the world's best. And that, more than anything else, gets to the heart of why the Olympics are so interesting, exciting, and memorable to watch -- both athletes/sports we follow closely, and those we see once every four years, and about which we know only what we're told on the Olympic broadcasts.
And without a 4th and 5, or a Miracle On Ice, that's why my favorite Olympic memory involves an athlete who finished in last place. In his very best chance at a Gold Medal in the 400-meter sprint, British sprinter Derek Redmond provided the defining moment of not only the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but any Olympics.
If you missed it 20 years ago, or don't remember, or just haven't seen it in a while, watch and let Derek Redmond remind you that one of the biggest reasons that we watch -- and hold particularly special -- the Olympics...
....is the opportunity to see someone inspire the entire world.
Celebrate the most compelling moments in Summer Games history with 'Memorable Moments' on Yahoo! Sports. Re-live moments such as Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10s in Montreal, Michael Phelps' record eight gold medals in Beijing, Carl Lewis' unforgettable four gold medals in Los Angeles, the spectacular success of the 1992 US Dream Team, Muhammad Ali in Rome and Atlanta, and any more!
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