Why I love the Olympics (and you should, too)

Damien Touya celebrates scoring the winning touch over American Keeth Smart at the 2004 Athens Games. (Getty Images)

One blogger's first-person exploration of why the Olympics matter to him, and hopes they matter to you.

The first thing I remember about the summer of 2004 is the fencing.

Like anyone who'd recently earned a post-graduate degree in the humanities, I'd moved in with my brother and started tossing pizzas for a living. The joint was named the Mellow Mushroom ("joint" being the operative word here), and one of a handful of perks was the small television just outside the kitchen door. On slow afternoons we could take a break from chopping up the dinner shift's broccoli and artichoke topping reserves to tune the TV to whatever we wanted, and what I wanted during the Athens Games was CNBC or MSNBC or whatever channel the Peacock had finally given over to Olympic coverage that wasn't gymnastics, swimming, or gymnastics.

What was on, one afternoon in the middle of the Games, was fencing. I didn't know much about the sport, but I knew that Athens was the first Olympiad since 19-dickety-2 where the American fencers had legitimate chances at medaling, and not just in the new women's sabre event the U.S. had actually won at the Games' start. (The woman who did, incidentally, will now carry our nation's flag at the opening ceremony Friday night.) And sure enough, I'd stumbled onto a U.S. match: a men's semifinal, against Italy in the team sabre. And the U.S. was winning, not too many points away from guaranteeing themselves the silver at worst.

As a sport, fencing's not particularly television-friendly nor all that welcoming to novices -- those electrified tinsel Hazmat suits, the blur of the blades, the utter impossibility of knowing which fencer scored the point until one of them reacts, etc. -- and trying to watch it on an elevated 14" TV in a pizza restaurant with a jukebox blaring "Touch of Grey" in the background made it even less comprehensible. But the drama: that was easy to understand. After each point, the winner screamed. The loser fiddled with his equipment for a beat too long, like a baseball player on deck with two out in the ninth. The match was first to 45 and the scoreboard kept ticking higher, one side, then the other. 

"Come on," I found myself saying out loud after Italy scored, the U.S. lead now dwindling.

"What are you watching?" one of the waitresses asked. I explained, with an emphasis on the not-since-19-dickety-2 part. Only a few points remained now. We both stood and watched. 

"Come on," I said again. Two of the other cooks joined us, saying they'd never seen fencing on TV before. Italy tied the match at 44. 

"Oh my God!" the waitress said with a stunned grin. One point would decide the match. One of the cooks swore, I think. I realized I was nervous--the only thing I remember knowing about the men's team, other than that they weren't terrible any more, was that they were spearheaded by a couple of guys from Brooklyn, Brooklyn guys who'd picked up the sport in high school and started to stare down the best European-trained fencers in the world. It was like watching Hoosiers.

So I thought it was appropriate when I found out later the American fencer's name was Keeth Smart; every time I think of him, I have to remind myself I'm not just confusing him with the Indiana basketball player. But that day, Keeth Smart didn't have Keith Smart's storybook ending. Italy scored the final point, leaving him to vivid disbelief as the Italians dogpiled each other next to the stage, still wearing their fencing suits. They were silver and rapturous, the U.S. as heartbroken as I have ever seen a sports team made of people older than 12.

"That sucks," one of the cooks said. I nodded. A half-second later the manager yelled something from across the kitchen, and we went back to work.

Sometime in the past couple of years, I looked up the match's details and found I wasn't remembering them right. We were watching the bronze medal match, not the semifinal. (Though I may be conflating the two; the U.S. agonizingly dropped both by a 45-44 score). It was against Russia, not Italy. And my grasp of history was somewhat faulty--though Team USA hadn't won a men's team medal since 1948, it did take once individual bronze in 1984.

What I won't ever forget, though, is that for a few brief minutes, four people in an Atlanta pizza restaurant -- three of them far closer to Phish fans than sports fans -- stood together and watched Olympic fencing. Keeth Smart didn't win his medal that day (it turned out to be a silver in Beijing), but he and his teammates accomplished the unthinkable all the same.

As an American sports fan, I get jealous sometimes. And if you'll pardon the pun, I was positively green with envy over this: 

That's a Polish soccer stadium at this summer's Euro 2012 drowning in the sound of thousands of Ireland fans singing national soccer anthem "The Fields of Athenry" ... with their team down 4-0 and about to be eliminated. I have only very rarely attended a sporting event where the crowd sang any song that wasn't a canned version of "Sweet Caroline" or "Livin' on a Prayer." I have never attended one where that many people in the crowd sang the same song, or sang half as enthusiastically. And the idea of an American sports crowd bursting into song like that at the end of a crushing defeat seems as likely as it collectively performing the Charleston*. 

I am an American sports fan, and I would desperately like to be a part of crowd that large and still that devoted and still that unified. Is it even possible in the U.S.?

I'd argue no, not today. There's myriad reasons for that, but one of the largest is that if we build an SAT analogy where "Ireland" is to "soccer" as "the U.S." is to _______, there's no right answer to put in the blank.

Football's our national sport, but it's not an international sport. No stadium will ever fill to watch our nation's best play (and brutally slaughter) Canada's best, and even if the Super Bowl grabs everyone's attention, half of that attention has no rooting interest while the two other quarters are bitterly split.  Broadly speaking, basketball was too slow to catch on overseas, and soccer too slow to catch on here. If international baseball had gotten a big push at some point in its past, it conceivably could have become for the U.S. what soccer is for the rest of the globe. But it didn't, and it's too late now.

The upshot of all this is that the Olympics are the closest thing we've got, the closest we're going to come to having our entire sporting nation stand up and sing for our flag and the athletes wearing it**. That point was driven home for me on July, 20, 1996, the day I was in the stands for the U.S. men's Olympic soccer opener against Argentina at Birmingham (Ala.)'s Legion Field.

Better than 83,000 people showed up  -- some 12,000 more than were in attendance at Great Britain's debut vs. Senegal Thursday -- and if they didn't all know their soccer, they knew the colors on the jerseys. They knew they had come to see something they would never see again. And when Claudio Reyna turned and fired home for the U.S. in the very first minute of play, they knew enough to collectively lose their damn minds.

As you've guessed by now, I grew up in the South, and yes, it's my biased personal belief that the closest you're going to get in our country to the atmosphere at a major European soccer match is in an SEC stadium on a fall Saturday. But even in those venues, it's impossible to blot out the fact there's that one section full of fans of the other team with their other band and other-colored shirts who want your team to lose. I've enjoyed one single sporting moment my whole life -- a moment that mattered, anyway*** -- when that wasn't the case, and that was when I saw Reyna's shot hit the net. The delirium in Legion Field in those few seconds rivaled anything you'd find up the road in Tuscaloosa or down the road at Auburn, and anyone who tells you otherwise wasn't there.

Why am I jealous of "The Fields of Athenry"? Because for that one blinding moment, even as an American, I had something every bit as good and maybe better--and since then, I'll take any reminder, any fleeting taste of it I can get.

The same summer I watched Keeth Smart and Team USA fall just short in their bid for the bronze, I bought a compilation CD humbly named the "Future Soundtrack for America." 2004 was an election year, and proceeds from the album benefited the "liberal public policy advocacy group" (to quote WikipediaMoveOn.org. But I couldn't have cared less about the politics--I was the kind of They Might Be Giants fan that needed to own everything they'd ever put to tape, and they'd recorded a version of the 19th-century campaign song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" for the album.

Aside from that song (that song included, actually) the CD was kind of lousy, and that goes for Mike Doughty's would-be album centerpiece "Move On" too. But Doughty came up with one short, simple lyric that struck me at the time, and has (as the saying goes) stuck with me ever since:

I love my country so much, man, like an exasperating friend. 

I do not want to get one iota more political than I have to, but 2012's also an election year, of course. So I've been thinking about that line lately, thinking about how the U.S. is more divided than ever--how, from here, it seems Americans have never been more exasperated with our country, never less in love with it.

While I have my moments of exasperation, too, let me tell you: I love my country so much, man. I am an American sports fan. That means, yes, I love our traditional "Big Three" American sports, and yes, if that's as far as it goes for some, that's completely fine. 

But for me, it also means rooting for America at sports. Rowing, boxing, basketball, rhythmic gymnastics: it does not matter. If you are an athlete who puts on a red, white and/or blue uniform with the letters "U.S.A" featured somewhere and the American flag -- my flag -- sewn onto it somewhere, I am going to root my Yank rear end off for you. Misty May-Treanor's and Kerri Walsh's famous Beijing celebration was nice, but winning a gold medal over a top-seeded Chinese team in front of a Chinese home crowd? That was much, much nicer. (Suck it, China.)

Why do I love the Olympics? Because for these two weeks, every American sports fan will feel that way. Maybe we won't be united by the thousands in one stadium, roaring our approval for a United States victory or making the light stanchions shake with our off-key rendition of "God Bless America." But we'll be united all the same. For two weeks, the division and exasperation will go away. For two weeks, I won't have to be jealous of anyone. For two weeks, I'm going to scream "come on" at the fencers on my television screen and know that somewhere, someone else is screaming the same thing.

Maybe you don't know the sports. Maybe it's loud and the TV is hard to see. Come, stand, and watch Team USA compete in the Olympic Games with us anyway. For two weeks, everything else can wait.

*The one thing resembling an exception are the handful of college teams that sing their alma mater after a game, win or lose. That list includes Notre Dame, so, hey, maybe it's an Irish thing?

**The U.S.'s World Cup appearances are nearing that level, but it's still soccer, a sport our country still doesn't entirely understand. Plus, the men have advanced past the last 16 teams remaining once in the past 80 years.

***There weren't any Nets fans in the building when I watched them beat the Hawks in Atlanta once, but obviously we're talking about a widely different set of circumstances.

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