Remember when the Olympics were not just the main attraction but were the only attraction? Before 200 cable channels, high definition sets, and Twitter. A time when your friends, your neighbors and the country spent a couple of weeks glued to the television each evening.
When the US hockey team shocked the world in 1980, we still practiced bomb drills at school. Get under your desk and stay out of the hallways to avoid flying glass. We were taught to be afraid of the Russians, but were not told why. Communism to a 12 year old boy didn’t mean much.
I searched our set of encyclopedias for pictures of Russians. They wore big furry coats and funny hats. But they didn’t look all that different from myself. What was so evil about them? An older friend told me they didn’t believe in God. But that didn’t scare me into hating them. I couldn’t figure it out.
But I did understand sports, and that’s what mattered. We talked about the win over the Russians at the dinner table. We discussed it at church. My history teacher used the game as a metaphor for how the free market system is superior to all others. The hockey team transcended the sport. One could not escape the excitement.
And why would one want to?
Watching Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White brought back memories of watching the games with my family. Did you catch Vonn’s interview shortly after her win in the downhill? She was asked about how she might fare in two upcoming events. She laughed and smiled and replied, “I don’t care!” with tears streaming down her face.
I loved that.
I remember watching gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, nail a 10 on the vault to win the all-around event in 1984. My mom and sisters went parading through the house when she landed firmly on both feet.
We cheered on many athletes including Kristi Yamaguchi, Bonnie Blair, Carl Lewis, and Sarah Hughes. Remember Katarina Witt and Oksana Baiul? It didn’t matter they represented other countries. They possessed so much personality and grace that I could not help but root for them.
But, for me, one Olympic performance stands above all others.
It was the back story of speed skater, Dan Jansen that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Jansen was the heavy favorite in the 500 and 1000 meter races. On the morning of the 500, his sister passed away, and he fell early in the race. A few days later, he fell again in the 1000 meters and went home without a medal.
At the 1992 Winter games in Albertville, he arrived as the heavy favorite again but finished 4th in the 500 and 26th in the 1000 meters. He left the games without a medal and many wondered if he’d ever recover from so many heartbreaking defeats.
When the 1994 games in Lillehammer rolled around, expectations were tempered a bit. But there was hope he’d finally reach the medal stand. When he finished 8th in the 500 meters many thought he’d lost out on his best chance to medal.
I was in my last few months of school at the University of Utah and I spent nights studying at the student union center for two reasons: I could catch Seinfeld on the big screen and jump over the Fun House pinball machine when I’d had enough German lit for the night.
When I noticed a group gathered around the lone big screen TV, I made my way over to watch Jansen’s last race of the games. There must have been 30 of us gathered around. Everyone was standing. Yet there was little chatter among the group. Of course, we heard Jansen’s story again and were reminded this could be his last Olympic race. We’d all heard it before.
As Jansen approached the starting line, nobody said a word. I tried to jostle myself a little closer to the TV.
But when the gun went off to start the race the place went crazy. People were screaming and cheering. It was surreal. I had a difficult time seeing the screen as those in front of me were jumping up and down. When Jansen crossed the finish line in world record time wrapping up the gold medal, the place exploded. Several guys gave me high fives. Strangers were hugging each other. I didn’t know anyone in the group that night but it didn’t matter.
It’s the only time I’ve cried while watching a sporting event.
Watching the video on YouTube still gives me chills. The race starts at the :54 mark, and the excitement isn’t diminished one bit by the fact I have no idea what language the announcers are speaking. But you can hear the joy in their voices as they count down the last few seconds and finally crescendo when Jansen finishes.
I believe the world was pulling for Jansen that day. Listen to the crowd. Watch flags go up from all over the world.
What an amazing performance. What an amazing story.