On the Olympics

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Olympics 1The Olympic games are important, y’all. They’re an international tradition, they’re good entertainment, they’re an opportunity to learn things about other places, they bring well-deserved attention to athletes who have worked hard for their achievements, and they’re an occasion for us to take pride in our country instead of arguing about politics and worrying about our nation’s future. I’m not trying to say that it’s everyone’s patriotic duty to drop everything and dedicate two weeks of your life every couple of years to watching the Olympics; most of us have lots and lots of other important things going on in our lives. But I think it’s a positive thing when people get excited about the Olympics, and it bothers me when others criticize or make fun of the Olympics.

When the Olympics started last week, I decided that I wanted to write a blog post about how cool the Olympics are. I wasn’t sure when I’d get around to doing it, (this summer has been a really crazy time in my life) and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say, but it seemed like something worthy of a blog post. I was thinking maybe I’d just ramble about some memories I have of Olympics in the past. I definitely have a lot, since my family always put a lot of emphasis on watching the Olympics. Even though we didn’t watch much of any TV at any other time, when the Olympics were on, our daily schedules were completely dominated by the television coverage of the games. I was used to admiring the athletes’ talent and dedication, appreciating the international and multicultural nature of the games, and enjoying the spirit of friendly, respectful competition between countries. Yes, I am aware that there have been instances of less than perfect sportsmanship in the Olympics, but it’s always seemed to me that those are the exceptions rather than the rule. And I guess I always assumed that more or less everyone held the Olympics in high regard.

Olympics 2The other day, I saw a youtube video that bothered me. (Here’s the link, if you want to see it)  I’ve come across videos from this channel before, and normally I find them pretty funny. Most of the ones I’ve seen have satirized cultural trends that I agree are pretty ridiculous. But this video is about the Olympics. I’m not going to address it point by point because a) this blog post could get pretty long if I did, and I want to finish writing it by suppertime, and b) some of his points are probably valid. I think what bothered me about it is that he portrays Olympic athletes as victims. When he talks about gymnastics, he accuses gymnasts’ parents of being abusive by “living through” their high-achieving children and insinuates that elite gymnasts are traumatized by their intense training. And later, when he talks about swimming, he says that the reason Michael Phelps is back in the pool is that he doesn’t know what else to do with his life. He repeatedly makes the implication that the viewing public is taking advantage of our miserable athletes by getting enjoyment out of the successes that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

I don’t know the exact backstories of every individual athlete, and I can’t read their thoughts or emotions, so I’m not going to try to insist that everyone who’s ever competed in the Olympics has enjoyed the experience and gone on to live happily ever after. In fact, I know it’s true that people who work hard enough to get that good have made a lot of sacrifices in their lives. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so admirable. And I’m sure that it’s tough to be a former Olympic-level athlete who has to shift gears and work towards other goals and focus on academics or a career or family. But throwing around words and phrases like “abusive” and “traumatized” and “inevitable emptiness of the rest of his life” is unnecessarily negative. Most of these athletes work so hard because they love their sport, and I suspect that most of them mean it when they talk about how happy they are to be at the Olympics and when they say that their hard work has been worth it.

Of course, there’s a lot that could be said about personality traits and the psychological nature of perfectionism and competitiveness. I’m not an expert in sports psychology, or even general psychology, but I do know that people who are overly perfectionist often have a tendency to work harder than is healthy, emotionally or physically. Although I’m obviously not an Olympic athlete, I am an extreme perfectionist and I can attest to the fact that it can hold you back in a lot of ways, even if it’s (at least in the short term) pushing you ahead in other ways. And it’s probably true that most Olympic athletes are perfectionists, which is how they got that good in the first place. I definitely acknowledge that there’s a degree of truth in the concept that high-achieving athletes face emotional struggles even beyond the pressure and nerves associated with the actual competition. But I definitely don’t agree with the way that topic is expressed in this video. Because it’s not true that these athletes have dedicated an entire lifetime of hard work into a fleeting moment of glory, only to go home to meaningless lives. I would hazard a guess that the glory lasts for a lot longer than a moment, and that there are other goals to pursue after the Olympics.

Olympics 3

Also, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how incredible the American women’s gymnastics team is, and Simone Biles in particular? I mean, she’s so good that this was barely even a contest this year.

So I hope that most of you reading this post have gotten to see at least some coverage of the Olympics. I hope that you’ve enjoyed cheering for your country and your favorite athletes. I hope that you’ve learned something about Brazil and/or some of the other places you’ve heard about. And I hope that instead of pitying the athletes because you think their achievements are pointless, you’ve been impressed or even inspired by their accomplishments.

“Roll Tide!” and additional opinions about sports

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My opinion of sports and the degree of my interest in my favorite teams are not constant values. For all of my life, they have fluctuated and changed according to various factors such as my schedule and the degree to which my family and/or friends care about the particular team or game in question. As far as I’m concerned, interest in sports is a social thing; sports are only relevant as they relate to other people.  My favorite teams have generally been my father’s favorite teams, and when I was little, my primary reasons for enjoying sports was that it was fun to watch games with my father and that he let me and my siblings snack on pretzels during the game. Even now, I think that the main appeal of cheering for any given team is the spirit of community between fans.

A picture I found on Google of Cubs fans at Wrigely Field

A picture I found on Google of Cubs fans at Wrigely Field

I have good memories of the weekend when my family was in Saint Louis for my cousin’s wedding on a weekend when the Saint Louis Cardinals were playing the Chicago Cubs. We were staying in a hotel room near the baseball field, and we watched the fans through the window while we waited for the game to start on TV. When the Cubs won that game, we put on our Cubs hats, stood at the window, and cheerfully waved at the fans departing the game until my parents told us to stop; that’s not a polite thing to do in a city where most people cheer for a different team than you do. But there were a lot of Cubs fans in town, too. Coming back from my cousin’s wedding reception the next night, we met a group of them coming back from that evening’s game and we chatted with them briefly. They informed us that the Cubs had lost, but we all agreed that they were sure to win the next day and that the rest of the season was going to be great. It was cool to share our enthusiasm with some random strangers.

Roll TideIn the same way, it’s cool for Alabama football fans to use the phrase “Roll tide!” as a substitution for “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Have a nice day”, “Good luck”, “Thank you”, “Congratulations”, “That’s cool”, “Good talking to you”, “Nice day, isn’t it?”, “Would you like fries with that?”, and basically any form of small talk or routine conversation. For those of you who haven’t spent much time in Alabama, I can assure you that this isn’t even an exaggeration. If every other word and phrase in the English language suddenly ceased to exist, most Alabama fans wouldn’t even notice because they’d be able to communicate just fine with the phrase “Roll tide!” I’m pretty sure that’s actually literally true. I don’t even think that’s a bad thing necessarily, although I do sincerely hope that the English language does not suddenly cease to exist. Language is a useful thing, particularly when one is communicating about things other than football.

CubsMy point is that I think that social connections are what make sports cool. There’s also something fun about the spirit of competition and the suspension of more relevant concerns and problems, but those things can be said for board games and game shows, too. (For the record, I think that board games and game shows are also cool, especially board games. But that’s irrelevant here.) As you can probably guess by this opinion, I’m not a really huge sports fan. When I was little, I enjoyed basketball and absolutely loved to watch the Chicago Bulls on TV with my father, but that interest dissipated completely when most of my father’s favorite players retired. Now I don’t like basketball at all and haven’t watched it for years. In the fall of 2003, my slight affinity for the Chicago Cubs turned into a full-blown obsession, and like every other Cubs fan, I was elated when they won their postgame series against the Atlanta Braves, optimistic when they started their series against the Florida Marlins, and horrified by the incident that occurred in the eighth inning of game six. (I wouldn’t normally post links to Wikipedia, but it’s better to do it this way than to relive the terrible tragedy that took place on that fateful day.) When the Marlins won the series and the Cubs were done for the season, it was a devastating disappointment, and I have hated the Florida Marlins ever since then, even though it’s been a few years since I really paid a lot of attention to baseball. I still consider myself a Cubs fan and I intend to regain my interest in baseball at some point, but lately it just hasn’t been important to me. Its place in my life has been at least temporarily taken over by SEC football. I used to think that football was an incredibly boring game, and I still don’t understand it as well as I understand baseball, but I have become an Alabama fan. SEC football is a very big deal in Birmingham. Pretty much everyone cheers for either Alabama or Auburn, except a few individuals who cheer for other teams like Tennessee, Florida, or LSU. It’s extremely rare for someone to be disinterested, and the few people who really don’t care still have to hear all about it from everyone else they know. I could have become one of those people who are frustrated and highly annoyed by the cultural prominence of college football, but I found myself being actually interested in whether or not Alabama won. When Alabama won the championship in January 2010, I was very happy about it, and by the start of the following season, I was as interested and hopeful as many long-term football fans. For two years, Crimson Tide football was a very big deal to me. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was an extremely important part of my life as a whole, but it certainly was an extremely important part of my Saturdays, and Saturdays were things that I experienced every single week. I usually was able to watch the game online while doing homework. When Alabama won, as they nearly always did, it brightened my week. On the very few occasions when Alabama lost, it depressed me. When Alabama lost to LSU on one otherwise lovely October day in 2011, I vowed to hate LSU as long as I lived, and when Alabama beat LSU in the championship game three months later, I was delighted.

For the last year, though, sports in general and football in particular haven’t really mattered to me.  Spring semester was so incredibly busy that it didn’t even occur to me to pay any attention to baseball, and in the fall, I always had ballet on Saturday and barely saw any football at all. I’ve had enough things to do and to think about that I haven’t really invested any emotional interest in sports for a while now, but today I’m going to temporarily change my mind about that. Today is the championship game, and I’m pretty sure Alabama is going to win. It’s going to be awesome. Roll tide, y’all!

Roll Tide