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A Case of Olympism

One Olympics addict unravels a lifelong obsession

When I was a kid, I deputized my friend Maura to spread my ashes at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the base of the cauldron where the Olympic flame burns. For Maura’s sake, I didn’t ask to be cremated inside the flame. I considered myself a realistic person, and the IOC didn’t strike me as the kind of organization that would permit dragging a dead body across the lawn. But the thought occurred to me.

She might have done it anyway. Maura understood the depths of my obsession. She knew about the bins of Olympics VHS tapes and newspaper clippings that I kept under my bed. She had sat outside in the snow with me and discussed the Olympics for hours when I was too scared to watch The Silence of the Lambs inside with our friends. She had seen how easily Olympics promo commercials made me cry. Plus, she was Catholic. She appreciated funeral rites.

This was my half-assed attempt to participate in the pseudo-religious aspect of the Olympics. In its way, it was clever. I wouldn’t have to train. I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my body, or dedicate myself to table tennis or to flying off iced ramps. I wouldn’t vomit from exertion. I would never have to risk failure. I could stay safely on the sidelines, glorying in the glory of others, and still, effortlessly, connect myself to them. Maura would do the dirty work.

My plan had problems. For starters, when it went into effect, I would be dead. I was also aware that what made it simple made it weak. As much as I didn’t want to devote my youth to pushing my body up to and past its limits, I did want to be among the best at something. I even wanted to puke, just a little. As lazy as I was, as disinclined to feel pain, part of me wanted to sacrifice and suffer. I never resolved this contradiction. Instead, I did what most people do: tried to satisfy my desires in vicarious ways. I wanted so badly to have real talent that I hated to test myself. I rooted for other people to win. I watched them, whispering: citius, altius, fortius — faster, higher, stronger — like it was my own personal prayer.

Of course I watched the Olympics for the sports: swimming, because I swam; and track, because there is nothing more simple than a running race, and because I’d been saying (or hearing) “Race you!” one way or another my whole life. I watched women’s soccer because I was proud to be a sporty girl; diving because of its beauty; weight lifting because — my god. I wore out VHS tapes watching and rewatching gymnastics. Other sports I followed because they’re delightfully weird. For instance, badminton: tap and tap, jab, and then a wicked slam.

But I didn’t watch the Olympics only for the sports.

One day, during the spring of 1992, between Albertville and Barcelona, I copied out the Olympic oath in my best cursive and taped it to the wall above my bed. “In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games,” the statement read, “respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” I liked that phrase, “for the glory of sport.” Apparently, so did the International Olympic Committee: It survived the revision of the oath.1 The first version, delivered by the Belgian fencer Victor Boin at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, read: “We swear that we are taking part in the Olympic Games as loyal competitors, observing the rules governing the Games, and anxious to show a spirit of chivalry for the honor of our countries and for the glory of sport.”

You can’t talk about “the glory of sport” anymore without sounding jejune, but during the Olympics, the phrase is part of the script. The IOC has special pretensions. It even has a word to encompass its ideals: Olympism. “Olympism,” reads the Olympic Charter, “is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind.” The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was a French baron and mythmaker. Fearful of feminization and Western decline (and all too aware that France had been crushed by the Prussians when he was a boy), he pushed for the revival of the Olympics as part of his mission to promote physical education. Like a lot of late Victorians, he was nostalgic for a better, purer, fairer, and, not incidentally, a more aristocratic age, when gods were Olympic and men were more than mortal. He argued that the revival of the Olympics would be good for the world, meaning his own world. He was an elitist and an idealist.

Needless to say, Coubertin would not recognize the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, sponsored by the makers of Cadbury Creme Eggs. Not only would he have been horrified by Dwyane Wade’s suggestion that Olympians should be paid for playing in the Olympics, but he would have been horrified by the idea that Olympians could be paid for playing at all. The death of amateurism is an old story,2 and a pretty tired one at this point. Still, it’s striking to recall how seriously, how anxiously, how metaphysically people took it only 50 years ago. One IOC official called it “a question of the soul.”

I couldn’t have cared less about the amateur debate, but I still thought the Olympics had something to say about the soul. I don’t think I was very aware of the commercialism — even while I was encouraging my parents to fly Delta, use Kodak, and pay with Visa. (I still have an inexplicable fondness for Dri-Fit clothes.) I couldn’t believe that the biggest thing at stake when eight swimmers lunged for the wall was a Speedo contract. Instead I fixated on the fact that all these people were doing something extraordinarily well. They were pushing themselves. They were excellent, in an old-school sense. (That’s what bugged me so much about the sappy soft segments during network broadcasts: Swimming in the memory of a dead coach somehow cheapened the effort.) I cared about the sports as sports, but I also used the word “victory” instead of the more modest “win.” When my guys lost, my heart broke. I believed, basically, in what the Olympics promised: sportsmanship, commitment, effort, strength — and tears, medals, doves, the whole thing. Yes, the modern Olympics is now largely a corporate product, and it hadn’t been more noble at its start. Before it was a made-for-TV movie, it was connected to an ugly kind of elitism — exclusion, hypocrisy, fatuous exhortations. The IOC has a troubling history. I know that. But I didn’t watch Olympic badminton the way I watched baseball. I didn’t do handsprings in the basement, channeling Dominique Dawes, because I had a lot of excess energy. The “question of the soul” was another way of asking what kind of person to be. The founders of the modern Olympics and their successors came up with fishy answers, but is it such a bad question for a kid to ask?

I first started watching the Olympics in 1988, because of Debi Thomas. This is a bit embarrassing, having to do, as it does, with my early susceptibility to rhinestones. When I first saw Debi Thomas, she wore a gaudy sequined bodice with a skirt of shivering tinsel feathers. Thick blush was streaked across her dark cheeks, and an oversize barrette glinted in the cloud of her hair. Needless to say, she was a figure skater. She was also a Thomas, a fact not lost upon me, since I was a Thomas, too. I supposed this meant we were more or less related. Never mind that she was black, I was white; she was 20, I had just turned 6 … and she could fly. The powerful lightness with which she moved across the ice, in the air and on her edges, was not like anything I’d ever seen. I remember how afraid I was that she would fall. I knew how to ice-skate, and I knew that falling hurt. Thomas didn’t fall at the Olympics, but, with the lead going into the long program, she two-footed a triple-triple 20 seconds into her skate. It got worse from there, and she dropped to third. A bronze medal.

Eighty years earlier, Coubertin famously said, “In these Olympiads, the important thing is not winning but taking part … What counts in life is not the victory but the struggle; the essential thing is not to conquer but to fight well.”3 This is mostly bullshit. Most of the Olympians have won all their lives. Some of them don’t know anything else; most of them can’t stand anything else. I loved that about Debi Thomas.

Growing up, I actually wasn’t much of a fanatic, as fanatics go. Any serious fans would have been unimpressed by how little I knew of the history of the Olympics. I just wanted to watch. After I shattered my elbow in a skiing accident, rendering me bed-bound for a week after surgery, I was thrilled that my injury meant I wouldn’t have to miss a minute of daytime coverage of Nagano while at school. (To this day, Jim Lampley’s dulcet voice reminds me of Percocet.) I wasn’t picky about what I watched: winter and summer; guys and girls; winners and losers, and especially losers who should have won.

My mother taped the 1988 Winter Olympics so that I could watch what I missed when I was sent to bed. I first cared about the figure skating — I begged my mother for an electric-blue skating outfit and bruised my little sister forcing her to play “Gordeeva and Grinkov” — but there were other events on those tapes, and then there were other Olympic Games and more tapes, and before long I was studying how Georg Hackl guided his sled with twitches of his fat feet; how Peter Forsberg protected the puck; how Summer Sanders kept her hips high doing butterfly. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard on the radio that the speed skater Dan Jansen finally won gold. (Mimi’s Convenience Store.)

One Friday, when we were juniors in college studying abroad, Maura and I met each other in Geneva, drank the most expensive bottle of wine I’d ever had (there didn’t seem to be any other kind on the menu), and then took a train out to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. We wanted to visit my final resting place. By then, the fact that I had asked Maura to dispatch my remains had become a joke. A lot about the Olympics had started to seem absurd to me. The past couple years had been tough on my interest in the Olympics. I had actually written my college application essay about my love for the Olympics,4 but as soon as my freshman year began (just in time for Sydney), I became ashamed of it. In addition to succumbing to all the obvious distractions — classes, skipping classes, parties, papers — I began to be embarrassed about my obsession. Olympism and all the words associated with it — “sacrifice” and “brotherhood” and “triumph” and “dedication” and “participation” — had come to sound naive. The doping scandals and the IOC corruption investigations around that time didn’t help. I cringed at the commercialism and the sappy television coverage. My Olympic Swatch watch broke. And what the hell was that business about the soul?

So I stood by the flame at Lausanne and looked at the flag and the flame, and then looked past them to the gray lake and wondered why, really, Maura and I had come. The tour through the Olympic Museum had been a disappointment. Why did some secret part of me still think I would find something like “the glory of sport” there, in a glass case? What I saw instead were Torvill and Dean’s skating outfits. There is nothing more depressing than limp spandex. Especially with sequins.

Maura and I stood by the torch for a long time and then went back inside the museum, into a room where you could pick old events to watch on film. These were the pre-YouTube days, and I couldn’t help but find this room very exciting. I’d been traumatized when my mother had tossed my carefully indexed VHS tapes of the men’s giant slalom. I slid into a dark viewing pod and put on the beam event final from the 1996 Olympics. I’d seen it 50 times on tape, and in fact I’d seen it in person in Atlanta. Going into the event, Shannon Miller had won every big medal in her career except an individual Olympic gold, and the beam final was her last chance. Sitting there in Switzerland, I could still feel how desperately I had wanted her to win then, and how elated I was when she did. Miller’s routine looks almost dainty now, but it is still outstanding. As I watched her again, I found myself noticing her hands, the precision of her movements, and — for such a tiny figure — her length. She performed her signature trick, the Miller, with improbable effortlessness, moving on her hands as if her mass had disappeared and only movement mattered. After she stuck the dismount, she threw her head up with her arms and thrust out her bony ribs.

I’m not sure anymore what the Olympics taught me about faux-religious sacrificial rituals, or about sportsmanship or dedication or competition. Probably, it taught me some things. What it definitely taught me was to watch. It taught me to pay attention to small things: to thousandths of a second, the bounce of a luger’s foot on the track, a gymnast’s hands. I was, in some basic and hopeless way, trying to understand the connection between the body, mind, and desire. I don’t know if this adds up to a soul, but it’s something real. I think it’s something more than just a race or some backflips. I won’t find it, whatever it is, but I’ll still watch and hope.

Filed Under: Olympics, Sports

Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas