Friday, July 27, 2012

Let the games begin: 11 reasons why I love the Olympics

Once every four summers, sports fans get a welcome reprieve from the big business aspects of major sports, instead getting treated to two-plus weeks of athletic competition in its purest form.

The Olympics have never been multi-million dollar contracts and free agency; it's about a collection of world-class athletes facing off with national pride and a shot at the medal podium on the line. Most Olympians aren't wealthy and very few have posters of themselves plastered on the walls of idolizing youth. They train year-round and have to make a countless number of sacrifices to get where they're at.

But when the time comes to compete on the world's greatest stage, they know that their dedication was worth it. And for the select group that earn a gold medal, those few moments of glory are enough to last a lifetime.

This year's edition of Olympics officially kicks off today with the opening (complete schedule of the Olympics here). In honor of the summer games starting, here are 11 reasons why I love the Olympics, in no particular order:

1. The 1992 Dream Team -- I'm JUST old enough to remember this, and along with watching Michael Jordan highlights, it's what first got me into basketball. The glitz and glamour of the Dream Team may not have been in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics, but it was still something to admire. A team comprised of 11 future Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner) that throttled opponents by an average of 44 points a game. Will we ever see a team dominate to that level in international play again? Probably not -- regardless of what Kobe Bryant thinks -- but we can at least hope to see a team that captivates us in the same way.

2. The decathlon -- U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton described the decathlon as being "The SATs of athletics." I couldn't agree more. It's always been one of my favorite events to watch just because of the sheer athleticism required in it. Most people can't leap over hurdles without tripping on them; try doing that, pole vault, javelin and a 1,500 meter run on the same day. The guys and gals competing in this hardly fall into the "Jack of all trades, master of none" category either. Most decathlon event records are within mere fractions of what the world records are in those events individually.

3. The 1996 U.S. women's gymnastics team doing the Macarena after winning the gold medal -- Kerri Strung memorably came up big for the U.S. in the vault competition, but this is what always comes to mind for me when I think about that team. What would be the equivalency of this today? The men's gymnastics team doing the dubstep after winning gold?

4. Olympic rowing -- Maybe it's just because I attempted the sport in college, but I have a deep appreciation for the ridiculous amount of athleticism and commitment needed to even be good rowing; much less compete at an Olympic level. It's a test of balance, strength, rhythm and cardiovascular endurance on the open water. If you're racing in an 8 or a 4, there's also the added challenge of resisting the urge to not throw your shrieking coxswain overboard. And as far as Olympic underdog stories go, it doesn't get much better than this.

5. Michael Phelps, past and present -- Admittedly, I'm not all that into competitive swimming. I'd rather dive for pennies at the deep end of a swimming pool than watch a 200M butterfly race. Still, you have to respect and admire the incredible career Phelps has had in the summer games. An incredible 14 gold medals over two Olympics and it's looking like he'll add a few more to the collection this year. If that weren't enough to make you intrigued, his diet during the Olympics is enough to make Marlon Brando blush.*

6. Table tennis and badminton at an Olympic level -- It's hard to believe that games you can play in your basement or backyard without breaking a sweat can turn into riveting international competition, but when you watch the pros do it, it's easier to believe. I keep hoping for them to add hammerschlagen as an event, but I don't think it's happening.

7. Jesse Owens walking into Nazi Germany and leaving with four gold medals -- When you consider the racial climate of the time and Adolph Hitler assuring Aryan dominance before the games, this has to be considered one of the most incredible feats in Olympic history. I can only imagine what Owens had to go through to get to that point. An African American sprinter who was treated like a second-class citizen in his own country traveled over to Nazi Germany to compete for that same country in front of a crowd that looked down on him as a primitive and un-advanced human being. And despite all that, he kept his head held high and came away with a performance that went unmatched for almost 50 years (Carl Lewis equaled his track & field gold medal count in 1984). I could write at length about Owens' Olympic triumph, but for the sake of my readers, I'll keep it short. For additional insight about Owens, you can watch this or read this.

8. The U.S. women's basketball team -- Three Minnesota Lynx players (Maya Moore, Lindsey Whalen and Seimone Augustus) are on a squad that's favored to win gold in London. Call it a ray of sunshine for an otherwise bleak summer for Minnesota sports.**

9. Usain Bolt sprinting to three world records in Beijing -- His medal haul of three golds was impressive (though not unprecedented), but the lanky Jamaican gets extra credit for reviving the popularity of a sport that had previously been riddled with doping controversy. Plus, has there ever been a better last name for a sprinter than Bolt? That's like an archer having their last name be Bullseye. Needless to say, I had fun writing headlines for the Mankato sports section that summer.

10. Bob Beamon's leap -- World records get broken all the time in the Olympics. That's just how it works as athletes evolve and training regimes become more developed. But how often is that a record gets completely obliterated like this? Beamon broke Jesse Owens' record in the long jump -- a record that stood for more than 30 years -- by almost 2 feet in the 1968 Olympics. It took 23 years for his record to finally fall (Mike Powell surpassed it by 2 inches in 1991).

11. The triathlon -- If the decathlon is the SATs of athletics, perhaps the triathlon is the ACT.  Coming from a guy who competed is several triathlons without being able to swim competently, I can tell you that it's REALLY difficult to be good at all three events. Like all other Olympic events, the athletes competing in this put in an unfathomable amount of work to get to this level, and that alone is something to appreciate.


*I've often wondered who would win in a swimming race: Michael Phelps or Kevin Costner's half-man, half-fish character from "Waterworld." Phelps is basically genetically engineered to be a swimmer (long arms, giant feet, long legs and flexible ankles), but Costner's character had webbed feet and hands AND had gills. I'd like to think it would at least be close.

**I'm waiting on celebrating the Wild's signing of Parise and Suter until they actually play together. It was a much-needed injection of energy for the franchise (and possibly one of the greatest free agent hauls in NHL history), but it's still unproven.

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