For the first time in 108 years, the Games were held in a place where Nike is pronounced correctly (nee-kay) and people connect the word with more than a shoe or a sweatshop magnate. In contrast with the ancient Olympians — the twelve immortal Gods whose home was Mount Olympus — human fallibility headlined the 2004 Games. As far as I could tell, despite the doping scandals and security anxiety hanging like Zeus’ thundercloud over Athens, the Games were a success.
As I strolled through the Olympic Plaza surrounded by thousands of citizens of the world, for the first time, I understood the colossal extent of the Olympics’ stage — it’s a far cry from staying up until midnight watching American-centric NBC coverage. The athletes compete with the pride of an entire country resting on their shoulders, seemingly weighty as Atlas’ globe. Though some American athletes treated it as burdensome, lackadaisically shrugging off the responsibility at hand (such as the USA Basketball team aka David Stern-Dream Scheme), a country’s esteem is no Achilles’ heel. To represent one’s nation is one of the highest honors one could attain. At the field hockey venue where the Yale Field Hockey team spent a day and a half, national pride was omnipresent in the inspired match-play.
While attending two men’s and four women’s field hockey matches in Athens, it became painfully obvious that Americans have fallen behind the pack, despite feeling assuredly ahead. As throngs of Hollanders, Argentines, Aussies and Kiwis packed the stands to rally their teams into the medal rounds, I marveled at the seemingly endless repertoire of songs and cheers at their disposal.
America’s allegiances are divided, it seems — there are the Lakers’ fans and the Yankee-haters and Longhorns and Florida Gators — aside from the flag stickers still plastered to the bumpers of some titanic SUVs. Miraculously, every two years we muster up some national sports pride for the Winter or Summer Games, but it’s just not cutting it anymore. Let’s admit it: the U-S-A cheer has seen better days; it’s a has-been. While the foreign fans chugged out coordinated anthems that rival the Cameron Crazies’, all I could do was pretend to mouth the words and follow along, somewhat embarrassed. (Not to say that I had a team to cheer for– the U.S. men were unable to cut it internationally, and the women missed the Games by finishing sixth place at the Auckland, New Zealand qualifier.) In America, we tend to focus our attention on MLB and the NBA, while small countries such as the Netherlands are fanatical about their national teams, building them into dynasties to glorify the country. The Hollanders, I’m told, will travel to the ends of the earth to support their hockey teams — and clad in bright orange apparel from head to toe, they packed the stands in Athens.
With my slight shame aside, the opportunity to attend the Olympics fulfilled, in part, a lifetime dream of mine — it did not disappoint. While some people dream of climbing Mount Everest, others of touring every country in Europe, my dream has always been to attend every major sport final in the world, especially for team sports. This includes everything from the Final Four to the Italian Grand Prix to the Cricket World Cup, even the World Curling Championships. If there is a competition going on, I’m there. Though I’m riveted when I watch a skilled individual compete in an event like gymnastics, I am completely awestruck when witnessing a team work together for a common goal with preternatural ease. It is an enthralling sight — exponentially so when, in the pressure situation of a championship spotlight, competing on behalf of a nation of people. A championship calls the athlete to perform on a level above even advanced human capability. And when the final horn sounds or the final flag drops, the winning team’s celebration is one of the most magnificent sights in the world.
Witnessing such celebrations at the Olympics showed how lackluster American professional sports have been as of late. The spotlights in professional sports are focused on the glorification or downfall of a few individuals, obscuring our vision of what sport is, or rather, used to be. Sport is about the journey towards fulfilling a goal, not about the paycheck. And while endorsements may blur the line between amateur and professional at the Games, the dream is still burning strong, Olympic torch-style.
Kate Crandall is a junior in Calhoun. She is a goalie on the field hockey team.