For me, the aftermath of an Olympic Games is always a little frustrating.
For a few magical weeks during a Summer or Winter Olympics, it’s neither over-the-top nor cliché to say the world is watching as its best in sport go head to head for all the right reasons. While money and fame await some of the most prominent champions, the Games showcase the battles of athletes for whom those things would never have been adequate inspiration. Pride, passion — all those words used so loosely in the sports world most of the time — permeate the Olympics with unparalleled legitimacy.
But with the passing of the Olympic torch from one venue to another comes the inevitable passing of those athletes from the front of our minds to the back. As the days pass after the last note of the closing ceremony, we can lose track of the people that give us the closest thing to true heroes sports can provide.
Sure, we’ll remember stars such as Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps for years to come. But in June 2014 when we’re sitting around talking sports, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t beat out Tim Tebow or LeBron James as the topic of conversation. Coverage of sports that captivate us during the Olympics, such as gymnastics, swimming and sailing, is not as lucrative — and therefore not as prevalent — when the stakes aren’t so high. And the stakes only seem to be high enough in the Olympics. That’s just the way it is.
But while the poise and grace our Olympic heroes exhibit as they succeed under the intense pressure of a chance granted them perhaps once or twice in a lifetime is undoubtedly one of the things we admire most, the purity of their motivations and the strength of their devotion to their craft is just as, if not more, important to us.
And that passion doesn’t fade when the bright lights of NBC Sports leave to refocus on Sunday Night Football or the Winter Classic.
That’s why the aftermath of the games is so maddening to me. As I see it, it’s precisely that moment when our focus leaves them that these athletes become truly exceptional; our thoughts leave them just as they’re showing us exactly what made us admire them in the first place.
As those athletes retreat into relative obscurity, with no chance of fame or fortune for at least four years — if ever — they continue to push for excellence. And that’s exactly when we stop caring.
But the reasons we cared in the first place are too substantial to wait four years, and we can look elsewhere. Olympians aren’t the only ones that compete for all (or at least mostly) the right reasons. In fact, you need look no further than Ivy League athletics to see people doing just that.
With no scholarships to bind them, rarely a professional career awaiting them, and hardly a chance at international fame motivating them, Yale athletes and their Ivy League rivals are, in some ways, as close to embodying those ideals as we can get outside of the Olympics. While some of the power conferences may stray from the amateurism that makes the Olympic pursuit so intriguing, the Ivy League has done its best to ensure its athletes compete solely of their own volition.
Now hold on: I’m not saying Ivy League athletes are all just as heroic as Olympians. The stage is smaller, the stakes lower and the level of competition is obviously… a little different. But if you’re looking for purity of motivation, sacrifice and determination, and the occasional odds-stacked-against-us story, you really can’t do better than Yale sports.
And hey, some Yale athletes are Olympians. Eight Yalies past and present combined to bring home three medals. Since 1908, 200 Olympians have come from Yale and brought home 109 medals.
Some may be headed that way. Field hockey player Georgia Holland ’14 made the U.S.-U20 field hockey team, and women’s basketball standout Janna Graf ’14 competed for Germany’s U20 squad at the FIBA U-20 European Championships. Men’s basketball’s Jeremiah Kreisberg ’14 did the same for Israel at last year’s U-20 Euro tournament, and Greg Mangano ’12 played for the U.S. at the World University Games last summer. This handful does not even touch upon sports such as rowing and sailing that have churned out Olympians for decades.
But beyond those who’ve had brushes with the Games, Yale athletes and their Ivy League counterparts rarely get to compete on a scale as large as the Olympics, hardly ever enter the consciousness of the national sports fan, and don’t have massive Nike deals as incentive to win. What they do have are mounds of homework and a variety of other activities that would make some question the hours and hours of time and energy they commit to sports each day.
Yet they play on, for all those right reasons. It may sound cliché, but in the current climate of Ivy League athletics, there is no more to play for than pride, passion, and the pursuit of excellence. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Just because the world doesn’t see them all the time doesn’t mean the efforts of Ivy League athletes aren’t admirable. In fact, in my not-entirely-unbiased opinion, their obscurity makes them more worthy of esteem.
Plus, you don’t have to wait four years to appreciate them. All it takes is a trip to John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Whale, the Bowl, Reese Stadium — and of course DeWitt Family Field — where you can see sport played for the right reasons throughout the school year.
So if you, like me, miss the Olympics when they’re gone — and maybe need a little boost to your sportsmanship karma after criticizing synchronized diving like you had any idea what was actually going on — you can still go appreciate sport at its finest. Watch a Yale squash match, soccer game, or ehem…a softball game this year. You’ll quickly realize that while our Olympic heroes may fade in the years between the Games, the ideals we admire in their efforts never really do.