Narrative and the Olympics

I know I’m a bit late here (as usual). The Olympics are over, and we here in the U.S. will now go back to arguing about politics. But the stories from the Games are far from over. I wish I could hear them.

This is the first time I’ve been able to watch a significant amount of the competitions. And yeah, I have a lot of the same gripes with NBC’s coverage–too much focus on a few sports, too few non-Americans shown–but I also have some that I suspect might be unique to me. Because what I really like are all the stories before, during, and after competition. What I like is the way the Olympics changes the participants’ lives, for better or worse.

We never see most of these.

We only see this

We see the ones that fit the narrative. Family sacrifice, hard work paying off, dreams coming true. It’s amazing when that happens (Gabby Douglas! Yay!), but it’s not what mostly happens. Most of the athletes who make it to the Olympics don’t medal. A lot of them don’t even make it past qualifying rounds. We never hear about the swimmer with the slowest time–but there has to be one! What does it feel like to come in last place at the Olympics? What does it feel like to compete in one event, but not to make it to the finals. To have one race or performance or game, and then go home.

Those are the stories that interest me, and not just because I have a cynical, negative view of the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of us will never be outstanding at anything. We will never even be as amazing as Olympic losers. And if we believe the Olympic narrative that hard work pays off, in converse that means that the rest of us didn’t work hard enough. What would it say about the world if we knew more about the last place Olympians? If we knew that they all worked just as hard as the winners, but went home with only memories? I find it hard to relate to champions (especially the athletic kind). The ones in last place are slightly more human in their defeat.

Another story that got beat into the ground this Olympics is the one about the supportive parents. “Thanks, mom and dad. Without you I wouldn’t be here, and I’m doing this for you.” So maybe I am cynical and negative, but I really want to see an interview with an Olympic champion who says, “F you, mom and dad. Thanks for nothing. I did this despite you.” Of course, after I thought about it for a minute I realized that that was unlikely. Social pressure aside, it takes so much work, money, and support to get to the Olympics that it’s probably impossible to do it without awesome parents.

And yet. . . . Surely there’s more strife in these families than the simple narrative would have us believe. More complexity, more specificity, more awesome.

I would rather hear those stories than watch any more volleyball. Ever.


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