I’m not one of those people who go out of their way to watch the Olympics. I usually just get slowly sucked in like a picnicker who parks his lawn chair on a patch of quicksand.
During the Olympic games, I find myself watching sports that I would never consider watching at other times.
My strange fascination with the Olympics began when I was a child. My mother was a big fan, and women’s gymnastics was among her favorite events.
It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the first athletes who made a strong impression on me was Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect “10” in women’s Olympic gymnastics.
I watched the drama unfold during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
The Romanian superstar won three gold medals and one bronze that year, and followed them up with two golds and two silvers in Moscow four years later.
Part of the reason Comaneci (we just called her Nadia back then) made such an impression on me was that she and I were nearly the same age. As I watched her perform, I thought of my classmates, and I couldn’t imagine any of us having that level of physical ability and mental toughness. It just didn’t seem possible.
She was as cool as the breeze off Lake Superior in January, and nothing seemed to faze her.
I have seen that same toughness in many other young Olympians over the years, including this year.
It can’t be easy to keep one’s composure when everything you have worked for your entire life depends on your performance in the next two minutes.
That alone would be stressful. When you consider that these athletes have to perform in a fishbowl, often with people sticking cameras in their faces and photographing them from every possible angle, it is a wonder they can concentrate at all.
This might make for more dramatic coverage, but it must also be traumatic for those involved.
In addition to her toughness, Nadia also captured our attention because of her perfect scores.
It was, and is, difficult to imagine practicing complicated routines so often that one can execute them flawlessly.
Gymnasts can’t earn perfect scores today, or rather, it is more difficult to tell what a perfect score is, since the rules have changed.
Interviewed during the games in London this year, Comaneci advocated a return to the old scoring system, which made it possible to score a perfect 10. The system was changed six years ago. She said the new system is confusing for fans, and I agree with her.
In order to get to the top level, many Olympic athletes start training when they are very young.
At age 6, Comaneci was chosen to attend Béla Károlyi’s experimental gymnastics school after Károlyi spotted her and a friend turning cartwheels in a schoolyard during recess.
Nadia was training with Károlyi by the time she was 7 years old in 1968. She was one of the first students at the gymnastics school established in Oneti by Béla and his wife, Marta.
When I watch Olympic athletes in any sport compete, I can’t help but think of the years of practice that go into the making of a champion.
For a few minutes in the spotlight, they must spend countless hours in the gym, in the pool, or on the track working to perfect each tiny motion.
Doing so must require infinite patience, discipline, and hard work.
That is probably what separates the top performers from the rest of the pack.
It is not enough to have incredible physical ability. That is the minimum requirement to make it in international competition.
It is the mental and emotional discipline that sets the stars apart.
Being able to survive the intense pressure of competition and overcome adversity is a challenge for an adult. But when we consider that some of these athletes are as young as 15 under the current rules, it is even more remarkable.
Olympic competition is a high-reward, high-risk undertaking.
One has the potential for achieving the euphoria of being the best in the world at one time and place.
Not everyone receives medals, though, and one also runs the risk of becoming an also-ran after years of dedicated preparation.
At that level, the difference between winning and losing is measured in fractions of inches and hundredths of seconds.
The stakes are high, and the margins are thin.
It is strange to hear a 15-year-old talk about having trained for an event for eight years. That is half of her lifetime.
Among the events I watched this year while doing chores around the bachelor pad are women’s volleyball (which looked liked fun, but I wouldn’t want to be across the net from them), and women’s cycling (which didn’t look like any fun at all, and made my legs hurt).
About the only thing I have in common with the Olympic athletes is that I consume roughly the same number of calories as some of them do. Unfortunately, my training regimen is slightly less vigorous, so it takes me longer to burn them off.
I suspect Olympic athletes are rather intense, highly-motivated individuals, and I don’t completely understand them, but I can’t help tuning in from time to time to watch them as they go for the gold.