Lots of cheers (ok, and a fair amount of tears, too)

The Olympics begin in one week, for anyone who has been living in a yurt somewhere in the tundra (in which case, this post will probably remain a mystery anyway). I am generally not known for my nationalism or for being especially patriotic. My friends in Spain were always surprised by my quickness to criticize America and my sundry iPod tunes bashing U.S. foreign policy in one form or another. But I am a total Olympic sucker.

It’s not even that I am obsessed with the U.S. winning. Sometimes it makes me happy and I get a touch of pride, other times I’d rather some dude who practiced running marathons barefoot win. When the talent-heavy, ego-burdened U.S. basketball team fell on its face four years ago, I felt no pity. Even those athletes who have the most money and the best coaches and the sports therapists and nutritionist-balanced diets and sleep regiments and high altitude training sometimes don’t win. There’s something really awesome about that.

Sure, there’s an ugly side to the Olympics. Doping comes to mind, as does Bela Karolyi telling his teeny-tiny prepubescent gymnasts to “eat air.” Actually, let’s put gymnastics in general under the “ugly” category. There’s something kind of scary about the length to which kids are pushed in the Chinese athlete schools, some of them starting at age 3. (Though there’s something really beautiful about the 900 portraits Gerard Rancinan shot at these same schools for his Faces of China project).

I know this is naive, but I like to think of the Olympics in exactly the way Bob Costas announces them–as one of the last bastions of international cooperation. I have been in love with the Olympics for as long as I can remember. When I was young enough to be a lot more motivated (and foolish) than I am now, I read the Sports Illustrated Olympics issue and decided to make brackets on butcher paper in the basement for every Olympic sport. Since my brother was younger and I liked bossing him around, he was handed the other ruler and we got to work. Needless to say, we didn’t finish the bracket (I didn’t even know what steeplechase was, and I’m not sure I do now) but we put in a couple of hours’ work. Meaning my brother whined for about twenty minutes and finally gave up, while I put in another hour and a half or so. I was determined and it made me feel connected in a way my athletic abilities, being what they are or better yet are not, never would. The abandoned bracket is somewhere in my parents’ basement, crumpled for sure but a sign of hopefulness.

The new Sports Illustrated Olympics edition fell into my hands this past week, still listing medal favorites for every event. I didn’t make a bracket. But yes, I spent a large portion of the afternoon poring over it, reading every little strange athlete tidbit. Montana is one of three states without an athlete representing us, I am disappointed to report. One of the members of the softball team is named Lovieanne, after two members of Gilligan’s Island. I will look forward to seeing Ben Askren, a wrestler who says about his long blond curls, “I actually don’t really like my hair that much, but I am a man of realism, and I realize people like gimmicks. [In Beijing] my hair’s going to be my gimmick. Hopefully, I’ll get a sponsorship or two, maybe some money out of having stupid, curly hair.” What’s not to love about Dara Torres still kicking ass?

I am curious, as many in the world are, to see whether China pulls this one off. I was sad when the torch run was clouded by protests, although the protesters are probably in the right. I am hoping that more airtime can be devoted to athletes and less to China’s “no spitting” social classes. How cool are the “Water Cube” and “Birds Nest” buildings? I am dying to walk through the Olympic Village, as my cousin will do when covering the games. Hopefully they will still be visible through the smog…

In the end, I don’t care about China and their political problems, at least not during these few days that only come every few years. China’s political problems are not new, just finally getting some long-delayed attention. The Olympics are supposed to be about the athletes and their ridiculous skills and sacrifices. Win or lose, I’ll be reaching for the Kleenex. Other peoples’ sadness makes me emotional. So does their happiness. So in case Bob Costas and crew’s athlete Hallmark stories weren’t jerking enough of my tears, I pretty much well up everytime someone wins. Or loses. Bonus points for being a cancer survivor, an orphan, poor, or for having overcome any sort of odds, even if the NBC network makes them up. Also when people sing along to their national anthems. And let’s not forget the Opening Ceremony’s national pride (especially for little tiny countries with one or two delegates–love them!) and the Closing Ceremony’s bittersweetness (over so soon?)

According to SI, this year, over 212 hours of coverage will be offered PER DAY. That’s 1,000 more total hours this year than in all past Olympics combined. My family recently got digital cable, and I just happen to not have a job, which means I am going to be able to skip past primetime coverage (aka mostly gymnastics) in favor of the offerings of Oxygen, CNBC, MSNBC, USA, and yes, even Telemundo en español. It’s a little overwhelming, but I think I’ll manage.

If you want to know what I’ll be doing starting August 8, check your TV guide. It’s going to be an intense couple of weeks.

(thanks to SI for doing a lot of the legwork on this one. Surprisingly, I didn’t get great athlete access for this post.)

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