Why we identify with Olympic athletes

Yes, their feats are unimaginable -- but they pull us up with them.

Published August 15, 2008 9:50PM (EDT)

One of the joys of watching the Olympics is identifying with the athletes. On the face of it, that seems absurd. As my colleague Jennifer Sey has pointed out, unless he or she is a professional athlete, no Olympic spectator can even begin to grasp the years of rigorous training these world-class athletes undergo, let alone come close to matching their feats. Take, blub, swimming. I have the aquatic properties of a safe. In the immortal words of Al Campanis, I lack buoyancy. If I were thrown into a pool with Michael Phelps, he would lap me while I was still belly-flopping into the water. Yet watching his incredible deeds, some part of me feels that I share in them. I think this is a widespread feeling, and one of the reasons that so many people find the Olympics moving and inspiring. How can this be?

The answer is that we're human beings, too, and nothing that another human being can do is alien to us. At the most rudimentary, yet profound, level, this applies to anyone who has ever been an athlete, at any level. Even an amateur runner understands what pain is, and discipline, and what it feels like to achieve a personal best. Moreover, there's something unique about our relationship to our own bodies, something that gives us a sense of achievement that has little to do with objective truth. I was a pickup game football player who never even played in high school, but to this day, I feel in my gut that I was much better at returning kickoffs than I have ever been at anything else, including this keyboard-pounding that I have inexplicably conned otherwise intelligent people into paying me to do. It's a feeling that derives from a sense of physical mastery, and measurable competition, and sheer fun, that you just don't get from anything else except sports. It really doesn't matter whether it's objectively true or not: What matters is that you feel it. And that feeling is one thing that allows you to identify with other athletes, even if they are far better than you ever were.

But you don't have to have been an athlete, at any level, to identify with Olympians. For sports are a human activity, and the qualities that go into making a champion -- aside from sheer talent -- are ones we all understand. In a million different ways, we've all struggled, we've all sacrificed, we've all worked hard for seemingly unreachable goals. From a God's-eye perspective, a poor single mother who for 10 years has taken a bus four hours a day to clean houses so that her daughter can go to college is as big a winner as Michael Phelps. But because life isn't scored as a game, with winners standing on podiums, we rarely get to celebrate our own achievements. The Olympics, that great metaphorical stage, let us do that. They remind us that we are all Olympians.

There are a thousand different ways we identify with Olympic athletes, and most of them, thankfully, aren't that grandiose. Watching the great U.S. beach volleyball duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh play Thursday night, it struck me that they are one of the great sports partnerships of all time. They've been playing together for eight years, and they're the best in the world. They are a ridiculous 457-18 since winning gold at the Athens games. They know each other's moves inside out, they know what the other one is going to do, and to top it off, they obviously like each other. Forget synchronized diving -- watching these two women is like watching one body split in two. And watching them come back from five set points against an unexpectedly strong Belgian team, May-Treanor saving impossible shot after shot, Walsh figuring out how to score over and around her towering counterpart, their performance the very definition of teamwork and grit and camaraderie, I suddenly remembered what it felt like to play sports for all those years with my brother and my cousin and other close friends. Of course we weren't as good as May-Treanor and Walsh -- that isn't the point. The point is that I remembered what it felt like. Not just to know instinctively when my brother was going to make his cut on a post route, but to know that we all had one another's backs. To know that we were a team. Those two women gave me that memory, and it was a gift.

Sometimes our identification is more poignant. Looking into the clear, fearless eyes of 16-year-old gymnast Shawn Johnson as she prepared to perform her last floor exercise, with the goal she'd worked toward for years on the line, saying a prayer for her, I couldn't help thinking of my own 11-year-old daughter, and remember every challenge she'd ever faced in her life and every challenge to come. Then, as Johnson started her routine, her own individuality seemed to fall away and she became not just my daughter, but every little girl in the world. And when she met the challenge, when she triumphed, it felt like every little girl in the world triumphed with her.

And sometimes our identification is wider still. As Phelps pulled away from the field in the last length Thursday night in the 200-meter individual medley to win his sixth gold medal, a strange feeling came over me. Throughout the games, like the rest of us, I had been cheering him on, hoping that he would break Mark Spitz's incredible record. I felt privileged to be able to witness such greatness, the kind that comes around only once in a generation. But as Phelps surged home, setting yet another world record, I suddenly felt like I was watching the entire human species jerk forward, like one of those time-lapse films in which a flower uncurls from the ground and shoots up into the air. Like humanity was getting bigger before our own eyes.

I know, these are all fantasies, and vicarious ones at that. Swimming faster in a pool does not really mean humankind has improved. Johnson's feat will not help my daughter pass a test or get over rejection from a friend.

But the feats we see at the games are still inspiring. They are unalloyed triumphs -- and not just of the body but of the mind and the heart -- in a world usually lacking in them. They're just sports, but if you can get your grip on them, on what's essential about them, they can pull you up higher than you were before.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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