I stepped off the train in London three days ago into a wave of energy. Granted, I had just come from the open wind, dunes, and sea of the northern coast of Scotland. The tall buildings and bustling traffic of Charing Cross would have offered a shock no matter what. Given the Olympic games, however, the pitch seemed particularly fevered.
Bright swatches of grape and raspberry festooned my field of vision: signs, flags, and directional arrows all pointed out directions of travel. Magenta-shirted volunteers buzzed everywhere, gathering in small groups before heading off with purpose and urgency. Normally a Whitman’s Sampler of ethnic diversity anyway, London had now attracted an even wider range of nationalities, all bouncing joyfully in the respective colors of their home teams. The Olympics have a unique and undeniable energy of their own.
I was excited that first night to catch my first view of the games on BBC television. I’d heard good things about the British coverage, that it tended to avoid the treacle and jingoism so prevalent in US coverage and instead focused on the diversity and drama of all the competitors. It turned out, however, to look much the same. True, we did not get syrupy background stories aimed at casual (in marketing terms, read “female”) fans. Still, the sights stayed squarely focused on the hometown team and, more specifically, on their haul of gold medals. Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon, Greg Rutherford in the long jump, and Mo Farah in the men’s 10K run all performed admirably but it was as if no one else existed. We got little-to-no mention of the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place finishers from other nations, nor of the subtle maneuvering and great efforts expended to earn those positions.1 That, to me, is what generates so much of the real drama of the Olympics. What strategies and smaller stories lie outside the spotlight? What tragedies and redemptions sneak by the first glance of a naked eye?
Watching a neutral match with no GB athletes does a better job capturing the spirit of the Games. Last night’s epic women’s soccer match between the US and Canada sides, for example, proved electrifying from start to finish. Without any noticeable bias or investment in the outcome, the British broadcasters could spot the full range of emotions swinging back and forth. With their help, we got both the hope and the heartbreak.
Actually attending an event proves even better, especially if it’s an earlier round match-up. On Sunday night, my friends Sarah, Greg and I headed to the Horse Guards Parade for a pair of women’s volleyball quarterfinals. The venue was awesome: a temporary stadium with great seats all around, nestled directly between the Ministry of Defense building and 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s home.
Each pair entered the court through an English Channel of cheerleader/dancers, waving to the crowd to try to earn its favor. Once the matches started, an announcer celebrated each great shot and encouraged the crowd to lift whichever team trailed at the time.
China versus Austria, US versus Italy–top athletes were playing their best to make it through to the next round. And having fun trying to do so. At the end of the evening, after she and her partner had handily won their match, reigning gold-medal winner Kerri Walsh-Jennings actually made a point of thanking each section of fans and of shaking every single volunteer’s hand. No gloating. No glory-hogging. Just an impressive gratitude for the game, one that the cameras likely missed.
British or American, the nationalist, gold-obsessed broadcasters have got it wrong. The Olympic motto reads Citius, Altius, Fortius: “faster, higher, stronger,” not “fastest, highest, strongest.” A fixed mindset focuses only on the winner and relegates everyone else to a trash heap of loserhood and failure. A growth mindset still honors victory but celebrates even more the effort and improvement needed to reach it. Earning a top spot counts, yes. What a thrill to say, “That day, that moment, we were the best in the world.” Still, improving and doing one’s best matter too. Who has grown the most? Who has proved the most resilient? Who learned from failure? When the two combine as one, transformation leading to transcendence–that’s when we build the truly unforgettable buzz. That’s why we play the Games.