“Do you have Olympic fever?” someone asked me over the weekend.
“Not yet,” I replied. “But I’m getting there.”
It always takes me a few days, and a certain amount of effort, to develop Olympic fever. The first step, of course, is remembering that the Olympics are on television. The second is deciding that instead of watching a movie, I’m going to see what the gymnasts are up to. Gymnastics is not a sport I follow all that closely, and so this takes a certain amount of resolve. On the other hand, these gymnasts do a lot of cool things, like flip and spin the air and swing like monkeys on the parallel bars, and since I can’t even do a cartwheel, it doesn’t take all that much to impress me. The third step is figuring out which story threads to plug into. The Olympics are a huge, giant hype machine, designed both to showcase the world’s best athletic talent and make a ton of money, and it’s easy to be cynical, but in the midst of all the bombast and pageantry there are some truly amazing stories. I didn’t think anything could get me interested in fencing, but then the American women took bronze, silver and gold, and I felt the first stirrings of Olympic fever.
One big story thread I’m following is the American men’s basketball team’s quest to reclaim gold after a disappointing bronze finish four years ago in Athens. The Athens team was a mishmash of talent, a bunch of guys thrown together because many of the best American players didn’t feel like competing in the Olympics that year. This year’s team was built carefully, with amazing talents like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James recruited to play alongside talented role players like defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd, brought on solely because of his acumen as a shooter. Occasionally I still hear griping about how everything would be better if we just sent a bunch of college kids to compete in the summer Olympics, which is a bunch of crazy talk, if you ask me, because those college kids would have been blown out of the water by the feisty Chinese team that the U.S. men dismantled on Sunday. And I like winning, don’t you? It was a fun game to watch, with China, no doubt buoyed by an enthusiastic home crowd, actually putting up a decent fight in the first half, before reality set in. The coverage was entertaining, and I even enjoyed the feature on how interest in basketball has exploded in China since 1992, when Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets.
The Olympic story I’m most interested in is Michael Phelps. As of this writing, he’s already won three gold medals, and so his total tally, going back to Athens, is nine gold medals, which makes him tied with Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz for winningest Olympian ever. And when you think about what a feat it is to win one gold medal — I haven’t won any, in case you’re wondering — that’s pretty amazing. Phelps is a machine in the water, with a long, lean, efficient body that’s basically perfect for swimming, and I hope he wins gold in every event he competes in. But Phelps is only part of the story. All of the swimmers, from 41-year-old Dara Torres to Natalie Coughlin, who became the first American female swimmer to win gold this year when she won the 100-meter backstroke, are remarkable athletes. I can’t stop admiring them. I’m a half-decent swimmer, and so when I watch these people I’m fully aware of just how good they are. It’s different from watching, say, the gymnasts, because even a bad gymnast can do things I could never dream of doing, and what do I know about gymnastics, anyway? But swimming, well, that’s another story. Over the weekend, someone referred to me as a fish after I dived off a dock and swam around a lake for a while. It’s something I’ve heard before, but frankly, I don’t really deserve it. Michael Phelps, on the other hand, is a real fish. Everyone should watch him swim and cheer him on.