By Mike Dorf
I went to one basketball game at Madison Square Garden last season and it happened to be Jeremy Lin's breakout game against the Nets in February. Like many other long-suffering Knicks fans, I was appalled but not surprised when James Dolan let Lin go in what appeared to be a fit of spite, but I can't honestly say that I have a good reason for caring. Likewise, my excitement at the recent addition of Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees is nothing more than, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, rooting for the clothes.
For most Americans, watching the Olympics on network tv is continuous with the experience of cheering for professional sports, except instead of rooting for the players who happen to be wearing the shirts with the team name from their home town, they root for the players who wear the USA shirts. Actually, the connection to the U.S. Olympic team should be stronger than the connection to the professional athletes who play for their home town team because most people on the U.S. Olympic team are from the U.S., whereas professional athletes typically have no prior connection to the city of the team for which they play.
Still, I'm hardly the first person to observe that the patriotic fervor into which Olympic fans work themselves seems contrary to the spirit of international friendship that the Olympic spirit supposedly represents.
To be sure, it's easy enough to dismiss the "Olympic spirt" talk as just so much hokum that was never true. But then, what would be the point of following the Olympics?
I can't speak for others, but for me the Olympics are a reminder of the difference between world-class athletes and us mere mortals. As an adult, I have been a mediocre recreational athlete with occasional moments of minor glory. But in my youth I was a mediocre competitive athlete.
I was on my high school track team, as a long-jumper, a triple-jumper, and a sprinter on various relays. As a mediocrity, I would usually earn a few points (by finishing second or third) for my team in "dual" meets (competitions with athletes from one other school) but rarely placed in the top three in larger meets. There was one exception. At a conference meet when I was seventeen, I somehow long-jumped over 21 feet, despite the fact that I usually jumped in the 19-to-20 foot range. That was good enough for a third-place finish and it led my coach and me to think that I had somehow revealed my true potential, rather than just having a bout of really good luck. (A personal record by a foot is very fluky, but not inexplicable. There was a serious tailwind that day, I hit the board just right and I was feeling terrific.)
I never again jumped as well but with my 21-foot jump I just barely qualified for a national track and field competition that brings together athletes from around the country. At that meet, I jumped my usual 19 and change, so I washed out in the first round, but I stuck around to watch the finals, at which a phenomenal athlete from Dunbar High School in DC won the competition with a jump of over 24 feet. It was like watching someone compete in an entirely different event.
But here's the thing. That kid from Dunbar was not then and did not become a world-class athlete. I was to him as he was to the likes of Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis and Mike Powell (all of whom jumped over 29 feet). Anybody who has had the experience of competing with or against a really top athlete will know the feeling: the ace pitcher on your high school baseball team has stuff that you can't hit; he gets recruited by top college programs and pro scouts; and he ends up flaming out without ever making it to AA, much less starring in the majors. Why? Because although he's much much better than you ever were, he's just not world-class. The sorts of athletes who end up as professionals or Olympians are simply playing a whole different game from the rest of us.
Okay, but why should we celebrate that? A world-class engineer makes useful products, a world-class singer has a quality to her voice that makes her that much more of a joy to listen to than an ordinary singer, but is it any more entertaining to watch a close swimming race between two Olympians than between two evenly matched recreational swimmers? Indeed, wouldn't we all be much much better off if we got off the couch and swam a few laps or ran a few miles ourselves? Perhaps the celebration of athletic excellence that is the Olympics simply undermines our health.
In truth, I don't have a good answer to this concern, except to say that despite my efforts not to be, I find that I continue to be a sports fan. I still recall what one of the tv commentators said (more or less) during the broadcast of what was one of the most thrilling college basketball games ever played: the 1985 NCAA basketball final in which underdog Villanova somehow played perfectly to defeat heavily favored Georgetown: "I don't know what people who aren't sports fans do for excitement." Again, it's possible to derive sports-fan excitement from a competition between evenly matched highly-competent players. Indeed, part of what made that 1985 NCAA final so exciting was the fact that the Villanova players were NOT world-class--and, really, except for Patrick Ewing, neither were the Georgetown players. But if you want to see a really terrific contest, your best bet is to see a head-to-head competition between the best athletes in the world. And when you throw in the possibility of a broken Olympic or world record, you can also see what amounts to a competition with the best athletes of the past.
Is that a justification for sports-fandom? No, not really. But at least it's an explanation.