Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Winter Olympics: A Family History

Growing up, we almost never watched TV at the dinner table. Mealtime was sacred - not to be interrupted by phone calls or anyone reading anything (apart from the newspaper over breakfast). Television would be almost unthinkable. Almost.

Occasional exceptions were made. Most of them pertained to politics: party conventions, debates and so forth. And every four years, the rest of my nuclear family would temporarily join me in my sports fanaticism. Mother, father and sister all found my interest puzzling but none of them could resist the lure of Olympic figure skating.

The first Olympics which we all watched avidly together were the 1984 Games in pre-war Sarajevo. The star of the ice that year was Katerina Witt of East Germany. Elegant and beautiful, she was my first athlete crush - and a Communist, at that! Scott Hamilton (USA) won gold that year as did the incomparable Torvill & Dean (UK) in ice dancing.

Through the '80s and '90s, skating was always a bonding topic for the four of us. We loved both Brians: Boitano (USA) and Orser (Canada). We were all crushed when Sergei Grinkov (USSR/Russia) died at 28, leaving his beautiful wife and skating partner, Ekaterina Gordeeva, to skate alone. We were all charmed by Midori Ito (Japan) and Michelle Kwan (USA). The sport has changed over the last dozen years or so and the current stars are not familiar to me. But I will always have very fond memories of sharing that time with my family.

My earliest memory of the Olympics, however, is from the 1980 Games four years before. Sadly, I missed the great hockey game against the Soviets but heard the story from my father the next morning. I was six years old and asleep in bed. Now, it's astonishing to think that my father willingly watched a hockey game without me. We did watch the final game against Finland together. It is, in fact, my earliest memory of watching a sporting event on television at all. I also remember hearing Eric Heiden's name a lot as he won all five golds in men's speed skating.

The 1998 Games also hold personal meaning for me. I was in Yokohama teaching English from 1996 to 1998. In early spring of '97, my parents came to visit. My parents were in Japan from 1969 to 1976 while my father was in the diplomatic service and they are both very comfortable in the country. As a result, we were able to get off the beaten path and spend some time in Nagano prefecture during that visit. We stayed mostly in Matsumoto but drove past some of the Olympic facilities during our explorations: the ski jump, most memorably. It is a beautiful part of the world, far from the endless concrete jungle of the Tokyo megalopolis. We got to see snow monkeys and everything!

And, of course, I was there for the Games themselves, though I watched from the comfort of my apartment. The simultaneous, worldwide performance of the "Ode to Joy" during the opening ceremony is one of the great television moments of my life.

I think Americans are a bit jaded about winning medals - expecting it and therefore not really appreciating it. For the Japanese, every medal won during those Games in particular was a huge deal. Their first gold was won by Hiroyasu Shimizu in men's speed skating, 500 meters. On the medal stand, his vanquished Canadian rivals towered over him, but he was all smiles knowing he'd smoked them on the ice. He was on the talk show circuit for a week afterward. Japan won five golds in all and each one was cause for national celebration.

The 2006 Games were my first to watch with my daughter. She was only two years old so I would not have expected them to make much of an impression. But upon seeing a hockey game on the TV, she suddenly jumped up saying, "My turn! My turn!" She ran into her bedroom to find anything approximating a hockey stick and started whacking a ball around the living room. I haven't been able to expand that into a larger interest in hockey but she does love to skate and is finally in lessons four years later. Appropriately, the lessons are a gift from her grandparents.

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