I knew it was coming. It happens every four years — or in this pandemic-delayed case — five years, which made it all the worse. On the big television screen, the flame is literally extinguished, and then I curl up into the fetal position on the floor and moan for a bit. It’s over, again. Thus begins my quadrennial bout of Olympics withdrawal.
I’ve loved the Olympics for as long as I can remember, and my memory of the Games stretches back quite a distance, at least 50 years. I don’t think I’m alone. I remember the national euphoria when Nancy Greene won the Giant Slalom Gold Medal at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, or when Greg Joy won the High Jump Silver Medal in the 1976 Montreal Summer Games. Canadians take their Olympics seriously. Back in 1984, I was a 24-year-old political staffer on Parliament Hill working for the Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport. My timing was good in ’84 as it was an Olympic year with the Summer Games in Los Angeles. I remember organizing welcome home events for the Canadian athletes and being lucky enough to pen remarks used by my minister and Prime Minister Turner, too, (yes, it was during that very short summer reign of John Turner before Brian Mulroney swept to a massive majority on Sept. 4, 1984).
In high school, my twin brother and I fancied ourselves as at least somewhat proficient high jumpers. It helped that we weighed about 90 lbs. at the time and kind of fluttered over the bar like a leaf on the wind. We set up our own Olympic training facility in our backyard employing a limp bamboo pole held up by two garbage cans and stacks of bricks, and three quite disgusting used mattresses we’d salvaged from a dumpster. Many Olympic visions were conjured in the backyard as we practised our Fosbury Flop.
So perhaps I come by my Olympic allegiance honestly, though we threatened no high jump titles even in our own Phys. Ed. class. But I do get wrapped up in the drama of the Games. It seems to be the only time I have the chance to watch those sports that still haven’t quite yet broken into the mainstream. When else can you watch fencing, handball, canoe-racing, water polo, archery, weightlifting, and air pistol shooting, featuring competitors from a couple hundred nations? You may think I’m kidding about watching those sports from Tokyo, but I am not. I was glued to them all. I was totally caught up in it. I always am.
Swimming may not be the most exciting spectator sport, but there I was cheering on Penny Oleksiak, Maggie Mac Neil, Kylie Masse and the others, and leaping to my feet as they approached the wall. I’m quite sure that standing up for the final length and shouting at the screen made them swim faster. And I suffered on the edge of my seat for every soccer game played by our Canadian women. I’m sure the penalty kicks required in the games against Brazil and then Sweden in the Gold Medal match took years off my life. But I wouldn’t have missed any of it.
I know that strong supporters of the Olympics are often considered a bit nutty and naive. After all, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, yet every four years nations still gather to play games and hand out medals. Sure, around the globe we have social strife, looming environmental catastrophe, wars, fires and famine. But I can’t help believing that when nations assemble in the spirit of friendship and competition, we are better for it; the world is better for it. When athletes from over 200 nations assemble to captivate and inspire citizens of the world, they bring us all a little closer together. And yes, I’m the guy with the lump in my throat when the Olympic flame is doused again. But the flame will soon burn again, and I’ll be right there next year for the cross-country skiing, the luge, the snowboard half-pipe and all the rest.