I have always loved the Olympics. I think it started with Al “Do You Believe in Miracles?” Michaels and his coverage of the 1980 games. With his little blue knit sweater and wide collared shirt, Mr. Michaels understood the pulse of a nation anxious for something to rally behind. America had lost much of its swagger by 1980. There was high unemployment, a deepening recession, and hostages in Tehran. There also were a lot of very ugly clothes. With an endless supply of orange paisley vests and plaid suits, it is no wonder the country found itself in a deep funk.
So when the dominant Soviet hockey team squared off against a bunch of unknown college kids that cold February afternoon, many Americans were desperate for a sign that things could turn around.
Americans needed a miracle.
Even back then, I recognized how much the incredible victory over the Soviets meant to the country. I remember how excited people were to talk about hockey. Ironically, hockey had never been the cause celebre of the sports world, a distant fourth behind football, baseball, and basketball. Three periods? Icing? Empty nets? Even the most basic tenets of the game remained a mystery. But it didn’t matter. David slew Goliath. Americans shook off those dismal 1970s browns and harvest golds and started opting for shoulder pads and bright neon hues.
There was nothing to be ashamed of anymore. Americans stopped hiding. And instead, they started dressing like the cast of “Dynasty.”
In watching the Olympic coverage this year, I have found myself longing for more Al Michaels and less of everyone else. The reporting has been abysmal. Starting with the breathtaking opening ceremony, the announcers were apparently given only one set of directions: BE SNARKY. What was supposed to be an artistic interpretation of Russia’s sordid and complicated past quickly de-escalated into a bunch of mean girls talking smack about the prom queen. The remarkable spectacle was, at one low point, compared to signage at a carwash. While it is true that Russia’s history carries its own share of tragedy, hubris, and military aggression, it was neither the time nor place for cheap pot shots.
The interviews with athletes after victory or defeat became a game of “let’s bring up the dead relative and make ’em cry.” The sadistic poking and prodding of emotional men and women left me physically ill. It also had me wondering: is this the kind of country we have become? Are the boundaries of human decency, grace, and decorum pushed so far back that they are no longer recognizable?
But that’s when I heard the story of slopestyle skier, Nick Goepper. Here was a kid from Indiana. INDIANA. Where the hell do you go jumping off mountains in Indiana? No matter. The kid and his dad built a rickety old backyard training course. When his father lost his job, Nick pulled weeds and babysat. His mom believed in him every step of the way.
And the kid from Indiana won a bronze medal.
The story of Americans who dedicate their lives and risk it all to represent their country on a global stage is why I watch the Olympics. I don’t care about Bob Costas’ pink eye, the much-maligned speed skating suits, or political conspiracy theories. I don’t want commentators worrying more about being “witty” than being factual. Al Michaels, more than anything else, was a true commentator that afternoon in 1980. While his passion was obvious, his command of language and respect for the worldwide stage upon which he sat were unmistakable.
In today’s cynical environment, I am not sure if a single moment can ever again alter the course of history. I do not know if our national mood can improve based upon the results of a simple game. I do not know if a world restored of optimism and unity will ever again be within our grasp. But I pray it is, as I just can’t help myself.
After all, I still believe in miracles.