Watching the Olympics: At your own risk



The Winter Games are over–so long, Sochi.

Funny how much I miss the coverage… Bob Costas’ eloquence and sartorial flair, footage of skiers flying off the mountain, half pipers reaching for the sky, skaters taking leaps of faith, bobsledders in hot Lycra tights hurtling down an icy corridor at 75 mph. It’s beautiful to watch, and at the same time harrowing, the anticipation of imminent disaster always present in my spectator’s mind.

The athletes competing in the Olympics are all exceptional. When the difference between winning and not winning is measured in nanoseconds and millimeters, there are no losers. Yes, the Olympics are about medals and competition. But they are also about the stories behind the faces of these talented and determined men and women: stories of resilience, recovery, renewal. Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympics are testimony to the universality of the human experience. Whatever their nationality, participants will be transformed for having competed in these Games.

I, too, go through a transformation of sorts when I watch the Olympics. In matters of cultural identity, I belong to the not-quite-belonging category. I was born in Europe but made my life in the United States. I am a denizen of these shores, exercising my right to vote, to work, to engage in the pursuit of happiness as I define it. I see myself as a genuine American, and can pass for one as long as I don’t attempt to pronounce words like thwart or behemoth.

Enter the Olympics.

The goose bumps on my arms? Reserved for Swiss athletes. The shivers down my spine? Ditto. I root for my compatriots, I fear for them, I beg them to make me proud. Every morning I check the medal count in the Sports section of the New York Times. Do I want to know how many medals the US won? Not particularly. I’m more inclined to cheer for the Italians, the French, the Swedes. Sometimes, I get a little annoyed with the US-centric coverage, then I catch myself: Of course the TV network is focused on American athletes! It’s an American network with an American audience. Americans want to know about their team, just like I want to know about mine. The Swiss team.

This raises the inevitable question: What am I, Swiss or American? I am Swiss and American. Why should I have to choose? I cannot expunge the Swiss in me, nor can I claim to be as American as apple pie. I weave in and out of my two cultures, observing and participating in turn. Most of the time, the outsider position is one I can live with. Given all that, what is it about the Olympics that triggers this visceral identification with the Swiss athletes as they march in the opening ceremony?

While individual performance is recognized and rewarded, the national teams share in the honor of representing their country, setting themselves apart from the other teams by wearing outfits that may or may not be emblematic of their nation. Imagine how different the Games would be if the athletes all wore the same outfit! Similarity vs. differentiation: I think I’m onto something. Could it be that the pageantry of the Games, with its overabundance of flags, gripping renditions of national anthems, and poignant narratives of triumph and defeat taps into my own, primeval sense of belonging? That is powerful stuff.

Every two years, for a fortnight, I reclaim my Swiss roots. Then I return to my life as an American. Because that’s what I am. (Only not during the Olympics.)

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