Friday, February 12, 2010

Photo Friday: The Olympics

I'll be watching the Opening Ceremonies tonight with extra pride. Two of my former students, Zach Parise and Ryan Malone, will be in the parade of athletes -- both as members of the US Hockey Team.  Imagining what that experience will be like for them brought back memories of my own Olympic experience as a spectator in 2002... 

Broadcasters and sportswriters often resort to hyperbole when talking about the Olympics, but having been swept up in it, I understand why.  The Olympic Spirit is real.  It is palpable.  It has the power to move, to shape, and to humble even the hardest heart. A recent article in the New York Times questioned "have the Winter Games outlived their usefulness, given the altered sports calendar, changing viewing habits and the fall of the Berlin Wall?"

And I wholeheartedly say, "No!"  

My husband and I weren't supposed to go to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.  But with a last-minute airfare and a friend's guest room, we found ourselves in the cold sunshine of Salt Lake on the morning after the opening ceremonies.  We really weren't sure what to expect when we arrived.  We knew the city fairly well, but neither of us had ever been to the Olympics before.  And after three days of immersion I'd say that the Olympics are about one thing: hospitality.  We'd arrived without tickets to any events, but a quick trip to a ticket office fixed that.  Throughout the city hospitality centers helped visitors find lodging, meals, tickets, services, shuttles -- and everyone we encountered in Olympic gear was both well-informed and incredibly friendly.

We scored tickets to two events, but our first night we had nothing on the agenda, so we headed into town.  The Winter Games in Salt Lake handled the medal ceremonies differently from other Olympic Games.  Each night all of the medals that had been won that day were awarded at one huge medals ceremony in downtown Salt Lake.  And each medals ceremony featured a concert by a big-name band.  But the best part: tickets to the ceremonies were free and were available by lottery to Salt Lake residents!

R and I moseyed down to the venue where we bought tickets from a scalper for $40 each.  Given what we witnessed that night, I would have paid much more!  We were among 18,000 people watching some of the world's greatest athletes receive their medals under the stars. The cold mountain air froze our tears as they played "The Star Spangled Banner" for women's moguls medalist Shannon Bahrke, one of twelve athletes to be honored that night. And when the speeches and flag-waving ended, we were warmed by the Dave Matthews Band in concert.  It was incredible!

R and I hardly slept; we were giddy.  And we were up early the next morning for our trip out to the Olympic Speed Skating Oval where we watched the women's 3000 meter event.  Sitting in the stands we were stunned. Watching the Olympics on TV is nothing like watching them in person.  The crowd at the event was small, but they were fierce -- and largely Dutch.  We positively fell in love with the Dutch fans who were easy to spot in their orange garb and wild hats.  They sang and chanted and shook their cowbells.  And they didn't just cheer for their compatriots, either.

Long track speed skating events are raced in pairings; two skaters races against each other at a time. The person with the shortest time in the end wins.  Every skater on the ice -- and there were 32 skaters that day -- was cheered and serenaded and supported.  Honestly, it reminded me of a middle school swim meet -- lots of love and cheering all around -- except that, well, there were world records being set and broken in almost every pairing. 

The next day we went to a hockey game: Latvia vs. Slovakia.  Again, the atmosphere was more party and not at all partisan.  We sat behind a huge contingent of the Latvian team: other athletes who took time out of their preparations to cheer on their hockey team.  They were decked out in wild hats and sang songs that sounded a lot like the anthems sung at European soccer games to me.

Between events we hung out in town where Olympic fever prevailed.  And the city fairly hummed with excitement. It looked beautiful, swathed in lavender and orange with the words "Light the Fire Within" emblazoned on anything that would stand still.  At night the Olympic rings blazed in the foothills -- huge rings of fire visible from all over the valley. 

As a travel writer I say: watch for last-minute airfares to Vancouver.  Think about crashing on someone's couch.  Here's a time to try or for the first time.

But as a human being I say: if you have lost faith in the goodness in humanity... if you feel cynical about the state of the world... if you long for something simpler, purer, better... go to Vancouver.  You can't help but be caught up in the Olympic spirit.  It is restorative and, like the cauldron that will be lit tonight, it burns bright. 

Update: Link Love
And if that doesn't have you in the spirit, check out these Olympic posts:


Sun With Passing Showers said...

Wow, got my Olympic goosebumps going a day early! I was especially interested in your post because our family is hoping/planning to go to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Got me more excited about that idea!

Amy @ The Q Family said...

What a fun experience! I have always wanted to go to one of the Olympic event but my husband would rather watch it at home. Still need more time to convince him. :)

jkiel said...

I'm glad you had a good time here! We had a blast during our Olympics too (just wandering around hearing all the languages was the best part...)

Angela K. Nickerson said...

@Sun with Passing Showers: Go! It is totally worth it!

@Amy: Heck, let's go together!

@JKiel: SLC did a fantastic job as hosts! I'm glad it was fun for you guys, too! :)

Roberta said...

Way cool. Makes me SO glad to be here, and glad I rearranged my travels to return home to Vancouver in time. Once in a lifetime!!! ;-)

jessiev said...

lucky you!!! i loved reading of your experiences. i LOVE the olympics. it's like the best of culture, the world, humanity, volunteering, and globalism all wrapped up.

TheWordWire said...

Thanks for sharing this -- I love seeing this from your perspective. Though I didn't attend any of the games, I was living in Atlanta area during the 96 summer games. Remembering the energy and spirit of it all makes me smile hugely reading your SLC experience. Happy Friday.

Wanderluster said...

Lucky indeed! And how absolutely cool that you'll know a couple of athletes in this year's Olympics!

Sharlene said...

Attending an Olympic event is definitely on my "to do" list. I love everything about the very palpable spirit it exudes.

Lora said...

I had never considered heading toward the Olympics. I assumed there would be way too many crowds and vendors to make it fun. But what you have described is totally different. Makes me rethink my idea. Glad that the spirit is so positive. I'm sure there are so many people that have trained their whole life to be there.

Angela K. Nickerson said...

@Lora: I would definitely consider it! As I said, we weren't sure what to expect, and we thought it might be really crowded, but we were pleasantly surprised. It made for a fantastic trip!

Soultravelers3 said...

Very cool! Love it that you know participants!

Going to the original site where the Olympic Games began in Greece was really a thrill for us on our open ended world tour. Of course we had to do some mock Olympic races of our own. ;)

Palpable spirit, indeed!

JoAnna said...

I would love to attend the Olympics. I'm not even sure it would matter which sporting event I would attend!

Thanks for the link back. I really appreciate it!

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