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.
AirBnB.com or Roomorama.com 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 LoveAnd if that doesn't have you in the spirit, check out these Olympic posts:
- Commercials: Vancouvers Olympic Games Start Tonight (Consumer Travel has a collection of stirring commercials for the Games)
- My Olympics: Day 0 (Roberta's first-person encounter with the Olympic torch)
- Vancouver 2010 Guide to Twitter Hashtags (@Miss604's guide to the hashtags to follow for the latest Olympic news)
- The 2010 Olympics from a Traveler's Perspective (reflections from Kaleidoscopic Wandering)