8-8-12: Olympic Coolness

Like most people, I’ve been enjoying the great international get-together of the Olympics. It’s amazing to see the results of all that discipline and hard work by people with great physical gifts, to say nothing of the Queen’s skill at parachuting. I’ve also loved the vicarious trip to London and trying to mentally place the competition venues in areas I’ve been to on foot, by train or bus or by Tube. While I’ve had my share of puzzlement at the way some of the coverage has been handled, I’ve basically been a happy camper, particularly when it’s come to watching Michael Phelps fail and then triumph. It’s a rare person who can achieve everything he or she aspires to do and spends the last ounce of effort and potential to do it. Plus I just like the butterfly, which is the Phelps standout stroke.  To me, there’s something glorious and beautiful, even elemental about it that I won’t even try to describe except to say I was obsessed enough to learn to do it (badly) as a middle-aged swimmer.

I think if I had to pick, I’d say I prefer the winter Olympics over summer. Watching the Vancouver games in 2010, I realized for the first time that virtually every winter sport except curling requires that an athlete perform by mastering not only the body but a manmade object that’s attached to it or ridden as if it’s a body part—a ski, a luge, a skate, a snowboard. While this may somehow dilute the purity of sport since it’s not a runner simply running all out or a swimmer swimming, there is something particularly human about people fashioning tools to help themselves conquer the ice and snow of cold weather and then turning their use into intense play.  

The Olympics are usually about more than just the events. Sometimes the rivalries between countries or athletes are remembered more for the dramas they offer than the games or competitions themselves. Jesse Owens at Hitler’s Olympics in 1936 provided the most historic Olympic moments, the 1972 Munich terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes the most horrific. But there were games that provided less significant yet great theater—the American team of amateur hockey players defeating the Russian national team at Lake Placid, Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the Atlantic games. There were also the fascinating if squalid events of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan figure skating rivalry in 1994, a story that was eventually overshadowed by the victory of Oksana Baiul.

I have a particular attachment to that story. Not only is it a winter games story, but the Lillehammer Olympics of 1994 were held at a time when I had come down with an extremely painful and exhausting case of shingles and couldn’t do much but watch television. It was my good fortune that the Olympics were on much of the time to distract me. I was as glued to them as I was soon afterwards to the O. J. trial when I no longer had the excuse of illness for watching. I don’t know when it was it occurred to me there was a story I needed to write about that Olympics though it was close enough to the events that I saved the newspapers that detailed all that had happened. What I wrote became the title story for Watching Oksana, and it was a story that had particular success as it won a major award and eventually was anthologized in the Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories alongside the fiction of some extraordinary writers.

As the the London Olympics draw to a close, I’ve thought it’s a good time to recommend ”Watching Oksana” to readers who may soon suffer from Olympic withdrawal. There’s a short excerpt from “Oksana” here on the site, and I could post the whole thing for free as I did with “American Snapshot.” However, in keeping with the commercial spirit of the Olympics I’ve decided not to do it. Oksana’s a good collection with a number of stories that won prizes or fellowships or were pubished in good places, and it’s available at a modest $9.99 in ebook form and for a sale price in paperback at Amazon or at Barnes and Noble on line. Hey, if you’re interested, go ahead and dive in. Just buy the book.

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