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Monday, August 6, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Lots of life in Olympic moments
By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist
I've been watching the Olympics, staying up later than I should to see whose dreams will come true and whose hearts will be broken.
Sometimes I watch even after one of my electronic devices has delivered the answer to me hours earlier. I want to experience the drama myself, and despite knowing the outcome, I still tense up at the slip or bobble that could mean disaster. There's nothing logical about it.
Does anyone really think logic will decide whether to build a new stadium in Seattle? Much of our connection to sports is emotional, but sports can also give a person things to think about.
Sports can be play, or work, escape from the rest of life, or immersive and life-shaping. Sports are full of stories and the one thing we can't get enough of: people.
There was drama in Bremerton's Nathan Adrian beating the favored swimmer to win the 100-meter freestyle. And even more in Gabby Douglas' win in gymnastics. The 16-year-old, who had so little experience in top-level competition, won gold in the women's individual all-around category, after her teammate, world champion Jordyn Wieber, failed to qualify. Sadness, frustration, joy all mixed together.
It was like a TV script. And there were multiple story lines. Another American who was expected to medal, Aly Raisman, missed the bronze by the barest margin. In fact, she tied Russia's Aliya Mustafina only to lose the tiebreaker.
No, it's not TV, it's life.
One of the announcers said gymnasts usually get just one Olympics. They spend much of their lives dedicated to honing their skills, then as teenagers get one shot at the big stage. That's a cycle all of us see condensed and played out in front of cameras.
Actually, a lot plays out off-camera, too. Few competitors from small countries make it on screen or even to the Olympics, even though the Games are a global event. You need a lot of people to pull from and enough wealth to support the incredible specialization that some sports require.
When athletes from smaller countries or poorer ones show up it's generally in a sport that doesn't require much money or technology. I heard about an independent athlete from South Sudan competing under the Olympic flag because his new country doesn't have an Olympic organization yet.
Running, which inspired the Olympics in the first place, is still universal. A person mostly needs some shoes, shorts and a lot of work to participate.
Even a basic sport like swimming has evolved to require caps and special suits to cut down on drag.
For many sports, competitors have to start nearly in infancy if they want any chance to compete at the top level. Adrian started at 5. Douglas moved away from her family for special training, which is not unusual for youngsters with top potential.
It's not just the Olympics growing more intensely competitive.
This year, a 14-year-old quarterback, Tate Martell, of San Diego, committed to play for the University of Washington — after he completes middle school and high school, of course.
Sports reflect changes in the rest of life, too. You have to start young and fight hard or lose.
Just think about what it takes to get into the most desired colleges today versus what it took a generation ago. And who these days can claim to be a renaissance person? Specialization, or narrow focus, seems key to success and yields greater performance in sports and even in life sometimes. It breeds amazing individuals who are far removed from most other people.
But then watching dressage — and when else, but while watching the Olympics, would most of us contemplate dressage? — it occurred that this separation, though exaggerated today, is not an entirely new phenomenon.
There's a lot to think about while watching beautifully groomed horses and their meticulously attired riders go through their paces. The relationship between people and other animals comes to mind, and so does the place of class and heritage in society.
Sports invite discussion of topics that affect life off the playing field, too, but are more accessible in a sports context: finance, ethics, personal accountability, group responsibility. And the actual activity is there to offer a distraction when the other stuff gets too deep.
Wow, did you see that leap?
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
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