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Is there such a thing as Olympic spirit?

by Ogi Overman

It’s a strange phenomenon, these Olympic Games. You barely give it a second thought for four years, yet by the time the opening ceremonies are over you’re willing to believe that world peace is possible. And by the time the flame is doused some two weeks later you’re convinced that the brotherhood of man will become a reality any day now.

Of course, by the following week reality intervenes and it’s back to the grind, but nevermind ‘— for those two glorious weeks it is virtually all consuming. It dominates watercooler conversation, even at times surpassing ACC hoops and NASCAR babble. It becomes the most important thing in our escapist lives for two solid weeks.

Until a month or so ago, when NBC started hyping its coverage, I couldn’t have told you the venue for the 2006 Winter Games was Torino, Italy. And, as a side note, I still don’t understand why some media outlets continue to call it Turin. If they call it Torino in Italy, then why does America insist on referring to it as Turin?

Like, isn’t that a shroud or something, Beavis?

On the eve of the games, my two favorite sportswriters-turned-sportscasters, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon, were opining about how there was no buzz surrounding the Winter Olympics, about how it would be a ratings dud. Kornheiser challenged Wilbon to name one non-American athlete in the Games, to which Wilbon replied with the palms-up gesture and side-to-side head shake.

My initial thought was: ‘“You’re going to know several Russian figure skaters by name real soon, and give it two weeks and you’ll know dozens of skiers, skaters, sliders, jumpers, boarders and stickmen from all over the globe.’” I know this to be true because it happens every time. It grabs you and sucks you in, whether you plan it or not. There’s something about the Olympics that becomes all-encompassing, even for the marginal or non-fan. Events that you could care less about for four years all of a sudden become very, very important. You find yourself watching the Nordic combined without asking the question ‘“combined with what?’” You watch curling, for chrissakes!

These otherwise obscure events take on a life of their own, and the lives of the participants become entwined with our own, if only vicariously. You need for that luger who got the video message from Jimmy Buffett to do well; you need for that female skier who wiped out in practice to come back and redeem herself; you need for that figure skater to nail the triple axle and double toe loop, even though you have no clue what those phrases mean. Somehow you have a stake in Bode Miller’s after-hours routine, and Apolo Anton Ono’s goatee and speed-skating girlfriend, and local hero Joey Cheek’s charitable endeavors. You feel Michelle Kwan’s silent pain and Shaun White’s unbridled joy.

And speaking of White, aka ‘“The Flying Tomato,’” when I first espied him marching in with his fellow athletes, my kneejerk reaction was, ‘“Who’s that little carrot-top freak? He looks like he just wandered in off the streets of Torino and fell in with the parade. And why is that half-pipe crap even an Olympic sport anyway? They’re all just a bunch of slacker skateboarders who need some way to goof off in the wintertime.’”

Two days later I wanted to adopt the kid.

As I write, Greensboro’s own Joey Cheek has won one gold medal, but regardless of whether he medals again he has already become a folk hero for the ages. I can wax maudlin all day about the Olympic spirit and the ideals of brotherhood through athletics, but eventually my cynical side will take over. Sure, I live for the Olympics, but in truth it does very little to further the cause of peace and justice. At best it’s a diversion, and then it’s back to terrorism and war and poverty and Bushworld (insert Cheney joke here).

But then you run across a young man like Joey Cheek and you think maybe, just maybe, there is some hope for this cruel, unjust world. You feel that sliver of altruism, long dormant, that makes you realize that the brotherhood of man is more than a hackneyed concept, that we as a species are not corrupt beyond redemption. That perhaps one person really can make a difference.

Granted, Joey Cheek is the rarest of the rare, someone who comes along maybe once a generation, the embodiment of what I perceive to be the ancient Olympic ideal of competing on the playing field rather than the battle field.

So, can we mere mortals follow his lead? Can we rise above politics, can we subjugate our own wants for the good of our fellow man, can we do the next right thing? Can we?

Now would be a good time to find out.

Ogi can be reached at ogi@yesweekly.com, heard each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. on ‘“The Dusty Dunn Show’” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on ‘“Triad Today’” Friday at 6:30 a.m. on ABC45 and Sunday at 10 p.m. on UPN48.

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