Sunday, August 12, 2012

Golden Moment

Katie Taylor wins gold

I am not exactly what you would call a sports fan.

In fact, my attention span has always become incredibly short on the rare occasions when I find myself plunked down in front of a television and obliged watch some sporting event. My main childhood memories of the Olympics are of my father and brother glued to the idiot box for what seemed like the entire summer, while I seethed with resentment that the TV was off limits for anything else in the interim.

As I grew up, there was the further problem that, in those days and in the circles I traveled in, the rampant nationalism engendered by the quadrennial event felt unseemly. The way the U.S. and Soviet Union competed to win the most medals felt like an extension of old imperialism.

But as my life brought me for periods to other countries, I came to see the Olympics in a different way. I became aware that, in most countries in the world, enthusiasm over the Olympics was all about people supporting their own as they tried to make their mark on the world stage. Whereas Americans and Soviets were hoping to win more medals than anyone else, people in Chile and Ireland were just hoping to win a medal—full stop. And while Americans would take their athletes (especially ones with compelling personal stories) to their collective heart, in other smaller countries people were supporting their athletes as virtual family members.

The Irish are particularly endearing when it comes to international competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup. They always seem convinced that their athletes or their team is going to come back the big winner—against all realistic odds. And they are crushed when they don’t. One forgets just how small a country Ireland is (a bit under 4.5 million in the republic), and you really do get the impression that everyone feels that they know everyone else in the nation.

It’s been years since I’ve paid much attention to the Olympics, but now things have come full circle. Decades have passed since I had to negotiate with my father and brother for the television, but now I am in contention for control of the satellite box with a 12-year-old. And she has been mad to follow the Olympics. And so I have seen a fair amount of them this year. My main impression is to wonder how American viewers put up with all the time shifting and commercials that NBC inflicts on them. Of course, this year Ireland has the advantage of being in the same exact time zone as the games. In fact, Irish interest is so keen, you would think that they were being held at the Royal Dublin Society. But even in other years when the games have been halfway around the world, the national broadcaster transmits the competitions in real time and people who care about them simply adjust their schedules, watching in the middle of the night if they have to. This is one of about two advantages I have come across of having the government in charge of your television broadcasts. (The other would be reasonable limits on how often and for how programs can be interrupted for commercials.)

Anyway, I understand that my native country has clinched the race for most medals won in the 2012 Olympic Games, and I do actually take some pride in that—even though it has absolutely nothing to do with me personally. But I suspect only family members and close friends of the American medalists have actually felt the same level of sheer joy and exhilaration that the entire Irish nation felt on Thursday when a 26-year-old woman from Bray, County Wicklow beat Russia’s Sofya Ochigava by two points in women’s lightweight boxing to claim a gold medal. It is the first gold medal Ireland has won since 1996. Crowds in Bray, who had turned out to watch a giant outdoor TV screen went wild (or “mental,” as one media outlet had it), as did frankly the Irish TV commentators. They gushed and replayed the match and the award ceremony so much that I finally couldn’t take it anymore and I switched over to BBC to watch some Englishwomen in bowler hats doing some kind of horse dancing thing.

What was lovely about seeing Taylor win was her humbled reaction to her victory and to all the fuss lavished on her afterwards. What was also striking was the fact that, among all the people she thanked and acknowledged in those first moments of triumph was Jesus. That’s not a name you often hear over the airwaves in overwhelmingly (and largely nominally) Catholic Ireland. But it turns out she isn’t a Catholic. She’s a self-identified born-again Pentecostal Christian.

While moved by Taylor’s story, I still haven’t been converted to being a sports fan. But witnessing it has reinforced in me the idea that nationhood is something stronger and deeper than merely what your birth certificate says or the passport you carry.

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