WHENEVER SOMEONE brings up the word Olympics, two things come immediately to mind. One is Tõnis Mägi’s famous song for the 1980 Olympics, “Olimpiada,” a disco classic, with a solid beat, stirring runs of strings (and in Russian!) The video of him strutting around with dancers and Misha the Bear in the background is not to be missed.
One of his best.
The other thing that comes to mind is how I once wanted to be an Olympic athlete. This was not just a fleeting thought that came to me one day, but one that I invested some time and emotions in. I even had a poster in my room for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. I put the poster on the ceiling above my bed, so that each morning, when I opened my eyes, I would see it. That was my goal when I was 15 years old. As anyone who has ever watched the Olympics knows, you have to set your goals. Then you can talk about how you achieved them when they interview you after you win. “It’s about self-discipline,” you tell the reporters. “About getting up every morning and thinking, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion.’” A montage of images of you working out with a determined look on your face follows as the media recounts your path to victory.
This is how you become a winner, a hero, a man beloved by all.
I wasn’t after the fame though. I was after some girl.
This was a downhill skier, of course. I always go for the skiers. She was raised in the Rocky Mountains by hippies who rather than give her a name, decided to wait until she was old enough to name herself. For the first few years of her life, she was known as “Girl.” This “Girl” won the silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, which is how she became known in all American households at the time. Including my household, where I became captivated by her winning spirit, strange family story, and curvy figure.
One must acknowledge the backdrop however. Frost-crusted Norway with its lovely folk dancers from the opening ceremony. The reindeer, those red Scandinavian cottages. The chill of the mountain air seemed to waft from the television set. The Olympics get under your skin this way, in that you fall in love with the Games’ gestalt: not just a charismatic athlete, but the entire picture. Whether it is Lillehammer or Vancouver or London or Athens, we become enraptured by this idea of how life could or, rather, should be. Instead of political corruption, military occupations, and a migrant crisis, the world could just be a cute village of beautiful and interesting athletes, where people whiled away the day enjoying world class catering and engaging in sporting competitions.
It was definitely a world I wanted to escape to and there was a chance that I could. At that time, there were commercials for the American luge team. I’m serious. There were videos of men on tiny sleds shooting down icy tunnels, gripping the sides of their toboggan at every slippery turn. “Dial 1-800-USA-LUGE” the man said on the commercial. So I did. I picked up the phone and I called and was sent pamphlets in the mail about the sport and about competitions to be held at Lake Placid in Upstate New York that spring. It meant that I would have to prepare.
I put the poster for the Nagano Games above my bed to keep me inspired, and told all of my friends that I would probably not be attending university because I intended to become an Olympic athlete. (Even today, some of them send me letters asking about what became of my career). It was winter, so I spent my time practicing my moves on my sled, imagining myself one day up on that podium in Japan with the coveted medallion suspended from my neck, only to descend into the soft embrace of my hot new girlfriend, the hippie daredevil downhill skier from the mountains.
As gossip spread in the school that they had a new member of the Olympic luge team in their midst, it reached other students beyond my immediate social network. It turned out that one of them, a less dreamy, immensely more physically fit youth named Chuck, was also going to Lake Placid to take part in the luge contests. In fact, he had already been training for the luge team since he was 10 years old. Chuck took one look at me in the hall and told me my career was over.
“They’ll never take you,” he said, looking up at me. “There’s just no way.”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“You’re way too tall,” he said. He held a hand up in the air. “It’s all about the aerodynamics. They want shorter guys like me, because we weigh less, meaning we can slide faster,” the hand curved down an imaginary luge course. “But your long legs will dangle over the toboggan. It won’t work.”
I was crushed but I knew he was right. I went home and tore the poster off the ceiling, and never said a word about the Olympics to my classmates again. I still do check on that skier from time to time though to see how she’s been doing since she retired with all of her gold and silver medals. Some bits of Olympic magic never fade.