Originally posted August 19, 2004
I have caught Olympic fever again this year and there is no cure. It's not just the women's swim team who posed in FHM men's magazine or the prepubescent girls in their late teens they call gymnast, or the new volleyball g-strings they call uniforms... It is the pure ability to force your body to do something incredible.
In the sixth grade (or grade six for you Canadians) I had a great gym teacher named Mr. Shively. Now Mr. Shively was one of those teachers who stuck with me for a long time. All of middle school into high school, summer school, and drivers training. He was a dad in his mid to late forties when I knew him. Not a tall man, or a thin man, he stood before us one day in the sixth grade, mustache and jogging outfit, before a gymnasium converted into a gymnastics training center Romanians would be proud of. Mats, pummel horses, parallel bars, balance beam, and of course the uneven bars.
Whenever I see the Olympics come on television my minds eye is caught on that day when he introduced us to this equipment. Grabbing one of the tallest people in the class, a girl who towered over me, as aspotter he unzipped his top to reveal he was wearing full body gymnastic gear, skin tight in all it's glory. In a step by step explanation Mr. Shively approached the uneven bars, looked to us as the judges, and grabbed the top bar. Bending at the waist he builtmomentum and swung over the top. A full circle he switches to the lower bar. In another move he was back on top. It was an amazing sight, even a solid dismount which he stuck.
He next moved on to the parallel bars. A little shakier on this apparatus, Mr. Shively again impressed us all. Our education continued to the pummel horse where the strains in his arms were shown and the sweat beaded on his brow. Finally he turned to the spring board. Building speed down the mat he hit the board, touched the horse to make the initial turn, but misjudged his age and endurance landing on the horse crotch first. Dorf could not haved one any better. It took him a minute to get off as he sat there in silence. We didn't laugh, the poor guy was in some real pain. We were done for the day and hit the showers.
Later that week we began to watch some films on gymnastics rather then get the live demonstration. The floor exercises and trampoline, which I always felt gypped on, because it was set up to use, but we never got to use it. Some school board discussion on insurance and injury (damn lawyers!) kept us off the cool equipment. Shively sat a lot that week, not moving much. But I was impressed.
I am more impressed ever time the Olympics come up with the talent that these young people show. Athletes spending ever day, doing the same thing, time and again. The training takes great discipline, that is extraordinary. It's more impressive to me that Shively and other teachers encourage young people to try, not to become super athletes of the former Soviet block, but for an appreciation of what others do.
I say that Shively succeeded year after year with his students in growing that appreciation with in them. Part of that appreciation was the admiration of the physical ability, the goal not being the medal, but a job well done or striving to do one's best.
As a border city to Canada, Detroit has the pleasure of watching television from another country. While I was raised on Sesame Streetand, lived in Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood, I also watched northern shows like the Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress-Up and Polka dot Door. Nothing separates the Canadian culture as being unique and individual more then the Olympics. Watching the Canadian Broacasting Channel (CBC) coverage brings a new appreciation to both cultures. The CBC covers the Olympics much longer then any of the US networks ever have. They also cover all of the events, tell stories about the competitors with a human perspective that goes beyond the "us vs. them" or cold war twist we still hear from US commentators.
The Greeks in Athens warmly welcomed the U.S. athletes into the stadium for the opening ceremonies and during events after months of hearing the lowered expectations and restrained celebrations from our media. This shows the separation between patriotism and nationalism which I think most Americans miss, especially the US media. Small note to Bob Costas and Katie Couric, loving your country is a feeling – patriotism, participating in a group or on a team in the name of your country – nationalism. These games have been a joy to watch. Its great fun to watch Canadians, Greeks, South Africans, Iraqis, Germans, and Australians compete. But nothing gives me a greater sense of pride then watching the United States compete. They don't have to win everything – that's not what Shively taught us, just do their best showing that the USA is okay.