One month ago, I was a normal Netflix bingeing, Great British Baking Show watching homosexual man in his 40’s. I seek out, I binge and I move on. This is my philosophy for television in the modern era. I have my things I love, the shows I’m on the fence about and the things that I know are crappy but I keep watching anyway. It all works for me that is until something throws my whole machine out of whack. The something we’re talking about here is the Olympics.
I swam up-stream with everyone else into NBC’s river of self-congratulatory Go America Olympic Bullshit last week and my carefully curated television viewing habits have been thrown down the toilet. Instead of perusing PBS for documentaries about British castles, I now finding myself saying shit like,”I wonder what time badminton is on.” And it’s actually a lot of fun. I’m a sucker for person-against -all-odds storylines and the Olympics is overstuffed with them. I’ve cried like a baby when the women’s gymnastics team and Simone Manuel both took home gold medals last week. I’ve held my breath while watching incredibly tense beach volleyball matches. I’ve cheered as countries who’ve never medal suddenly walked home with the gold. It’s cool to see athletes and women and people from far-flung nations get recognition in primetime, an era usually devoted to men’s only sports. While NBC’s abominable coverage could perhaps be bested by the all-stoner audio/visual club at my high school, the only real part of the Olympics that’s left a sour taste in my mouth is the bully narrative. Look to Kim/Kanye/Taylor. Look to that orange buffoon currently running for president. Look in the comments of any Gawker post. Bullies run the world and they are distinctly American in flavor. Sadly, our gnarly gift to humanity can be seen at the Olympics too. For every awe-inspiring female athlete, there was a Lilly King or a Hope Solo to remind the planet that no one does piss-poor competitor like Americans. U-S-A! U-S-A!
All of this, in addition to a witnessing what a televised week-long Michael Phelps boner looks like, made me start thinking about what really makes a winner in 2016. While I have zero opinion about the participation ribbon generation currently cultivated on the kids’ soccer fields of the country, I do think our idea of a winner should probably change. If you frequent the halls of recovery or spend time with survivors of abuse or have lived through horrific natural disasters, it’s hard to stand up and cheer for entitled white kids from Ivy League schools. Winners, as it were, are actually all around us. A friend of mine who has been watching her husband fight for his life in a hospital for over a week sure looks like someone who deserves a medal to me. Ditto another friend who recently picked up a six month chip after several relapses and false starts. In every American neighborhood in every town, people are overcoming some badass shit and doing so with grace. Yet because of some dusty old stigmas we are still reluctant to talk about these sorts of victories. Hence maybe why during the 150 hour Phelps-fest his battle with alcohol was only mentioned once and only in voiceover by the announcer. His camp, as a matter of fact, doesn’t really mention it at all, as pointed out in this excellent Sports Illustrated piece. Which is too bad given what an openness around it by an athlete of his stature could do for the stigma of alcoholism. Unsurprising, to be sure, but none of it affects the winning going on everywhere, all of the time.
What I’ve witnessed is that winning happens and not just every four years. Winning happens even without an inspiring Katy Perry ballad. Winning happens without the low emotional intelligence which requires making someone else a villain. Watching the Brazilian men’s team emotionally explode last night as they won their country’s first men’s gymnastics medals, I was reminded the feeling of victory,however, is pretty much the same. They held their breath, they cried, they couldn’t believe it was happening. I felt the same way when I picked up my one year chip after not thinking I could ever stay sober that long. And this, I suppose, is what still makes the Olympics great. We like to see one another win. We identify with overcoming the odds. We hang onto the hope that maybe we can win too. But, it should be pointed out, if you’ve finally gotten out of bed after a long depression, if you left a toxic relationship or if you’ve somehow manged to stay sober another day, you deserve a goddamn medal too.