Sunday, December 17, 2017
Sports

Jones: Olympics provide a rare unifying force

Mary Griffith is a real estate agent from Belleair.

She's not a big sports fan, although she does enjoy watching tennis and figure skating now and then. Occasionally, she will watch a little golf.

Yet a little after 1 o'clock on Monday afternoon, she stopped by her home and immediately turned on the TV.

"I'm watching women's water polo," Griffith said.

Just like millions upon millions of her fellow Americans, Griffith is hooked on the Olympics.

"It's wonderful," she said. "I can't get enough. It's just so inspiring."

For the past month, Griffith has been working on little sleep. First, she stayed up late watching the Republican National Convention. Then she watched the Democratic National Convention.

Now she can't go to bed before watching Katie Ledecky swim and Usain Bolt run and Simone Biles vault.

At least for now, she doesn't toss and turn worrying about the state of the country.

"It's all just so positive," Griffith said. "I wish our politicians could get along as well as these young people."

And that right there sums up the power of the Olympics.

They unify us. They inspire us. But mostly, they allow us to take a break from all the ills and ill wills of this world.

Every day, our headlines are filled with controversy and contempt. Donald Trump said this and Hillary Clinton said that. CNN calls out Trump and Fox News slams Clinton. Red vs. Blue wears us out to the point that we welcome the red, white and blue of American athletes in the Rio Games.

And while we continue to deal with real problems in real places — rioting in Milwaukee and flooding in Louisiana and bombings everywhere, problems that need to be addressed — there is something comforting about sitting down each night, tuning out the world and tuning in to the Olympics.

We are a country that loves reality TV from America's Got Talent to The Bachelor to American Ninja Warrior.

Well, the Olympics are the ultimate reality TV show.

And the ultimate escape.

"It's just so nice to see these athletes who have sacrificed so much and dedicated so much of their lives to living their dreams," Griffith said. "How can you not enjoy that?"

That's how most of America looks at the Olympics. An average of 27.9 million are watching just the NBC coverage on a nightly basis. The demographics are across the board. The viewership for the Olympics is a cross-section of our country, as are the athletes.

Men and women. City people and country folks. Rich and poor. Black and white and Hispanic.

When we watch the Olympics, it isn't about race or sex or religion. It's about country.

The Games are made up of athletes we often have never heard of competing in sports we haven't watched in four years. Yet, immediately we throw ourselves into the Games with our heads and hearts. We act as if we know everything there is to know about synchronized diving or team handball. Suddenly, we're all experts in fencing and authorities on Greco-Roman wrestling. Then we root passionately for athletes we're seeing for the first time simply because they were born in Iowa or Maine or Texas.

We watch our fellow Americans. We rejoice in their victories and empathize with their losses. Our eyes fill with tears and our hearts fill with pride when they accept their medals. Never are we more proud of our national anthem than when we hear it during the Olympics.

Unlike baseball or football teams that ask us to dedicate six months, year after year, to following our favorite teams, the Olympics ask very little: just a fortnight.

Bruce Jenner, Mark Spitz. Jesse Owens. Mary Lou Retton. Their Olympic careers can be measured in days. Mere hours, maybe even minutes, of performance have made them household names for a lifetime. That's the power of the Olympics.

Meantime, the Olympics are one of the rare television events that gives the entire country a sense of community. Go back 40 or 50 years ago, when there were only a handful of television stations, and watching certain shows were shared moments for Americans. Those instances — from the end of M*A*S*H to the Coneheads on Saturday Night Live to "Who shot J.R.?'' — were water-cooler talk the following morning for the entire country.

Today, other than maybe the Super Bowl and the occasional presidential debate, what TV event has the entire country buzzing the next day?

Yet, here we were in the past week celebrating Michael Phelps, talking in awe about Bolt, brimming with pride over Simone Manuel and hanging our head in shame over Hope Solo. That, too, is the power of the Olympics.

But, mostly, the Olympics show us the best of who were are.

"Politically, things have just gotten so ugly in this country," Griffith said. "I wish our politicians could take a cue from our young Olympic athletes and behave properly. They sure could learn a thing or two from our athletes. And I wish countries from around the world could treat each other the way our athletes do."

For two weeks a year, we can dream that they do.

And that is the Olympics' most powerful gift.

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