Olympians – Even the Curlers – Inspire him

Facebook always humors me when it asks thoughtfully, “What’s on your mind?” Despite my reservations about having a conversation with a machine, I’m usually polite enough to respond.

Most recently, I was overwhelmed by Winter Olympics spirit, and my response to Facebook’s kind inquiry reflected my enthusiasm for the games. “Curling fever: catch it!” I exclaimed, and my strange demand was posted for all to see.

Of course, I must admit to being slightly hyperbolic in this case. Like most of the events in the 2010 Olympics, not even the faintest, most-remote thought of curling occurs to me more than once every four years. In fact, I hardly understand the rules. The same is true for luge, “Super G” alpine skiing, ice dancing (huh?), short track, etc. I don’t understand any of them very well at all, and I probably never will. But yet I keep watching.

With these limitations in mind, I’m fascinated once again by the strange allure of the Vancouver games. What is it about these competitors and their events that drive my interest this February? It’s possible that I’m just a sucker for slick network television coverage. It’s more possible that I’m just a sucker for old-fashioned American pride. But can the lofty professionalism of Bob Costas or the hopes of U.S. Olympic glory (e.g., 1980 men’s hockey) make curling a riveting spectator sport? It seems unlikely to me.

Instead, I think the Olympians themselves fuel my fascination more than anything else. They sacrifice their friends, family, education, careers, bodies and perhaps even their lives to succeed in endeavors everyone else finds trivial and obscure. This paradoxical situation is humorously described by Joseph Heller in his famous novel, Catch 22. He writes of the bitingly cynical soldier and main character Yossarian:

“To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. No money went with them, no class privileges. Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else.”

Although I love the humor in Heller’s bone-dry, misanthropic sarcasm, I cannot agree with Yossarian when he says Olympians provide no benefit to anyone. This is because while most Olympians will remain unnoticed, and their many sacrifices will not amount to money, publicity or medals, as a result of their Sisyphus-like endeavors they provide the rest of us with inspiration and consolation that are needed when our own work seems unbearably fruitless and unimportant.

To this extent, I genuinely thank all of the curlers and biathletes, whose names I will soon forget.