Friday, January 31, 2014

The Olympics: Badminton Matters

The other night my husband, daughter, and I stumbled upon an ESPN special about Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the attack on Kerrigan before the 1994 (Lillehammer) Olympic Games. My daughter was fascinated--she'd never heard any part of the story before. At one point, a news reporter in a clip from 1994 suggested that, whether guilty or innocent, Harding should bow out of the Games out of a sense of justice.

I laughed pretty hard at that. Not because I doubt Harding has a sense of justice (though I do), but because it was clear to me that the news reporter had no idea what the Olympics mean to those who compete in them. Almost no one who'd made a team would step down. They worked so long to get there. They rose so far. They weren't going to stop on their own.

[Actually, in yesterday's Sports Illustrated, I did read about one athlete who stepped down this week--but it was to give her slot to her twin sister, who'd had an uncharacteristic mistake in the trials.]

It is so hard to make the Olympic Games. It is, for us mortals, nearly unfathomably hard. My little sport, eventing, is one of the 3 Olympic equestrian sports. For eventers, and for everyone who competes in a small sport, which is all of the winter games and most of the summer ones, the Olympics are a very big deal. They drive a lot of the excellence--where would badminton be, for example, without a gold medal to strive for?

I hear you. You're saying, who cares? You're thinking that a world where badminton was only a way to pass a few hours at a summer barbeque--beer in one hand, racket in the other--is pretty much the same world you live in right now. International badminton isn't exactly on your radar.

I went to badminton at the London Olympics. I picked badminton in the ticket lottery because I figured I had a decent shot of getting a ticket to it, and also because I find badminton more comprehensible than, say, Greco-Roman wrestling. I joined a big crowd at Wembley Arena, which is a small indoor venue next to Britain's historic Wembley Stadium, and I watched people play a game that was as far from backyard badminton as I am from the surface of the moon. I barely had the eye coordination to watch Olympic badminton. The players hit 30 or 40 volleys per point, in less than a minute each. Whapwhapwhapwhapwhapwhapwhap. It was impossible. It was amazing.

Somewhere in the world are people born with this kind of skill, who are willing to hone it by relentless work. I was mesmerized watching them-not just badminton, but archery, diving, fencing, and, of course, my beloved eventing--going to watch the Olympics, in person, I realized just how much some humans can achieve. It was wonderful, in all ways.

My husband's favorite movie, Chariots Of Fire, tells the story of a few of Britain's runners going to the 1924 games. One of them, Eric Lidell, planned to become a missionary in China, and his sister was dismayed that he was delaying that for the Olympics, which she saw as silly. He explains to her, "God also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his glory."

Sometimes we need to see where the limits aren't. That's all.