A summer Olympic tradition

A summer Olympic tradition

Like billions of viewers around the globe, we tuned in Friday to watch the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. With Mary Poppins, Voldemort, James Bond and Queen Elizabeth.

Blog PhotoNow there’s a sequel begging to be made.

Certain televised sporting events just scream “summer” in our household — Wimbledon, baseball’s All-Star Game, the Tour de France (in the pre-scandal era) and, every four years, the Olympics.

Yes, it’s been overcommercialized. Yes, there are drugs. Yes, the coverage is schmaltzy. I still like it.

My fascination dates back to the first Olympics I remember, Munich in 1972. I have a scrapbook full of clippings about swimmer Mark Spitz’s then-record seven gold medals. I watched Olga Korbut wow the gymnastics crowd, and struggled to understand why terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

The global nature of the competition, good and bad, drew me in. The dominance of the Soviet-bloc athletic machine. The tiny countries that sent only a handful of athletes. The competitors I’d never heard of who suddenly became national heroes.

Then there are the oddball sports we don’t see the rest of the year. Like pole vaulting — how do you start training for that? — or the decathlon, where athletes toil in obscurity for years to master 10 sports.

Still, as commentator Frank Deford noted the other day, more people watch the opening ceremonies than any other event. Sure, there’s the flag-waving crowd, but it’s fun to see how organizers will try to top the last spectacle. Beijing’s ceremony in 2008 was fairly awe-inspiring (various human rights issues notwithstanding), aside from that little problem of the faked fireworks for TV.

A few other weird moments in Olympic history:

—The ’88 Games, where pigeons released early in the ceremony were inadvertently roasted when they landed on the Olympic cauldron.

—The ’94 Lillehammer Winter Games, where I know I wasn’t the only viewer perplexed by the dancing Norse nature spirits.

— In Beijing, where a 9-year-old girl lip-synched “Ode to the Motherland” because the 7-year-old who actually sang had bad teeth.

(Here's a link to some of the oddest moments from London's Opening Ceremony.)

Blog PhotoAnd for those of us who tuned in to the Miss America pageant as kids to critique the costumes (I know you’re out there), there’s a thrilling horror in seeing the uniforms chosen for the 10,000-plus athletes. Case in point: the powder-blue floral sweaters sported by the U.S. team in 1988. This year’s weren’t much better.

The Olympic torch relay still gets to me — not the overhyped moment in the stadium (which doesn’t always go as choreographed), but the sight of a single runner carrying it through the streets of the host country.

My kids have become fans, too, in much the same way they like the World Cup. We pick different countries to root for — I go for the underdogs; my son usually picks the favorite. And while they like to see Americans excel in swimming, track and basketball, they’ll watch nontraditional (for us) sports, too. My son was psyched about the men’s team silver medal in archery.

Jeff Dougan, a Champaign-Urbana teacher and dad, said the Olympics are a chance to watch the best of the best in sports he’s competed in, “so I can appreciate what I’m seeing.”

Blog PhotoTake fencing, for instance, which he started in junior high and continued through graduate school. It takes a “practiced eye” to follow the action, and he likes to see if the judges’ calls match his own.

Dougan’s children, ages 2 and 6, are barely old enough to appreciate the games, but he’s hoping to use the Olympics to introduce his son to some of the sports he enjoys.

“To me, the Olympics are different from everything in sports except for the World Cup of soccer due to both the variety of participants and the (often) higher skill levels for nearly everything,” he says.

The games also bring stories you’d never see in any other venue, Dougan says, like the Malaysian sharpshooter who is 8 months pregnant or the legally blind South Korean who set an archery record.

Champaign-Urbana has rooting interests in the 2012 Games, headlined by swimmer Tyler McGill and discus thrower Gia Lewis-Smallwood Blog Photo(below), a Centennial High/University of Illinois graduate.

McGill’s Central High coach, Will Barker, who also directs competitive swimming at the Champaign County YMCA, has always enjoyed the Olympics, partly because the extra coverage always bumps up interest in swimming. This year, he will be in London to see McGill’s races Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“It’s exciting to watch someone you know and coached in the highest level of competition Blog Photoin the world,” Barker says.

Five other former Illini are competing these two weeks in London: basketball stars Deron Williams (U.S.) and Robert Archibald (Great Britain), hurdlers Andrew Riley (Jamaica) and Nikkita Holder (Canada), and former soccer star Emily Zurrer (Canada). And 10 current or former Illini will compete in the Paralympic Games in late August and early September.

So if your enthusiasm has waned a bit over the years by news of performance-enhancing drugs and revoked medals, anorexic gymnasts and bribery scandals, think of those athletes.

Or marathoner Guor Marial, 28, the only athlete competing for his new country of South Sudan. According to The New York Times, Marial fled the civil war in Sudan and was granted refugee status in the United States, where he competed in track and field at Iowa State University. Eight of his 10 brothers and sisters died in the violence that led to his nation’s secession from Sudan last year.

Do you watch the Olympics with your kids? Tell us about it below!


Julie Wurth is a family columnist/blogger and staff writer covering the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.


Puppets depict chaacters from British literature at the July 27 Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Voldemort, Harry Potter's arch-enemy, was later driven out by a squadron of flying nannies led by Mary Poppins.

Big hats were the thing for Columbia's delegation this year, worn here by Mariana Pajon, who carried the national flag for her country during the Opening Ceremony. Photos by Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Lei Sheng of China, left, and Andrea Baldini of Italy compete during the semifinals of the men's individual foil fencing July 31 at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Tyler McGill celebrates after swimming in the men's 200-meter butterfly final at the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming trials on July 1 in Omaha, Neb.  Mark J. Terrill/AP

Gia Lewis-Smallwood participates in the women's discus finals at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on June 24 in Eugene, Ore. Matt Slocum/AP


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