I remember the first Olympic Games I watched. It was 1984 - Los Angeles - Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis. I was 6 years old, and I was instantly hooked. I've watched every Summer Olympics since then, and most Winter Games too.
My thoughts are drawn to the Olympics today due to the death of Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. I owe him my sincerest gratitude. Thanks to his visionary leadership, the Olympic movement grew in size, impact, and financial viability. If the Games hadn't become as big as they did, they probably would not have impacted my life as they have.
Some may argue that commercializing the Games and introducing professional athletes have destroyed the purity of the events, but I disagree. I don't think anything can destroy the purity of the Olympic spirit. No matter what goes on behind the scenes, from corruption scandals to doping issues, the true spirit of the athletes remains the same. It's a spirit of unbridled optimism and unyielding determination, and it never fails to inspire me.
Every two years, I tune in, ready to root for the hometown heroes and chant "U-S-A, U-S-A" until I'm hoarse. And every time, I find inspiration - and education - in unexpected places. I've learned more about the world and its different cultures from the Olympics than I ever learned in school. I've found myself cheering for *gasp* non-Americans when they were the underdogs you couldn't help but love, or when they were clearly the best in the world at their sports and deserved everyone's respect. The Olympic Games give us globalization at its best.
I think most "Olympic junkies" like myself would claim to be inspired by the Olympic spirit in vague, general ways. For me right now, that inspiration has led to real, measurable change in my life. I received my stress fracture diagnosis during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Every other time I've had an exercise program interrupted by an injury, however minor, I've responded by giving up and returning to a sedentary lifestyle. This time, as I sat on the couch feeling sorry for myself, I watched these elite athletes push their bodies to the limits while chasing their loftiest dreams. I paid more attention than usual to the stories of athletes who had overcome serious injuries, not just to compete again, but to compete at the very highest level...and WIN!
Those Olympians passed their unbridled optimism and unyielding determination on to me! Before the Vancouver Games had ended, I'd gotten a pool membership. I would not let this injury slow me down. I would force myself to engage in an activity I didn't enjoy and push myself to improve my skills, and I would not be defeated. And look how far I have come already, thanks to inspiration from a little thing called the Olympic Spirit.
When I was a child, I dreamed of someday winning an Olympic medal. I'm 32 now, and not even an athlete yet, much less an elite one. We all can't be Olympians in reality...but we all can be Olympians in our hearts. Thank you, Juan Antonio Samaranch, for spreading that spirit across the world and into my life. May you rest in peace.