Ever since my husband and I got rained in at my uncle Bob’s lakehouse in Oklahoma, we’ve become Olympic nuts. We sat around for three days, listening to the drum of water on the roof, watching athletes and eating and drinking and taking naps. It helped make up for the very nasty surprise of my uncle’s taking us to a corner of a restaurant the first night we were there and showing us a photo of him with Satan — I mean, Dick Cheney. I didn’t really start screaming dementedly, as my uncle would claim later, but it did ruin my meal to look at that photographic vision of pure evil. And my uncle is such a nice person! If I were religious, I’d be praying for his eternal soul and hoping he sticks to his principles and votes for Obama in November, even if it does embarrass him since he’s a Republican and all that. Republicans these days should be inured to embarrassment, as I pointed out frequently.
But, anyway. The Olympics. I’ve been hooked since Jason Lezak powered the U.S. into first place in the 400-meter freestyle relay and my uncle, aunt and I were jumping up and down and screaming like maniacs (my husband managed to sleep through the race and our screams. Jet lag, he claimed later. He’s now seen the final laps of the relay over and over since then, but I keep telling him it’s not the same as being there the way we were.)
Since then, we’ve concentrated on Michael Phelps and all the gymnasts and anybody from Texas and anybody with a great sob story. The Olympics are full of sob stories and I love every one of them. Like Lolo, the hurdler who got disqualified last night and lay on the track sobbing. It wasn’t fair, I kept thinking. Here, Lolo’s family had moved around for years and she’d finally stayed in high school living with foster families so she could get a track scholarship to college. And now — this. Failure, ignominy, tears. Dying is easy, comedy is hard and the Olympics are ruthless. I also keep wondering about the Chinese athletes whose families have gotten houses because of their athletic expertise; when the athletes bomb in Olympic competition, do their families get a handshake and a bus ticket out of town? Or are they just summarily executed?
Watching the gymnastics events — especially the balance beams — is hell. My husband and I tense up and contort our faces and groan when anybody falls. I’m still upset about Alicia Sacramone’s falling and failing to medal, since I’d read she was a very nice person and kind of a mother hen to the rest of the younger gymnasts. But they don’t give medals for mother-henning, as far as I can tell. Figures. We also talk about Shawn Johnson and Nastya Liukin as if we know them after all these hours of rooting for them. “I think Shawn and Nastya both have the temperament for the Olympics,” I told my husband. He nodded gravely.
I love Michael Phelps because he finally upset Mark Spitz, who always seemed like a self-centered prick, if you want to know my honest opinion. I know Michael has a great work ethic and great abs and eight gold medals now, but what I really love about him is that he is so nice to his mother. I watched him interviewed with her and listened while he raved about what a great school principal she is and what a wonderful mother she’d been.
“Did you see that?” I asked my 22-year-old son, who was lying on the next couch. “Did you hear all those great things Michael was saying about his mother?”
“Yeah,” my son said, looking bored, texting, rolling his eyes.
But maybe, just maybe, he was getting my subliminal message about the Olympics and life: Great things happen to sons who are good to their mothers.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)