Susan Baller-Shepard: Sanctity of Sport: Tuning In


Funny, I'm glad I'm not in Sochi. I've been in places with bad plumbing and flooding, none for me, thanks. What I do love is the drama that unfolds, not in the geopolitical events surrounding the Olympics as much as in the actual sports themselves.

For instance, watching the men's skiathlon. As a skier, I know how much your arms and quads can burn on catwalks, how hard it is to pole along at altitude. Your lungs feel like they'll burst, but they don't, they suck in more air, and then more air, and you know with everything in you that you're alive and breathing and your body is working well. It's glorious. It's exhilarating. It's heavenly.

Olympic athletes make it all look easy. How strong do they have to be to maintain balance as they are flying through the air, racing, jumping? For the different ski events, how do the skiers not cross their ski tips, get hung up, how do they land like they do?

To strap on skis is an insane idea, because if you've ever had a "yard sale," a spill where you lose all your gear on the mountain as you fall down it, you know things can go south quickly, you know you can get hurt, you know physics will not always be on your side.

A case in point: Freestyle skier Heidi Kloser of the U.S. eats up moguls with her legs like they're dessert; they're cake, one after another after another. Should you doubt this, ski a good mogul run and report back on how easy it is. Tell me how you can get your knees to do what Kloser's knees do. To consider how freestyle skiers swallow moguls is to ask, what does it take? Natural ability? Power, strength, skill, nerve? Yes. To watch athletes who have given up so much to pursue their sports, who have been disciplined and changed their lives around to be there, in Sochi, is thrilling to watch, and I have to remind myself that even the ones at the back of the pack, the bottom of heats, the stragglers, are outstanding in their field. Outstanding.

Unfortunately Kloser injured her right leg during a training run in Russia, so she won't be able to compete in the games. It has to be heartbreaking to be this close, this near the competition, but not in it.

I have friends who excelled in their various sports. I wasn't one of them. In fact, at our high school reunion, my closest friends forgot I was on the tennis team with them one season. I did other sports more often, so tennis was a trial run for me.

Late into the evening at our reunion, one guy from our class, mentioned, "Oh yeah! I remember you on the tennis team! You were really awful." I felt strangely vindicated.

I was lucky. Because I didn't excel at any one sport, I played a lot of sports growing up, and I loved it. I never had pressure to excel at any one thing. I loved the camaraderie, hanging out with friends, the fun of competing, the physicality of sport. I still do.

I'm not a good spectator -- I want to be doing the sport. After watching the men's skiathon, I promptly got up, and drove to a pool to swim laps. Thinking of the Olympians lungs as they were skiing along, engaging their bodies in really hard work, made me want to do the same, make my lungs ache for air. The Hebrew word for spirit is "ruah," or breath, the Greek word is "pneuma;" that desire for air is so closely tied to spirit it's often the same word. If you're fully engaged in a sport, you work to catch your breath.

Sports metaphors abound in daily life, and, with the Olympics taking place, listen for them. Sports metaphors aren't new. From the Christian tradition, the apostle Paul wrote, "let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us."

This winter, as much of the northern hemisphere braces itself against extreme weather, many of us will be tuning in to see the Olympics.

With all the craziness that is the Olympics in Sochi, I hope the Olympic sports do what they do so well: inspire.

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