Tuesday, July 31, 2012

These Olympic Games have been about breaking down barriers and having fun, too

The 2012 London Summer Games are less than a week old. Already, these Olympic Games have been all about host Britain being confidently eccentric, at times quirky, but always putting on a good show.

From the pristine grass tennis courts of Wimbledon to the party-like atmosphere of beach volleyball, played in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade, to the road cycling races buzzing the Mall while taking a quick right at Buckingham Palace, the sights and sounds throughout London have been unabashed and brilliantly British.

After all, a nation that's given us William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, Sir Winston Churchill, the Beatles, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter and the House of Windsor, is definitely a nation secure in its own identity. And, who else but filmmaker Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame could convince Queen Elizabeth that jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond during last Friday's opening ceremonies would be a good career move for her? 

Who even knew the Queen even had a sense of humour?

Undoubtedly, the London Summer Games have been colorful. Lots of Union Jacks, Stella McCartney-inspired fashion and painted faces all about town have made for good visuals on TV and the Internet. Thank goodness, I've found a reliable Internet link to watch the BBC's refreshingly enjoyable coverage that is far less pretentious and glitzy than NBC's here in the U.S.

Just as importantly, the London Summer Games have been about breaking down barriers. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. women's football (soccer) team defeated North Korea 1-0 in the first women's international match played in the 102-year history of Old Trafford, the home of famed Manchester United of the English Premier League.

"It's not every decade," said U.S. player Megan Rapinoe, when asked by a New York Times reporter if she was impressed by the aura of playing at Old Trafford, the so-called "Theater of Dreams."

Talk about your gender bias.

As Olympic and Old Trafford historians met and compared notes, it seemed that the only other women's match believed to have been played at Old Trafford was a 1989 Women's F.A. Cup final between Friends of Fulham FC and Leasowe Pacific, which Leasowe won 3-2 in front of a paltry crowd of 916.

Big Ben / The Games of the XXX Olympiad from London.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford recently observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite alright if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

While I've been riveted to the first-week excitement in the swimming pool, I've also been fascinated by sampling a bit of the action in archery, badminton, fencing and table tennis, too. These aren't exactly household sports with recognizable athletes in America. And, the competitions in these sports have been airing at odd hours of the day and night. Yet, it's been fun to watch, too.

Meanwhile, the London Summer Games have been filled with wonderful, weepy moments and dreams come true. And, it's only the first week.

At the Olympic pool Monday night, Ruta Meilutyte, a 15-year-old from Lithuania, won the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1 minute, 05.47 seconds. It was her country's first Olympic swimming medal. Imagine what this must mean for Meilutyte and for her country, too.  "I can't believe it," said Meilutyte, excitedly, in a poolside interview with the BBC moments after beating an impressive field. 

Michael Phelps / The greatest Olympian of them all.

Tonight, American swimmer Michael Phelps anchored a U.S. victory in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle and, thus, won his 15th gold and 19th overall medal to break the Olympic record for most career medals set 48 years ago by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. The crowd was electrified by this unbelievably spectacular and historic night in the swimming pool. Phelps had become the greatest Olympian of them all.

Aside from cheering for Phelps, among the most emotional of highlights in the first week of the Olympics for me happened during the opening ceremonies. It was the performance of the hymn "Abide With Me" as sung by the Scottish singer Emelie Sandé. She appeared shortly after a moving sequence during which a memorial wall on the stadium screens showed images of spectators' loved ones who had passed away. It was worth a good cry.

The hymn, "Abide With Me" is a prayer for God to remain present with the speaker throughout life, through trials, and through death. Since the 1927 F.A. Cup final between Arsenal and Cardiff City, the first and last verses of the hymn have been traditionally sung at the F.A. Cup final before the kick off of the match. It was awe inspiring.

As a nation, Britain has always excelled at celebrating its past: from its military victories to its monarchies, from its intellectual achievement to its culture. For this fortnight, the BBC commentators are sparing no adjectives. Everything is: amazing, beautiful, charming, dashing, elegant, fabulous, and so on. Boosterish? Maybe, but it's that lovely British accent that puts a delightful spin on everything. And, that's cool by me. 

Yes, these Olympic Games, the world's greatest five-ring sports spectacular, have been absolutely fabulous.  And, it's only the first week.

Michael Phelps photograph courtesy of the Guardian.co.uk.

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