Emotion Ties All Olympic Athletes, Viewers Together

When the opening ceremonies of the Olympics got underway on Friday night, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming amount of anticipation for the days to follow. As an invested sports fan and writer, there’s nothing better than having something to watch, non-stop, for 17 straight days.

Like most proud Americans, I enjoy watching the events in which the United States is favored – swimming, women’s gymnastics, and men’s basketball to name a few – but in the end, I want to watch everything.  Because regardless of their popularity, every Olympic athlete deserves our attention.

It’s been only four days since the massive Olympic cauldron was lit in London and I’ve already watched handball, basketball, swimming, archery, diving, table tennis, equestrian, shooting, fencing, water polo, badminton, volleyball, beach volleyball, boxing, soccer, gymnastics, rowing, tennis, weight lifting and who could forget, white-water canoeing slalom.

Outside of Olympic competition, I routinely watch three of the above-mentioned sports (basketball, boxing and tennis). But that’s one reason I love the Games so much. It’s not only the coverage of popular and mainstream sports, it’s also the display of the obscure athletes that shine on a world-wide stage only once every four years. Little known athletes and world-wide superstars share common ground here.

The Olympics is the great equalizer.

As much as I enjoy watching familiar faces at the Games, I take equal satisfaction in watching the performances of the unrecognizable athletes who may never again have a chance to be in the lime light. These are the skeet shooters, table tennis players and kayakers who train every day of their lives for one moment in the sun, to represent their country and show the world that just because you never heard of them doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

From a monetary standpoint, it’s clear that one sport doesn’t mean more than another in the Olympics. The worth of a 2012 Olympic gold medal for the 10 meter air pistol event is equal to the worth of a men’s basketball gold medal – about $644. And using the United States Olympic Committee medal bonuses as an example, the amounts of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze applies to the full gamut of U.S. athletes, regardless of sport.

But more importantly, all Olympic athletes share the pride of representing their country and the backing of their country’s citizens. And when it comes to emotion, the Games provide a level ground from which athletes of all sports fall or ascend from.

When U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber fell just short of qualifying for the individual all-around final on Sunday, you could see and feel her devastation. She said “it was a little bit of a disappointment” but the hollow longing in her eyes was palpable. It was more than slight disappointment.

It was agony.

This was the event that she was supposed to own. She knew it and the rest of the world did, too. Weiber was the reigning all-around champion and was heavily favored to win the event, but a wobble on the balance beam and a slight step out of bounds during the floor event dropped her to third place behind fellow Americans Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Because a rule states only two members of a country’s team can move onto the final 24, Weiber could not advance. As the U.S. team exited the arena and started doing interviews, Douglas beamed her trademark smile from ear to ear. Raisman cried tears of joy. Wieber wept to the contrary.

It made for terrific television from both an entertainment standpoint and that of identifiable human emotion. It felt very human to experience the conflict the team was going through. Sure, the American group was pleased that two of its members made the final, but at the same time, the team shared the emotional burden of Wieber’s uncanny shortfall.

I found myself identifying just as much with the emotions of German fencer Britta Heidemann when she lost the gold medal in overtime of the women’s individual epee event on Monday. Although this event received next to no press attention, Heidemann was the defending Olympic champion in the event, winning gold in Beijing in 2008, and that made her one of the favorites to bring home the gold again from London.

Admittedly, I know very little about fencing and even less about the specific Olympic events within it. But I didn’t need to know anything about the sport to realize how much it hurt Heidemann to lose gold in OT.

After coming from behind to force a sudden death stage, it seemed like Heidemann held the momentum advantage. But as she aggressively advanced and struck toward her foe, it wasn’t her weapon that touched first. Green lights lit up on the stage, a visible sign of her demise.

After exchanging gracious kisses on the cheek with her opponent Yana Shemyakina of the Ukraine, Heidemann quickly paced into the shadows of the arena, away from the searching cameras. There wasn’t much time to examine the expression on her face, but a split second was all it took to recognize her despondency.

Britta Heidemann moments after her gold medal defeat. (Screenshot from NBC)

In contrast, Shemyakina tore her mask off in celebration after landing the winning blow. A deep and joyful embrace of her coach was followed by her acknowledgment of the roaring crowd, while she wrapped herself in the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

Heidemann displayed a smile during the award ceremony; after all, she earned a silver medal for her efforts. But you have to think that it was something of a mask, covering up the disappointment of being within one strike of winning back-to-back golds.

That’s what made it fascinating. How did she really feel after losing the gold, but still achieving silver? Were her emotions of disappointment greater than those of achievement, despite the grin?


The human element made it great, not the pure sporting perspective.

It is these moments of indescribable joy and unthinkable disappointment that make the Olympics so captivating. Whether they are the most famous athletes in the world or the least known competitors of little-talked about sports, they encapsulate the raw emotion that anyone can appreciate.

Ultimately, what links the big-time Olympic athletes, no-name Olympic athletes and average people watching on television is pride in our respective countries and the emotion generated by the drive to win Olympic hardware.

Because when our Olympians – recognizable or not – win medals, so do we.

About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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