THE Olympics, I've decided, divide us into the proverbial two types of people.
First, there are those of us who rearrange our lives and forgo sleep to witness the perfect dive, the fastest lap, or the wildest finish as the clock winds down. We're the ones who defy the laws of VCRs and tape delays - we live for the critical moment, not the replay, and we put all else on hold for the duration of the Games.
Then there are the others who could willingly schedule a two-week rafting trip, sans TV, sans wire service, sans everything, right smack in the middle of the games - the ones who could miss it all without remorse, and who could happily watch the highlights later on, if ever.
Long ago I realized that those other people simply measure their lives by other milestones. Sure, we share the obvious instants, frozen in time: where we were when we heard that a US president had died, or been shot, or resigned, when one war or another began or ended, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, or the Challenger burst into flames. But there our common references end.
Yet, I wonder, can there truly be people out there who don't remember Olga's first backflip, back before we even knew her name, or Franz Klammer's fabled downhill run, arms and legs flailing? Can people actually recount their summers without seeing Florence Griffith Joyner's flashing smile and fluorescent fingernails, or Bob Beamon, crouched low to the ground and gyrating in disbelief, moments after setting a long-jump record that would last a generation?
Do people really remember back to wherever they were in the winter of 1980 and not see a hockey team in red, white, and blue, and not hear Al Michaels counting down, five seconds to the gold medal, three seconds, do you believe in miracles?
For me, the miracles began in 1968. I was a junior ski racer, and Jean-Claude Killy was my idol. Even back then, before the days of big endorsements, my life was filled with hero as adjective. First, there was the Killy stripe down the side of my stretch pants. Then came the Killy kick out of the starting gate - a maneuver I practiced endlessly with my ski-team buddies, in hopes of gaining precious tenths of seconds before tripping the time wand. We even duct-taped wooden paint stirrers together to stick
in the backs of our ski boots for added support so we could achieve the patented Killy jet turn.
Two golds won in the downhill and giant slalom events for our hero, the slalom left to go for a rare alpine sweep - this is my first and most vivid Olympic memory. And, in just the way that I can only suppose political junkies think back to the presidential election of 1960 and debate a precinct here, an electoral vote there, and marvel at what might have been, I and my 1968 ski-racer ratpack still debate the incident in the fog at Grenoble during Karl Schranz's run against Killy. Did Schranz really miss
those gates? Did he deserve the additional run that officials granted him? Did Killy come by his third gold medal honestly? What could the gatekeeper really see that day? What did you see?
To this day, I know I've found a comrade when I get off some chairlift in a swirl of snow and clouds, visibility zero, and hear someone say, "Where the heck are we, Grenoble?"
Winter memories of Olympics past were nearly always legitimized by the cold and the dark - we might have been off carving turns in the snow around bamboo poles by day, but our evenings were devoted to the best seat on the sofa, the biggest bowl of popcorn, and the schedule of events at hand. There was even the winter that I injured my knee (speeding across a finish line in a moment of imaginary Olympic defeat) and found myself plopped in front of the TV for two weeks straight, from opening to closing cer emonies. I didn't even miss a compulsory figure that year.
But if the Winter Games were fair for extended viewing between hot chocolates, summer Games were taken in more furtively. "A nice day like this, you should be outside!" seemed always to be the grown-up refrain when we were caught watching the 100-meter butterfly heats or the single scull finals.
My mother's interest ran to pretty sports, things that had music and were judged, rather than the stopwatch and yardstick events we kids favored. But after the day that I saw her cry when Frank Shorter entered the Olympic stadium to what should have been blissful glory, but which was instead full of confusion and despair at the sight of a runner ahead of him on the track, an impostor who had not run the 26 miles of Munich's streets and who was stealing that exquisite moment from the winner, and from us -
then I knew where my obsession came from, and I knew that she really didn't mind.
It's about to begin again. The papers have been touting local talent that have made it. The schedule of events is posted on my refrigerator, and my calendar is free of night and weekend obligations for the next couple of weeks. Names unfamiliar today will be the Olgas of my morning conversations next week, and their feats will be new landmarks in my once-every-four-year ticker.
Go ahead, go on safari, if you must. I'm ready. Sound the trumpet fanfare, light the torch, let the Games begin!