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Swept Up By The Games

POSTED February 24, 2010 11:05 a.m.

They’ve been hard to escape; if you haven’t heard re-caps on the news or found them as you wield the TV remote, chances are you have talked about them at work or with the family over dinner. And there are many stories to tell, as the Winter Olympics in Vancouver play out on the ski slopes, the ice rinks, the skeleton and luge tracks.

Maybe it’s because we get to see them so infrequently, that we’re almost obligated to pay attention. The Winter Olympics only come around every four years … how can you not get caught up in the competition and the stories? They offer an escape during these cold, cloudy and sometimes rainy days of February.

The stories coming out of Vancouver and the neighboring venue of Whistler that make the most compelling drama are the tales of perseverance, of athletes coming back from injury or from ‘falling short’ in the last Winter games. Take, for instance, the pairs figure skating champions, who are married but so wanted another shot at an elusive Gold medal that they came back for one last ‘Games’ appearance, living in dorms and adhering to the rules that kept them apart while training. And while both Hongbo Zhao and wife Xue Shen are in their 30s and supposedly too old for this type of rigorous, demanding competition, they persevered and got the payoff they were working for … a spot in history. Their turn on the highest podium as the Chinese national anthem played and they received their Gold medals just showed that determination, persistence, talent, drive, desire … and practice can mean grabbing that coveted prize.

Maybe you were fascinated by downhill racer Lindsey Vonn of the United States, who fought off injury — yet again — and even though obviously favoring a bruised right shin, came away with a Gold medal-winning time in the downhill, on a course so fast it took your breath away just to watch it, let alone the gasping you did as more than one competitor wiped out midway through.

And as it seems with most Games, there has been controversy and tragedy. The loss of a luge competitor, killed after going up and over the wall on the course during a practice run prompted changes to the course and some added safety measures. But the sport still has its inherent dangers, as do many of those in the Olympics, winter or summer.

Controversy came in the skeleton, with some countries protesting a helmet the eventual Gold medal winner from Great Britain was using, claiming some notches cut in it unfairly improved the aerodynamics. Judges ruled it was legal and her runs were clean and controlled, propelling her to the medal stand.

Athletes willing to push themselves to be their best, to sacrifice for their sport, to give everything they have — and then a little more — make for riveting television and their stories are far better than anything writers can dream up. Nothing against talented television writers, but the palpable drama of waiting to see if American Evan Lysacek’s men’s figure staking score would be enough to hold up for Gold against The Man Who (assumed he) Would Repeat, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, beat out any episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, or whatever county they are featuring this month.

The Olympics are a parallel for life, played out on the most public of stages. You work, you play, you try hard, you fail. You try again, work a little harder, you succeed. And while it’s not really breaking news that precious few of us could strap on a snowboard and complete a ridiculous number of flips, twists and turns by grabbing some big air high above the halfpipe, all of us can likely can still relate to the human desire to win. Who doesn’t want to be considered the best at what they do? Whether it’s in your fifth grade class, in the neighborhood pick up basketball game, or on the job, we all want to succeed. Not only that, we would probably revel if someone actually stopped and took notice and we had a chance to take center stage — or podium — and be recognized for achievements, even if it’s just for ‘Employee of the Month.’

The Olympics have a way of bringing people together, as we gather to cheer on our countrymen and rejoice in their successes, share in their losses. For many, it awakens that feeling of patriotism and there’s probably more than a few of us keeping track of the medal count, feeling some pride when the U.S. is in front.

But maybe the real lesson of the Olympics can be summed up by those that never make it to medal stand.

For every Olympic champion, there are dozens of others in every event that return home empty-handed. No Gold, no Silver, no Bronze. So why go if you don’t win?

Because in life — and the Olympics — anything can happen. You may not win every time. But you will never even have the chance to win if you don’t play the game.

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