Lee: The Olympics, set on pause

DANA LEE | STAFF REPORTER | delee1@butler.edu

Watch for the moments of pause in every Olympic game.

The silence that settles on air after the broadcaster speaks. The still in the arena before a buzzer accelerates a line of swimmers from their blocks. The second hand of a clock making its way around the circumference before music sets a gymnast on her routine. The hush falling from the crowd before the national anthem rings out over the podium of medal winners.

I watch for the moments of pausea high jumper preparing to spring up and over the pole, my sense of awe growing as his body rises, twisting and contorting midair.

In the moments of pause, I allow myself to get struck by how athletically inadequate I feel watching the Olympics.

Simone Biles routinely manipulates the laws of physics, the effects of gravity seemingly non-existent on her 4-foot-9-inch frame. The 19-year-old has captivated the nation. She has a flip named after her. We twist our heads in attempt to follow the turns and arcs of her flips across the floor, on a beam or over a vault.

In comparison, the athletic career that spanned for most of my life seems to fall short, a realization no less painful than the bruises an athlete sustains after stumbling across the last hurdle.

Most college students can say the same of their athletic abilities. High school medals hang on bedroom walls at home, but it’s hard to identify anything tangible outside of the memories. We were the football players under the Friday night lights or the cheerleaders launched into the air. But Biles was on a different track.

“I was missing out on public school and going to the football games, prom or homecomings,” Biles told ABC News. “But I’ve been to three World Championships … so, I think it’s like a win-win.”

While our chance to compete in Rio has certainly passed, the prospect of our body suddenly gaining an elite level of talent in an Olympic sport is slim.

Instead, we fill the sidelines, contributing to viewership ratings and adding popular Olympic hashtags to our tweets.

We watch Katie Ledecky break her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle. We watch the 19-year-old accept the gold medal and silently wonder if she keeps her high school medals in her bedroom at home, where they collect dust the way ours have.

Do the Olympic medals come to college with her as dorm room decor? Gold paper weights? A set of silver table coasters? Deep down, we want to know if Ledecky is just like any other 19-year-old.

Butler swimmer Rachel Burke described watching the Olympics as Christmas morning. A swimmer like Ledecky only adds to the excitement.

“She’s a machine,” Burke said. “Even as a swimmer, I wonder how she does what she does.”

In wondering how she dominated field of world class competitors before turning 20, it’s easy to put into question what we have been doing with our lives and the value of our own athletic pursuits if not for a gold medal.

Recently someone asked me, “Did you watch the Olympic marathon?”

To be honest, the only marathon I watched was my summer marathon of the television show “Friends.” In the time Kenyan gold medalist Jemima Jelagat Sumgong ran 26.2 miles, I could watch six episodes of Friends.

If I really want to get into the Olympic spirit, I might throw “Seinfeld” into the mix and watch the episode where Jerry races down an alley against his old high school rival, the scene unfolding into a rough imitation of a 100-meter sprint down the track.

To say watching Jerry Seinfeld run is the same as watching Ashton Eaton compete in the decathlon is a stretch at best, and a generous one at that.

Intertwined with every Olympian’s practiced motion is evidence of the athlete defying the limits of human anatomy. That, above all else, is what separates us from them: our high school medals from Ledecky’s golds.

Every four years, we get to watch Olympians test the limits of the human body, asking their bodies to perform at a level we cannot reach. Despite what science says about all bodies being structurally similar, they are proof that someone who is 19-years-old can break her own world record. That someone can perfect all ten events of a decathalon.

In 2010, Eaton set the world record after winning the NCAA indoor heptathlon by scoring 6499 points.

The beauty is the pursuit of the limit, not the limit itself,”  Eaton told Runner’s World of his world record. “At least that’s what I hope people realize.”

Every four years, we come to that realization. We watch for the moments of pause where feelings of our athletic inadequacies begin to settle in. In that moment, we are able to appreciate the pursuit of human limits. In that appreciation, we learn not to reject where we fall short, but to embrace where the athlete has excelled.

There are moments of pause in every game. The longest pause is time spent waiting for the next Olympics. We might spend the next four years studying, graduating or starting a new career.

We spend the next four years in motion. But somewhere on the outskirts of our lives, an athlete will be pushing everything else aside to train. The rest of her life is on pause until her Olympics come.

And when they do, her life will set to play. And when everything in her life starts in motion, we will pause and watch.