Analysis & Comment

Opinion | ‘All Things Seemed Possible for Humanity’: Why We Watch the Olympics

My 4-year-old buried his head in my hip and let out a short, gaspy shriek. It could have been thrill. It could have been fear. Maybe both? We were watching a video of Simone Biles’s qualifying floor routine at the Tokyo Olympics — the first Games my son will experience.

Though he had trouble expressing exactly what he was feeling as Biles contorted and flipped her body over the floor, he was sure he wanted more. So did I. That rush of concern and compassion, anxiety and desire, aspiration with a touch of allegiance — it’s hard to beat.

The Games are also an opportunity to connect my son to the rest of the world. “Sports are a universal language,” Elvin Padilla Jr., an Opinion reader in Hawaii, wrote. “We should cherish and nurture every opportunity to share and celebrate our common humanity.”

We at Opinion asked Mr. Padilla and other readers why they watched the Olympics and to share some of their most intense memories of the Games. A selection of their responses, edited for clarity and length, follows. They are a reminder that even the smallest among us understands the desire to chase greatness.

The Emotion.

‘I had been on the fence about whether they should have held the Olympics. Then I watched the opening ceremony. I could see the athletes smiling under their masks. With that, I was all in. Again.’ — Russell Rhodes, Tampa, Fla.

I remember, as a little boy, watching Usain Bolt break the 100- and 200-meter world records in Beijing in 2008. I was so excited, my face right up to the TV, feeling like I was running with him. — Yinka Sodipo, England

When Aly Raisman landed her final tumbling pass during the all-around floor exercise at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she started to cry. She knew she’d done enough for a medal. After the heartbreak of losing out on the all-around bronze medal in 2012 because of the tiebreaker rule, it was incredible to see her recognized. — Mary Agnes Joens, Boston

I watched every single race Michael Phelps participated in during the 2008 Beijing Olympics in real time, late into the night. With a chunky TV on top of a cardboard box (we were in the middle of a move), I remember sitting on the floor with my mom and she was banging on the ground during the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. I still get goose bumps and a tear in my eye when I think back on it. — Virginia Flynn, Philadelphia

I watched Shaun White win his third gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe in Pyeongchang in 2018 from the basement of my college dorm. I was all by myself and I definitely cried. I knew I was watching history, witnessing something someone worked for so tirelessly. It’s one of the most incredible feelings. — Molly Milligan, Sacramento

The Inspiration.

‘The Olympics are about stories, the ability to root for an underdog who you will never meet in person, or a grizzled veteran coming back with something to prove.’ — Suzanne Loosen, Wauwatosa, Wis.

I’m obsessed with women’s gymnastics. As a Black woman, I grew up watching and admiring Dominique Dawes. Seeing ​​Gabby Douglas become the first Black all-around champion in London in 2012, and the first American to win a gold medal in both the team and individual all-around events, meant everything to me. — Michelle Desir, Pennsylvania

Billy Mills came from nowhere to win the 10,000-meter race in Tokyo in 1964! I can still hear the announcers losing their minds. — Stephen Mosher, Cortland, N.Y.

My earliest sports memory of any kind is of the 1960 Olympics in Rome. I was 6, in Long Island, New York. My dad called me into his bedroom. He was watching Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia as he ran over the cobblestones of the Appian Way toward the marathon’s finish line at the Arch of Constantine. My dad pointed to the screen and said: “Look at that. He is running barefoot and he is going to win the race.” — Cheryl Stein, Washington, D.C.

Watching Nadia Comaneci compete in Montreal in 1976 stands out in my mind. I grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. She was not much older than me and from Romania, a country I was unfamiliar with, and yet she achieved so much. This was inspirational, not only with regard to athleticism and dedication but also for learning about the world in general. — Michaela Rudner, New York City

Sarah Hughes defied the predictions of most experts for who would win the gold medal at the women’s free skate finals in Salt Lake in 2002. She skated with skill, grace and, above all, joy. Her smile when she got off the rink and her coach exclaiming “Look at what you’ve done!” summed up all the great things about the Olympics, for athletes and audiences. Pure gold at a time when the U.S. was still in a state of shock and mourning, in more ways than one. — Nina Gaspich, Chicago

The “Here comes Diggins!” moment during the women’s cross-country skiing team sprint in Pyeongchang. When Jessie Diggins of the U.S. pulled the hole shot and powered past Maiken Falla of Norway and Stina Nilsson of Sweden, it was so inspiring to me. I’d watched the U.S. women’s Nordic team evolve, and this was a crystallizing moment of all their physical work and support of each other as teammates. Knowing how much went into that one moment inspired me to get to work on my own pursuits. — Tom Dombrosky, New York

The Unity.

‘At this level of play, it’s easy to admire all the competitors. The whole world becomes smaller as we’re all glued to our TV sets, focused on something positive: the triumph of the human spirit, the marvel of the human body, the thrill of speed and strength.’ — Sarah Brody, Spokane, Wash.

At the 1992 Barcelona Games, my wife and I were in the stands when Derartu Tulu, a Black Ethiopian, passed Elana Meyer, a white South African, on the last lap to win the women’s 10,000 meter. It was the first Games in which South African athletes were welcome after the 21-year anti-apartheid ban. In spite of what must have been a humbling loss, Meyer joined hands with Tulu in taking a joyous victory lap. It was an electric moment where, for just that instance, all things seemed possible for humanity. — Wayne Cagle Jr., Kansas City, Mo.

The 1996 Olympics was held in my hometown, Atlanta. I will never forget trading pins with a basketball player from China during a chance encounter at a local fast-food restaurant. Even from the television set, the cultural exchange between nations is palpable. — Alison Morgan, Atlanta

The lyrical beauty of Ludmilla Tourischeva of Russia and the sprightly energy of her teammate Olga Korbut at the 1972 Games in Munich made me, at 10, a gymnast and fan forever. And Russia became something other than the boogeyman that had us doing drills in school where we hid under our desks. — Margaret Goeden, Hong Kong

The Black power salute given by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968 during their 200-meter medal ceremony (Smith won the gold, Carlos bronze) was the only real thing I remembered from watching the Games for decades. — Mike Macartney, California

The Humanity.

‘As a mere mortal, I watch every four years to see athletes attempt to go “faster, higher, stronger.” It’s about personal greatness and finding the limits of human potential. Despite the dysfunction around them, it’s inspiring to watch athletes chase that dream.’ — Catherine Newell, Miami

I’m not usually a flag-waving kind of patriot, but I don my Rapinoe soccer jersey during the Olympics and glue myself to the U.S. women’s soccer matches. I love the athleticism, of course, but I love the humanity that unites the athletes more. — Claudia Crase, Bozeman, Mont.

Seeing Muhammad Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, his body shaking from Parkinson’s disease, was a wake-up call to the world about how dangerous contact sports can be. — Lynn Ochberg, Key Largo, Fla.

It was unbearably hot and humid for the women’s marathon in Athens in 2004. In dramatic and tragic fashion, England’s Paula Radcliffe revved a fast pace but collapsed in tears with four miles to go. The marathon, in all its brutal glory. — Jeanne Hey, Saco, Maine

I remember when Derek Redmond’s hamstring snapped during the 200-meter semifinals in Barcelona. His father fought like hell to get onto the track and help him finish the race and achieve his dream. — Jim Moriarty, Canada

The Challenges.

‘Why do women have to be dehumanized by being required to wear bikini bottoms while playing beach handball, but male competitors can wear shorts? That single requirement sums up how out of touch the International Olympic Committee is with the rest of the world.’ — Paul Brandt, Texas

It’s hard not to be jaded after so many doping scandals that have torn away at the fabric of the sports I care about, and at the Olympics themselves. I still love watching, but in a way it’s more for entertainment and less about investing myself emotionally in the athletes. — Jeremy Borling, La Grange, Ill.

I definitely feel let down every time I hear about all the drawbacks the Games have for the host cities and countries. I grew up outside Atlanta, and was only 2 years old during the 1996 Games, but seeing how the construction of the Olympic Stadium (later known as Turner Field) had such a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods 10 to 20 years later made a profound impact on how I view race, gentrification and poverty. — Alex Brady, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Inexplicably, I feel connected to the athletes I watch, as if my cheering spurs them on across time and space and we share the magic of winning. Watching Kerri Strug land that epic vault on an injured ankle in the team all-around final in Atlanta was transcendent; it was every kind of glory. Now, knowing the kinds of unforgivable abuse these athletes suffered, my gaze seeks not just glory, but justice and equality. — Katy Conley, Wilton Manors, Fla.

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