When the Olympics begin, I notice that suddenly the parks are fuller, the gyms are packed and all of us seem more inspired to work out. I have a couple of theories as to why this happens.
Theory Number 1: What I like to call The Biggest Loser Effect.
This is when you think, "I can't do that (lose like 400 pounds), but I can do something -- skip dessert or late-night ice cream binges." Drop a little weight? That seems totally doable when you follow folks who start out morbidly obese bravely and publically shrink to slender hottie status before your very eyes.
The same is true when watching Olympic athletes. They're extraordinary in every way: physique, training, mental strength, fortitude, dedication. And let's not forget their parents: the mom willing to put everything on hold to drive young Michael to the pool and sit there for hours. It is literally a lifetime commitment by all involved -- athlete and loved ones. We watch them jump high, run fast, tumble and spin in the air and land on a 4-inch-wide beam, or soar into the air and then alight and hold on to bendy blond wooden parallel bars. And as we sit in front of the TV, we think, "Hey! I can at least run for 20 minutes or jump into the pool and swim a few laps!" Or maybe even -- God love us all -- run a race!
This loser effect is like a halo of transference. These amazingly beautiful athletes look like heroes. As I watch, I too think I can be less of a zero if I just got off the couch.
Which brings me to Theory Number 2: The Delusional Narcissistic Faux-Athlete Syndrome.
This is a national epidemic. It's happening all the time, not just during the Olympics, although it's heightened during the Games. Most often, we see signs of this faux-athlete syndrome during playoffs, when guys, especially, watch (often in a sports bar, often buzzed or drunk) and think, "I could be like Derek Jeter!"
It usually involves reminiscing about their own glory years as a high school shortstop, or Pee Wee QB or game-winning star who eventually, tragically, inexplicably got injured, missed being recruited by the majors by thismuch and are now stuck on a bar stool commentating, watching today's superstars with a wistful notion that "I coulda been a contender!"
For women, it plays out most often in the judged sports like gymnastics (or, in winter, ice-skating), where the athletes are often young and sparkly -- literally the girl we used to be. Former riders watch equestrian, rowers (yes, that includes me) make those in the room suffer through crew races, and runners absorb every inch, heat and moment of track and field. We sit, watch and think, "That could have been me."
On to Theory Number 3: Athletes Are Rock Stars.
Proof: My teenage daughter swoons at the sight of Michael Phelps in a Speedo. Men and women alike ogle the sexy shots of female swimmers, from Natalie Coughlin in a shimmery gold suit for Men's Vogue (during the last summer Olympiad) to Amanda Beard posing in Playboy in 2007. I say, "Go for it, girls!" Why not let anyone who's not shy show off a sexy, sporty, strong body made by nature -- with a big assist from training and healthy eating?! You're only young once, and this is a healthier body type for my daughter and her friends to emulate than one built in a plastic surgeon's office or, worse, by starving or doing no activity at all and smoking as an appetite suppressant and food alternative. Got it? Flaunt it. We can all admire a sporty, sexy body even if we will never actually recognize such muscles on ourselves.
For those who say we objectify women by appreciating their beautiful bodies, I say, Equal opportunity gawking is allowed at the Olympics. We can all "ooh" and "ah" over the gorgeous bodies of divers and soccer players and swimmers and sprinters and cyclists of both sexes and find them motivating. Body beauty inspires me and always has.
At 16, as a varsity rower at my beloved boarding school, I ripped out beautiful female athlete photos from magazines and put them on my wall as a reminder of what the body can look like, built by sport and active living. (I didn't know that one day I would create these images to inspire other women.) After this decorating exercise, my dorm mistress came into my room, pointed to the pictures and asked me if I was gay. I explained that no, I didn't happen to be. I was simply an athlete, inspired by other athletes. She shook her head and walked out. I decided then and there that it didn't matter what others thought. Watching athletic women has always motivated me to be more athletic myself -- they are rock stars to me.
Theory Number 4: Close, But No Cigar.
True athletes know how impossible it is for any mere mortal to do godlike things. Many young athletes get to the level just below great, though they still try to push through to greatest. I struck up a conversation on a plane with a young swimmer not long ago, who said he was a short-distance competitor like Phelps. "How fast do you do the 100 free?" I asked him. "About three seconds slower than Phelps," he answered. Three? That's good right? "No," he explained. You could fit hundreds of people in that three-second gap -- it gets harder and harder every 100th of a second you get closer to the fastest times. Shaving off those last three seconds would be a life's work, and you still may never do it! The world is full of Olympic hopefuls who watch the Games and appreciate that despite years of hard work and dedication, there's no guarantee of making it. Still you can live a healthy life and even go on to be a master athlete. There are many accomplished marathoners and swimmers and cyclists who regularly win their age groups at elite events around the country well into their retirement years!
I have known and admired Dara Torres all her adult life, and although she didn't make the team this year, at 45 she was among the oldest (there's an equestrian in her 50s) still testing herself against the teenagers. That gives me the extra shot of inspiration I need to wake up and join an amateur team of younger triathletes in the morning for training and try not only to hang on to the back of the pace line, but occasionally do well enough to make them run or swim or bike a little faster, not wanting to be beaten by old-enough-to-be-your-mother me! And I'll keep challenging myself even as I get older and slower because, really, trying to be my personal best is the goal.
So when you watch the Olympics in the next 14 days and feel inspired, think about what it is that moves you. Then realize this: It doesn't really matter. Just get moving!