The story of the amateur's gradual disappearance from the Olympics is well-trod: In 1913, Jim Thorpe was stripped of medals for playing professional baseball; in 1971, the word "amateur" vanished from the Olympic charter; in 1992, the Dream Team won gold; etcetcsponsorshipsetc. But de Coubertin's vision is not entirely dead. As long as Tim Daggett has to not only re-explain but also color code the gymnastics scoring system, there will still be amateurs at the Olympics. Surprise: It's us. There may not be purely amateur hurdlers, but we are decidedly amateur fans of hurdling. No wonder Bob Costas sounds so withering.
It works though because we're all operating from the same disadvantage, Mr. Costas excluded. There is no entrance fee of knowledge and no stigma attached to ignorance. And thank God, right? The whole point of the Olympics as a viewer is that you can just care without any justification. You can reach the hurts-so-good ecstasy of a true die-hard fan in mere days, no seasons and off-seasons of agony, no memorization of stats required.
In terms of general feel, March Madness must be the Olympics' closest analogue. It reaches a similar fever pitch of emotion and also welcomes the uninitiated. There's a lot of crying. But here's the crucial difference: People you encounter in your everyday life actually know something about college basketball. It is unremarkable if your friend went to Syracuse. It would be incredible if your friend went to Camp Karolyi. And we treat the NCAA tournament accordingly. CBS Sports presupposes, for starters, that you have heard of basketball. It presupposes that you know what a college is. It presupposes that you know what a ball is. NBC Olympics coverage presupposes that you might not be familiar with water.
When I wept hard and instantly upon the conclusion of the women's synchronized 3m springboard diving event, it wasn't because I had some deep appreciation of the sport. I hardly understood it. Prior to turning on that night's coverage, 36 million other Americans for sure didn't understand it, but I assume that I wasn't the only one to choke up.
Behaviors that would be insufferable in any other viewing scenario are suddenly acceptable. The next time you watch a baseball game, parrot back verbatim what Tim McCarver said and you'll look like an idiot. Try it at the next outing of the men's handball team and you'll look like a sage. You know why? Because no one knows anything about handball. Until yesterday, I thought it was kind of like squash without a racquet. This is not correct. Your "favorite" in table tennis is eliminated? Fine. You are not a Yankees fan ill with emotion during the 2004 World Series. You now are now Ai Fukuhara's biggest supporter. You swam JV for one season? Congratulations you are now your office's resident expert.
Picture for a moment if every NFL game began like an Olympic event, with commentators explaining that the field is 100 yards long before going on to tell you Tom Brady is widely considered to be very good. That is what, I imagine, it is like for Kerri Strug to watch network coverage of Olympic gymnastics.
It is, of course, the most embarrassing kind of ironic that we are all bandwagoning-glory-supporting-johnny-come-latelies to men and women that devote their lives and make sacrifices beyond our imagining for an event we won't remember let alone comprehend. I'm reminded that in 1996, I went as Kerri Strug for Halloween and no one guessed my costume. But I am sure that in all those houses, just months earlier, they had all been watching. I am sure that many of them cried. And I am sure that this week, they all watched the Fab Five win gold. And that they will forget all about it once Usain Bolt's on their screens. And that they will then throw him over because "their girl" won javelin.
But I think that's fine. We have other, deeper commitments to baseball, to football, perhaps to soccer that supersede our brief but dazzling devotion to the Olympics. That's the point of being an amateur. Enjoy badminton.