Some run with long sticks and hurl their bodies over high bars. Others mimic a crunking dolphin for multiple laps of an indoor pool. And still others ride one specific breed of animal that they have taught to dance, while other people judge their moves based partly on whether or not they are from a popular country.
“Because we had an unfinished basement and rhythmic movement puts me into a pleasant trance.” Says a table tennis player from Scotland when asked what led him to become an Olympian. “So it was either that or be a DJ.”
“I was always an early riser,” offers Mike Lawson, swimmer for the U.S. team, answering the same question, “and had unusually large feet. So it was really just a matter of time before I spent a third of my childhood staring at a black line on the bottom of a pool while churning out laps like a broken toy whose batteries refused to run out.”
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, had this touch of obsessive insanity in mind when he originally suggested the motto of the games be Citius, Altius, Fortius, Insanis (Faster, Higher, Stronger, Crazier). Sadly he was overruled, as in the 1890’s not much was known about the psyche, or the joys of poking fun at preternaturally gifted people.
And it was ever thus. As everyone knows, the Olympics started over 2700 years ago as a way to give children with innate physical abilities and no off-switch something to distract them from beheading each other and making obscenely large buildings out of stone (they were running out of both; stones and heads). It’s from the ancient Greeks themselves that we get the word ‘Athlete’, deriving from the root ‘Ath’ (meaning to be good at) and ‘Lete’ (something no one really cares about but keeps you out of trouble).
This spirit lives on in the modern Olympics, with many competitors confessing that their lives, families, and sports are irrevocably intertwined, as is their entire reason for being. As Jacques Bruno, weight-lifter for team Canada, succinctly (and without a trace of a smile) puts it: “I was put here on earth to do one thing really, really well. Clean. And jerk.”