Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 12, 2010

Guest Opinion: Winter Games in Vancouver will be spectacular

by John Naber

Before every Olympic Games people predict disaster. They say Olympic tickets will be unavailable, accommodations will be grossly unaffordable, transportation will be so challenging that athletes and visitors may not make it to their events on time.

I like hearing those comments, because such "gloom and doom" predictions make it much easier for the rest of us to find what we need.

As the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver get underway, I will be traveling to Seattle to pick up an Olympic teammate (Wendy Boglioli) and her husband, and the three of us will join thousands of visitors in search of a great time.

Just last week I found affordable, convenient housing on Craigslist. When the expected crowds do not appear, ticket brokers will be trying to "offload" their extra seats at bargain prices. Friendly locals will open doors and share surplus opportunities with the visitors, all in the name of international harmony. I expect that opportunities for fun in the snow cannot be far behind.

It's been 34 years since I represented the United States, Woodside High School and Menlo Park's Ladera Oaks Aquatic Club at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. As wonderful as that experience was, I doubt that I could have imagined how much grander the Olympic Games would become since those days.

I am no longer a competitive athlete, but I still consider myself an ardent Olympics fan. That's one of the reasons I made my travel plans to attend the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver, and it is also one of the reasons I have been invited to send back my thoughts and reports in the form of an online "blog" on my impressions of what takes place in Canada this month to the Weekly's community website: www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

My love affair with the Olympic Games began long before I started competitive swimming. On a Mediterranean cruise in 1966 my family visited Olympia, Greece, to learn about the Ancient Olympic Games.

The tour guide told us about the tunnel entry to the stadium, which was in reality a "Hall of Shame" filled with statues carved in the likeness of athletes who were caught cheating. The cost of the statue was billed to the athlete's home town. The threat of such shame and disgrace surely reduced much of the temptation to cheat. At age 10 I fell in love with the concept of a sporting program where ethics and character were as important as victory — long before I discovered my talents in the swimming pool.

To this day, each Olympic Games Opening Ceremony includes an "Athlete's Oath" to sportsmanship and fair play. I'd like to see such an oath delivered by the competitors before the start of the Super Bowl and the World Series.

In my experience, Olympians prize healthy competition and personal progress above victory at all costs. The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" translates to "Swifter, Higher, Stronger," not "Swiftest, Highest, Strongest."

I believe the goal of the Olympic Games is to encourage the devoted, not just to honor the excellent.

Whenever I watch mainstream professional sports with their multi-millionaire, 7-foot-tall centers and 380-pound linemen, I am impressed by the competitors' athleticism, but I find it hard to relate to them as individuals.

When I watch Olympic competition, I see ordinary-shaped young men and women who, with little more than help from their moms and dads, have found a way to be the finest performers on the planet in their chosen fields.

Olympic Champions are not extraordinary people. They are ordinary people who have found a way to achieve extraordinary results in the area of life that matters most to them.

In the next few weeks, America's finest athletes will make their way to Vancouver and nearbyski resorts to prove themselves to be the best in the world at something. Just the thought of that accomplishment fills me with anticipation, because I may very well see someone do something that has never been done before.

The "Flying Tomato" Shawn White has prepared a special trick for us. Apolo Anton Ono will try to earn more Olympic Winter Games medals than any American in history. Lindsey Vonn is so good on skis that people are already referring to these Games as the "Vonn-couver Olympics."

Another Lindsey (Jacobellis) has been establishing her dominance in the snowboard-cross event where she earned a silver medal last time. The prior two times Canada has hosted the Olympic Games (in 1976 and 1988) athletes from the host country were unable to win a single gold medal. I look forward to the celebrations when that string gets broken, as much as I fear the local sadness if Canada does not with the men's hockey tournament. The needle of human drama is off the scale.

I also appreciate how everyone is always so well behaved. Most sporting events feature two teams and two separate groups of fans, where half the spectators go home disappointed, and jeers are as likely heard as cheers.

The Olympic Games are different because many visitors come to watch the event, and they don't really care who wins. They just want to witness excellence. The applause for the winner is almost universal and always genuine.

And if a fellow countryman or woman wins gold, the entire nation rejoices. Since my Olympic success in Montreal, I cannot hear the Star Spangled Banner without being reminded of the pride and patriotism I felt on that day. If an American is fortunate enough to earn gold while I am in attendance, I know that they'll be playing "my song" before the end of the day.

At the 1976 Olympic Games, in Montreal, John Naber (Woodside High, 1973) won four gold and one silver medals in swimming. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Bay Area Sports Halls of Fame, and was twice elected president of the U.S. Olympians (America's Olympic Alumni Association). His book, "Awaken the Olympian Within," is available at www.JohnNaber.com. He will be filing regular blog reports from Vancouver on www.PaloAltoOnline.com. He can be e-mailed at John@JohnNaber.com.

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