Feb 26, 2010

Being American with Olympic Humanity

The Olympics happens once every four years…well actually, once every two years because summer and winter alternate…but you know what I mean. Even if you’re not an avid watcher you cannot escape the headlines in the newspapers, the clips that pop up on the Internet or the TV in the restaurant and bar that is broadcasting the event. It draws you in and who can resist watching history in the making?

What I think is interesting about the Olympics is that it is one of the few events where people identify and are proud to be American.

As people, we tend to get caught-up in rooting for our favorite sports teams, colleges or universities, cities, even political parties. There are endless groups that we choose to associate ourselves with. Being “a part of” provides a sense of belonging to a certain category.

When I lived in DC, I mockingly wore my hunter green jersey on Sunday’s in the Fall, during a Redskins game and proudly proclaimed, “I’m from Philly, I’m an Eagles Fan.” I was rooting for the birds no matter how well they did, and even if I was the only one cheering for them. That’s what makes me “a part of” Eagles-Mania.

But it also separated me from the other NFL team fans. By picking “my” team, I was now against the other teams. Identifying with one, forces you to compete in some way with the others.

  • Political Parties: Republicans vs. Democrats
  • Cities: New York vs. DC
  • Sections of the Country: East Coast vs. West Coast
  • Universities/Colleges: Villanova University vs. Saint Joseph’s University
  • Sports Teams: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburg Penguins

The list could go on and on, which just goes to show you…. somewhere along the line we have skewed supporting something into an “US vs. THEM” mentality. An allegiance to one thing has created an opposition to everything else. If you’re one, then you most certainly CANNOT be the other.

For me, it wasn’t until I studied abroad that I ever thought of myself as an “American.” Usually when people ask ,“what’s your heritage?” I respond, “Irish, German and Italian.” Those are my roots, that is where my family is from, that, is my heritage. However, when I studied abroad and someone asked me… I hesitated. I felt funny saying I was Italian while I stood on Italian soil, suddenly I felt like I wasn’t a “Real Italian.”

“I’m from Philadelphia.” I said.

The Italian responded, “Ahhh fil-a-del-fia, American, yes?”

“Yes” I responded.

And that was it. That’s all it took for me to finally FEEL American. My roots may have started in Western Europe, but I am American. Born and raised in the United States, it took 19 years and another continent for me to realize this.

So, yes, I think it is a rare occasion, worth recognizing, when a Yankee’s Fan and a Red Socks Fan can sit in the same bar and root for the same team… Team USA. The camaraderie of being American is something that is lacking and usually only during great loss (like 9/11) or war, brings out that kind of patriotism. So, it’s refreshing to see people walk a little taller and feel a little more patriotic, “finally, on the same team,” while watching the Olympics.

But “Proud to be American” isn’t the only new perspective that the Olympics brings. It also is a tangible example of humility, dedication, honor and passion. I witnessed that first hand when I turned the TV on to catch the end of the Women’s Figure Skating. The TV was recapping the life of some of the skaters before they would compete.

I heard the commentator talking about Canadian figure skater, Joannie Rochette. Normally, I would ignore these re-caps and pay attention only when I heard the music start. But this re-cap was not some sappy story about how the athlete has ended up at the Olympics; instead, the commentator was somber recalling the tragic event of the athlete’s mother’s death. “Early Sunday, Rochette's mother, Therese, died of a massive heart attack just a few hours after arriving in Vancouver, to watch her daughter compete.”

The words stopped me in my tracks and I paid full attention to the TV.

This poor woman’s mother wasn’t terminally ill or fighting for her life. She was just a regular person who came to support her daughter and died unexpectedly. I watched the camera zoom in on Rochette. Most of the competitors were filled with excitement and nerves- but she was different. Her eyes were filled with sadness and she looked broken, yet, somber and fiercely determined.

My heart ached for her. As she skated to the center of the rink, the commentator said that she dedicated the skate to her mother. The crowd grew silent. Normally there was hooting and hollering, people standing waving their countries flags, but this time, the rink was still.

 As she skated, the commentators were silent. There were no remarks about jumps, foot placement or artistic ability. It was the first time I had ever been able to hear a skater’s blade cut across the ice without any interruptions. The audience was quiet as well, all watching in awe of a woman who somehow managed to compose herself enough to skate, it was her gift to her mother.

It was a short routine, but it was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever witnessed. Not because she was the most amazing skater (although she was pretty damn amazing). But, I was more moved by the respect that the entire audience, fellow competitors and judges gave her.

An arena filled with people, from hundreds of different countries, who live in vastly different cultures and speak different languages, yet, no one needed a translator. Rochette’s deep sadness was evident and understood by everyone who admired Rochette’s bravery for stepping onto the ice. Millions of viewers, in one of the most public arenas, somehow, managed to respect her grieving and give her a private moment.

In the end, Rochette did bring home a medal (for her combined score) but even more, she acted as a global reminder to everyone who witnessed her tenacious will to skate for her mother. It’s moments like this that which conjure up the realization that no matter your age, gender, religion, race or country of origin, we are all just people. We all have sadness, hope, passions and fears. We are all human just doing the best we can.


It’s great to support a favorite team, group or city, but we shouldn’t forget the bigger picture; that uniting as American’s shouldn’t only happen during a tragedy or an Olympic Event.

Even more important though, we have to remember that although we live in a world with a myriad of religions, languages, practices and cultures, we have an important common thread… We are all human…We are all just people struggling to figure out this thing called life.



“Life is a series of experiences, each of which makes us bigger, even though it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character and we must learn that the setbacks and grief’s which we endure help us in our marching forward.” – Henry Ford