The Gold Medal Blues

Settling for spectator at the Olympics

Don't be fooled by the floppy ears and the high-tech Speedo skinsuit, this is no baby Phelps.

“Hi everyone, and welcome to the NBC/GE Client Hospitality Program. My name is Charlie and I’m from Los Angeles.”

“Name, hometown, and college!” my boss yelled from the back of the bus. I was up in front, mike in hand, rehearsing my spiel for the 27th time during our week of training preceding the Olympics. I had thought—just this once—that I could slyly avoid dropping the H-Bomb in front of the other 30 college student guides, but there was no getting around it. As if I didn’t get enough shit for being the only Ivy Leaguer working for NBC's Client Hospitality Program, I had to announce it on a microphone over and over again.

Yet as we all sat together at Opening Ceremonies, watching the world’s best athletes huddle together under one roof (or rather, in one nest), I found myself feeling horribly inadequate. While thousands of surrounding spectators snapped photos and texted friends, I was deep in retrospection, asking myself, “What have you actually done with your life?”

Suddenly, going to a prestigious college seemed unimpressive, and this depressing consciousness only intensified over the course of the Games. At every event, I asked my fellow guides, “If I started now, is there any sport I could still be an Olympian in? Maybe handball? Sure, the rules are a bit different, but I’ve been playing on and off since I was five! Curling? All it takes is a broom! Hurdling? Hold out your arm—I can jump over that!”

Although they entertained my romantic notions of picking up archery by London 2012 or the luge in time for Sochi 2014, the overwhelming consensus of this recurring conversation was that—at the age of 21—that ship had officially sailed. It may not be too late to switch my concentration or transfer houses, but my chances of joining Team USA don’t look so good.

Indeed, there was a time when 19 seemed so far down the line that I couldn’t even imagine what I would be doing after so many years. But watching the 14-year-old British diver Tom Daley and the 16-year-old American gymnast Shawn Johnson made me think back with regret to what I was doing when I was 14 (Mortal Kombat) and 16 (Jackass stunts).

Towards the end of the Olympics, when most athletes had finished competing and many now sported medals around their necks at exclusive parties all over Beijing, I shifted the blame to my parents. It was no longer, “What have I done with my life?” but instead, “Why didn’t Mom and Dad force me to focus on an obscure sport from day one?” I might have complained a bit now and then, but years later I could have been standing on the podium thanking them for their persistence.

I decided it was worth sharing my recent ruminations with the folks, concluding of course with the conviction that my failure to become an Olympic athlete was all their fault. A feisty rebuttal ensued. Not only did they remind me of the countless practices they drove me to and games they watched, but they even brought out photographic proof of their efforts: my older brother and I holding tennis racquets taller than ourselves, swimming with floaties the size of our heads, and doing gymnastics in matching spandex outfits. (I have since burned the latter.)

Needless to say, I surrendered. I admitted that my parents did their best, and I accepted the fact that being voted Most Improved Player nearly every year in all the sports I played was a testament to my refusal to concentrate on any particular one beyond its brief school season.

While I still ponder the Olympic life I never led, it was on one of my final days in Beijing that I came to realize all that I would have been forced to sacrifice along the way. Shawn Johnson—the 16-year-old gymnast who had contributed to my intense retrospection the days before—joined NBC’s program, and I was assigned to take her on a tour of the Great Wall.

She was nervous about riding in a cable car up to the Wall, so I tried to comfort her by saying, “Don’t worry, it’s just like when you go skiing,” to which she responded, “I’ve never been skiing. I started gymnastics when I was three.” A moment later she yelled out with excitement, “But now I can go!” and explained how she had decided to take a break from gymnastics.

We then proceeded to list all the things her stringent training had never allowed her to do, which doubled as a list of all the things she planned to check off in the near future: skiing, horseback riding, ice skating, rock climbing, and a whole slew of other activities I considered fundamental to my youth. In one sense, the young Olympian had already led an incredibly full and accomplished life, but, in another sense, she was only starting at age 16 to experience life as most of us have known it since childhood.

Shawn’s passion for one activity—and abstinence from several others—made her an Olympic competitor. That was clearly not the case for me. Would I trade swimming trophies, AYSO jerseys, track plaques, and volleyball certificates for an Olympic Gold Medal? In a heartbeat. But would I forfeit years of random extracurricular exploration? Not so fast. As for my children…

— Charles R. Melvoin ’10 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House. He still wears spandex.