LONDON—The opening ceremony always seemed to me an especially out of place element of the Olympics. On the eve of a fortnight of ferocious athletic competition, viewers are treated to three hours of the most elaborate performance art most will see for the next four years. Outside of the amount of preparation required, the sight of a giant Voldemort being assailed by an army of Mary Poppinses doesn’t seem to share much in common with a marathon or a discus throw.
However, after experiencing the games live for the first time, I’ve come to realize that both are indispensable to the Olympics’ identity. The games wouldn’t mean what they do to us without the pageantry—the national anthems, the medal ceremonies, the torch lighting. The repetition of these rites keeps the almost mystical importance of the Olympics intact internationally, though the modern sporting landscape doesn’t resemble 1896 Athens in the slightest. But the games also cannot be separated from what they are, at root: a series of fiercely contested sporting events, featuring the world’s most impressive athletes.
Tennis was my first exposure to Olympic competition, and on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, pageantry is king. Competition takes place on a verdant shag carpet of grass, about the length of what you might find on a well-tended golf fairway. The ball, when struck by a forehand or sliced deep toward the baseline, doesn’t so much bounce on the grass as it lands and is then gently cushioned up again. Though a very modern-looking stadium, complete with retractable roof, encloses the scene, simply taking my seat seemed to elevate my status to “19th-century country gentleman.”
I watched with amusement as the ball girls sprinted back and forth to their designated posts around the perimeter of the court, heaving tennis balls to players with goofy straight-armed tosses. At each changeover, players would take their seats alongside their bags, an umbrella held to shield them from the weakly pulsing sun by an eager ball girl. Even Serena Williams, not exactly renowned for her ladylike manners on the court, projected an eerily calm demeanor while on the court, seemingly forcing herself to count to ten every time she didn’t zing a winner past an overmatched Jelena Jankovic. Whether the ball was in or out, the end of each point was met with the same uniformly polite smattering of applause, almost as if the crowd felt a constant need to give the competitors a hand just for making it there.
But no veneer, no matter how thick, can totally disguise the primal nature of competitive athletics, and the other side of the Olympics becomes more plainly evident in those sports that make no pretense of disguising it. I discovered this while attending a sport that, while unfamiliar to most Americans, seems likely to fit in fairly well with American sporting culture: handball.
Handball is a gym class all-star’s dream sport; opportunities to whip a ball at the face of a hapless nerd—in this case, the goalie—come early and often. The game itself is a weird melding of basketball and lacrosse. Players dribble and swing the ball around the perimeter as in basketball, but defenders are allowed to make contact with the attackers as long as they stay in front of them, like in lacrosse. The slow build up of dribble-pass, dribble-pass eventually crests with the satisfying payoff of an offensive player leaping through the air and whistling a fastball toward the net, finding the target more often than not.
The atmosphere inside the Copper Box, which housed the men’s and women’s Olympic handball tournaments, reminded me of an Arena Football game, minus the cheerleaders dancing on the field of play (though they wouldn’t have been out of place). From what I gathered, the accepted protocol at handball games is to grab a couple of Heinekens immediately upon entering the venue, followed by optional (but encouraged) participation in the patriotic chants of a country to which you may or may not have any affiliation. “When in London,” I said to myself, and dutifully adhered to the prevailing etiquette.
In the first game I attended, the fans of host Great Britain had little to cheer about, suffering a crushing 44-15 loss to rival and defending gold medalist France. The loudest roars from the home crowd might have come for British goalie Jesper Parker, whose behavior certainly fit the description of hapless nerd; despite deficits of upwards of 25 goals, Parker demonstrated wildly to the crowd on the rare occasion his body seemingly accidentally navigated itself between the ball and the back of the net.
The second game provided more drama, with medal hopefuls Hungary and Denmark attempting to get their tournaments off to positive starts. I adopted the Hungarians as my temporary countrymen, joining in lusty chants of “RIA! RIA! HUN-GA-RIA!” every time a ball buzzed past the Danish goalie’s flailing limbs. The game was a seesaw affair, with both teams remaining within one or two goals of each other throughout, until a back-breaking goal from Danish left winger Anders Eggert Jensen sealed the enemy’s victory with 17 seconds remaining. “We’d win in a war, anyway,” I grumbled as I shuffled out of the arena, the classic consolation of the bitter Olympic fan.
Though I had seen only a fraction of the Olympic catalog in these two days, I felt like I gained a much more intimate understanding of what the games are truly about. The pomp and the flair are remnants of the original ideal of amateurism, wobbly though it may be, but they cannot cover up completely the raw energy of world-class athletic competition and the raucous fans that accompany it. Still, the ceremony of the Olympics is necessary to maintain the sense of awe and global appeal that makes them, every few years, a safe haven from the real world, a time to forget international squabbling and appreciate human achievement for what it is. So while I may have rolled my eyes when I saw Mr. Bean edited into Chariots of Fire—“just get me to the 100 meters, please!”—I now see a little more clearly why tickets to the closing ceremony are running around $2,000 apiece. It’s the last time, for another four years, for people to connect with the worldwide fellowship and accomplishment the Olympics are meant to promote, and that’s something worth shelling out for—even if you find British artistic taste a little screwy.
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.