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By John Lohn
LONDON, July 31. CERTAIN moments in life are unforgettable, some because the event was high-profile and others merely because it resonated for one reason or another. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is one of those moments. The first moon landing is another. The explosion of the Challenger spacecraft, too, is etched in many minds.
I've been fortunate to cover some special sporting events during my life, and still get chills recalling the anchor leg by Jason Lezak which won the United States the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Games. The goosebumps remain when remembering Michael Phelps' come-from-behind win over Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly, a decision which preserved Phelps' march toward history.
Yesterday morning, though, I was taken back to my childhood years. On the way to the Media Press Center (MPC) after the Day Three preliminaries had concluded, I passed a small British boy, probably in the eight-year-old range, gushing to his father while walking away from the Aquatic Centre. The youngster's sentiments went like this: “That was quite fun. They swim really fast.”
My love for the Olympic Games started long ago, probably because I was raised in a sports-fanatic household and with a father who coached football, basketball and track & field at the high school level. In fact, one of my first sporting memories is of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and sitting with my dad in front of the big-box TV as Carl Lewis won the 100-meter dash. I was seven.
So, what's the point? Why the framework of that little boy? Why the personal anecdote? Well, it's to focus discussion on the wonder and greatness of the Olympic Games. For the most part, every Olympics is remembered for what happened in the water, on the court, on the fields, etc. We'll remember the iconic moments of each Games, such as Lezak's anchor leg, and which athletes won the most medals.
Yet, there is much more.
At one point yesterday, it was difficult to think straight. The 10-meter synchronized platform diving competition was taking place and the British crowd was roaring loudly. While the fans were providing support to all competitors, their decibel level cranked up a few notches when countrymen Thomas Daley and Peter Waterfield stepped onto the platform. They screamed when dives went well. They groaned when they went poorly.
National pride is such a huge part of the Olympic Games. Not only do the athletes want to succeed for themselves and their homelands, fans want to see their countrymen excel at the highest level. If there is any way to lend support, fans will do so. They'll paint faces. They'll wear national colors. They'll wave flags. They'll chant their nation's name. To see it firsthand is a tremendous experience. It's part of the Olympic fabric.
As satisfying as it is to witness that national pride, the Olympics are also a launching point for future athletes. No, not all individuals who get to compete in the Games are fueled by seeing or hearing about them. They get to the Games because they handle their vocation better than most, regardless of how they got involved. What the Olympics do, though, is inspire, and if a few youngsters pick up a sport because they liked what they saw in person (like the aforementioned young boy) or on television, then the number of potential future Olympians grows.
What Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have done for the sport of swimming is incredible. They've wowed us with spectacular performances time and again. But their bigger impact, especially the impact of Phelps' eight gold medals in Beijing, is still in the process of unfolding. After Phelps' Great Eight, there was a spike in swimming participation among children. Down the road, perhaps in six to eight years or so, you can bet an athlete will get to the Olympic stage and indicate his entrance into the sport was the result of watching Phelps.
The four-year gap between Summer Games is long and the wait for the finest competition can be grueling. At the same time, that four-year space allows for a greater appreciation of the spectacle when the next Olympiad does roll around. If there was a two-year gap between each Summer Games, the shine wouldn't be as bright.
After this evening, there are four more nights of swimming, and plenty more nights of other sporting action. If you have children, have them watch the Olympics. Talk to them about what is happening. Speak with them about the work that goes into simply qualifying. Encourage them to be active. And if you don't have children, or if your children are grown, reach out to someone who does have influential youth.
The Olympic Games are special, and sharing their greatness is the way a sport, including swimming, can grow.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn