Remember the last Olympics? It would have been winter, right? 2010...That was Vancouver. Who was in them? Did anything exciting happen? I'm certain it did, and the names and maybe a few faces (Apolo Ohno!) and unusual sports (curling?) would come to mind with some prodding, but without Googling or asking around, it's hard to remember. After all, that was two years ago, many memes ago.
Now here we are, in the second week of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, poring over every detail we can find about the personal lives of our favorite athletes, even about their boyfriends and girlfriends and families and how they grew up to do this crazy, marvelous thing they do. After that, we complain about how the scandals aren't exciting enough, the coverage isn't good enough (or we argue that it's fine), or how we see the athletes reacting to their wins or losses. We judge! We inspect them all through a virtual magnifying glass, safely and comfortably from home on our own couches, maybe with a pizza in front of us. When we bore of that, we turn to the sports themselves, sometimes; the weird ones we never knew existed that someone, in another part of our country or the world, has put his or her life into trying to be the best at. They all have their stories, all of these people on our TV, and for a couple of weeks, we want to know them desperately. It's extreme reality TV. It's not even scripted, just hoped and planned for, in a lot of cases, the athlete's entire lives.
We can't help our reaction, really. Part of this is just the news cycle we live in. When something comes around only every couple of years it's a pretty big deal, and so we stop and take notice. More practically speaking, this is what's on TV. The coverage is endless. We can, of course, watch other things; there are other channels. But everyone's talking about the Olympics, in the office, on the Internet, even on the local news—and no one wants to be left out of all that conversation. Plus, the Olympics manage to compile a lot of elements of media consumption that we really, really like. There are extremely fit, attractive people with outside lives that may be a bit more complicated than we'd imagine. These are real people, even as they resemble superheros, and they face things like deadbeat dads and foreclosures and ill-chosen relationships. They aren't perfect.
But we want them to be perfect in our short time with them! We want them to have inspirational stories, we want them to be adorable or handsome, and we (mostly) want them to succeed. It's what we turn on the TV for—perfection or for the massive, cringeworthy fails, because we want character development, too, either bad or good. We want to see Gabby Douglas take gold; we also want to, in some strange way, see McKayla Maroney fall on her butt. It's not that we want her to fail, but if she does, she should fail spectacularly, not middlingly. We want to gasp, in amazement or horror. There should be as much drama there as there was in the Opening Ceremonies. When an athlete does fail (and it's not a "fail" so much as a lack of winning the top prize—Olympians have managed way more than the average person ever dreams of, which is part of why we love them), we also want to judge his or her response. Did he or she behave the courageous, humble, graceful way we'd expect them to upon a loss? Or did they glare at the stadium and competitors with what we've decided was a "Mean Girls" face, or let out a little smile, turning from the cameras, as Aliya Mustafina did after Gabby Douglas' time on the uneven bars, upon realizing that she herself would win? (But seriously, can you blame her?) Few of us can know what it feels to win gold; few of us can understand the pressure, either, of spending years of your life working up to one event...and then messing up, maybe without another chance to try again.
Our relationship with TV is weird in itself, but the Olympics is a rare event, and our relationship with it especially weird. We exist in a world that's made us accustomed to reality TV, and made us expect to see deeply into the personal lives of the characters on our small screen. We want to know everything about them, the whys, the hows, the personalities and psychologies within. Twitter and social media and the Internet help with our obsession because we can be even more immersed than ever before; we can engage in conversations about these people constantly, learn what's happening on a minute to minute basis (even if we don't want to know); even contact them directly and hope they Tweet back.
Even before the omnipresence of reality TV, though, the Olympics provided us with "everyday" heroes from our midst to admire and appreciate for their sacrifice in becoming what they are. But obviously these people competing are not "regular." They're, as some have said, the closest thing to superheroes that we get; they're, in America, far better suited to the title of "our version of royals" than are people like the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. At the same time, they are real people, if sublime ones. They're not characters. The majority of them aren't living in mansions insulated by millions or billions; some of them are facing financial or personal troubles of their own. And most of them are going to go back to doing what got them to the Olympics after these Games end on Sunday. Unlike characters on our favorite TV shows, many will fade from view nearly entirely until we see (some of them) again, in a few years.
In a couple of weeks, we won't care if Ryan Lochte peed in the pool, or if he does or doesn't have one-night stands. Even Nathan Adrian will be a faded, though beloved memory to most of us. For a while, yes, we'll remember the names and faces, at least, the names and faces we've connected with (there will be hundreds of other athletes we never remember; maybe we never even knew their names or saw their faces). But the household names will stick around for a bit: Gabby Douglas, the tiny, amazing athlete who won gold in the women's gymnast individual all-around; Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world. We'll feel humbled thinking about what Oscar Pistorius could do, and feel proud of Michael Phelps for his considerable legacy. And so on, with our favorite athletes, the ones who managed to make an impression through the haze and blur of all the rest.
Later, maybe we'll see some familiar faces on commercials or in print ads, endorsing athletic equipment or apparel or cereal, or delivering PSAs for worthy causes. We'll remember them, but they'll have moved from the two-week intensive forefront of our minds and hearts to just another part of the media landscape. Some of them we'll see compete again in Rio in 2016; others will have moved on or aged out of the competition. But in any case, this short, perfect time we had together will be gone, and we'll return to water-cooler and Twitter talk of our favorite TV shows (those featuring actors, generally, not real people) and news about individuals who are in most cases less heroic and definitely less athletic than those on NBC at primetime right now.
We've only got until Sunday. Let's set aside our snark and enjoy the time we have with the Olympics while we still can. Be amazed. Be full of wonder. Be proud of these athletes, even when they lose. That they got to where they are deserves kudo's ses in itself. And maybe start planning your Closing Ceremony parties—and for the impending crash afterward—now. Until Sochi 2014.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.