SALT LAKE CITY — I never feel more conflicted as a journalist and human being than when I’m covering the Olympics.
It is the juxtaposition of the individuals and teams toiling, sacrificing and struggling just to find ways to compete on sport’s grandest stage with national and international organizations that seem more concerned with politics, power and money than supporting the camaraderie and intrinsic beauty of sport.
It began in 1999 when I met an aerial skier named Eric Bergoust. The 1998 Olympic gold medalist talked about driving from Montana to Lake Placid for an aerial camp in a 1985 Toyota Celica he bought with $500 he’d earned doing odd jobs. Once he arrived, he had $10, so he invested in corn flakes, powdered milk and peanut butter and jelly to get him through the first week. He set a record for the most jumps in a single day as he exhibited just a little of the relentless passion that would take him from an adventure-seeking kid to an Olympic champion.
Since then, I’ve listened to athletes talk about living in cars, sacrificing any normal teen, social or educational life in pursuit of their dreams. I’ve watched those dreams end in failure, and I’ve learned from their resilience and tenacity.
I’ve witnessed incredible feats no one expected, and other athletes who delivered their best when the stakes were highest.
But through all of those conversations about how and why those athletes were able to overcome injuries, tragedies and their own desperate desire to be Olympic champions, I’ve watched those overseeing the Olympics make questionable, selfish, even corrupt decisions.
In the same Olympics where I watched Olympic shot put champion Michelle Carter teach young girls to embrace their body types, regardless of what society says, and remind them of all the beautiful things they can do with their gifts, I talked with people who’d had their communities destroyed to make way for bus parking lots that would service the Main Press Center for the 2016 Rio Games.
I talked with a nurse and a teacher who’d signed up to work in Olympic housing because they hadn’t been paid at their regular jobs as the city prepared to host the Summer Games. I read how the hotel I was staying at and a golf course were built on a natural site that was once protected.
And then I see the way the world’s view of a place like Sochi or Brazil is transformed because the residents, despite often being swept aside by organizers, embrace visitors as they yearn to show their culture, their country to these newcomers.
Seeing what Winter Olympians overcome just to compete is so inspiring, it continues to move me long after I’ve left the site of their triumph. I will never forget the unfettered joy of Lindsey Vonn in the finish area after she finally silenced her critics with her first Olympic gold. It was difficult not to be moved to tears as the joy and relief were palpable in that post-race interview.
Seeing 2014 silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace vault over a wall in Sochi to embrace her family after a horrific injury in 2006 and a 10th of a second fourth-place finish in 2010 made it appear her career would end with every accolade except an Olympic medal still moves me to tears.
I can still feel the heartbreak of Alpine’s Chris Fogt and his 2010 pilot John Napier, who is still one of my all-time favorite athletes, as they walked through the media interviews after crashing on their second run. And then, in 2014, to watch Fogt earn bronze with Park City’s Steve Holcomb, also one of the greatest pilots the sport has ever known, was so overwhelming, I struggled, once again, with my own emotions as I asked them to put it into words for the rest of us.
Just knowing aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson would have been a life-enhancing experience. But after watching the Idaho native struggle for a decade to succeed in an unforgiving sport, seeing him land his trademark “Hurricane” in Vancouver to win silver ranks as another of my all-time favorite sports moments. It made his suicide several years later so disturbing that it still haunts me.
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The 2018 Olympics will have similar individual stories that inspire the rest of us, even though we’ll never know what it feels like to have the weight of representing our countries on our hearts and minds. In seeing speedskater Brittany Bowe overcome a year-long struggle with a concussion, alpine skier Megan McJames make the Olympic team despite being cut by the U.S. team in 2012, or ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson overcome two years of injury, we can see a bit of ourselves in their decision not to give up during the darkest, toughest moments.
If there is one guarantee, it is that life’s hardships and challenges will visit each of us. And what we see in Olympians is the ability to endure, overcome and triumph, even if the structure around them is imperfect. It is the athletes' pursuit of their dreams that move me most as I prepare to cover my sixth Olympic Games. In them I find the transcendent power of sport to impact complex political problems and the problems strangling our ordinary lives.
For a few weeks, we see them, and some of what they exhibit seems part of us, some of what they achieve seems to also belong to us.