The Winter Olympics are the single best party on earth.
For 17 days, in the cold and in the dark of early winter nights, in white breaths and bright lights an environment is transformed. In this moment, anything feels possible and everyone is in a good mood. In the burgeoning crowds on the busy streets, each fragile contact with fellow humans that used to result in the withdrawal of hands and eyes instead leads to a brightening curiosity, a hand on the shoulder and the immediate question, “What are you going to watch? Who are you here for?”
There is a sanctity in the space and in the cold. In that moment a temporary alignment of values between people of every country, politic and religion is created and held sacred. Some of the spectators are Olympic fans there for the general fanfare and love of sport, but more often there is a closer tie, a sometimes invisible thread woven deep into the fabric that enabled an athlete to be there in the first place. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, first coaches and one-time competitors – these cold crusaders have traipsed the globe and borne the cold in part to watch and cheer, but in truth they desire, more than anything, to share in the spirit of the competition, to feel and be seen as a part of it.
Every where you go are people smiling, spilling out of cafes in the morning, events in the afternoon, and bars and restaurants in the evening, often until the sun comes up. No one, it seems, gets any sleep but when asked about this common topic of conversation, the answer is always the same, “just a few hours” because “I didn’t want to miss anything.” For 17 days you have permission, palapable transmitted permission, to speak to anyone and everyone does just that. This is particularly true of the athletes themselves. Using preconceived notions of the antics of professional athletes sparring with paparazzi you might expect for it to be a rare sight to see the athletes and even harder to know who they are. The reality is 99% of these athletes have toiled for a decade in complete anonymity and this is their one moment to be recognized by the world as someone special, so all throughout town you’ll see them, full team colors flying, in clusters with fans and spectators taking picture after picture – and swapping cameras each time because they too want to remember the moment.
Each evening, in the center of all the activity, a huge pavilion and stage is lit up and the party re-starts. In a brilliant switch from tradition, awards are no longer given out in the minutes after the event as half the crowd files out and still-panting athletes bend their necks to receive their medals. Instead, the athletes are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink it, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium. Instead of an echoing half filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert – immediately on the heels of the awards presentation big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours. Not for the medalists though, they still have one more job to do.
Perhaps the greatest moments of the games are held behind closed doors and reserved for a select few to witness. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes – current and past, coaches and close family are allowed in the hallowed cloisters of the USA house (or representative country house) to witness the presentation of the “Order of Ikkos.”
The athletes arrive late, flushed from all the excitement, medals still around their necks. But their miens are serious. In the past 24 hours they have been given the chance to let their success sink in. They have also been granted that same amount of time to think about all the people that helped them get there – all the sacrifices of others in order for them to have this moment. This elegant transposition takes the form of granting a medal themselves, the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person that helped them the most. The thundering drumbeat of pride is set against the shattering humility of gratitude creating an emotional crescendo like no other. As they begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears – from the athlete, the Ikos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.
Outside though, the concert is booming, the torch is burning and throngs of fans and family await. Sleep it seems, will have to wait.