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Getting “Up Close and Personal” about the Olympics

Jolly good show, London!

One must be hopelessly cynical or so caught up in the politics of the event not to be moved by the Olympics. The images of athletes from around the world, some from countries at war with each, gathering together in a mostly peaceful celebration of sport. The spectacle, the inspirational stories, and more importantly, the exciting competition — they all make the Olympics worth watching.

I didn’t always feel that way. My “Up Close and Personal” story is how my views about the Olympics have changed and what made me want to write a novel about it.

The first Games I followed was Munich in 1972. I was 11 and old enough to sit through a 16-day sporting event. Prior to the games, my school fed me on all the things that make the Olympics great. Jesse Owens. Wilma Rudolph. Babe Didrikson. As an Angeleno, I was proud to know that our city hosted the games 40 years earlier. And as the Games started, my expectations were fulfilled — especially by Mark Spitz. Imagine a Jewish American winning seven gold medals in a country we had been persecuted!

Then this happened:

Everything I had been taught about the Games being an oasis of peace and brotherhood had been shattered — along with any hope that I as a Jew could be accepted and live without fear.

So when the Olympics came back in 1976, I wasn’t interested. Mom was angry with my cynicism, so she coaxed back to the TV. Then came the boycott of 1980. That, along with mom’s stroke, ruined any interest I had in the Olympics.

That was until the Games came back to Los Angeles in 1984. My brother, Mom, and I followed the torch relay as it passed through the San Fernando Valley. We didn’t have much money at the time, so my brother and I went to one event — a men’s basketball games at the Forum. I don’t remember much about the scores. The real fun was talking with the fans and athletes from around the world.

My brother hung out with Yugoslav fans as their country played. He had a lot of fun with them. They were chanting, joking around, drinking, and generally enjoying themselves. It’s sad to think that seven years later, many of them would be killing each other in those horrible wars in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, I met a Chilean cycling coach. He didn’t know much English, and I was rusty with my Spanish. Still, we were able to piece together a conversation.

My Olympic spirit came back. The experience of meeting people around the world and sharing common passions is what the Olympics is all about. I also appreciated how people of even difficult backgrounds can find their place on a global stage and have a chance to shine.

My interest in the Games figures into my recent novel, Doria. The mother of my main character, Carla Guzmán, won a silver medal in gymnastics at the Rome Olympics. When she is killed in her country’s revolution, Carla finds her mother’s medal sewn into her sweater. Carla is determined to become a champion gymnast like her mother, but she must contend with a jealous teammate and a questionable coach. She does find some help along the way:

Carla took the towel off her face. Her red-ringed eyes looked up at the thin Romanian girl with the dark bangs and ponytail. She sat down next to Carla and put her hand on her shoulder.

“I saw some of your routines,” she told Carla. “You really are an excellent gymnast. You’re still learning, that’s all. How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Wow. You’re even better than I was when I was your age.”

Carla didn’t answer. She looked down towards the floor. The Romanian reached to the side of Carla’s face and gently turned it towards her.

“Don’t be discouraged. Just keep working hard. You’ll be great. I know you will.”

Carla nodded. The Romanian girl responded with a broad, glittering smile. It encouraged Carla to smile back.

“Thank you,” Carla said. “You are very kind.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

“What is your name?”

“I’m Nadia.” She extended her hand, “Nadia Comaneci.”

This spirit of international cooperation, finding camaraderie despite national differences, and learning to overcome obstacles — that is what’s great about the Olympics. This is why I enjoy watching them — and writing about them.

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