I love geography because of the Olympics. When I was little my parents hung a world map near our television. Each time an athlete was about to dive, race, wrestle, or perform a routine on the uneven bars, my brother and I would race to the map and locate his or her country. I remember being especially amused that there was a country called Hungary, and nearby was another one called Turkey. How crazy is that?!? We poured over the map during commercial breaks, memorizing capitals and tracing our fingers over rivers.
The fact that that this is an unusual obsession became abundantly clear to me when I started teaching geography to middle schoolers. You know how every so often surveys will come out, alerting the American public that 50% of adults can’t locate Canada on a map? I never believed those statistics until I started teaching. Believe me, they are true.
But getting back to the Olympics: In addition to improving my country identification skills, the Olympics have often been important to me. My best friend and I spent the winter of 1994 alternately glued to our TV’s and our ice skates during the Lillehammer Olympics, convinced that Tonya Harding was innocent and we would be able to pull off double axels by March.
My best Olympics experience was during the 2006 Olympics. I’d spent the previous months traveling through Europe and was student teaching in Norway that winter. I’d been so busy drinking at every bar in Trondheim that when February rolled around I didn’t even realize that the Olympics were about to commence. The weekend of the opening ceremony I’d signed up to go skiing with a group of fellow international college students in Sweden. After our snowy bus ride up to the mountains, we all cooked dinner together and turned on the TV to watch all the countries parade into the Olympic arena in Turin, Italy. There were about a dozen of us in that ski cabin, all from different countries. We each cheered as our respective athletes waved their nation’s flag and flashed genuine smiles for the cameras.
Although I no longer harbor any illusions of becoming an Olympic athlete (especially since I repeatedly tripped over my skies getting off the chair lifts that weekend in Sweden), I still am awed by the way we manage to come together in friendly competition and celebration every two years. It’s a continual reminder that although we are from separate countries, there are things that bind us together as one world.