Watching the Olympics abroad

As an American, watching the 2016 Rio Olympic Games from Ireland has been a vastly different experience.

The whole of Ireland is roughly 60% of my home state, Iowa, which isn’t even one of the largest states in America.

As a geographically expansive and well-populated modernized country, the U.S. has become an Olympic powerhouse. In the past six or seven Olympic Games — all I can remember, being only 22 — I recall news coverage being devoted to the Games for hours each day, playing events live in the mornings and afternoons, delaying airing the “Big Events” until prime-time.

Especially for the Summer Games.

Even those who weren’t sports’ fans and had qualms with America, for those three or four weeks, loved the Games and loved the country. Someone who couldn’t name four different swimming strokes knew how many gold medals Michael Phelps had won so far. Maybe they didn’t know all the gymnastics apparatuses, but in the Summer of 2008, everyone knew the name Nastia Liukin, just as they now constantly praise Simone Biles.

For this year’s Games, Snapchat even introduced a filter that tallies your country’s medal count. I opened numerous snaps with the gold, silver, and bronze emblazoned in the corner, becoming a little hostile when I couldn’t send the same from Ireland. It wasn’t even an option.

Then suddenly it was.

One silver medal. Thanks, O’Donovan brothers.

I hadn’t been able to send the filter beforehand because, even as the U.S.’s medal count edged towards 40, Ireland’s stayed at zero. Snapchat gave the country the filter as soon as it had something to show.

It made a bit more sense to me then, in a concrete way, why Americans enjoy — or become enthralled with — the Olympics to such an extent. America can boast the fastest male and female swimmers, possibly of all-time, in Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky; the best gymnasts in Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and the rest of the Final Five; the greatest beach volleyball player in Kerri Walsh Jennings. It’s inspiring, to show our country’s capabilities.

Obviously I’m chanting U.S.A. and cheering from abroad, but it’s fascinating seeing people from Ireland and other smaller countries getting into the Games for the sheer admiration and respect of the amazing feats they are accomplishing. With no home representative, they form bonds with the athletes with the greatest back stories or biggest personalities or the comeback kids. They care less about the country of origin and more about the individual.

In the United States, we have so many athletes partaking — and many with a legitimate shot at landing on the podium — that their stories and faces dominate television and internet coverage. That’s great, and I enjoy learning about them, but it robs Americans of the chance to learn about truly phenomenal people and competitors from other nations. When Venus and Serena Williams were both shockingly eliminated early in the tennis rounds, for instance, U.S. coverage largely dropped off, failing to capture how truly magical it was that Great Britain’s Andy Murray won back-to-back gold medals in singles’ tennis, which had never been done.

I’m sure I will always root for an American victory, but it’s a foreign perspective — pun entirely intended — to watch the world’s greatest as just that: the world’s, not their country’s.


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