In 1988, I vividly remember sneaking downstairs after my parents went to bed and turning on the television. I'm pretty sure the Van Valkenburg household had only the most basic package of basic cable back then, but I wasn't interested in the steamy movies I had heard about on Showtime and HBO. I wanted to watch the United States Olympic men's volleyball team win a gold medal.
The match ended at 4 a.m., and I remember thinking: "This is the latest I've ever stayed up. This is so cool."
I've never played volleyball, then or in the years that followed, but something about the Olympics that year, held in Seoul, South Korea, totally mesmerized me as an 11-year-old. When Ben Johnson was caught doping after the 100-meter track and field final, it seemed like the biggest scandal in the entire world. Matt Biondi, Carl Lewis, Karch Kiraly and Steve Timmons were as important to me as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Janet Evans became my first celebrity crush. I was never someone who dreamed about winning a gold medal, but I understood, on some level, that it had a deeper meaning that went beyond sports.
I've thought a lot about this recently, especially the past few days as I've checked off various boxes on my to-do list that I need to accomplish before I board a plane bound for Beijing. I'll be covering the Olympics as they return to the Far East for the first time since South Korea. And I can't decide: Have the Olympics changed, or have we changed?
I talked to a friend recently who said he had almost no interest in following what happened in China. He said he would get more satisfaction from seeing the U.S. men's basketball team lose than he would if they won the gold medal. It would confirm his theory that the level of NBA play has deteriorated to embarrassing levels. He's more interested in NFL training camp than Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals. And he's not the only one. I have plenty of friends who feel this way.
There is some truth behind the belief that the Olympics have turned people off by becoming overly commercialized. And that television coverage of the games, which tends to emphasize the maudlin, can be insufferable. Amateurs have been replaced by professionals, and no one does anything without first consulting his or her agent.
But to me, the Olympics still represent something more important than NFL games and college football rivalries. This is a chance to come together, measure the world's best against one another, and at the same time, peacefully celebrate ideals and innovation. One of my favorite Olympic athletes, softball player Jessica Mendoza, said she can't wait to simply walk around the Olympic village and talk to athletes from other countries. All the drug tests, the Visa commercials and cheesy NBC features can't diminish or change the importance of that.
The 1988 Olympics, we forget, shined a major spotlight on South Korea and played a significant role in moving that country toward democracy and away from a military dictatorship.
Unlikely as it seems now, we can only hope that someday we look back on the 2008 Olympics as a turning point for China, and that 11-year-old kids (in this country and in China) will be staying up late watching the Games on television. Perhaps, like me, they'll be drawn in by the beauty of competition and absorb some deeper lessons along the way.