I imagine the Olympics are something akin to the elementary school field days I participated in as a youngster between the ages of four and nine.

The field days were the most anticipated days of elementary school. I remember the air as I walked through the halls toward the open doors that led out to the fields. It was so thick with excitement and sun that I felt like I could walk on it, almost like Peter Pan could fly through the air of Never-Never Land.

And just like the Olympics draw amazing amounts of people, our field days were spectacles too. Parents took time off work and came to watch, sitting on the freshly mown grass around the perimeter of the field, hopping over new lines of white chalk.

Even though we were four or five, we still trained. I trained chasing girls around the playground, not because they were the cute, adorable things I would find them to be later in life, but because it was thrilling to hear them scream. Every once in a while I had to hurdle Billy in my chases because he tripped on his untied shoelaces.

At the end of our races and events, the prizes were handed out. They were not real gold medals like the Olympics, but to a four year old, ribbons were a close second, especially when they had comic characters running across them in brilliant gold etching. First place was the best prize, not only because it was the highest honor and brought the most cheers from the parents, but because the ribbon was blue. Blue was much cooler than red, the color of the second place ribbon (Unless we are talking about candy. As a boy, I always loved red candies best. Red Starburst and red Skittles and red gummy worms!). But I always gave away my third place ribbons because they reminded me of my classmates lunch when they threw up in class.

The Olympics are much more involved than my elementary school field days. The athletes train harder, though I imagine most start about the age that I did. They dedicate themselves to their pursuits, sometimes with the hope of Olympic glory, perhaps sometimes because of the social pressure their nation puts on them. I cannot imagine Soviet Russia during the height of its glory.

The closet I can come to understanding the mind of an Olympic athlete is comparing it to my days of cross country in college. I trained in the morning and all afternoon. We not only ran, and for miles, but we lifted weights and stretched and studied the art of running. Even though we spent from two to three hours actually running or preparing to run, the other hours of the day were spent thinking about it. No, I can’t eat that piece of chocolate cake. It will weigh me down. I should have two helping of pasta instead and four glasses of apple juice. And on race days, I even walked around slower than normal in an effort to conserve energy for my race.

I do admire Olympic athletes. For the most part, it is not as rewarding as professional sports (who does pay them?) Something other than money drives them to put in all the time and effort it takes to set new world records or best opposing nations on the field of glory. Just looking at their bodies, the trimness, the graceful curves of muscle, lets me know that they work physically more, and harder than most of us ever do. I run between five and seven miles a day, and am not close to looking like they do. So what must they do to look as tone and lithe, or as muscular and fast?

These were just a few thoughts as I saw the medal count begin to grow. Medal counts do not really do the Olympics justice. I think the stories behind each athlete make the Olympics. The women who compete against girls half their age and win. The athletes that overcome poverty and for a time capture their nation’s heart. The athletes that overcome tragedy, injury, and doubt. Hard work that pays off. Coaches that watch their students fail, develop, and finally triumph. Families that see all of the time, sacrifice, and frustration pay off.

The elementary school field days have none of that, for all of their glory.

© Seth Crossman