Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

No crying in the Olympics?

sprovost@thetribunenews.comFebruary 13, 2014 

Steve Provost

‘There’s no crying in baseball,” Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, famously told one of his players in the 1992 film, “A League of Their Own.”

Now we know there’s also no crying in the Olympics.

It’s not allowed.

The International Olympic Committee sent a letter to four Norwegian cross-country skiers, reprimanding them for wearing black armbands in memory of an athlete’s brother who died just before this year’s Winter Olympics got underway.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams put it this way: “We would say the competitions themselves, which are a place of celebration, are probably not the right place to really do that. We’d like to keep that separate.”

Competitions? Not the place to do that? This would come as news to athletes on virtually every level of competition who have celebrated dramatic victories time and again in the aftermath of heartrending tragedy and all-but-unbearable loss.

They don’t celebrate because they’re in denial. On the contrary. They celebrate as an affirmation of life in the face of death. They celebrate as a tribute to those who have inspired them to achieve their own dreams — those who may be gone but whose legacies the athletes themselves embody.

Human beings don’t just forget about those who have passed from this earth; we honor them.

We pay tribute to them by wearing armbands and patches on our uniforms. Then we go out and “win just one for the Gipper” — or try our damnedest to do so.

Imagine for a moment that Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne had never said those words, reportedly spoken by dying All-American George Gipp, as an inspiration to his team.

Gipp’s dream lived on when Rockne used them to inspire Notre Dame to an upset victory over undefeated Army in 1928, and Gipp himself lives on in American lore to this day. Without the inspiration of his story, Ronald Reagan (who portrayed Gipp in a 1940 movie) would never have become known as “The Gipper.”

Sport is supposed to be a microcosm of life, with all its challenges, glories and, yes, disappointments.

The athletes aren’t the ones in denial about this; the IOC is.

Olympic organizers seem to be desperate for a sanitized event viewed through rose-colored glasses. An event of feelgood pretense, orchestrated so that nothing ever goes wrong and no one ever dies … or if anyone does, no one talks about it. Bottle up your grief. Don’t honor a close friend, a coach, a family member whom you might have the audacity to miss just a little. That’s just too much of a downer for the Games.

In the opening ceremony, something went awry. One of five snowflakes that descended from the heavens failed in its mission to transform into an Olympic ring. But Russians who viewed the event on TV missed the snafu because broadcasters spliced in a tape of the rehearsal, where everything went off without a hitch.

It’s one thing to censor a glitch; it’s another to censor emotion — to forbid someone from communicating the dull, raw ache of their loss in a form as benign and honorable as a simple patch of fabric.

Irge Andersen, secretary general of the Norwegian Olympic Committee, wasn’t happy with the IOC for sending that letter chastising his nation’s skiers a few short days after one of their brothers died.

He told The Associated Press: “We want to discuss why the IOC won’t let us go through this tragedy in a normal manner. That would be normal in every other society. … We are all human beings. We have to take care of each other.”

Perhaps that’s just the problem. Perhaps the IOC doesn’t want us to think of these athletes as human. It may, in fact, prefer us to see them as superheroes or demigods who are somehow immune from such inconvenient emotions as grief and sorrow.

But they’re not. They’re human. And their humanity is precisely what makes the Olympics compelling.

I’ve got a news flash for the IOC: There is crying at the Olympics.

Don’t you dare pretend there’s not.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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