During my first two Olympic events, I was exposed to one of the elements that keeps the Games such an important world event: the prevalence of national pride in sport.
This exposure began the same day as the start of my Olympic experience: On Sunday, August 10, I went with two friends to see the morning session of women’s field hockey pool play.
It took us a while to get to the Olympic Green (while Chinese cab drivers have many good qualities, knowledge of the city and of how to get from place to place is not one of them), and we were greeted with complimentary ponchos when we arrived.
Due to our delayed arrival, it was already halftime of the first game (most Olympic tickets got you in to back-to-back games) when we took our seats amid the driving rain. During the next 35 minutes, we would not witness a single goal, as Japan successfully held a 2-1 lead over New Zealand. But it didn’t matter; we were at the Olympics.
Our second game was a bit more exciting, as we watched the host Chinese team take on Spain. The atmosphere inside the small stadium was electric, as the home fans passionately cheered every possession and every pass made by their heroes. Never mind that they didn’t know what a penalty corner was—they were here to support their country.
So when the Chinese scored in the game’s opening minutes, the crowd erupted. And when they found out two minutes later that the goal hadn’t counted, they were undeterred. Two disqualified goals later, the fans finally got what they were waiting for, a reward for all of their “Jia You” shouting: The Chinese team struck first, firing a backhand shot into the upper right corner. The crowd erupted even louder.
When it was all said and done, China led 3-0 at the half. Knowing that the game was in hand, and satisfied with our first Olympic exposure, we headed to the shuttle bus to begin our long trip home. But I’m sure every Chinese supporter stayed until the final whistle.
The next day’s event was one I had been anticipating much more. While the four teams we saw were pretty random, I was really excited to at least see some Olympic basketball.
We once again arrived late, this time thanks to the brutal Beijing traffic (caused in part by special “Olympics” lanes which never had cars in them) and a prolonged stay at the world’s ritziest Haagen-Dazs.
We were still able to catch the second half of the game between the Korean and Russian women, two teams who play with completely different styles. The Koreans shot the lights out, but it was the Russians who were able to eke out a small victory thanks to superior inside play.
Our next game, Belarus-Latvia, should have been much duller, as it was a match-up between two bad teams that ended up being a 20-point blowout. Luckily, we were sitting in the right section.
Around 15 minutes before the opening tip, an army of Belarusian athletes, coaches, and supporters walked into the gym, distributing Belarusian flags to our entire section before taking their respective seats.
Our allegiance had been bought. Throughout the game, we drowned out Latvian nationalists with chants of “Be-la-RUS, Be-la-RUS.” Our newfound opponents responded as best they could, but it was no use against our superior numbers. We won the cheering battle, and the game would soon follow suit.
The Latvians, however, were impressive. Even as their team was getting routed in the fourth quarter, they kept shouting for every basket, cheering every play, and acknowledging every player’s hard work with thunderous applause as they exited the game. The support was equivalent to what we had seen from the Chinese fans the day before—only there were 20 Latvians instead of 5,000.
Coming from America, I think it’s hard to understand how much of a uniting force the Olympics can be within a nation. It’s possible that the entire Belarusian and Latvian athletic contingents were at that basketball game, blindly rooting for people they had never met or even heard of.
Sure, we do the same thing, to a degree. We find our heroes, we make unknowns into celebrities. And that’s sort of what the Olympics are about. But what’s even more important is not needing celebrities at all, just rooting for people because they represent you, and shouting “Lat-vi-A” as loud as you can because it’s is the most you can do to help them.
I feel that this is an appropriate time to mention that my friend and I were wearing LeBron James Team USA jerseys throughout both basketball games. We’re proud, too—but how would we feel if our basketball team won a Bronze medal? Better yet, how did we feel four years ago?
Now imagine if the Latvian women somehow got through pool play, pulled off a huge upset in the quarter-finals, and found themselves in the Bronze medal game. Imagine the screams of “Lat-vi-A, Lat-vi-A” throughout the game. Imagine how crazy their fans would have gone if they won.
Better yet, imagine if they lost. Their fans would show no disappointment, no disapproval—just appreciation for athletes who had come this far, athletes who had given their all on behalf of their country.
Might we do that too if we had more true “underdog” teams? Or would we be too focused on Michael Phelps? Maybe one day we’ll know what it feels like to passionately root for your country and really, truly, be happy just to be there.
For now, I’ll have to be content with shouting “Bel-a-RUS” at passers by.