It was the summer of 1996. I don’t usually remember dates because they are numbers and my brain doesn’t do data, which is funny now because my job is data-entry (go figure). The reason I remember ‘96 is because of the Olympics, specifically, because of the “Magnificent 7” - the American Gymnastics team. I can still remember all of their names: the two Dominique’s (Mocianu, my favorite, and Dawes, my brother's favorite), Amy, Amanda, Jaycee, Shannon, and Kerri, the vaulting hero of the games. That image of Coach Bela Karolyi carrying Kerri to join her team on the medal stand, her leg in bandages and tears streaming down her face, is burned into my brain.
It was the year that I decided to organize my very own neighborhood Olympics. I was 10 years old and had been taking gymnastics since I was 3 and was so obsessed with it I’d managed to get my Grandpa Frahm to build me my own bars and beam in the back yard. I thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world.
I began this undertaking first by enlisting the neighborhood kids to join. There was me, Elizabeth who was my age, Meaghan, who was a few years younger, and her younger brother Matt who was about 3 or 4 and had a head like a giant watermelon. Every day I worked with them, trying to teach them routines. Practice! Practice! Practice! I was like a drill sergeant, never taking “no” for an answer. One day we had a little set back as I was trying to teach Elizabeth to do a cartwheel on the beam and she missed her footing and scratched her leg pretty bad. “These things happen,” I yelled, in my crazy northern accent as she ran home crying, “You just gotta suck it up and get back up there!” She came back a few days later, though she never did that cartwheel again which was a big disappointment for me because it was gonna be one of our biggest, and most crowd-pleasing moves.
As the day drew closer, our beam, bars and floor routines finalizing, I decided we should all pick different countries to be from. I chose Romania because as anyone who knows anything knows, all the greatest gymnasts are from Romania. It’s practically the origin of gymnastics--not really, that’s Greece, but when’s the last time you saw Greece take home a medal? Exactly.
I secured a torch bearer (my best friend, Amy, carrying… now, this might just be my childhood imagination, but I believe it was real fire which later lit a barbecue--wait, that doesn’t seem right. Would they really let a child carry a fire-baring torch? Maybe it was just a fire drawn on paper). I also got a sweet sound machine (our karaoke). I got my parents, brother and our Swiss exchange student, Karim, to act as judges. Now, this is where it got a little controversial. I wanted everything to be fair, but my Mom wouldn’t cooperate unless the whole thing was rigged so everyone was a winner and since I didn't have the funds to hire real Judges, I had to go along with it. God that really pissed me off. “But Mom, in real life EVERYONE can’t always win. I know you’re trying to be diplomatic and everything, but that’s just not how life works. Only one person can win. And, hey, I’m not asking for any special treatment here, I want to be judged fairly, too. I demand it!” But she was right, I was the only one with any real training, those other kids didn’t stand a chance. I would have to just satiate myself by judging them all silently in my head.
We bought those fake, toy gold medals from the dollar store and made four score cards, which all read “10!” Then the day was finally here. The parents of all the kids came out and sat on lawn chairs in our yard as the opening music began and Amy marched us gymnasts into the Olympic Games with her “flame." We covered our hearts as the anthem played and then we were off to the events! Beam came first, Matt got up and successfully walked his big head down the beam and half way back up before dismounting with a jump of boredom. Everyone cheered and he received the first “10!” of the games.
Next went a wobbly Elizabeth, still staving off jitters from her fall earlier in the week. And we all screamed in joy (mine fake) while she received what she believed was her justly earned “10!” while I silently gave her a “6." Meaghan got up next with a forgettable routine and Matt shouted at the top of his lungs, “Hey Mom! I gotta go the bathroom! I gotta go the bathroom! Mom!” while he grabbed his peanut weenie and ran through the yard back to his house, his mother chasing after him. I just hung my head at the unprofessional-ism of it all. Professionals hold it in!
My beam routine was flawless, of course, and I received the only truly just “10!” but by that point word had started spreading pretty fast amongst the competitors that the games were rigged and I had to play the innocent and defend the stupid judging to keep their heads in the game, which ended up being much easier than I thought. We moved on to the bars. Matt got back from the bathroom just in time for Elizabeth to pick him up and attach him to bar. He swung back and forth three or four times and then, still clutching the bars, smiled proudly and said, “I’m done!” before falling to the ground with a thud. Meaghan was again forgettable. Elizabeth’s routine was boring. I think she peeked on the beam. I went up and dazzled them with my one-kneed twirling and my backwards flip off the high-bar, sticking the landing! Now that calls for a “10!” And it did.
Despite the emptiness of the scoring, I was feeling strong as we moved to our final event. The floor. Queue the music! Little Matt’s big head provided the perfect physics for somersaults, allowing him to stay weighted mid-air for a moment of anticipation while his tiny torso found its way over. He rolled a couple more times and then had to be encouraged to stop so the next competitor could begin. This time, Meaghan’s performance would not be forgotten. This was her moment.
The music was queued and she began with a running start. As she lifted her arms above her head, preparing for a cartwheel, the music suddenly sped up into chipmunk mode and this jarred the inexperienced gymnast who faltered and fell to the ground. I remember shouting “Keep going! Meaghan! Keep gooooing!!!!!” as if I were a soviet coach with everything on the line. She got up and decided to try again. Backing up to get her ever important running start, she was off and just at the very moment, as if God himself were some cruel, comic/dj the music sped again into chipmunk mode and young Meaghan, learning nothing from her previous mistake, fell on her face again. This time, the crowd couldn’t help but laugh as my own frustration grew. She was making a mockery of these games! This was unacceptable. I yelled louder and harsher, taking on a 40 year old smoker’s voice, “Keep going! Meaghan! Focus! Keep going, damnit!!”
The poor girl, managed to get to her feet and pranced around for a little while, avoiding the cartwheels until the end of her routine. One last attempt at glory. “You can DO it Meaghan! Do it for your country!!!” I egged her on, "Do it for China!!!" And at that moment, she seemed to accept the responsibility I was placing on her shoulders. She nodded. She stood at the edge of the selected grass area. Here goes. Surely it wouldn’t happen a third time. Surely.
Her arms hit the air, her left foot came off the ground and the music, on cue, yet again sped to chipmunk speed as her body seemed to freeze mid-air for the briefest of moments, "Would she make it?" The crowd hushed and stood to watch as she again fell flat on her nose in utter shock and horror. Laughter followed, her own mother even joining in. I could only look at my feet. The disappointment so great. This is what I get for letting amateurs in, and worst of all, perhaps, was knowing she would be getting a “10!” The same score I would get.
The Olympic Games ended and in the years to come, as neighbors shared their video from it with us, I would get to relive it every so often. I came to see the humor in it. The photo of all of us kids standing on the beam proudly and not-so-proudly wearing our gold medals (some of which were actually bronze or silver, masquerading as gold). Matt’s barely fit over his giant head. Mine stung of what I then considered wasted sweat… all those hours, early mornings, and late evenings practicing, all for a medal that didn’t really hold any meaning.
Looking back now, I can see these games one of two ways. In one way, I am really proud of myself for bringing a neighborhood together and for making a reality out of a dream I had. I think it was one of the first times I learned to believe that I could do anything if I really applied myself. In another way, I see these games as one giant metaphor for life; Everyone telling you all these morals have meaning, that if you put in the time, live your life a certain way, it will all pay off… but really, in the end, we all share the same fate, hard-fought or not. A fate that does not take into account our many actions, or the time we’ve put in. Some work hard to little merit, others fall into greatness by chance or a rigged system.
My first thought, a much happier one.