Precisely Enchanting

If you watched any of the Winter Olympics the past couple weeks, you witnessed dramatic moments only the Games can deliver.  Some literally took my breath away: the edge-of-your-seat overtime shootout in the women’s hockey final (a 3-2 win by the Americans); the exquisite battle for gold between the highly-touted Russians in women’s figure-skating; and the first-ever victory for the U.S. in the team sprint of women’s cross-country skiing, where Jessie Diggins’ come-from-behind lunge at the finish line took the gold by 0.18 of a second.

              

Consider “0.18 of a second” (for a second).  The blink of an eye takes twice as long.  Now consider measuring 0.18 of a second.  Remarkably, we’ve had the technology to do so since the 1950’s.  For the Olympics, that precision was provided by Omega, the watch manufacturer from Switzerland.  Of course the timekeepers were Swiss.  What other country is so renowned for the keeping of time?  What other country coordinates forty-six individual railway companies on a single network of tracks, bringing its trains into the stations on-time every time?  Where else in the world would you feel more confident banking your cash?  Six years ago, Omega developed technology capable of measuring one-millionth of a second.  At the Pyeongchang Olympics they used a photo-finish camera capable of ten thousand snaps per-second.  The Swiss redefine “attention to detail”.

I’ve had an affection for Switzerland from a very young age.  As a kid, my introduction took place in subtle ways.  Shirley Temple’s “Heidi” was based in Switzerland. The Switzer brand of red/black licorice (still available in “vintage” candy stores) was a frequent purchase.  The cute little Swiss Miss in our pantry beckoned me to hot chocolate.  As a Boy Scout, I always carried one of the Victornox Swiss army knives.  At Disneyland I roller-coasted through a scaled-down replica of the Matterhorn – one of the Alps.  I had my first taste of fondue.  And for a Suisse exclamation point, I consumed a ton of that “holiest” of cheeses.  My ancestry test should’ve produced a little Swiss DNA, don’t you think?

As an adult, Switzerland’s products are no less present in my life.  Lindt is my favorite chocolate (and I’ve tried my fair share of chocolate). A Rolex watch is still the material equivalent of corporate-America success (though my tastes are more modest – perhaps a Swatch [Swiss-watch]?)  Velcro can be found on several items in my wardrobe.  Haagen Daz is my favorite brand of ice cream (a product of the Swiss company Nestlé).  And a lengthy search for “adult” Swiss licorice led me to Chateau D’Lanz, a family-run business in Washington state producing some of the best.

Speaking of Nestlé, the Toll House chocolate-chip cookie recipe is also one of my favorites. Here’s a bit of trivia: Toll House was an inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.  Ruth Graves Wakefield is credited with inventing the chocolate chip cookie (by mistake) somewhere nearby the Toll House.  The price Nestlé paid for the right to Ruth’s recipe? A lifetime supply of Swiss chocolate.

Now speaking of Velcro, here’s another bit of trivia.  George de Mestral was a Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer from the 1940’s. Hiking in the Alps one day, George noticed seeds kept sticking to his clothes and to his dog’s fur. When he returned home, George developed a synthetic “sticking” technology like what he’d found in nature; a hook-and-loop zipper alternative eventually patented as Velcro. The clever name is a child of the French parents velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).

Okay, we’ve covered Swiss precision and some world-class products, but I haven’t addressed what makes Switzerland so fetching.  How’s this for starters: the entire country can fit within the greater Dallas/Ft. Worth area.  Bordered by France, Italy, and Austria, the Swiss are typically fluent in French, Italian, and German; as well as their home-country language of Romansh.  Switzerland produces some of the best in skiing, snowboarding, and mountain-climbing (of course), but also tennis? (hello, Roger Federer).

     

Here’s some more Swiss charm.  The colorful Guards in the Vatican City are the only foreign military service permitted to its citizens.  Switzerland’s “non-interference policy” dictates its only participation in foreign wars is typically through the high-profile benevolence of its Red Cross organization.  And citizenship in this fair country?  You’d better hope you have blood ties through birth or marriage.  Otherwise it’ll take twelve years of a special-residency permit, combined with a long-term work visa.

Despite my obvious affection, I should probably stay away from precisely enchanting Switzerland.  It’s a real country like any other after all, which means not everything comes up roses.  Perhaps I’ll cling to my snow-globe impression of the Suiss Alpenland instead: a gentle people living high on the Happiness Scale; the cleanest and quaintest cities imaginable; cobble-stoned streets and chalet-like houses.  The magnificent Alps serve as the backdrop, their slopes ascended by rickety cog railways and descended by skillful skiers.  Listen for an accordion or a little yodeling.  Look carefully enough into my globe and you might even notice the von Trapp family, marching down the mountain trail from Austria, singing their do-re-mi song.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Just Beyond the Spotlight

34.9 million people (including most of Jamaica) watched on Monday night as Usain Bolt claimed track and field legend at the Olympics by winning the Men’s 100m.  It was Bolt’s third straight gold medal in the event; remarkable considering he is eight years older now than when he won it the first time.  Like Michael Phelps and swimming, the hype leading up to Bolt’s latest victory was justified.  NBC covered every one of Bolt’s qualifying heats in prime-time, and delivered a good twenty minutes of back story before the final.  Bolt will be a household name if he is not already.

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The 100m run is one of several Olympic events I never miss.  It is a wondrous display of athletic power, and I’m always on edge to see who will become the “world’s fastest human”.  However, the prime-time Olympic spotlight need also shine on lesser known events and athletes.  Herein lies the oft-overlooked beauty of the Olympics: it is these “others” that emerge with the most inspiring stories.  They are not so much superstars, yet are still among the best at what they do.  A few examples for your consideration:

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Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain rode to a gold-medal performance in Individual Dressage.  Show Jumping may be the more popular Olympic equestrian event but Dressage is the more difficult (and defined as “the highest expression of horse training).  Dujardin and her Dutch Warmblood horse “Valegro” floated through an almost magical routine, completing one spectacular movement after another.  Dujardin and her mount were graceful, elegant, and significantly better – at least on points – than the silver medalist.  And her story became even more poignant when I learned Dujardin was engaged to be married shortly after receiving the gold medal, while Valegro has earned his last championship (of many) and will be retired from the sport.

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Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands leaped to a gold-medal win on the balance beam in Women’s Gymnastics.  It was the first women’s gymnastics medal of any kind in her country’s history.  Wevers’ routine featured several jaw-dropping maneuvers I’d never seen before, including several spins while balanced precariously on one foot.  The judges were won over by Wever’s creativity and skill.  American television tried desperately to keep the spotlight on our own athletes (who were favored to win), but Wevers was clearly the humble star this night.  And her story was made even more poignant when the cameras turned to her twin sister Leika in the stands – also a member of the Dutch gymnastics team – as she reacted to Sanne’s upset win with tears of disbelief.

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Molly Huddle of the United States ran what should have been a gold-medal performance in the Women’s 10,000m run.  Except she didn’t win the gold medal.  When a group of eight women broke away from the pack after several laps – most of them Kenyans and Ethiopians – Huddle broke away with them.  After twenty-five laps Huddle crossed the finish line in sixth place, breaking the American record for the event by almost nine seconds.  And her story was made even more poignant when I learned Huddle’s finishing time would have been good enough for the gold medal in three of the last four Olympics.

The Games continue for several more days.  More superstars will be at their best on prime-time television.  Just remember to look around and see what else is going on.  There are wonderful stories just beyond the spotlight.

Rings of Summer

Over the next two weeks, the world will be witness to the greatest gathering of athletes and sports mankind has to offer. The XXXI Olympiad -that’s 31st for you non-Romans – will be hosted by the city of Rio de Janeiro.  (Just saying “Rio” reminds me of “FedEx” – it’s simply not the whole enchilada).  I must admit I didn’t realize “Olympiad” refers to the four-year period between Olympic Games – not the Games themselves.  Count backwards by fours and you’ll realize the first modern Olympic games was held way back in 1896.

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You may say, non-sports-fan that you are, there is nothing seventeen days of sports competitions can do to stir your soul. But I urge you, put away the electronics and have a look, even if only for an hour or two. A moment will be there and you don’t want to miss it.

The first Olympic Games I remember well was 1976 in Montreal.  As a fourteen-year old, I was captivated watching Nadia Comaneci – also fourteen (!) – as she won three gold medals and scored seven perfect 10.0’s in women’s gymnastics.  I love this trivia item: the gymnastics scoreboard could only hold three digits, so Comeneci’s perfect scores were expressed as “1.0”.  For anyone who watched, it was one of the most electrifying performances in any sport and in any Olympics.  It was a moment to remember.

The second Olympic Games I remember well was 1980, but only because the United States boycotted the events due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan at the time (which is ironic given America’s involvement in that country today).

That brings us to 1984: the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles.  I was a senior in college, working a summer internship in Southern California.  I was witness to a city transformed.  The Games were hosted in a revitalized Coliseum (the same venue where the Olympics were held in 1932).  Ronald Reagan was President and opened the Games in person.  Sports venues were spread across the city, and the coincidence of several competitions on Fridays caused most businesses to shift to 4×10 workweeks.  American flags were everywhere.  The Olympic spirit was alive and well in the City of Angels.

I distinctly remember the torch relay at the L.A. Games, passing through the neighborhood where I grew up; John Williams’ glorious musical composition at the opening ceremonies (where dozens of white grand pianos were played simultaneously); Mary Lou Retton’s golds in women’s gymnastics; and Carl Lewis’s golds in track and field.  I also remember the women’s 3,000 meter run, highly-anticipated because America’s Mary Decker was racing South African sensation Zola Budd.  The two collided mid-race, Decker went down, and she never finished the race (Decker’s anguished face as she lay on the track is one of the Olympics’ classic photos).  There were moments in L.A.

Here’s one more Olympic moment which may surpass any I’ve mentioned above.  It was the women’s marathon.  I don’t even remember the city or the year or the woman who won the gold.  But I do remember the woman who won the bronze.  As she entered the stadium for the final meters of the race, she looked over her shoulder and saw… no one.  The bronze was hers.  She raised her arms in triumph as she finished that final lap, crying in apparent disbelief.  The unbridled joy and tears on her face as she crossed the finish line is a moment I’ll never forget.

The Olympics.  Rio de Janeiro.  Starting tomorrow.  Watch.  A moment will be there and you don’t want to miss it.