Rivalries replaced by athletes

There’s just something missing with the Olympics.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from what I’ve watched and heard, the games have been going fairly smoothly, and the action has been tremendous. Like many of you, I’ve been caught up in the Michael Phelps hoopla, and have found myself getting emotionally involved with athletes after watching some of the mini docudramas NBC loves to run during the games.

I’ve been following the “Redeem Team” attempt to earn back the Gold for the U.S. in basketball, and learned enough about rowing a boat the other day that I can now understand Bob Parsons when he talks about his ocean kayak adventures. I’ve watched fencing and volleyball, gymnastics and diving — and it’s been an absolute blast. But something just doesn’t feel right anymore with the Olympics to me.

We’re missing “The Bad Guy.”

Like many of you, I spent several summers alternating my rooting interests between being pro-American and anti-Russian. Of course, the Soviet athletes never did anything to cause me harm, but I got swept away by the propoganda effort between the two superpowers and relished in glory whenever “we” beat “them” for a medal.

Now, there’s still “we” — but hardly any “them.”

The former Soviet Union has now broken into several nations, and we no longer live our lives under that umbrella of “red hate.” The Afghani and Iraqi teams don’t exactly compete against us in medal counts, and there is no Al-Queda team threatening us in track and field.

We’ve lost our rivals.

Yes, the host Chinese team represents a communist nation, and the country’s government is no doubt guily of tons of human rights violations, but is there any real joy found in beating the Chinese? Can we muster enough national pride to form a patriotic allegiance against France? Probably not.

So, where does that leave us? Well, most likely enjoying sport in its purest form — reserving much of our passion for the athletes from our home nation, but also being able to simply sit back and appreciate the achievements and performances of others, without being blinded by arbritrary dislike for a group of people we don’t even know.

At the risk of violating political correctness regulations, I kind of miss that random dislike — when it comes to sports.

I’d miss hating the New York Yankees if that team was no longer around, and I’d also feel like I’m incomplete if I didn’t have the Pittsburgh Steelers to swear at and gloat over when my beloved Ravens do occassionally beat them.

Have you attended a game between Indian River and Sussex Central? The teams get chippy with each other, the fans are raucous and attendance is always higher than it is in any random game. I left the campus of St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., more than two decades ago, and I still get a shiver up my sign when I see a Gonzaga High School sign or sweatshirt around town.

Rivalries make things more interesting in sports. Plain and simple.

Do you remember the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” when the U.S. hockey team shocked the world and won the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.? Very few people remember that we actually toppled Finland in the gold medal game — but nearly everyone remembers the surprising win over the Soviets in the semifinals. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees continually get play on ESPN whenever they face off because of their deep-seeded hatred for one another, and executives in the NBA had to be doing cartwheels when they learned the finals this year would include the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers — longtime rivals and arguably the premier match-up the league has to offer.

Rivalries sell tickets. Rivalries get media attention. And rivalries make the public, well, care.

Hence my void this Olympics.

I’ve attempted to make a rivalry in my head with the Australians, because they’ve historically done so well in the swimming events. But I felt they wouldn’t be competitive enough in the other sports to carry my attention throughout the games, unless they immediately put in koala tossing or beer drinking as official sports.

I then tried England, because, well, let’s just say my family has had some problems with them in the past. Again, there isn’t enough of a competitive match-up against them, so I moved my sights away.

Greece? Spain? Italy? Nope, not getting anything there. Maybe if Pakistan had a presence I could get worked up about that one since I think they’re willingly hiding out any number of Al-Queda ...

But I digress.

What I’m left with is an Olympics that is not backdropped in geo-political fire as much as the talent and dedication of the participating athletes.

You know, maybe that’s not a bad thing, after all.