When I was younger, I used to marvel at the skill of the gymnasts and the divers. I’d wonder, if I really put my mind to it, would I be able to perform some kind of small but daring version of their super cool tricks?
I’d watch the cyclists and imagine pedalling that hard. I’d watch the pain on the faces of the triathletes in the final kilometres and wonder if I had what it takes to push that hard in a competition I cared about.
I’d watch the rowing and feel hypnotised by the rhythm of the boats in the water. I’d watch the swimming and will my favourite athletes to the line. I’d watch sports I knew nothing about and want to give them a go too.
As I get older, it’s not performance, speed and the all-encompassing single-minded focus so many athletes have on winning a gold medal that’s inspiring me. In 2016, it’s these things.
1. Athletes who are so strong they sacrifice energy for their team-mates and still keep you on the edge of your seat
Athletes like London 2012 road cycling gold medallist Marianne Vos (the Netherlands). Tipped as one of the favourites this year too, she confused commentators and delighted fans when she dropped back to the team car to pick up water bottles for the rest of her team.
Suddenly everyone was thinking that she was riding in a support role. Until she appeared in one of the day’s main breakaways at the front, keeping us all guessing into the final nail-biting kilometres.
Vos’s team-mate Anna van der Breggen won the race. It was an emotional victory as compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten crashed badly on the side of the road, while in the gold medal position, leaving the whole peloton worried about whether she’d be able to walk away.
Post-race, Vos, also the definition of class off the bike said she, “Couldn’t have wished for a better successor.” Then collected notes from as many cyclists as she could chase down to deliver to her friend in hospital.
2. Stories of athletes who have overcome a lot more than a lack of government funding to get to Rio
So many athletes are quick to tell you how little funding their sport has. They’re strong, they’re determined and all that’s standing in the way of them and Olympic glory is a few tens of thousands of dollars a year.
I understand how this is a huge part of the challenge of competing at this level. But for me, it’s stories like these that quickly put things into perspective:
3. Commentators who know their stuff, particularly when it comes to the women’s competitions
A lot of commentators have to call the men’s and the women’s events. But not all of them do both with equal excitement and pre-Olympic interest.
Those who repeat the same couple of facts, over and over, while saying out loud who is positioned where, only serve to heighten the skills of people who do it better. Like articulate, invested, knowledgeable fans on Twitter. And Drew Ginn, who is doing a tremendous job on the rowing.
4. Seeing the moments that inspire the athletes who are competing in 2016
Like meeting Cathy Freeman. And the number of Australian athletes in awe as the have the chance speak with such an incredible woman.
5. All the Olympic edition active wear
In a way, I feel like I’m not supposed to say this. There’s so much sensitivity around about how we talk about women in sport, and commenting on how people look. When this is done at the expense of, say, what these athletes can actually do, it is definitely not cool.
But as someone who loves sport, and the lifestyle, and all the cool equipment and technical developments, I really do like seeing all the team kits. The comfy tracksuit pants, the cosy hoodies, the technical fabrics of the competition gear, and the ways each design team has worked with national colours and cultural sensibilities.
I also really like seeing women compete using custom gear that actually fits. I like seeing role models who aren’t wearing heaps of make-up and heals. I like the way good kit celebrates so many fit, powerful and diverse body shapes.
Some of these fabrics are so see through it highlights just how many athletes are held together by strapping tape. It always blows my mind how much tape it takes to do the job of a tiny little ligament. The human body really is incredible.