It’s that time of the quadrennial when eyes all over the world are turned to the Olympics. Here in America, we do so with a sense of pride and, yes, thankfulness. Thankful that, at least for a couple weeks, we don’t have to hear nearly as much about the presidential elections.
I grew up in a household that watched the Olympics faithfully, making it about the only time that our TV was on non-stop. The first Olympics I really remember following closely were the ’84 Olympics. I would like to say that that was the first Olympic year that I was old enough and mature enough to really appreciate the competition, the spectacle and the international flavor.
But that would be lying.
I watched the 1984 Olympics because of Mary Lou Retton. She was “only a gymnast”, but for anyone today who thinks the TV coverage is focused too much on Michael Phelps, the coverage he’s getting is nothing compared to Mary Lou. She was EVERYWHERE. Eighty thousand people might be packed into a stadium to watch soccer or swimming or something, but the camera would always manage to find Mary Lou.
And then, after the Olympics, they had her advertising everything from tennis shoes to denture cream. Many people complained that she was overexposed, in terms of advertising, but speaking for eighteen year old boys everywhere: we didn’t care! Mary Lou was pretty, athletic, winsome … and all those other words like that. Years later when Jerry Seinfeld would do an episode about how he’d always dreamed of dating a gymnast, all us men of a certain age only had one particular gymnast in mind.
And she looked happy gym-ing … or whatever you call it.
Sunday night, as I watched women’s gymnastics with my seventeen year old son, he remarked that some of them might be pretty if they ever once smiled and looked like they enjoyed what they were doing. If only he knew. Mary Lou always looked like she was enjoying what she was doing. Some people said the smile was overdone, and once those commercials were everywhere the comic strip “Tank MacNamara” got a lot of mileage out of that smile, but the reality is that one of the reason we loved Mary Lou was that she really did look like she was enjoying what she was doing. Whether she was selling exercise equipment or attending a rodeo, Mary Lou Retton looked like she was having a good time.
I love sports (most of them, anyway) and can appreciate the necessity of focus, but there will always be a special place in my heart for those people who looked like they enjoyed what they were doing: Mary Lou Retton, Kirby Puckett, Joe Montana … and even Jose Altuve, who can look like he’s enjoying playing even while anchoring second base for one of the worst teams to ever take the field (but I think the Astros will be better once they bring up a good cast to put around Jose).
I’m enjoying watching the Olympics and cheering on the red, white and blue, but—as much as I hate to rhyme at a time like this—I miss Mary Lou.