While I appreciate athletic prowess as much as any other dedicated sports fan, my interest in the Olympic Games has always been casual, at best (perhaps with the exception of 1992, when I got to watch Larry Bird and Magic Johnson unite to pulverize team after team of shell-shocked factory workers who made their shoes). I'm not a fan of forced patriotism; I find it difficult to muster a personal interest in athletes that I've never heard of before and will likely never hear of again in a span of two weeks; and, most importantly, the vast majority of Olympic sports are all Greek to me [Ed. note: rim shot].
But that was before this year...when I became involved in a Fantasy Olympics League.
Gambling changes everything.
A little over a week ago, I had only a vague notion of who Michael Phelps--the face of not only my country's team but the entire 2008 Olympics--was; today, I could confidently engage in a detailed discussion about Germany's chances in the 25 meter rapid fire pistol (Ralf Schumann should set the table on the men's side). What inspired my drastic turnabout was surprisingly simple: the day before the games started, a group of my friends--gambling fiends, all--led by my wife, came to the arbitrary realization that the Beijing Olympics could serve as a platform for individual competition among themselves. When my wife offered me a piece of the action, I couldn't say "yes" fast enough; seeing, for the first time, the Olympic Games as a forum through which I might score more points than my friends and family members might score, I was suddenly an Olympics superfan.
Unfortunately, my fantasy team's chances got off the wrong foot twofold: not only did I draw a terrible position in the draft order, I was late to arrive to the event and my first two picks were chosen for me by committee. (I recovered as best as I could with my subsequent selections.) I have yet to even see the league scoreboard because it's at my wife's office; Monday through Wednesday, her only response to my nightly inquiries about my team's standing was, "you don't want to know". I didn't earn a single medal until Frederica Pellegrini finally got with the program and won gold in the women’s 200 meter freestyle...but by then, my chances for victory were long gone (especially since my "friend" Mikey--despite the fact that I made him my best man at my freaking wedding--refused, during the draft, to trade me Michael Phelps as a show of sympathy). Given that I had possessed minimal interest in the Olympics less than a week earlier, one might assume that I would have had no trouble accepting my failure in my Fantasy Olympics League...
One would only assume this, however, if one had never participated in fantasy sports.
Prior to Pellegrini's victory Wednesday night, I had discerned from my wife that there was one person in the league besides me who had yet to earn a medal. After my Italian lady swimmer won the gold, my enthusiasm was renewed and refocused: with first place out of reach, my goal now was to defeat Alex--the other guy with no medals at the time--for not-last place.
It wouldn't be easy, and it would be very American: my team's best remaining chance for success was U.S. female gymnast Nastia Liukin; Alex's team's best remaining chance was Liukin's teammate and closest competitor, U.S. female gymnast Shawn Johnson. This was the kind of Olympic drama that you couldn't make up...the kind that fourth-place network NBC has been desperately attempting to fabricate at every opportunity.
Having acclimated myself to the U.S. women's gymnastics team two nights earlier--when they were ultimately defeated by the 9-year-old supermonkeys of the brazenly cheating Chinese team--I was worried that I had bet on the wrong horse: Nastia Liukin appeared to be a cold-blooded snake, while Shawn Johnson--who was on par with Liukin in terms of ability--came across as a good-natured and likable (if weirdly bemuscled) chipmunk. As a result, I wanted to write the whole thing off; I wanted not to care.
Nevertheless, I found myself glued to the television at 12:30 a.m. Friday morning--three hours after what I, on the west coast, was seeing on NBC's alleged "live" feed had actually happened--living and dying with every moment of the women's gymnastics finals.
I can't say that I'm not ashamed of myself...but I definitely would be a lot more ashamed if Nastia Liukin hadn't ended up totally kicking ass.
Go, Olympics! Go, America!
But mostly...go, uneducated wagers from which nothing can be gained but a slight and fleeting ego boost, if even that!