“Only You, Mary Lou”: In Search of the Olympic Moment

by Sarah Marshall

The London Olympics are less than three weeks away, so naturally I’ve already started fighting with people about them. The other day I got into an argument with a friend when I began elaborating on how much I was looking forward to the Games (I had bought my commemorative Mary Lou Retton Wheaties box! I was already obsessing about the trials!) and he said that he wouldn’t be watching them because they were, in his opinion, “dull.” Even more annoying than that, however, was the fact that, the more I thought about it, the more I could see his point.

The first Olympics I remember watching were the 1996 Atlanta Games. I was eight years old and wanted to stay up past my bedtime to watch the end of the opening ceremonies, in part because of the mistaken belief that the entire Olympics was going to be broadcast right then and there. And the fact that this made more sense to me than the idea of an epic, impossibly varied smorgasbord of athletic display allows me some insight into my friend’s claim that the Olympics were “dull”: by our modern standards, they almost have to be. As a people, we rarely read long novels or have much patience for any story, written or filmed, that takes its time in unfolding. Television has become the only form of serialized narrative we regularly consume, but now that we can choose how and when we consume it, we often choose to take it in not over a period of months or years but during a single weekend (despite how stressful it is to watch more than two episodes of Breaking Bad in a row).

The Olympics are consumed by the vast majority of audience members as a television event, but one whose timing we cannot control. I have little doubt that, if the Olympics had not existed until now, and were proposed as a new venture but some ambitious entrepreneur, their creator would be regarded as stupidly overambitious, if not insane. They require tremendous amounts of money — both to broadcast and to host — and millions of man hours, and they are perhaps phenomenally ill-suited to the preferences of modern viewers. But they have been a part of our lives since before the advent of television, and so were not created with television audiences in mind; we grew up watching them, and our parents grew up watching them, and they are as much a given to us as election years.

The London Games will consist of athletes from 204 countries competing in twenty-six sports over a period of seventeen days, and are, according to NBC, worth $1.18 billion, the amount they paid for the broadcast rights last February. The 2008 Olympics were watched by 215 million Americans, making them the most-watched broadcast in the country’s history, and we can anticipate a similar viewership later this summer. The Olympics don’t care if we think they’re “dull” (though NBC executives probably do), and the most relevant question in all of this may not be why anyone could have the temerity to dislike the Olympics, but why so many of us love them as much as we do.

The answer to this question came to me while I was avoiding figuring it out, specifically while watching Grease on HBO Family. The problem with turning on Grease, at least for me, and saying “I’ll only watch it for a minute!” is that, unlike a lot of other movies that happen to be on TV in the middle of the night, it doesn’t contain one or two good moments you can wait for, watch, and then walk away from. If you start watching Grease you go straight from “Summer Nights” to that great sleepover scene, and then of course you have to at least hear Dinah Manoff say “I’m a terrific pen pal: hopelessly devoted to each and every one,” and then you have to wait around at least through the end of “Greased Lightning” so you can watch John Travolta rub Saran Wrap on his crotch (I ask you, why was this movie on HBO Family?), and then pretty soon the T-Birds are racing for pinks at Thunder Road and it’s two-thirty in the morning.

Of course, William Goldman said it more succinctly when he wrote: “I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: ‘do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.’”

In my opinion, when we watch the Olympics, we’re watching moments — and before we watch them, we’re waiting for them to happen. The beauty part — and maybe the most compelling reason for us to come back year after year, braving Coke commercial after Coke commercial — is that we know we will find them. Every Olympics has a defining moment, and though these moments can vary depending on your country of origin (and on who you want to win), they nevertheless manage to distill, a manner that transcends national identity, all of the possibilities for transformation that the Olympics holds. The defining moment of the 1972 Summer Olympics (at least in my opinion — I welcome all counterarguments) was Mark Spitz winning seven gold medals, a record that went unchallenged until Michael Phelps won eight in Beijing. The defining moment of the 1980 Winter Olympics was — at least to Americans — the Miracle on Ice, and the defining moment of the 1984 Summer Olympics was — despite the Los Angeles Games being as full of moments as an Olympics can be — Mary Lou Retton’s victory in the individual all-around.

I know of Mary Lou Retton only through her pop culture legacy and Bud Greenspan’s 16 Days of Glory (which chronicles her moment and many others with all the beauty and gravitas one could ask for). But I didn’t watch her on TV when she charged toward legend — eyes bright, Dorothy Hamill bob flying — and so when I wanted to understand just how big of a phenomenon Mary Lou really was, I did what I always do when I want to understand the importance of an event that took place in the eighties: I asked my mother about it. Not because she was especially in tune with sports or politics or pop culture or anything else that was happening at the time, but because she spend the better part of the decade first as a medical student, then as an intern, and then as a resident, and as such was completely oblivious to almost everything that happened outside a hospital. Among the things she doesn’t remember clearly are: the Iran hostage crisis, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Reagan assassination attempt, the Challenger disaster, and the “Thriller” video. What she does remember is Mary Lou Retton winning the individual all-around in the 1984 Olympics — not because she had any particular interest in gymnastics or even watched the Olympics that year, but because, in her words, “her face was everywhere. It was huge news. ’Cause we had never really done much in gymnastics, you know, it was all Russia… I can see her face and her hair and everything. It’s printed indelibly in my memory. It was huge. It was just huge.”

It’s hard to quantify just how ready Americans were ready for — just how much they needed — Mary Lou. Because of the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Americans were hungry for any kind of victory at the summer Games, and because of their dismal history in women’s gymnastics — in the history of the games, they had taken home only a single medal, a bronze in 1948 for team all-around — the idea of an American gymnast winning anything was almost unimaginable.

The story that made Mary Lou’s moment possible is almost too well-known to bother telling — even if you don’t know the specifics, you can guess them with the knowledge you’ve gained from watching any other great Olympic moment, or for that matter any great moment in sports. There is the plucky underdog, the juggernaut opposition, and the moment of truth. The details, in Mary Lou’s case, were as follows: the Americans had already won a team silver medal, just behind the Romanian team’s gold, and now had progressed to the individual all-around, in which gymnasts would medal based their cumulative scores for the uneven bars, balance beam, floor exercise, and vault.

Throughout the all-around Retton and Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo were neck and neck, often separated by no more than a fifteenth of a point. Szabo finished her last component as Retton was preparing for her final event: the vault. Szabo’s scores dictated what Retton needed to do: if she managed a 9.95 on the vault, she and Szabo would share the gold medal. Anything less and she would take silver. The only way to claim the gold was to score a perfect ten.

The vault is perhaps the shortest event in the summer Olympics — it makes even the 100 meter dash, which takes around ten seconds, seem sluggish. From the time Mary Lou started running toward the apparatus to when she landed on the mat, six seconds elapsed, but in those six seconds were the entire Olympics. Out of a three week event, it was six seconds that had changed everything, six seconds that would dominate people’s memory of the Games, six seconds that had embodied the story everyone had tuned in to see. Mary Lou had won the gold.

And this, of course, is the wonderful thing about the Olympics as well as the thing that might seem most frustrating to the DVR generation: we cannot control when we watch them, cannot construct a viewing experience for ourselves. Everyone is talking about them, or more to the point about a moment within them, and we simply have to go along for the ride. And, though we may want to argue against the story we are being told — Gymnastics is a destructive and abusive sport! Russia had boycotted the 1984 Games, so the Americans’ victory was only against Romania! Who’s to say that Mary Lou’s score wasn’t a fluke! — it seems ridiculous to do so. We live in a world where we are constantly fed stories whose pat logic we must question and fight, where businessmen and politicians explain away the harm they do to our country by positioning themselves and their constituents within a comforting narrative, one that we must do everything we can to explode. The narrative of the Olympics is one that cannot harm us, and so why resist being swept away by it just once every four years?

Because of my eternal bias toward figure skating, I have to admit that my favorite Olympic moment of all time came in the 1988 Winter Games, when Brian Boitano won Olympic gold. (Despite the fame that greeted him after his victory, my mother remembers nothing about it.) I watch it whenever I’m depressed or anxious, and I find it so inspiring — as America found Mary Lou inspiring, and so many other athletes we have known since then — because what he did was not really about skating but about the human ability to attempt something damn near impossible when you only have one chance to do it, and to do it not just successfully but beautifully.

And so, as we look forward to the upcoming games, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of what made us love past Olympics, and which stories allowed us to be swept away — if only for six seconds. Who did you fall in love with as a child? What performance made you leap over your couch onto a pad of cushions, stage a backyard decathlon, or pretend your bathing suit was a leotard and wear it all summer long? In less than three weeks, athletes from 204 countries will converge in London, and one of them will take home the defining moment of the Games. That — more than any medal — is the real prize at stake.

Sarah Marshall is a graduate student at Portland State University, where she recently wrote a term paper titled “Trying on the Glass Slipper: Harding, Kerrigan, and Figure Skating’s Scripted Narratives,” despite the fact that the class she wrote it for was on Twentieth Century British Literature.