Note: Graduate student Jami Wilson spent the summer working as an intern at the U. S. Olympic Committee Archives in downtown Colorado Springs. Here, she reflects on some of the gems she found in those archives, and why History research so rocks!
Little Pieces of History: Athlete Memories
I’m sifting through some United States Olympic Committee manuscripts wherein American Olympians (participants in the Olympic Games between the 1960s and the early 2000s) listed their favorite memory about attending the Olympic Games. A few men wrote, “Beating the Russians!” The athletes used the same rhetoric with the same exclamation point at the end every time. They included no additional explanation, as if their statement alone should be understood without lengthy articulation. I can’t find any “Beating the Chinese!” or “Beating the Canadians!” statements. Yet the writers of these anti-Russian sentiments (written in 2004) vary from male athletes who participated in the Games between the 1960s and the early 2000s. There is something here. Why would winning against Russians, specifically, be the most important memory of an American male athlete at the Olympic Games? How might this be more important than winning gold, attending the Opening Ceremony, being on Team USA, or other factors? Last week a salesman at a jerky store here in Colorado Springs ironically mentioned that “the Cold War is heating up again.” Could these “favorite memory” statements, written with the 60s-00s in mind, indicate the Cold War never stopped boiling? Or maybe the fact that athletes wrote these statements in 2004 depicted the political climate of that year–maybe if the U.S. Olympic Committee had asked athletes about their favorite memory in 2010 athletes would have answered differently.
It’s funny how small oddities strike a match in my brain. Something is wrong here, or maybe something is right here. Once ignited, these notions have the capacity to initiate a much larger conversation about history and the place of individuals within it. Where do I, as a self-imposed analyst of these statements, stand in this mess of other’s memories? What biases am I carrying that need to be revealed and discarded? Or best of all, why does this matter? Why is “Beating the Russians!” so striking?
I discover a gem in the pile of “favorite memory” responses. An athlete who participated in the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games stated: “I got on the wrong bus to my event.” Simply put and yet understandably comical. Of all his experiences, he chose being lost, being transported on a clunky, rumbling machine to an unknown destination as representative of his time as an Olympic athlete. I imagine his fear, his anxiety of being on the wrong bus, but whether or not he actually experienced these emotions I cannot know. I’m simply inhabiting his space, attempting to adjust myself on the relatively soft seats and avoiding the light smell of exhaust sneaking through the cracked, rectangular windows of the bus. Maybe he’s laughing because he entered the wrong contraption but I’m heating up, because when I become nervous and unsure, my body responds by blowing its temperature gauge. I’m internally slapping myself for being so incompetent because I tend to attack myself with mental abuse when I do wrong, but the athlete may easily correct his mistake. He may find another bus headed in the right direction. I like experiencing his sentence. His one sentence creates a whole setting, an entire world.
Sentiments like this athlete’s bus mishap reveal humility and make “winning gold” as a favorite moment seem rather boring or obvious. Maybe the word I’m looking for is typical. Athletes typically cherish holding a cool, gold medal in their hand after a long run, not getting lost on a bus on perhaps the most important day in an athlete’s career. I’d rather, however, know about the supposedly unimportant things that happened, the unlikely things someone might mention to family members after a long stream of generalized “this happened and then this happened” statements, but that they wouldn’t necessarily mention to a reporter asking about how making it to the Olympics felt. I want to know who got on the wrong bus at the Olympics and risked missing their event because of an easy miscalculation. But I don’t believe I would have known this was my personal investment in sports history until I read this athlete’s short, human sentence—we may all be potential Olympians because we all have the capacity to get lost on a bus.
I love finding small stories in little pieces of history.
These “favorite memories” weren’t something athletes assumed would be read following the 2004 centennial celebration (2004 marked America’s 100 year involvement in the Olympic Games and thus, the U.S. Olympic Committee asked Athletes about their favorite moments to promote the event). I wasn’t meant to read or know these memories. Yet here I am, organizing statements written with handwriting varying in legibility that reference Russians and buses. These articulations force me to smile, laugh, and cringe. I know in these moments of inquiry History asserts itself as my favorite discipline because it makes me so contextually aware. What is the writer’s context, the event’s context, or the nation’s context here? What is my specific context in relation to these contexts? How am I interpreting these sources? How am I giving them meaning and how are they inherently showing me meaning? I fundamentally believe what matters here is that these memories grip my arm, no, worse, my mind, and pull me into another time that reinforces my own place in the grand narrative of history.
Discovering lives lived resembles finding that last fry at the bottom of a hot, greasy fast-food bag: salty, yet tasteful. I’m never disappointed.