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Published August 07 2012

Unity, rarity and national pride spark Olympic fever locally

FARGO – The backstroke, the shot put and the trampoline aren’t typically part of Angela Mathers’ daily routine. Gabby Douglas, Milorad Cavic and Oscar Pistorius aren’t usually part of her daily lexicon.

But when the Olympics roll around, she’s all in on all of them.

Her DVR is stuffed to the bursting point with hundreds of hours of footage, from prelims to event finals. She’s been sequestering herself from the Internet and chatty coworkers to avoid spoilers. No matter what the event, she’s a fan.

“It’s just the dedication and commitment that the athletes have,” the 28-year-old employee of Minnesota State Community and Technical College said. “I think that’s something that’s really remarkable.”

Her case of Olympic fever is hardly an isolated one: From young people hopping between downtown bars in colorful gymnastics leotards to viewing parties complete with gold, silver and bronze-frosted cupcakes, the games have inspired no shortage of enthusiasm.

So what gets her and fellow devotees so fired up about sports in which they might not know the rules and about athletes whose names they can’t pronounce?

John Cox, head of North Dakota State University’s history department and an expert on nationalism, said the appeal comes from a mix of homegrown pride, global unity and appreciation for pageantry and excellence at the highest level.

On one hand, he said, people are drawn to the games as a measuring stick of national excellence. If American athletes win more medals than a global rival like China, fans see it as validation that our training programs, work ethic and values system are somehow superior.

“It’s a way of comparing ourselves to other countries,” he said.

On the other hand, the games also bring together and humanize competitors from all corners of the globe, fostering a heartwarming sense of goodwill.

“That’s a very positive thing about the Olympics,” Cox said. “That was part of the goal.”

He also said different countries appreciate the games in different ways. In America, where a big medal haul is taken for granted, we’re rooting for dominance. In smaller nations that struggled just to get to the Olympics, showing up, “whether they win any medals or not, is a form of validation and recognition.”

For Gary Mailloux, Fargo North High School’s track and field coach, the Summer Games mark a surge of interest in a sport that usually lives on the fringes of the mainstream. Suddenly, Jamaican rivalries, celebrity hurdlers and photo finishes are the talk of the world.

“It’s the one time when track and field really does get the center of attention,” said Mailloux, a longtime Fargo North coach. “I’m fired up about it.”

He said the games are popular even among the most casual of sports fans because they provide a welcome respite from the bad news of the world.

“We get a constant barrage of all the downsides of life and society and things like that, and sport is exciting, it’s positive,” he said.

“People appreciate that and they kind of latch on. We still long for as a people the coming together of the nations of the world. It’s putting aside the daily dose of fighting and violence,” he said.

He said it’s also an opportunity for fans to broaden their athletic horizons in an age of increasingly narrow specialization. While he pays close attention to the events in his sport, he also finds himself captivated by niche events that only come around on national television once every four years.

The other day at lunch, he found himself watching rowing.

“When else do you ever have any access to that sort of thing? You don’t,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502