We’re more than a week into our “Filling the Void” series thanks to everyone’s favorite new friend, COVID-19, and we’ve had offerings from pretty much all of the major sports. With the recent news that the 2020 Olympic Games will officially be postponed, there’s yet another chasm in our sports-loving hearts. For me, news of the Olympic postponement hits a bit differently than all of the professional sports leagues.
A “League” Of Their Own
I’ve always looked at the Olympics differently than the professional sports leagues. The primary difference is, obviously, athlete compensation. In MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA and countless other top sporting leagues around the globe, the athletes who partake in their respective sport get paid. The leagues are individual businesses and the athletes are doing their jobs.
For Olympians, however – there is no “salary” to speak of. Athletes have to come up with other ways to make their Olympic dreams a reality. Another obvious difference is when the athletes actually compete. The sports leagues have annual seasons, where the Olympics typically occur every 4 years. In 1986 the IOC (International Olympic Committee – the organizing body for the games) decided to begin alternating between the summer and winter games every two years. Perhaps the biggest difference for me personally, however, is the “human interest” stories.
“Getting To Know You”
Look across the sports landscape and it’s littered with “household names”, the cream of the crop in each of the major sports. Even a casual sports fan can name a few athletes in most of the popular sports. Despite knowing a bunch of the names, people don’t often know much about the actual person.
Sure – I can rattle off Pete Alonso’s stats from his rookie year with the New York Mets – but how much do I really know about him? What can most people tell me about Mohamed Salah beyond the fact that he’s one of the leading goal scorers for Liverpool? Or Aaron Rodgers – except that he’s the “Discount Double Check” guy? The thing I usually love most about the Olympics is getting the chance to hear about who these athletes are, beyond their athletic accomplishments. That brings me to Dan Jansen – Olympic Speed Skater – Team USA.
Dan was the youngest of nine children, born in Wisconsin in 1965. It’s no shock, then, that he found himself in ice skates at an early age. What may have been surprising was the type of skates. They weren’t hockey skates, or even figure skating skates. Instead, he took to a pair of these:
At an early age, and inspired by his older sister Jane, he began showing promise as a speed skater. In fact, he set a junior world record in the 500m race at age 16. He finished just off the podium in the 1984 Olympics at the 500m distance. He placed 16th in the 1,000m race. Not bad for a teenager.
Dan would be introduced to the world at large during the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. He entered the Games as the World Sprint Champion and was a favorite in both the 500 and 1,000m races. First up was the 500m event which took place on February 14, 1988. It turned out to be a defining day for him, both personally and in his career. He’d been notified early in the day that his sister Jane had passed away after battling leukemia.
As I sit here writing about this, I hearken back to my own sister, who lost her battle with cancer more than 20 years ago. I remember lying next to her in bed as she drew her final breaths before leaving us. I was absolutely crushed. I can only imagine what must’ve been going through Jansen’s head and heart upon learning of Jane’s death. Ultimately he decided to stay and compete. That’s when this happened:
Just like that – roughly 20 seconds into the race, it was over. From favorite to off the podium. It would’ve been shocking but given everything else that Jansen was dealing with, it was understandable if he was “off his game”. Somehow – after all of this, he was able to compete four days later in the 1,000m event. He was dedicating the race to his sister, and got out to a great start and was on record-breaking pace:
He left Calgary without a medal, despite coming into the Games as a favorite in multiple events. His was one of the biggest stories of those Olympics – and it stuck with me.
The Next Chapter
After the ’88 Olympics we did what we usually do – went about our lives. Because of the nature of the Olympics, we didn’t really hear much about Jansen or most other Olympians. Instead, we had MLB, NFL, NHL etc. to occupy our minds and fill our need for sports. In the speed-skating world, however, Jansen would continue to show that he was one of the best. Still, the Olympics proved elusive for him. In 1992 he stumbled in both events and left Albertville, France without a medal – again. Being four years removed from the events of Calgary, his story had become more about choking on the Olympic stage and less about everything he had endured in 1988 (at least to some). That all set the stage for the 1994 Olympics, in Lillehammer, Norway.
Once again, the 500m event was the first up for Jansen. Yet again he was heavily favored, having come into the competition at the top of his sport and solidifying his reputation as one of the best skaters of his generation. However, after a small error left him with an 8th place finish in the 500m event, it all came down to the 1,000. This was Jansen’s 4th Olympic Games – despite being a medal favorite in virtually every event he competed in, he’d left each time without a medal, until…
THIS! This is what I was talking about earlier when I mentioned the “human interest stories” that come with the Olympics that we don’t always get elsewhere in sports. The story of Dan Jansen is remarkable. The human spirit is incredible. It is resilient, indefatigable and extraordinary. That’s why I felt like looking back on Jansen’s story. In these days of uncertainty, we sometimes need reminders that, in the end, it’ll all be OK. Despite whatever hurdles we may encounter, nothing can keep the human spirit down. There are millions of these “human interest stories” happening right now – in our hometowns and cities across the country, and the world. These people on the front lines of this pandemic are living proof that the human spirit can, and will, overcome.
See you tomorrow. Stay Safe. Stay Smart. Wash Your Hands.
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