Why everyone should go to the Olympics at least once

You'll have the time of your life

Olympic fans cheer during the Athens Olympics in 2004.
(Image credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In my current passport photo, I am only 17.

The photographer had instructed me not to smile. But you can tell by looking at the tight muscles in my face and the white light reflected back in my eyes that it requires total resistance for me not to break into a grin. I was that excited. I was about to go to my very first Olympic Games.

In a few years, I'll have to go through the passport renewal process. I'll be bummed to lose my hard-earned stamps. But even more, I will miss that picture of 17-year-old me — the one snapped on the eve of my first Olympics.

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Vancouver, British Columbia, is less than 150 miles from where I grew up in Seattle, but in 2010 it felt a world away. My father, who has done work for the U.S. Ski Association for decades, had been selected from an international pool to oversee the freestyle ski courses up at Cypress Mountain (a mighty challenge, as it would turn out, since there was no snow). For the weekends we weren't in school, my brother and I were able to tag along.

It was life-changing. Even if you're not a sports fan, you should try to go to the Games at least once in your lifetime. It will change you for the better.

Of course, going to the Olympcs isn't exactly easy. Travel is expensive, particularly across continents. Europe has had an overwhelming share of the Olympics, and North America has been known to hog the Games too. Rio marks the first time the Olympic torch has even been lit in South America; it has never made it to Africa. And it won't be anytime soon: The next six years of the Olympics will be in Asia, with the next Winter Games in South Korea, the next Summer Games in Tokyo, and the subsequent Winter Games in Beijing.

But if the Olympics are nearby, you don't even need to splurge on tickets to have a memorable experience. While going to the actual competitions is obviously, well, the point, most people don't just shuttle from one stadium to another all day. Cities want to host the Olympics in part because the Games bring tourists who will spend breaks between events exploring the city.

While you might not realize it watching on TV at home, the city is as much the star as the athletes. I ate my first crêpe from a food truck in a pop-up village celebrating Canada's ties to France; I watched First Nations people work on carving a totem pole; I bought a hand-painted mug directly from the local artist who made it. And then there are the giant stores filled with Olympic clothing, posters, and memorabilia (yes, I bought stuffed-animal versions of all of the mascots).

But with all this emphasis on the host city, not to mention the Games virtually pitting nation against nation, people sometimes criticize the Olympics for bringing out a kind of dangerous nationalistic pride. Yet on the whole, if you spend more than five minutes in an Olympic city, you can't possibly agree. At men's aerials or ice dancing, I cheered for Australia, Jamaica, and Canada, in addition to the United States. My brother bought a beautiful white-and-red Team Russia scarf — despite having no connection at all to Russia.

Many athletes spend their entire lives working to get the the Olympics; the culmination of so many dreams and goals leaves a palpable feeling in the air. And that feeling was summed up every time we bought something from the official Olympic merchandisers and would get a tote bag with the words Go Le Monde — or, Go World.

Then there is that particular feeling of being, for a brief few weeks, at the center of the universe. Televisions set up around the city broadcast the Games. Nothing was more memorable than being in a public square and watching Canada beat the U.S. in the hockey final to win one of the host country's first gold medals of the Games. As soon as the puck was off Sidney Crosby's stick for the overtime goal, the crowd exploded in a red-and-white frenzy. In downtown Vancouver, people hung over balcony railings cheering; cars honked their horns; total strangers embraced in tears.

Since 2010, my passport has taken me all over the world. But no trip was more important than those 150 miles I traveled from my own front door. And while I'm not in Rio this year, every passing Olympics makes me eager to attend the next — maybe, I imagine, I can go to South Korea in 2018, or Japan in 2020.

I'll have a new passport by then, a new picture. But the goal is the same — Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, higher, stronger.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin helped revive the modern Olympics, and he is credited as saying, "The most important thing ... is not the winning but taking part." That is what you realize attending the Olympics: It is not about the medal counts, or even really about who gets to stand on which level of the podium. It is about being there, whether you are an athlete or an onlooker, in the press of people of all nations, celebrating what makes us human: our cultures, our languages, our bodies.

Go Le Monde, indeed.

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