We have settled in to watch this year’s Olympics, which consists of thousands of hours of commentary and heart-tugging features on the lives and times of the participants, occasionally interrupted by actual competition.
Perhaps this is for the best, because — and I say this with complete respect for their superior athletic abilities — unless and until any of them win a medal, the names of most Olympians are completely forgettable.
Four years is a long interval, packed with sports whose athletes are hyped by professionals who keep these idols in our collective consciences. And so, when else would we watch a bunch of people run around a track and hand a little round stick from one to the other? Only in years divisible by four.
And so this year I get interested in two things: The Electoral College and the Summer Olympic Games.
Like the non-medal-wearing Olympians, the 538 people who actually choose the president and vice president of the United States are usually unknown party stalwarts of ironclad loyalty who would never defy the election results in their states by voting for someone other than the winner of that election.
Can you name one? They come, they cast electoral votes and then they go, mostly without recognition, although occasionally a big name or two in a particular state gets to be an elector. Well-known Arizonans Joe Arpaio and Rose Mofford each were electors once, but they were exceptions to the rule.
The first Olympian arguably was Pheidippides, who ran more than 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to tell his king of the Greeks’ defeat of the Persians before dropping dead.
Today most of us know nothing about Pheidippides and those that do likely couldn’t spell his name even if they were held at javelin point. His keeling over is why he is remembered at all, as there is no evidence anyone gave him a medal.
Last week the Tribune identified 22 participants in the current Olympics with ties to the East Valley. Seventeen formerly or currently attend Arizona State University, and so we know a few of them already: We recognize basketball standouts such as Ike Diogu and James Harden from their time on the hardwood in Sun Devil uniforms.
Until this week, the remaining five could safely walk through the produce aisle without anyone interrupting their thumping cantaloupes or peeling back the husk of an ear of corn.
If you’ve been watching local television, current local Olympians don’t get nearly the attention that past Olympians who live here do. For example, we’ve seen interviews with gold medalist Amanda Borden of the 1996 gymnastics team, who runs children’s gymnastics academies in Chandler and Tempe.
Pro athletes seem to retire to the golf course, or if they’re rich enough, their own private island. Olympians seem to gravitate toward giving back, sharing knowledge and encouraging the next generation. Borden is one like that. And many years ago, I interviewed an Olympian who placed fourth, and so did not win a gold, silver or bronze medal.
More people likely know Borden’s name, of course, but fencing Olympian Skip Shurtz made a name for himself nonetheless. He is the only man alive who was U.S. national champion in both foil and epee.
The talented, graceful and strong veteran of the 1956 U.S. fencing team was teaching fencing at a local community college. According to his website, he’s still producing champion fencers today, including in wheelchair fencing, teaching in Reno, Nev. This year he was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame.
So here’s to track and field’s Will Claye of Ahwatukee, swimmer Breeja Larson of Mesa, gymnast Alex Naddour of Gilbert, volleyball player Reid Priddy of Ahwatukee and weightlifter Sarah Robles of Mesa.
I had to check to make sure I had their names spelled right, but who knows? In a matter of days, one, more, maybe all of them will become so well known that won’t be necessary.
Or perhaps someday, some young person will still feel the thrill of having met and learned from an Olympian. At that moment, whether that Olympian has any hardware won’t make a difference.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his “On the Mark” video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.