The original Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, first held around 786 B.C., were created as a celebration of human physical achievement, which apparently consisted of watching naked, well-muscled men running foot races.
Luckily for the viewing public, the Olympics have come a long way since their revival in the late 1800's. Now they recognize both non-Greek speaking males and females as humans, they've added a fair bit of clothing, which tends to put the focus back on the actual sports...themselves expanded far beyond the initial foot-racing and wrestling of the original.
Over the past several decades, however, we've seen the emergence of an entirely new type of gaming - video gaming - and while it may not be an official event, the pastime we all know and love is alive and well at the Olympic games.
Let me introduce you to just a few of the gamers that will be representing the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing...if we can pry them away from their consoles long enough.
Hometown: Fremont, CA
Birthdate: September 24th, 1981
Event: Gymnastics (Lord Of The Still Rings)
Favorite Games: Halo 3, Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Super Mario Galaxy, Guitar Hero
Kevin Tan, who acts as the assistant Gymnastics coach at Penn State when he isn't busy dominating the still rings, started gaming around the same time his interest in gymnastics began, between the ages of 6 and 7. Sure, he was playing his older brother's NES - but as you know, it was no small feat keeping a child in the late '80s away from Super Mario Bros. on a Nintendo.
The Competitive Spirit Works In Mysterious Ways
When I first started working on this story I fully expected to talk to athletes who had discovered video gaming late in their careers as a way to let off steam between intense training sessions and competitions. I expected stories of Olympians suddenly discovering the joy of pixellated pursuits after a particularly painful loss, or something to that effect. Honestly my only exposure to Olympic athletes before now had been seeing them on television and inspirational movies on cable, which always portray them as people with a singular driving purpose with no time for more frivolous pursuits. It turns out that what you see on television isn't always true. Who knew?
As it turns out, just about all of the Olympic athletes I profiled started playing video games around the same time they started showing interest in their more physical pursuits. Take Kevin Tan, a champion of the still rings and assistant gymnastics coach for Penn State, who got started gaming at the age of six, playing Super Mario Bros. on his brother's Nintendo Entertainment System. Or Diana Lopez, the taekwondo champion from a family of taekwondo champions, who inherited more than her fighting spirit from her older brothers.
"I remember watching my brothers always playing Tecmo Bowl, mid 80's. I really didn't know how to play, I just pressed buttons."
Oddly enough, this is the same technique I use while performing taekwondo.
When you really think about it, physical sports and video games compliment each other quite nicely. Once the body is spent from pushing it to the limit of human performance the fingers, eyes, and mind can carry on the fight in a more digital medium, and of course there's the extra added benefit of learning important map-reading skills.
Hometown: Temple, TX
Birthdate: January 20th, 1979
Event: Gymnastics (Vault and Parallel Bars)
Favorite Game: Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Sean Townsend began practicing gymnastics at the age of 9, picking up his video game habit a year later at the age of 10, presumably while hanging around (parallel) bars. Like so many youngsters, Super Mario Bros. drew him in, though he's since graduated to the harder stuff.
Fun Fact: His dad is named Frost Townsend. Frost has now jumped to the top of the list of aliases I will assume should I ever commit the perfect crime, beating out Steel Dagger, Death Thompson, and Pablo Menendez.
Escaping The Everyday
Like all video game players, Olympic athletes use their consoles and handhelds to escape the every day grind. The only real difference is that while our everyday grind might involve filling out TPS report cover sheets or...I dunno, writing video game news, their every day involves competing in sports at an international level.
Texas-born gymnast Sean Townsend finds time to let off a little steam in the evenings during breaks in his busy practice schedule by playing Call of Duty 4 (like about a million other people), finding that it not only helps him relax but also helps him feel comfortable when competing in exotic locations.
"It's good because you feel like you're at home and it keeps your mind off of gymnastics for a little bit."
Kevin Tan echoes Townsend's sentiments exactly.
If I didn't have games, I would be thinking about gymnastics all of the time. It is a good way to rest as well as socialize.
This of course makes me wonder if the opposite is true. Perhaps I should take up gymnastics so I'm not thinking about video games all of the time. I'll pause so anyone who has met me in person can finish laughing.
All done? Moving right along...
Home Town: Sugar Land, TX
Birthdate: January 7th, 1984
Favorite Game: The Simpsons Game
Diana comes from a family of Taekwondo champions, her three older brothers Jean, Mark, and Steven already having filled the family mantle with various gold and silver trinkets. In 1995 at the World Taekwondo Championships Diana, Steven, and Mark all took home World Championship titles. You really don't want to tick this family off.
Diana has fond memories of her brothers playing Tecmo Bowl in the late 80's, which eventually lead to her love of both Duck Hunt and Mike Tyson's Punch Out.
Fun Fact: The World Taekwondo Federation has the best abbreviation ever.
In The Game
There are no truly great gymnastics video games. This is the consensus from among the gymnasts when asked if they have ever found a game that was an accurate representation of their sport. This strikes me as odd. Whenever the Summer Olympics is on television, the first thing my family will tune to is the gymnastics portions. There's something about the combination of strength, dexterity, and simple grace that make the various gymnastic events almost hypnotic to watch. When the games were in Atlanta in 1996, tickets to these events were the hardest to come by.
So why is there no truly great gymnastics video game? Kevin Tan suggests that the sport is just too complicated to craft a good game out of it. If I were a major developer, I'd take that as a challenge. Anyone from EA or 2K Sports listening? I'd buy the hell out of a good gymnastics title.
Taekwondo master Diana of course had a much easier time finding games that reflected her particular passion.
I remember playing Street Fighter at an early age. I always picked Chung Lee.
Okay, so she might not be able to spell Chun Li, but she could more than likely kick her ass and make her change the spelling, so it balances out.
Video Games And Fitness In Perfect Harmony
When I was a young lad you could be a gamer, or you could be a jock. There really wasn't much crossover between the two. The football players played football and dated while those of us who disappointed the hell out of the coaching staff as 6'5" 14 year-olds by quitting practice because it conflicted with the original Transformers cartoon played video games.
If it weren't already obvious with the rise of sports games and new products like Wii Fit, those lines have become more blurred with each passing year, to the point where people who represent the pinnacle of physical perfection play the same games as the people who represent the pinnacle of Cheetos consumption. Gaming is for everyone now, and there is no reason a gamer can't be just as healthy and fit as anybody else. As Miss Lopez says, the key is moderation.
"Too much of anything is bad for you..such as food, gaming, or sleep. You have to do everything within a reasonable balance. "
And Townsend's response to anyone who who label gamers as lazy or out of shape?
"Come take a look at my six pack!"