Lawmakers cheer as athletes go for the gold

When Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) tunes in to this summer’s Olympic Games, he’ll be cheering on a local legend, swimmer Michael Phelps.

“My favorite sport is swimming because of the young man from Baltimore,” he told The Hill. “I know Mike and I know his mother. He’s from my hometown, so when you have a hometown hero like that, you have to be interested.”

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Phelps has already brought glory to his country, winning a record eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as six gold and two bronze medals in Athens in 2004. Phelps will compete for an additional seven gold medals in the 2012 London Games, slated for July 27 through Aug. 12.

And Cummings won’t be the only lawmaker cheering on a hometown hero this summer.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) will be rooting for super heavyweight boxer Dominic Breazeale, who comes from Schiff’s Alhambra district.

“I sent out a Facebook message to him to wish him luck in the Olympics,” said Schiff of Breazeale.

Fellow California Rep. John Garamendi (D) has also reached out to several Olympians in his district.

“There are about half a dozen people from my district going to the Olympics … I’ve been sending congratulatory letters to them,” he said. “We’ve got the San Francisco East Bay. There are a lot of great athletes in that area, from the universities and various places.”

If anyone should know the dedication and hard work required to make it to the top, it’s Garamendi, himself a former athlete.

“I was the West Coast heavyweight wrestling champion at [University of California] Berkeley in 1964,” he said. “I had plans [to try out for the Olympics] but I broke my wrist and that was that. I was looking at the ’66 Olympics, but with a broken wrist, the game was over.

“I would have won a gold medal,” he said with a laugh.

Garamendi isn’t the only lawmaker who had dreams of competing on the international athletic stage.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) played basketball for the University of California, Santa Barbara, and even tried out for the 1980 Olympic basketball team.

Her focus might have shifted to politics, but she still plans on cheering on some of her favorite athletes during this summer’s games, including Phelps, gymnast Kyla Ross and decathlete Ashton Eaton, according to her spokeswoman.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) will also be cheering on Eaton and his fellow American teammates as he competes in one of the lawmaker’s must-see events.

“I like to watch the decathlon; it’s just a demanding event that requires so many skill sets, and I think it’s always interesting to watch,” he said. “The U.S. has three individuals that all are very strong contenders, so I’m very excited to watch.”

This isn’t the first time Matheson has rooted for Team USA as it competes at the international level. The lawmaker was part of the Utah delegation that attended the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. In fact, his great aunt — in her 90s at the time —  helped carry the Olympic torch.

“It was just a wonderful experience for all of us in Utah,” he said. “During the times the games were taking place, you could feel in the atmosphere the obvious emotions like excitement or anticipation, but the other thing that was there was this notion that we were all part of one community.”

Matheson recalled attending several events as well as the opening ceremonies. The most memorable moment, however, came not during an athletic competition, but behind the scenes.

“I remember one night going and meeting with the Latvians. I can’t even tell you why I went to the Latvian [meeting] place, but I did, and they were so thrilled,” he said. “Their hockey team had just taken ninth place, and they were so happy. And I thought what a neat thing they were here and enjoying it and they’re celebrating taking ninth place. That’s just one of those memories I have about how happy everybody was to be a part of that.”

Attending the world’s greatest international sporting event on American soil can be an unforgettable occasion for lawmakers. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) recalled attending the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games in his home state.

“I went to all the track and field [events] and the diving, and really enjoyed it,” he said.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Georgia lawmaker, however.

“I had tickets to boxing — that was the one thing I wanted to go to … and my brother — who was 55 years old — got married on the day of the boxing event,” Gingrey recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘You could have gotten married any time of year, and you had to pick the day of the boxing?’ And I had to give away the tickets.”

Not all lawmakers are so lucky as to attend the Olympics. Most of the lawmakers The Hill contacted explained it was simply too expensive to travel to the London Games.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Olympic Committee also confirmed there is no official congressional delegation scheduled to attend.

That isn’t bad news for all, though. Gingrey conceded that while he is an avid sports fan, his interest in the Olympics has waned over the years as the committee lets in professional athletes.

“I am not that big of an Olympic fan, and I do love sports,” he said. “I think once we started putting professional basketball players in the Olympics and doing stuff like that … that took a lot of the just pure sportsmanship out of it and seeing amateur athletes perform.

“I still enjoy watching the clips of the 1936 Olympic games from Munich and seeing [track and field athlete] Jesse Owens,” Gingrey added. “I like the Olympic history and the whole idea, but I just think, like so many other things, it’s just got so commercialized in a way that sort of spoils it.”

That commercialism has in some ways already tainted the upcoming London Games. Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms to be worn by American athletes during the opening ceremonies would be made in China.

Lawmakers reacted swiftly to the news, calling it “irresponsible” and introducing legislation requiring that all U.S. Olympic team uniforms be made in America.

But, for Matheson, the Olympics are about much more than politics.

“This may sound a little cliché, but I think that’s what the Olympics often do, is they point out all our commonalities as opposed to our differences,” he said. “So much we focus on our differences on a day-by-day basis, and we actually have a lot of common ground with each other.”

When asked if Congress could learn a thing or two from the Olympics, Matheson was adamant.

“You’ve got that right,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s important for all of us to step back and recognize all of the values that we share, and Congress would be well-advised to do that and remember that lesson when they get to the day-to-day practice of legislating.”