As Usain Bolt crossed the finish line to win the men’s 100-meter final of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a younger high school sophomore version of myself sat on the edge of my couch in absolute bewilderment. How a human being could run 100 meters in 9.69 seconds was incredible to me.
A few days later, Bolt would break an Olympic record in the men’s 200-meter final, finishing the race in 19.30 seconds. Again, I was amazed as I sat on my couch, and I was inspired, too. I want to run like that, I thought.
That thought stayed with me as the 2008 Olympics came to a close and summer came to an end. On my first day of school, I visited with the track and field coach and asked if I could join the team. I told him I wanted to run the 100-meter dash. Up until then, I had only played soccer, but despite my lack of experience running track, Coach Guillory agreed to let me on the team.
After a few weeks of watching me run at practice, Coach broke the news to me that my body type and lack of experience might be best suited for running distance events. My Olympic dreams of running the 100-meter dash were, well, dashed. Regardless, I kept at it and ran the 800-meter race, the mile and also ran for the cross-country team. Although I never made it to the Olympics, watching Bolt eight years ago inspired me to run and I haven’t stopped running since then—I’m currently training for my first marathon.
It turns out I’m not the only one who was inspired to try out a new sport after watching the Olympics. A study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found increases in participation in 16 sports after the 2008 Olympics. Triathlons, for example, saw an increase in participation of 11.1 percent in 2009. Beach volleyball and table tennis were also among the sports with an increase in participation, of 7.3 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively.
Although there isn’t much research on why watching sporting events such as the Olympics motivates us to get off the couch and exercise, there are a couple of reasons it makes sense.
For one, Olympians make it look easy. Team USA’s Final Five—gymnasts Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian and, our September cover star, Gabby Douglas—performed their events at this year’s Olympics in Rio with such elegance and grace that they made doing front flips on a 4-inch wide balance beam look like the simplest of tasks. Usain Bolt made winning the 100-meter final for the third consecutive Olympics look effortless—especially as he grinned at his fellow competitors before he even finished the race. With years of training for their respective events, Olympians make their performances seem so simple that those watching, myself including, think to themselves, Well, I could do that.
But it’s more than making it look easy—Olympians also motivate us. It’s hard to not watch the Olympics when NBCUniversal provides 6,755 hours of coverage in 16 days across its networks, and during those hours it’s hard not to find at least one story that inspires you. For example, take Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan. At 41, she’s competed in every Olympiad since 1992. Although she didn’t medal in an event this year, the simple fact she’s still competing—against gymnasts who are half her age—is remarkable. Or Julius Yego of Kenya, who learned how to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos. When we hear about stories like these, we’re inspired because we think that if a 41-year-old can compete in the Olympics, then we can at least go for a jog. Or if someone learned how to do an Olympic event by watching videos online, then we could certainly attempt to learn a new hobby, too.
The party in Rio de Janeiro is coming to a close. We’ve been inspired as we’ve watched athletes like Chusovitina and Yego. We’ve been motivated as we’ve watched Biles become the first American gymnast to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, and as Michael Phelps further solidifies himself as the greatest Olympian of all time. But what do we do with that inspiration?
Rather than letting the motivation start and end at the couch, here are a few quick tips to make it last:
1. Phone a friend. If you thought watching beach volleyball was fun, ask a friend to go in on the new hobby with you. This way you’ll be able to keep each other accountable.
2. Get a gym membership. (Most gyms probably have some serious post-Olympics specials right now.)
3. Make a plan. If your goal is to improve your mile time, write out a plan to achieve it. And stick to it!
4. Follow up. Just because tennis is over at the Olympics doesn’t mean professional tennis is over for the year. If tennis interested you, look up when the next major tournament is so you can continue watching your favorite athletes, and continue to learn by watching them.
5. Do it often. You’ll lose interest in your newfound hobby if you only do it on Saturdays. Make it a point to work it into your daily schedule, and try to play/run/swim at least three times a week.