The Ancient Greeks gave a lot to modern society. But with all due respect to democracy, the modern Olympic Games are just a little bit more fun to watch.
While Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Games made some needed improvements — athletes no longer compete nude, for instance — many sports and traditions come from the ancient Games, including the use of music.
In ancient times, long jumpers were serenaded by gentle flute music as they prepared to take their runs. Today’s Olympians only have to pop in some earbuds to get the focus they need right before competing. While they have access to practically any piece of music ever recorded, many of them turn to something that’s going to get them pumped up and motivated. Flute music is still technically an option, though most prefer Beyoncé.
The aforementioned Beyoncé was a popular choice among athletes asked about their favorite tunes at the pre-Olympic Team USA Media Summit, particularly among U.S. skaters. Hockey player Hilary Knight and figure skater Mirai Nagasu both cited Queen Bey as their jam.
“I love Beyoncé!” Nagasu exclaimed. “She’s just a powerful woman, and I mean, like, I can’t even. Just the way she stands up for herself and how she portrays herself is life goals. … I’m really open to pop music and I love EDM too, like anything that has a beat and will keep me going while skating, it’s like working out.”
In a high-octane, adrenaline-pumping sport like bobsled, it’s no wonder now-three-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor likes something up-tempo.
Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” was a current favorite, she said, as was Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.”
“I just downloaded some songs the other day, Katy Perry, ‘Swish Swish,’ ‘Panda’ by Desiigner, a quite eclectic array of music,” Meyers Taylor said. “The playlist I have right now I will keep for the entire year, every competition. So every year I make a new race playlist. So Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, those made the final cut already.”
Fellow bobsledder Carlo Valdes made his Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and before his bobsled career, he played football and was a track and field athlete at UCLA. He got the nickname “Crazy Carl” for his practice playing heavy metal music to pump him up before games.
The topic of music was hugely important to Team USA’s skiers and snowboarders. In disciplines like halfpipe and slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, music is even played during competition.
“Music plays a huge role in skiing,” said 2014 slopestyle skiing silver medalist Devin Logan, who cited hip-hop as her personal favorite, both new school (Drake) and old school (DMX). “The right song can pump you up just right or it could pump you up too much. Anything with a beat is great for skiing.”
Slopestyle skier McRae Williams talked about using music as a way to focus before dropping in to a run. With so much other activity going on, it helps to be able to put on a song and get in just the right frame of mind to compete.
“Turning on a good song really helps you (get) just that extra push, that extra motivation to just tweak the grab that much harder, just be that much more stylish in the air,” Williams said. “Style is a big part of our sport and a big part of it to me, specifically, and I feel like music kind of helps with that style too, the kind of art form of it. It’s inspiring, and it helps keep the distractions out, so it’s a good tool.”
Music plays a big role for U.S. Paralympians, too, who won a Games-leading 36 medals last month. Para alpine skier Andrew Kurka has a special connection to music. In the summer he works as a DJ for Classic Country 100.9 FM in his native Alaska. But when it comes to his own playlist, he’s wide open.
“I listen to every genre of music there is in this world,” he said.
At 45, three-time Para alpine skiing medalist Danelle Umstead is one of the older members of Team USA, but she loves to keep her playlist current. She just needs a little help from her 10-year-old son, Brocton.
“I really am starting to like my son’s soundtrack, which is really crazy. I really like, oh my gosh, what’s the name of that band?” Umstead said, at which point her guide and husband Rob suggested she sing into the Shazam app for some help, but it soon came to her. “… Chainsmokers! They’re awesome. I am really into them lately; I’m dancing and like it gets me into the groove. But my son, he made a playlist on my phone, and I listen to that when I workout and I’m like, this is good, I like this. And he’ll add a song here and there and I’m like all right, this is what motivates him and it motivates mommy.”
Whatever songs the athletes of Team USA use to get themselves ready to compete, they all hope their competitions end with the same one: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.