Even though Americans watch a lot of sports on TV, I think most of us watch the Olympics for the drama rather than actual athletics. Parents who groan at the prospect of sitting through their own children’s swim meets will glue their eyes to the television to catch the expression on Ryan Lochte’s face if he beats Michael Phelps in the 200 IM. Television shows us the drama of the competition up close—we see the relief and exultation when athletes succeed and the agony when they fail or, most heartbreaking of all, when they do their best and their best simply isn’t good enough.

a heat of double dutch power in the 2012 Junior Olympics

The Double Dutch Power event at the 2012 Junior Olympics in Houston

Watching the Olympics is especially poignant for me this year because I just had the opportunity to spend four days working on the floor at the Amateur Athletic Union’s Junior Olympic Games in Houston, TX. The athletes competing in these games are not as famous as those competing in London– though some of them eventually may be—and I’ll explain that later. In many of the sports represented at the Junior Olympics, the athletes train for hours a day, six or seven days a week for years with the same goals as the competitors in the “real” Olympics: to do their best.

I worked on the floor as a tabulator and alternate judge for the jump rope events, so I could vividly read the elation the athlete’s faces as they landed a difficult trick or the dismay as they missed on steps they considered to be easy. The emotion may be masked during routines where competitors are judged on their presentation, but as soon as “time” is called, the emotion is out, whether a leak of sadness, an explosion of joy or a sigh of resignation.

Either watching the Olympics on TV or the Junior Olympics live, spectators like me get to experience all the excitement and poignancy of the moment—and best of all, it’s safe. After all, we could experience dramatic emotional highs and lows watching patients at a hospital, but the stakes are too high to make spectating much fun. Watching sports where athletes have trained for years leading up to one special moment gives us a drama more potent than watching scripted movie, but without the consequences of life’s other dramatic moments. Even an athlete who fails usually walks away with a body that’s healthier than ours and an experience and expertise that most people will never attain. Even the losers are winners. We recognize that, even if the athletes don’t. So we can enjoy the drama.

To go back to my own experience as a spectator, I should explain what exactly the Junior Olympics are, since they are not, as the name implies, an identical version of the Olympics for younger athletes. The games began in 1949 as a track and field competition and as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) expanded, the 1967 competition was declared “The Junior Olympic Games” and grew to include swimming as well as track and field.

Today the competition includes 16,000 athletes competing in eighteen different sports, some of which are not included in the official Olympic Games, though the largest by far is still track and field. AAU is one of very few organizations licensed to use the term “Olympics,” and as with its namesake, the competitors must qualify in regional competitions in order to participate. Athletes come from all fifty states as well as number of foreign countries and range in age from six to 22. AAU hosts the games in different locations each year and in some sports, competitors in the Junior Olympics go on to compete in later years in the world wide Olympic Games. For example, diver Greg Louganis, who won four gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, is remembered for coming in dead last in his first Junior Olympic competition. Sprinter Maurice Greene, track and field star Jackie Joyne-Kersee, gymnast Kerri Strug and basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal are also former Junior Olympians who went on to win gold at the Olympics.

Unfortunately, the athletes I saw competing over the last week will not have that opportunity, although some of them have enough talent, drive and dedication. While jump rope (called “rope skipping” overseas) is a competitive sport on five continents, it is not likely to be recognized as an Olympic sport anytime in the near future, in part due to disagreements over the international rules governing the sport. It’s a shame, because many of the competitors I saw deserve to show their amazing skills—and the drama of their competition—to more than just the people fortunate enough to be in arena. Some of these athletes will go on to compete in the World Championship this week, but few people will see that competition either.

While the sport’s obscurity is a sad fact of life, I can still take away my wonderful experience from the week and apply it to every similar event I see on television. Whether you are watching competitions on TV or live, enjoy the drama and if you get the chance, remind the athletes that they are all winners.