The Power of the Olympics, London 2012

With thanks to artist Pashabo and

I was sitting around the TV with my family and dog watching the Olympics the other night, as the girls competed for the gold on the balance beam. As we switched from women’s gymnastics – a sport evidently designed to crush little girls’ dreams – to men’s vault and horizontal bars, I was struck by the difference in camaraderie between the athletes.

On the girls’ side, none of the athletes seemed to interact with any of the others, and most strikingly, when Deng Linlin surpassed her teammate by a tiny margin of .10 for the gold, Sui Lu, who ended up with the silver, broke out, not in smiles, but in tears. She sobbed on her coach’s shoulder, causing Deng Linlin to cry as well. Sui Lu refused to smile in photos and, once rid of the photographers, promptly ripped off her silver medal in temper. One might judge her for being a snot, but she has been training since the age of three, so one can only imagine the pressure she might have been under.

She’s not the only one who might need a little perspective check. Russian Aliya Mustafina was quoted as saying, “I’m not used to winning just one medal. You get a taste for it and you want a second medal, then a third.” And fellow Russian Victoria Komova expected golds, considering her efforts a complete failure as she only snagged two silvers.

We were kind of used to all that high drama. I still remember watching the Olympics in the ’80s, when the event was little more than a thinly veiled muscle match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as each tried to prove themselves superior to the other via their nation’s athletes.

Heck, I still remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

However, a few teenage-girl snits aside, I began to wonder if there is a change in the attitude these athletes bring to the Games. I watched as American Sam Mikulak kissed the vault and swapped handshakes and high-fives with his fellow competitors after he scored fifth. I watched as German Fabian Hambuchen slipped from top position to second after Epke Zonderland’s stunning performance on the horizontal bars, and Fabian registered his own disappointment only briefly before clapping Epke on the back and shaking his hand in admiration. The two were exchanging hugs and congratulations like dear friends by the time they received their medals.

There’s more, too. We were watching the women running, and feeling a bit of pity for the women whose countries and religions ensured they were covered head-to-toe, as they came in dead last, long after everyone else had crossed the finish line. We speculated that perhaps their countries thought it wasn’t worth investing in those athletes because they were women, and perhaps wanted to prove to their audiences back home that “See? Women can’t perform well.” Except, if anything, it does the exact opposite. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei were pressured to have women compete (thank you, IOC!), and now they are forced to reveal the comparison: how well women athletes perform when you invest in them, compared with the countries who hold them back. It’s not the women who do poorly. It’s about an entire nation’s attitude. Their performance says nothing about the women as individuals and says everything about the power of women’s rights.

Tahmina Kohistani, from Afghanistan, was one such athlete whose nation did not properly support her efforts. But the surprise was, when she arrived at the Olympics, how many others cheered her on. She writes, “I wasn’t pleased with my time – I had trained so much, worked so hard. But it was still a good experience, and definitely the most important of my life. It was so good to be able to learn from all the other girls. I talked with a lot of the other runners, and they were all encouraging me….But I knew I was not going to win a medal when I came here; I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us.” Instead of coming to the Olympics and encountering sour and threatening rivals, Kohistani found support, mentorship, and encouragement. Instead of being trampled on, she was lifted up and given a chance to make a change for women back home.

This is what I believe the power and the promise of the Olympics and events like it can be. When it shifts from a muscle match to a show of true honor and sportsmanship, when competitors are not enemies but mentors to learn from, and when athletes demonstrate through camaraderie and hard work, skill, and determination what people can achieve, the Olympics can help pave the road of progress.

The Olympics has always been political. But I’m happy when the politics of sports means that countries are pressured to invest in their girls and that competition is not a zero-sum game – there is more to sport than winning the gold. There is teamwork and there is inspiration. Let us do better and be better, not to beat the other guy up, but to make us all the best we can be.

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7 thoughts on “The Power of the Olympics, London 2012

  1. I have been disappointed in the lack of graciousness this time around, and you're right, mostly in the women's side of sports. (the women's vault… I understand disappointment and even shock… but pull yourself together and congratulate your fellow athletes…) But then the opposite has also happened, and I think it's one of those things where we see the worst and don't focus on the good (partly the lovely media…) It's so tricky! We aren't right there, and part of me feels we have no place to judge what these people are going through. But I love love love when there is camaraderie. When people pat each other on the back, and the one who lost gives a "well, you played better, you should win!" sort of look.

    Talk about a coffee induced ramble… ;) Mostly what I wanted to say is I hear you. And I fully agree!

  2. Have to admit that sports do not interest me in the least. So, I have only caught snippets of the Olympics and haven't seen any running. There were women who seriously were covered head to toe while trying to compete in a race?! Wow, the courage! To know you don't stand a chance, but to put yourself out there for the statement. I am sorry I missed this.

    • I confess I normally couldn't care a whit about sports in general either, but I am drawn to the gymnastics portion of the Olympics because I do enjoy watching people do incredibly difficult and yet beautiful things with their bodies (I like watching dance for this same reason), and I like watching the part where people win because seeing the joy on their faces and imagining their families and friends back home cheering for them makes me happy. :)

  3. The lack of graciousness among the athletes was a true sign of where we are as a country (and several other countries can be included in this too). Nothing is ever good enough. We are always left wanting more, left comparing ourselves to the person we perceive to be ahead of us. It was so sad to see athletes collapsing in tears of disappointment rather than gratitude over bronze and silver medals. Even gold isn't good enough because someone else has two… or twenty-two. That made it all the more inspiring to see those athletes who did show pride in their bronze medals and gratitude to have simply made it to the games in the first place.

    • Yes, one of my favorite moments was watching Hamilton Sabot win the bronze (France's first in history for the parallel bars) and other moments like it. Those who perform with grace really do stand out from the rest.

  4. Oh, girl this is so true. I've been trying to put it all in perspective {a blog post is forthcoming} because for me it's hard to wrap my head around until I became a competitor myself then I started to "get it" it's hard to keep it all in perspective when you are in the heat of competition and you've been training forever, so many emotions well up inside, but … {because there's always a but}. I personally and I think more competitors need to think this way….they need to remember the journey and rewards the found along the way and not put all their eggs in one basket. Winning isn't everything…it's something, but not everything. And if you didn't make it and a team mate did that's great for that country. It's time to lift each other up instead of tearing them down. {ok, i'll hop off my soapbox now, sorry}

    • Any and all soapboxes are welcome as far as I'm concerned! :) I was thinking about this and I imagine that for top-level competitors, the pressure is beyond intense. And I think it might be that people who are in league to compete for the Olympic gold must be like American Presidents in a way. Our presidents have been quite extra-ordinary people, psychologically speaking, often secretly suffering from all kinds of things ranging from depression to personality complexes. I think you have to be a certain kind of person to be able to withstand that kind of pressure and still maintain your drive, focus, determination, and sheer effort and level of hard work. Olympians and other outlier-type people (*cough* Steve Jobs *cough) are probably much the same. Perhaps the difference it only that some can put a more gracious face on it than others.