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.
Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!