Today completes the 13th Summer Olympic games I have been privileged to witness, or at least the 13th that I remember seeing. I vividly recall watching live as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air in the Mexico City games of 1968. Every four years thereafter, there has been one memorable moment after another. This year, perhaps Rio’s most enduring moment was provided by Usain Bolt in a qualifying round, when he turned a 100 meter “sprint” into what appeared more like a casual jog. He knew he was going to win the race – he seems to know he’s going to win every race – so why not put the event in cruise control, look over at a friendly competitor, and give him one of those big beautiful Jamaican smiles? Talk about style points.
But there were other memorable visions, believe me.
There was Chaunte Lowe, the high jumper, whose incredible display of sportsmanship was truly inspiring. One moment, you could see Lowe consoling fellow-American Vashti Cunningham, when Cunningham was reduced to tears after an early exit from the competition. Then, a while later, Lowe was eliminated without a medal despite the fact that if she had cleared the bar on her final jump she would have the gold. So what did she do? She ran over to the Spanish woman who won the event and gleefully hugged her long-time rival as if she was celebrating the victory of a family member. It was a remarkable sight.
There was the beach volleyball team of Walsh and Ross, on the verge of elimination in the bronze medal match, until somehow they found magic in the sand and gutted their way to a medal. Bronze was the perfect medal for that pair. It made Walsh the single most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player of all time, while also reminding us that history will remember her not as a solo act but rather as part of the Kerri Walsh/Misty May juggernaut that together had won the three previous Olympic golds. April Ross (who has now medaled with two different teams) is a great digger, but she’s no Misty May.
There was Michael Phelps, grabbing medal after medal after medal, and each time making us wonder if he was setting the bar so high with his overall Olympic tally that nobody in our lifetime will ever catch him. Phelps repeatedly told us that this would be his final Olympics. Seriously? I’ll believe that when I see it. When you’ve won 23 gold medals and 28 total medals, I say that you keep trying to nab them until you’re either no longer able – or you turn 40. I remember Ali taking a beating against Holmes, Willie Mays stinking it up for the Mets, and Michael Jordan attempting to give it a go for the Wizards. When you’re that good – and I mean not just a championship, but arguably the best ever – you play until you can no longer compete. You leave it all on the field. Phelps is that good. He’ll most likely be back, and I bet you he even crosses the 25/30 barrier.
There was Katie Ledecky, the swimming phenom who could literally have given her competitors an 11 second head start in the 800 meter freestyle and still won the race. The poor dear only won the 400 meter free by five seconds, but just think about how far a world class swimmer can go in five seconds. By contrast, in winning gold medals in the 100 meter fly, Phelps has won by 0.01, 0.04 and .023 seconds, and he would have gone from silver to no-medal-at-all in that event this year if he were only .01 seconds slower. So a margin of five seconds – let alone 11 – is a good amount, wouldn’t you say?
Katie and I share a membership in a relatively small group of people who are raised in Bethesda, Maryland and then head out to pursue our undergraduate studies at Stanford. There can’t be more than five or ten such people every year. Far more importantly, my sources here in B-Town tell me that she is actually a very nice person, someone who hasn’t let her swimming skills get to her head. Here’s hoping she enjoys Stanford as much as I did and that she comes back to Tokyo in four years and duplicates her feats in Rio.
I could go on and on citing the amazing athletes and teams from Rio. There was the American women’s basketball team, which has NEVER had any competition. There was Mo Farah, the British long distance runner, who once again won two gold medals despite having literally been knocked to the ground in the 10,000 meter race. There was Lilly King, who trash-talked a Russian competitor for taking PEDs and then backed up her talk with a gold medal in the pool. And then there were the combat-sport competitors from Israel and India – two countries that rarely do well in the Olympics – who won bronze medals in judo or wrestling, thereby bringing far more joy to their countrymen then the zillionth gold could possibly bring to Olympic powerhouses like the US, Great Britain or China.
The great irony of the Olympics is that it is typically enjoyed by people with flabby bodies who are loafing on their couches, while the performances are given by sculpted bodies who are often achieving personal bests (if not setting records for their species). What’s more, as the Olympics drag on, the flabby-bodied fans continue to stay up late, thereby making themselves more and more lethargic each day. And yet, when they turn on their televisions, the athletes are every bit as freakishly perfect-looking as they were the previous day. We tire; they shine. And strangely enough, we enjoy it.
And so we should. Witnessing human excellence in any endeavor – whether it’s swimming, running, painting, or acting – is a privilege. You don’t have to be Chaunte Lowe to realize that it is our ability to appreciate excellence in our fellow human beings that truly demonstrates our character, far more than our ability to exalt in our own accomplishments. What’s great about the Olympics is that you don’t have to be a “sports fan” to love them – you don’t have to read the sports pages every day, listen to sports radio, know all the player’s stats, etc. You just have to show up one fortnight every four years, remember what country you come from, and you can root with as much vim and vigor as anyone else – that is, everyone except for Chaunte Lowe. She obviously gets the gold medal when it comes to rooting for other people; if you can go crazy when your rival wins at your expense, you deserve the gold at something.
Think back one month. All that we heard about was how awful these summer games would be. It was as if our athletes would be performing in a hell-hole. Big name golfers pulled out of the tournament, citing health concerns, and they weren’t even the ones who would have to swim or sail in the cesspools known as Rio’s waterways. I’m not here to tell you that these Olympics have been pulled off without a glitch. But to all the Chicken Littles out there, let me remind you that once again, a city hosted an Olympics and the results were a marvel to watch. Just like anything else, negativism needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
In less than an hour, many of us will witness what I call the Greatest Moment in Sport. It’s the point where the first Marathon runner enters the Olympic Stadium. Imagine being that person. You have ripped your body apart for 26 grueling miles and, as a result, you are at your most emotionally sensitive state, for all of your body’s defenses have long departed. For some time you have recognized that you are poised to emerge victorious in the race that you’ve been pointing towards for years, and yet you experience these feelings all alone – for you have been pounding the pavement all by your lonesome stride after stride on the streets of the city. Finally, you enter the stadium. And then, within just a few seconds, you hear a roar of affirmation that must truly be deafening. It has to be the most remarkable roar that any athlete can experience – tens of thousands of people marveling entirely at what you have accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, as adrenaline takes your exhausted body around a track while the roar continues, and perhaps even spikes, as your fellow competitors begin to enter the arena.
There must be nothing like winning the Marathon in the Olympics. In my experience, the closest analogue would probably be the emotions of late-afternoon on Yom Kippur. After depriving yourself of food and drink for 24 hours, your emotional sensitivities are at their maximum. It is a great joy to place yourself in that state, and then join with a congregation of voices in praising God for the gift of life and cutting yourself slack for being human-all-too-human.
The Olympics are indeed an odd time to talk about people being human-all-too-human, because we keep hearing about the athletes as if they are super human. Frankly, Ryan Lochte did us a favor this fortnight in reminding us that, deep down, world class athletes are no different than anyone else. In fact, in some respects, they can be less virtuous and less attractive than the typical couch potato.
Pick a skill, any skill – someone has to be the best in the world at it. That applies to arts, crafts and sports. And while it doesn’t make the top athletes more virtuous people than the rest of us, it does mean that they have something notable to offer us. Every four years, I plan on reveling in those accomplishments.