We just witnessed the international magic and inspiration of the Summer Olympics in Rio. As always, there were definitely negatives, from doping controversies to world-class athletes acting like spoiled brats. It is really easy to dwell on bad stuff like that. And we should. But we should also be dwelling on the good that went down. And there was a lot of amazing stuff. While it would take pages and pages to give a completely thorough look at all the great things that happened at Rio, we are presenting five apparitions of the Olympic spirit seen during the two weeks and presenting some of the very best examples of each.
There are few things that are quite as inspiring to me as people who have committed to excellence in something for decades. The 2016 Summer Olympics had several notable examples of individuals who have given there all for their sport for years and years.
• The Seemingly Immortal Gymnast of Uzbekistan
The Uzbekistan gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, placed seventh in the women’s gymnastics vault final. That doesn’t seem so exceptional when you consider that there were eight women competing in this final. But if you also consider several other factors, it really is awesome. 1) At 41-years-old, Chusovitina is the oldest woman to compete in Olympics gymnastics. Granted, there have been plenty of other older athletes in other competitions in the games through the years, but gymnastics is debatably the most physically demanding sport here. Most gymnasts retire from competition while in their twenties–sometimes early thirties. Chusovitina has been going at it almost continuously since 1992 with this being her seventh straight Olympics. 2) The only reason she didn’t medal at Rio is because she attempted the top spot by bravely attempting the Produnova vault, an extremely difficult and rare move that is so feared that it has been dubbed “the vault of death.” And she isn’t done with the Olympics yet. She has stated her full intention of training for Tokyo in 2020.
• The Shooter and Her Most Historic Mark
While the 37-year-old Kim Rhode might have one less Olympics under her belt than Chusovitina, the skeet shooter has ever other female Olympian in history beat by medaling at six straight games. Her first medal was gold in double trap and came at the 1996 games when she was just 17-years-old. She has since added two bronze, a silver, and two more golds to her resume. Her historic six-medal streak almost didn’t happen. At Rio she barely beat out China’s Meng Wei in a bronze medal shootout. In honor of her great achievement, the attendant spectators gave her a standing ovation when it was announced that she had just made Olympic history with her bronze medal win.
• The Cyclist Rides On
Kirstin Armstrong believed her cycling career had peaked after she won her first Olympic gold in 2008. That is why in 2009 she retired to start a family and believed, like everyone else, that her cycling days were over. In 2011, she decided to reenter competition, winning a second Olympic gold in 2012. At Rio, Armstrong won her third gold medal in women’s cycling, despite being far older than any of her opponents. The day after her victory she celebrated her 43rd birthday with her family. Armstrong actually did not intend to win the gold herself. She tried to be a good teammate and help the U.S. bicyclist Mara Abbott win it. But it was to no avail and during the course of the race, Abbott fell back to fourth place while Armstrong assumed the lead—which she kept to its victorious completion.
2. Human Rights
The Olympics and the subject of human rights often go hand in hand. Unfortunately, the Olympics often have a history of ignoring, suppressing, and even violating human rights, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio are no exception. However, there are times when athletes embody the “Olympic Spirit” by championing human rights; and, thankfully, we also have examples of that this year as well.
• Refugee Olympic Team
New this year, the Refugee Olympic Team is a group of ten political refugees originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria. While none of the athletes medalled (or even managed to make it to the semi-final round) in their respective event, their presence brought public awareness to the worldwide refugee crisis and specifically to the human rights violations currently happening in their countries of origin.
• Feyisa Lilesa
Feyisa Lilesa is a long distance runner from Ethiopia. He won the silver medal in the marathon event this past Sunday. As he crossed the finish line, he crossed his arms above his head forming an “X”. This gesture is a symbol of solidarity with his tribe, the Oromo people, hundreds of whom have been killed by the Ethiopian government this past year. Thousands more have been imprisoned. Feyisa made the symbol again at the awards ceremony. He cannot return to his own country for fear of his life. His family still in Ethiopia is in danger, but many people who had never heard of the Oromo people and only vaguely knew where Ethiopia is are, at the very least, more aware of the situation. He did not return to Ethiopia and hopes to find refuge in the US.
• Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums!
Women’s rights are very restricted in Iran, to the point that women are forbidden from doing something as simple as watching a sporting event at a stadium in the country. Darya Safai, and Iranian woman living in Belgium, started an awareness campaign “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums!” a couple years ago and has since been traveling to high profile sporting events around the world supporting her country’s athletes but also displaying banners to let her fellow fans know of this issue. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she attended two beach volleyball matches in which Iran was competing, and displayed her banner for the world to see. She was told by security to put her sign away or be forcibly removed. The IOC does not allow political statements at the games. She refused, visibly emotional, and was eventually allowed to stay. Darya Safai may not be an Olympic athlete, but she has shown the spirit and courage of a true Olympian.
They may not have lived long enough to dedicate decades to their sports, but there are a several instances of younger athletes in the Rio games that are noteworthy for their endurance and commitment.
• The Woman Who Bested a Giant
The Rio games saw the 24-year-old Helen Maroulis face off against Japanese wrestling champion, Saori Yoshia, the woman widely considered the greatest female wrestler in history. But it was not the first time the two had met to compete. The first time they met on the mat was six years ago during which the legend pinned Maroulis in just 69 seconds. Maroulis determined that that would not happen again. She trained and trained with just one goal in mind: to bring Yoshia down. In 2015 she won the world championships in Las Vegas for the 55 kilogram bracket, but meeting the legend in wrestling battle was her true goal. To do this she had to lose a lot of weight to be on Yoshia’s lighter bracket level. Rio was her first Olympics by which time she was more than ready to end Yoshia’s 14-year reign as the recognized female wrestling champion. And that’s what she got. As the entire world watched, all of her personal sacrifices for this moment paid off to the max. Oh, in the process, she also gave the U.S. its first gold medal for women’s wrestling ever. There’s that.
• Rio’s Chariot of Fire
I have always been inspired by that scene in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell is tripped up by another runner halfway through a race, and gets up to win it. This scene came to life through Mo Farah, who, like Liddell, represented Great Britain. Farrah has represented Great Britain at two Olympics now, having won both the 5,000 and 10,000 Meter at London and now at Rio. Although that in itself is extremely impressive, what makes his Rio 10,000 Meter win even more impressive is that he did it after falling halfway through the race. Left behind a pack of the best runners in the world, most would have given up medaling in the race at all. Not Farrah. He released his inner Liddell, proving he is the best of the best of them by not only getting back in the lead, but ending up with a fairly sizeable one.
• Like Father Like Son
In 1976 Matthew Centrowitz, Sr. competed in the 1,500 Meter in the Montreal, Canada Summer Olympics. Although he did not medal, he went on to take gold in several other world championship games. Later he dedicated his life to the sport by coaching several different world champion athletes and currently sits on the board of the U.S. Olympic Development Committee. To say that his son, Matthew Centrowitz, Jr., is proud of his father’s accomplishments is an understatement. Most of his young life has been dedicated to following in his dad’s footsteps. He has been so committed to this that he had “Like Father Like Son” tattooed across his chest. And he made a huge step toward following in dad’s footsteps by winning gold at Rio in the 1500 Meter, the first U.S. runner to do so since 1908. For perspective, this is the last year that the Cubs won the world series. Who knows, maybe this is a good omen for them boys, eh? Anyway, rumor has it that Centrowitz, Sr. is so proud of his son that he will soon be getting a matching tattoo across his own chest.
The Athletes at the Olympics came to Rio to compete against each other, to give their all in being better at something than their foes. But in the best of situations there was a camaraderie, deep respect, and sometimes even close friendship displayed among these athletes of different nations.
• The Little Hair Tie That Could
Ok, so this isn’t a serious example of extraordinary sportsmanship, but it’s a fun story. When American Emma Coburn was getting ready to run the 3000m steeplechase event, she couldn’t find her hair tie, without which her long hair could have been a major distraction. Teammate Evan Jager, who competes in the mens’ 3000m steeplechase, came to her rescue by giving her his hair tie (see, a man bun can be cool after all). She earned a bronze medal with that hair tie then returned it to Jager who wore it while earning a silver medal in his event. Hopefully he held on to that hair tie so that it has a chance to win a gold medal in Tokyo.
• The Brotherhood of the Decathlon
Decathletes compete in ten events over the course of two days for the chance of winning one medal. Compare that to Michael Phelps’ six swimming finals events over the course of seven days for six medals, or Usain Bolt’s three track finals events over the course of three days for three medals, or Katie Ledecky’s five swimming finals events over the course of seven days for five medals.
At the end of most Olympic events, the winner says, “Look at me. I’m number one!” either with words or actions or both. There might be some polite handshaking with the other competitors but it’s rarely overtly friendly. For the most part, that’s okay, they’ve earned that.
At the end of the grueling, two day decathlon, the appropriately titled “World’s Greatest Athlete”, American Ashton Eaton, and his fellow competitors, exhausted though they were, did not shake hands. They hugged, with genuine respect and friendship for one another. They exchanged kind words with each other. They celebrated their collective achievements, for they had all accomplished great things. They were, for that moment at least, family… brothers.
• Fair Play Medalists
Quite possibly the best example of camaraderie and good sportsmanship in the Rio games was displayed by a moving incident that took place during the women’s 5,000 Meter. Halfway through the race, New Zealand runner, Nikki Hamblin, tumbled and fell. Nearby U.S. runner, Abbey D’Agostino tripped and fell over the now crestfallen Hamblin. Regaining herself first, D’Agostino urged Hamblin to get up and finish the race. Together the two injured women coaxed each other toward the finish line. Both finished far behind the last of the runners, but both were pushed on through to the finals. However, D’Agostino’s injuries prevented her from participating in the final at all and Hamblin’s were bad enough that she came in dead last. But the Olympic has honored the two athletes by awarding them both the Fair Play medal for their exemplary sportsmanship.
5. Superhuman Feats
This list would not be complete without this category. This is what the Olympics are all about, where the greatest athletes in the world get together to strut, swim, run, etc. their stuff. Examples of seemingly superhuman feats abounded at Rio. Here are a few of the top examples.
• Katie Ledecky’s Smile
I have no doubt we love these athletes for what they are able to achieve with their talent and outlier hard work, but I also have no doubt that we love the Olympics because we see real people. We may not love them personally, but we adore them deeply in an emotional way because we connect with them in a way that seems intimate. As much as I will remember Ledecky winning the 800 freestyle by such a big margin that you could not see any of the competition in the same screen in certain camera angles, the thing I will never ever forget about her is the look on her face after each race, when she removed all of her equipment so we could see her clearly, looked up at the the scoreboard, and smiled. It wasn’t an arrogant smile to me. It was a look of pure joy. Joy that comes from doing what you were created to do and doing it better–way better!–than anyone else on this diverse and talented planet. They say 90% of communication is nonverbal and I think I got as much from Ledecky from the post race smiles as any interview. She said a lot with a look. And that smile is as legendary to me as her results.
• Michael Phelps is a superhero
Michael Phelps is incredible. You know that already. But since we are devoting an entire Five to the 2016 Olympics, we felt it would be very negligent on our part to not mention his accomplishments. In his Olympic career, Phelps has won 28 total medals, 23 gold medals, broken multiple World and Olympic records, and created one of the all-time greatest memes when he stared down competitor, Chad le Clos. He added six more medals in the Rio games to what must be a gigantic trophy case in his home. He is the most decorated and successful Olympian of all time. Plus, in his off time, he swims in the ocean, talks to fish, and can usually be seen brandishing a trident.
• Usain Bolt runs like the wind
Usain Bolt is super fast. The End.
Not enough? Fine. Usain Bolt runs against some of the fastest human beings of all time, and he makes it look easy. His stride is incomparable. He has the speed of a smaller man with a length of stride that almost makes it look unfair. He starts slow, speeds up a bit, and then glides by everyone else on the track as if it was nothing. And he smiles for much of it. He preens. He poses. He even flaunts a bit while he is destroying other men who are doing something better than BILLIONS of other human beings have done before. Bolt ended his Olympic career in Rio by adding another three Gold medals to his total of nine. He did it all in typical Usain Bolt fashion. Usain Bolt is super Fast. The End.