I love the Olympic games. Unapologetically, I love the competition and the camaraderie, the skill, the heart, the human desire to push the body to its limits and beyond. I love how the Olympic athletes love their sport. I love the fierce competition and the even fiercer friendships.
Mostly I love how the Olympic games bring out the best in us humans, how they blur and blend differences that could further divide us and how the competitions show us the best we humans can offer.
This year the summer games were an especially welcome respite from the pandemic and the politics, hatred, and anger that currently threaten our democracy. The Olympic games didn’t change those dynamics. But they did show me how incredibly beautiful life can be when you are doing what you love with passion, discipline, commitment, and integrity. They showed me what winning looks like.
I am not a skilled or talented athlete, so maybe that’s another reason I so admire and love watching athletes perform in a way I can only dream about. I was never chosen for team sports. I joined the swim team just so that I could swim in the public pool, free, every day. In high school I turned to fencing and karate. I loved fencing as a game of wit, finesse, and grace that I struggled to achieve. I thought Karate might be useful. I played golf mainly because it was a sport I could enjoy with my dad. I still miss our conversations while walking the back nine at dusk. Tennis required hand and eye coordination that I do not have. I tried running and hated it – for many years. Then my early morning aerobics class was canceled, and I needed something to get me moving in the mornings. I started walking. Then one day ran a block. It was not so bad, so the next day I tried running two blocks. Soon I discovered that pushing myself felt pretty good.
Walk. Run. Walk. Run. I gradually increased the distance that I ran. As I increased my distance, my sense of accomplishment and joy increased. I was getting hooked. One day I realized that I was no longer depending on walking and running to jolt me awake. I was getting up early so I could go run. There are worse addictions. I ran a 10K, then a 10-mile race. I discovered the magazine Runner’s World with a cover story: “Mind Over Marathon.” Although I didn’t have an athlete’s body or talent, I decided that maybe my mind could compensate for what my body lacked. I decided I would run the Marine Corps Marathon in DC. It took a group of equally committed runners, a retired Marine who loved training first time marathoners, and a savvy physical therapist who understood that I was not going to quit training just because I had developed sciatica. It also took a seasoned marathoner who spotted me as I was heading out of Hains Point alone. He fell into step with me and talked me through the last 5K of that first grueling marathon. I left everything I had – body, mind, and spirit – on the streets of DC that chilly Sunday. But what I gained and what I still carry with me is so much more than I could have ever imagined.
When I watch Olympic marathoners, it is with a deep appreciation, awe, and wonder, knowing I too have run that distance. I just enjoy the scenery a bit longer than the elite runners.
I was in tears when American runner Molly Seidel crossed the finish line to win the bronze medal in Japan. My admiration only grew when I learned that she had overcome an eating disorder and OCD. We all have our challenges and our demons.
When Simone Biles withdrew from competition, I applauded her courage, her strength, her self-awareness, her team spirit, and her wisdom. She knew what she needed to do and she did it. She remained true to herself even though that meant disappointing the expectations of others. Michael Phelps spoke for me and a lot of others when he said, “It’s OK to not be OK.” Even our heroes are not perfect. Phelps has revealed that he struggles with depression and contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympic games. Yes, let’s do have a conversation about mental health.
Sprinter Allyson Felix called out Nike, her shoe sponsor for trying to cut her pay by 70 percent when she was pregnant. When she could not reach an agreement with Nike, she walked away and started her own shoe company. The 35-year-old mother was wearing her own brand, Saysh, in Tokyo when she became the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history and the most decorated American athlete in Olympic track and field history. Nike has since changed their policies about pregnant athletes.
Two of the biggest winners at this year’s Olympics were high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy who shared a gold medal. The two were facing a grueling “jump-off” to see who could last the longest when Barshim, the reigning world campion, asked if it was possible to share the gold. An unusual request, but the Olympic officials agreed it was possible. The two friends immediately slapped hands, hugged and celebrated the shared gold. Throughout the competition, the two had been hugging and congratulating each other for bringing their best to the games.
Winning does not mean that others have to lose. Winning is not just crossing the finish line first or achieving the highest score. Winning is knowing your own worth. It’s how you live your life.
Love After Love
by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.