I thoroughly enjoyed the Olympics this year. Earlier in the summer I read so much about Zika, polluted water, street crime, venue readiness, and doping that I was not even sure the Games would go on.
But they did go on, and go on beautifully, in my opinion. The entire extravaganza was a pleasant way to end summer, a welcome respite from our bruising presidential campaign. It was all so clear-cut down there in Rio, with scores and finish lines and medals.
I managed to look past the few controversies that arose: accusations of drug use; poor sportsmanship in women’s soccer; juvenile acts of vandalism by people old enough to know better. Instead, I reveled in the pure competition and athleticism of the 31st Olympiad, as Bob Costas nightly intoned.
It was, however, the “small” moments that I savored. I loved watching parents, who had cheered and sacrificed for so long, support their children at the biggest games of all.
While parents writhed in agony and exploded in joy, little Boomer Phelps in his tiny headphones centered his swimming father by his mere presence. And diver David Boudia, who jumped from a ten-meter platform for silver and bronze medals, dissolved into tears at the mere mention of his toddler daughter.
Ryan Murphy’s mother supplied my favorite family moment by sharing the illustrated book about swimming her son had made in childhood. At the age of eight, this winner of three gold medals in Rio had written: “I hope my swimming life continues, and I become an Olympian when I grow up. I want to be the best swimmer in the world.”
I have witnessed over the years sacrifices made by friends who coached various school teams. Thus, I was particularly touched by several special coach-athlete relationships at the Games.
In addition to Michael Phelps’ career-long coach Bob Bowman, another career coach was also in attendance. Wayde van Niekirk, the South African runner who won gold at 400 meters, celebrated with his long-time coach, a 74 year-old great-grandmother with white hair. Anna Sofia Botha thrilled to the victory of her star pupil, who smashed Michael Johnson’s 17 year-old record from the outside lane.
The very successful U.S. women gymnasts won team gold and dubbed themselves “The Final Five” in honor of Coach Marta Karolyi. Also 74 years old, Marta is retiring from her position as national coordinator; the respect and regard from her five young charges were more than apparent.
The tears streamed as I watched events unfold after the medal ceremony for water polo. Each member of the U.S. women’s team placed her gold medal around the neck of Coach Adam Krikorian, who finally stood surrounded by his players – smiling, proud, weighted down with the joy of thirteen shiny awards.
Facebook lit up when American Clayton Murphy won the bronze medal for his 800-meter run. He grew up on a pig farm in Darke County and graduated from Tri-Village High School, about half the size of Graham.
The charm and importance of Clayton’s victory is that just a typical guy from a typical American location made his dreams come true internationally. For me, he – and many others, like Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel – seemed just like the great, down-to-earth kids who populated my own classroom for so many years.
I also enjoyed watching other medal ceremonies. Interestingly enough, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt stopped a live interview to show respect for the “Star-Spangled Banner” being played elsewhere in the stadium.
Similarly, U.S. Army Reservist Sam Kendricks halted midstride, dropped his pole, and stood at attention when he heard his national anthem. He later earned a bronze medal in pole vaulting.
And from 5000 miles away, I relished the unabashed joy with which the Brazilian soccer players and their countrymen in the stands sang the “Hino Nacional Brasileiro” in celebration of their gold medal. With apologies to my German friends whose team lost to the Brazilians on penalty kicks, it seemed a fitting conclusion for the home team.
The one part of NBC’s Olympic coverage I found unnecessary was the daily medal count. National pride is natural and understandable at the Olympics. I mean, 11,000 athletes represented 207 different countries under 207 different flags.
But country seemed less important when Simone Biles congratulated the balance beam winner from Holland, acknowledging that her own bronze medal was the correct one for her flawed performance. And it did not matter to American Abbey D’Agostino that fellow runner Nikki Hamblin was wearing the colors of New Zealand. It mattered only that they helped each other finish their 5000 meters after a fall.
At the end of sixteen days of competition, nationality also become symbolically less important. In contrast to the parade of nations organized for the opening ceremonies, athletes entered the closing ceremonies in random groups, national colors blending and swirling into an international rainbow.
I often bemoan the über-attention that athletics seem to receive in this country, but I do recognize the metaphors for life the world of sports can offer. And I am convinced anew when I read the words of the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.