Friends, I have spent the last couple of weeks the way I spend every Olympic cycle: glued to the television spouting stats. That’s not the way I live my life, even though I do happen to watch a lot of television, if I’m completely honest. But sports? Not so much. If I happen across an exhibition or a competition in figure skating, I’ll watch. I have also come to find curling oddly hypnotic… but you don’t see that as often on American television, and it’s rare to run across it randomly.
But the Olympics, well, they’re something other than else.
Most of the world counts the Olympics in terms of medal counts and victories against traditional rival countries. I’m certainly not above rooting for the home team or hoping someone I’m not wild about loses, either. And yet there is a deeper meaning to these Games, one that I love – indeed, prefer – to celebrate.
To me, the Olympics aren’t about who wins the most medals. Medals are pretty and shiny and wonderful, but there’s a lot more to the equation. Sometimes just getting there to compete is a victory, like South Sudanese marathoner Guor Marial. His country is so new he had to run under the Olympic flag rather than his own. Or how about Hamadou Djibo Isakka, affectionately known to his rowing competitors as ‘the sculling sloth?’ He is the entire rowing team from Niger. Sure, he came in last in every effort, but he still got to the Olympics on a wild card and represented his country. For a guy who had been rowing only three months facing men who had practically been born with oars in their hands and had trained for years, it was a brave effort much appreciated by both rowing fans and competitors.
And then there are those athletes who bring home the first medal ever to their countries. Athletes like Maryam Jamal whose bronze medal in the women’s 1500 meter race shines as brightly as Michael Phelps’ twenty-second career Olympic medal shines to us. Other first time medals for entire countries include: Nijel Amos of Botswana who took silver in the men’s 800 meter race, Pavlos Kontides of Cypress who took silver in sailing, Anthony Obame who took silver for Gabon in Tae Kwon Do, Kirani James who took gold in the men’s 400 meter dash for Grenada, Erik Barrando whose silver medal performance in the 20k walk has also earned him a knighthood in his native Guatemala, and the women’s handball team from Montenegro whose silver medal is a first for that country.
There are the ones who break barriers just by taking the field, like Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, the first female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia. Noor Hussain Al-Malki did not finish her first Olympic run, injuring her leg a couple steps after she started. Still, she is the first Qatari woman to compete, and that’s something to be remembered for. Maziah Mahusin represented Brunei in the women’s 400 meter dash. Again, no medal, but maybe a first step in encouraging her country to allow women access to athletic programs.
Another amazing story is that of Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, the first double amputee to compete in track and field. He had to fight hard to get there, facing charges that his prosthetic running legs gave him an unfair advantage. They didn’t. He came in last in his semi-final heat in the men’s 400 meter dash, and South Africa – for whom he ran the anchor leg in the men’s 4×400 relay – came in last. All the same, he ran in the Olympics, and faced international scrutiny with dignity and class all the way.
What you may not know, however, is that Pistorius was not the only disabled Olympian competing. After all, nobody contested Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka’s right to compete despite the fact that she was born with no right hand or forearm. In fact, this was her second able-bodied Olympics. Pistorius is incredible and he’s a great guy… but he’s not the first disabled Olympian. Partyka is.
Most of all, there are the moments that will never be forgotten by those who were there. When Oscar Pistorius lost his semi-final heat in the men’s 400, the winner of the heat, Kirani James, asked him for his race bib, and held it up to the audience to encourage them to applaud Pistorius’ effort. I watched that one with a huge lump in my throat.
But the truly unforgettable moment of the London Games for me will probably be Liu Xiang in the men’s 110 meter hurdles. Liu was the first Asian man win gold in the 110 hurdles in Athens in 2004. Unfortunately, since then he has been plagued by injuries. He missed the Beijing Games. And just a few months ago, he injured his Achilles tendon.
A few steps out of the blocks, it was clear that he had re-injured his tendon. Liu fell to the ground clutching his ankle. After a few minutes, he got up and hopped back to the exit from the track, refusing a wheelchair along the way. Suddenly, though, he stopped, turned around, and hopped back onto the field. He took up position on the edge of the track and hopped all the way to the final hurdle, hopped over to the lane he was to run, kissed the hurdle, and hopped back off the track.
When he got to the edge, two of his competitors, Andrew Turner of Great Britain, and Jackson Quinonez of Spain were waiting to help him off the track. Other runners waved off the frenzy of reporters.
Liu’s courage and the generosity of his competitors are what the Games are supposed to be about.
To me, that moment was worth all the gold medals ever.