Despite the various controversies associated with the Olympic Games over the years, the efforts and accomplishments of individual athletes still inspire.
Questions continue to linger about the possible impact of blood-doping or performance-enhancing drugs. The dominance of professional athletes like those on the U.S. men’s basketball team continues to raise eyebrows among amateur sports purists. Relentless promotion for increasingly commercialized Olympic programming is a turn-off for many viewers.
And yet, when a swimmer achieves a personal best, a smiling gymnast sticks a gold-medal routine or members of a rowing team stand atop the podium singing the national anthem, it’s hard not to share their joy.
Nationalistic pride certainly is part of the equation, but we also are moved by the stories of these athletes and their commitment to their sports. We see the willingness of all Olympic athletes — those who make it to the medal stand and those who never come close — to dedicate themselves to a goal and make the sacrifices that go along with that choice.
Some athletes, like swimmer Michael Phelps, are trying to live up to high expectations. Others, like swimmer Tyler Clary, the unexpected winner of the 200-meter backstroke, seem to surprise even themselves. They all seem to have an internal drive. Rebecca Soni set a world record in a qualifying heat of the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2:20:00, then was elated to achieve a long-standing personal goal by trimming that time to 2:19:59 and becoming the first woman to break the 2:20 mark in her event.
Tiny 16-year-old Gabby Douglas stole the show Thursday by claiming the gold in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. Her family, like many other Olympic families, had endured considerable financial and personal stress to send her away from home to train, but as she stood atop the podium, her smile said it all.
Americans will see Gabby’s face everywhere, but they are less likely to recognize Kayla Harrison, who won the nation’s first gold medal in judo, or Kim Rhode who has medals in five consecutive Olympic games and took the gold this year with a near-perfect skeet-shooting performance. For many of the athletes, a trip to the Olympics is a personal journey; for others it is a journey taken with teammates they will be tied to forever. Ask the eight-woman rowing team that won a gold medal in Beijing and repeated that feat in London last week.
It’s not always easy to live up to the Olympic ideal. After blatantly throwing their matches in an attempt to secure easier opponents in subsequent rounds, eight women badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia were expelled from the games. At least they made badminton into a headline sport for once.
For the most part, however, no one needs to compel athletes to give every Olympic competition their all. They have trained and sacrificed. Even if they don’t win a medal, they want to compete and represent their nations well.
That’s the spirit of the Olympics that continues to inspire athletes and magically rub off on spectators as well.