The gifted professional athletes who play basketball, football, baseball and other sports for which people are well-compensated and play at the highest levels may speak all they want of “world championships,” but starting today in London, the summer Olympics showcase the real world championships.
Anyone who comes out of the games wearing that gold medal (or in the case of a few competitors, multiple medals) will get no debate. He’s a world champion and she’s a world champion or the team is a world champion.
But long before that patriotic anthem plays on the medal stand (c’mon, you know it chokes you up no matter who wins), these people, most of them young, begin the quest. It may start on the playground or in the gym or pool. Someone says, “You could be in the Olympics.”
Parents begin coaching, or go in search of one for their child. The sacrifices once that goal is determined can be monumental. Newer cars are not bought. Houses are remortgaged. Money is borrowed time and again.
All that so a loved one can have a chance to put on that uniform, to march in that opening ceremony, to stand on that high dive with the world watching or crouch on that track or participate in any number of sports the Olympics now includes – and have a chance, just a chance, at getting a medal draped around the neck. Gold to the winners, yes, but there’s plenty of pride in silver or bronze.
The Games endured
That drive and sacrifice is shared by every single competitor, some from countries where the road to Olympic participation is very different than in America. And yes, it forms a kinship you can see on their faces, and those looks are perhaps the very soul of the Olympics.
And this year, they’ll remember an Olympics of 40 years ago, in Munich, when people like them, representing their country, were murdered by Arab extremists. The images of that Olympics and thoughts of those slain Israeli athletes will never be erased from the minds of those who watched the story unfold.
But even after that, and through a boycott and Cold Wars and going back to World Wars, and in times when the Olympics seemed hopelessly politicized, the Games survived. There always seemed to be moments when they represented a forum like no other.
Jesse Owens – one of the most spectacular athletes of them all and a man who did his country proud on the eve of war with Germany. When he won four gold medals in 1936, in Adolf Hitler’s country with Hitler watching, the theory of Aryan supremacy was destroyed, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world.
In a history filled with soul-soaring moments, that might be the greatest one.
As stories unfold
And so beginning today, people the world over – some of whom play several sports and perhaps once dreamed of Olympic glory, others just starting for whom the dream is alive, and others who confine their exercise to an armchair – will be following closely the progress of the games.
Will the favorites win? Will a dark horse capture everyone’s imagination as an unexpected victor? Who will be the greatest and most meaningful story of these games?
Over not that long a period of time, all these questions will be answered. Anthems will play and tears will flow and hearts will be lifted and hearts will be broken.
The Olympics offer a view of the world through the determination and hearts of men and women who have given their all for this chance to prove themselves the best. They set an example most of us only wish we could follow. But we can, in the days ahead, at least support them in their dreams.