Last Friday night was well worth the four year wait! At exactly 8PM, with a glass of sangria in hand I tuned in, (in HD of course), to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the XXXI Olympiad (also known as Rio 2016). Forget the fact that critics were expecting the nation with the second highest number of Africans living outside of the Continent to flail, (and fail miserably might I add) [but that’s a subject for another blog]. No no, my intentions for watching were much more noble. My observance of this quadrennial milestone is steeped in tradition; just as the games themselves are steeped in Greek history and tradition. I watch for the sheer fanfare; the pomp and circumstance; the parade of nations and the opportunity to see the best athletes from countries I have no idea where to pinpoint on a globe. I wanted to see the best of the best sportsmen and sportswomen in the world walk proudly next to their countrymen. And of course, I needed to critique the official uniforms; because hey, that’s just an important part of the Olympic experience!
All of this pageantry and excitement got me to thinking: just why do we love the Olympics so much anyway? Is it really just all about which country wins the most medals?
After much thought I’ve come up with three key reasons why pretty much all citizens of the world are fascinated with these games:
- UNITY: These games remind us that we share a certain commonality: humanity. The Olympics remind us that we are more alike than different, and that it is the human condition that binds us. In a time in the world’s history when there is such strife, schism and separation; such darkness and despair, and when hatred for those born outside of our borders seems so conventional — during these times we do what humans under stress and strain do. We regress to that which is instinctual, and that which is familiar. It is an attribute of humans to be relational, and to move towards that which is similar to us in a relational way. And they, even though they may live on the other side of the world or just a few hundred miles north of us, even though they may speak in a different tongue and dress in different garb, they are us. And these two weeks have an eery way of allowing us to forget the differences just for a while. We become, just for what seems like a long moment, acutely aware of the fact that underneath it all, they are us. These games remind us that we are one. For two weeks, under that flame, within those concentric rings, we are one world united.
- HOPE: In these games we see not only the best of the best, but we see the best that has somehow emerged out of the worst of circumstances. We see athletes who have overcome hardships that will take out even the strongest of men. We hear the commentators narrate the carefully edited segments of those born palsied, with parents having been told the child would never walk unassisted. At the end of the reel, and at the end of the Games, that child goes on to win gold. We hear tales of people who just a few years prior lost their entire families to war. Who had no parents, no food or shelter. No state of the art training facility. And during these Games, they go on to win gold. We become familiar with the story of a young Black girl whose mother was addicted to drugs, and whose father abandoned her, overcome her circumstances and go on to be called one of the best gymnasts ever. It does something to the human spirit to hear those stories, and to see men and women push their minds and bodies despite the pain and in spite of the pain — to lengths that to us are unimaginable. These games give us hope in something good. They give us childlike faith. These games let us believe again, like children, in superheroes. As we watch mere mortals become immortalized through their superhuman achievements, we are reminded that miracles really do happen.
- TRANSCENDENCE OF TIME: These games, like greatness, transcend time. Beginning in 776 BC and lasting for centuries, outlawed for 1503 years and resurfacing again — the Olympiad has clearly weathered the passage and test of time. The Olympics — complete with the thrilling victories, and the agonizing defeats — they remain etched in both our collective and individual memories. For the three year-old girl who in 1972 watched Mark Spitz swim his way to Olympics history on our big screen Zenith floor model color TV — that event has become crystallized in the annals of my mind. For me these games are more than just an every four year event; they have become a way to mark my life. Just as I vividly remember that cold day in 1994 when Tonya whacked Nancy in the knee, I remember when Nancy went on to win gold three weeks later. I remember that opening ceremony in Lillehammer where a skier skied off of the slope, Olympic torch in hand, to light the Olympic flame. I remember when Muhammed Ali lit the Olympic torch in Los Angeles. And by God we ALL remember Lake Placid, NY in 1980. The day the cold war became even colder following the thrilling US win over the Russian ice hockey team. We remember the events of these Olympiads just like they happened yesterday. We remember them despite the many years that have passed. And we will continue to remember them.
There is magic in these games. There’s goodness in the unity they bring. There’s specialness in the way they make a young boy eat his Wheaties. There’s magic in anything that can lead anyone to rise above her natural limits into a realm where just for a moment, she is no longer human, but superhuman. There’s virtue in anything that can do that.
Al Michaels once screamed into a microphone a long long time ago, “Do you believe in miracles?” All I can say to that is Mr. Michaels, we see them every four years.
Dr. Nik is a Clinical Psychologist, Life-ologist, author, educator and compassion activist in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Follow her on Twitter @theGoodDrNik.