Every four years, I find myself glued to the television watching sports that I know nothing about but somehow find myself an expert in. Some of these sports seem like activities I did in the schoolyard or friends’ backyards: trampoline, badminton, table tennis, handball. How many people knew which sports are included in the Modern Pentathlon? (Which leads to the question a friend of mine asked: what was the Ancient Pentathlon?)
Here’s a sample of my armchair commentary:
Platform diving – “Oh, that landing was terrible!”
Swimming – “She didn’t have a strong enough push off the starting blocks!”
Hockey – “What kind of refereeing do you call that?”
Long jump – “Watch that takeoff board!”
The reality is that I am as unfamiliar with the rules of pretty much all of the 28 sports that featured at the 2016 Olympics in Rio as the millions of people who watched around the world. Still, this two-week event dominates the news around the world and captures the imagination of even the least sporting of audiences. Why?
The Olympics may only be held once every four years, but the athletes who compete in the 306 events work tirelessly everyday in the hope they can represent their country on the biggest sporting stage in the world. They may compete in their national or other international competitions throughout the year, but there is no other event that brings together all the sports and so many countries together in one place.
Athletes often speak of their personal sacrifices – for the most part, these are “amateur” athletes, many of whom still have day jobs while they train and compete – and those of their families who support them through all their ups and their downs. Though it may be individuals who wear the medals on the dais, there is not a single one of the athletes who would say their successes would have been possible without their teams.
Some cynics like to point out the costs of the Games – the costs to cities bidding to host the Olympics, the costs of funding for athletes to travel to Rio or the years of training “on the taxpayers’ dime” and the “relatively” small return on investment when they don’t bring home as many medals as they are expected to. But how do you put a price on the feeling of pride when your national anthem is played in front of millions of viewers around the world? Are we the kind of people who only celebrate success and brush away the so-called “non-performers”? Shouldn’t we be standing together with encouragement and saying: “you did your best, now get back out there and try again”?
Australian cyclist and flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony, Anna Meares, competed in her 4th Olympic Games and has brought medals home each time. During a post-race interview in Rio in which she came 10th, she apologised to the television audience for not doing better (she won a Bronze medal in the Keirin a few days earlier). She has nothing to apologise for – during her impressive career, she has had to overcome the worst injuries and continued to represent Australia with so much pride and no doubt inspired many others to follow in her footsteps.
As the 2016 Olympic Games were drawing to a close, commentators asked each other what their favourite moments have been over the fortnight. Many quoted Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s “triple triple” (three gold medals in the same events over three consecutive Games), or American swimmer Michael Phelps’ haul of gold medals (now totalling 23) at his fifth consecutive Games.
Of course, there are also controversies over the level of crime in Rio and jokes about the green diving pools, but the Olympic Movement is all about celebrating hard work and sportsmanship.
Sport, like music and art, transcend politics and religious differences, where “race” means the dash to the finish line, not the colour of someone’s skin.
In the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play, the International Olympic Committee awarded New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino the Pierre de Coubertin medal which is awarded to athletes, officials or volunteers who have demonstrated the Olympic spirit. This medal has only been awarded 17 times in the past. This was a moment when two competitors brushed aside their rivalry to help each other out, when the desire to win is less important than helping each other finish the race.
Last night, for the first time in two weeks, I went to bed early. The Summer Olympics are over for another four years. But wait, there’s more! The Paralympics are set to begin on September 7th. If ever you feel like you can’t do something, just watch how these amazing athletes overcome some of the greatest adversities in their lives.