Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Just because: Why we fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games every four years

Golden smiles  x 4 / The American 4 x 100 meter medley relay team
of Allison Schmitt, Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni and Missy Franklin
display their gold medals after setting a world record.

Every four years we fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games. And, this year, there were plenty of reasons to fall in love with the London Summer Games.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite alright if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

During the London Summer Games' fortnight, which wrapped up Sunday night with a smashing three-hour finale that featured a jukebox of British music idols as well as an Eric Idle sing-a-long of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," I found myself cheering for athletes I had never heard of in sports that rarely receive any mention in my country just because ... just because I cared enough to want to. And it was fun.

Golden moment for Team GB / Heptathlete Jessica Ennis basked in
triumph as she won the heptathlon 800 meter run
 and secured a gold medal for Great Britain.

As a result of watching a lot of Olympics coverage live on the BBC via the Internet (here in the U.S., the glamor sports of swimming, gymnastics, diving and track and field aired on tape delay to garner larger nighttime audiences), I got caught up in cheering for a lot of Great Britain's Olympic hopefuls like "Team GB" track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and gymnast Beth Tweddle.

Also, thanks to having a lot of Facebook friends from Tunisia, I rooted for their country's athletes like Malek Jaziri (tennis), Habiba Ghribi (athletics) and Oussama Mellouli (indoor and outdoor swimming). And, I marveled at the achievements of David Rudisha of Kenya, who set a world record in winning the men's 800 meters, and little Meseret Defar of Ethiopia (5-feet-3, 95 pounds), who won an exciting women's 5,000 meter race, then pulled a cloth picture of the Virgin Mary from her track top, held it aloft, and kissed it before breaking down in tears of joy, crying: "I won, I won."

David Rudisha / He set a
world record in winning
the gold medal in the
men's 800 meter run.
Mind you, I thrilled in cheering for the U.S. on the basketball court, in the swimming pool and on the Olympic Stadium running track throughout the fortnight, too.

Before the start of the Summer Olympics, Lord Sebastian Coe, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters from Great Britain who headed the London organizing committee, said the London Summer Games would be "the Games for everyone."

And they were.

The London Summer Games will be remembered as the most diverse and inclusive Summer Olympics ever.

American gymnast Gabby Douglas in flight / Color her a winner
as she won the gold medal in the women's all-around.

Three traditionally-conservative Islamic nations, known for their cultural and political restrictions of women ~ Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar ~ sent their first female athletes to the Olympics. The London Games will also be remembered for a double-amputee runner (Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, who earned the nickname "The Blade Runner"); an African-American gymnast (Gabby Douglas of the U.S., who became the first woman of color to win the gymnastics all-around gold medal); and an openly gay soccer player whose acceptance by her teammates was very refreshing (Megan Rapinoe of the U.S., who became the first prominent American soccer player to come out in the media).

The world's Olympic athletes, representing 204 nations of the world, came from all walks of life just like the fans who cheered for them. And, their stories were quite compelling, too.

Inclusive but alone, too / Sarah Attar became the first female Saudi
athlete to compete in an Olympic track and field event. 

Last Wednesday, an Olympic milestone was achieved when the first woman track and field athlete representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competed. Sarah Attar, 19, born and raised in the U.S. of a Saudi father and an American mother and who holds dual citizenship, ran in the last heat of the 800 meter run. A cross-country runner at Pepperdine University in Calfornia, Attar's Olympic experience lasted less than three minutes.

Sarah Attar wore a white hijab
and a green and black track suit
that covered her arms and legs
to comply with Saudi Arabia's
strict interpretation of
Islamic law.
Attired in a white hijab and a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs to comply with Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law, Attar received a standing ovation from many in the crowd at Olympic Stadium as she crossed the finish line alone, well behind the others in her heat. Although she finished last in her heat in 2 minutes 44.95 seconds, about 41 seconds behind the first-place finisher, Attar had much to smile about her experience.

Attar said she wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women. "This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women," she said, following the conclusion of her race. "I know that this can make a huge difference. Hopefully, this sparks something amazing."

A few other milestones worth sharing from the Olympic fortnight:

  • Malaysian diver Pamg Pandelela Rinong won the first-ever diving medal for Malaysia when she won a bronze medal in the 10 meter platform competition. "I feel a great honor to win the historic medal for my country," said Pamg, who was the flag bearer for Malaysia at the opening ceremonies. "I'm very proud of Malaysia for the breakthrough, and hope my country is also proud of me," she added.
  • The tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada (population 109,000) became the smallest country to win an Olympic gold medal when 19-year-old Kirani James won the men's 400 meter sprint.
  • Before the London Games, the last all-male sport in the Olympics was boxing. No more, as the first gold medals in women's boxing were awarded in three different weight classes. Great Britain's Nicola Adams became the first female to win an Olympic gold medal. Then, Ireland's Katie Taylor won her country's first gold medal of the 2012 Games. Finally, Claressa Shields won the first U.S. women's boxing gold medal. "It's a dream come true," Adams told BBC Sport. "I am so happy and overwhelmed with joy right now. I have wanted this all my life and I have done it."
A bronze moment / Pamg Pandalela Rinong won Malaysia's first-ever
diving medal. "I hope my country is ... proud of me."

The American poet Maya Angelou, who has written about diversity and inclusion throughout her lifetime, observed: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."

A friend of mine from England shared their perspective about the Games with me that are worth sharing with you: "As a nation, Great Britain has found itself not only through its medal success (Team GB won a total of 65 medals, including 29 golds), but by realizing that we are a truly diverse and inclusive nation who welcome and celebrate the success of all."

While the London Summer Games have been about "inspiring a new generation," these Olympic Games will be remembered for its diversity and inclusiveness, too.

Indeed, breaking down barriers one medal at a time, and welcoming and celebrating the success of all.

Various photographs courtesy of The Guardian.co.uk, 2012.
Photograph of David Rudisha courstesy of nbcolympics.com, 2012.
Image of Sarah Attar courtesy of NBC, 2012.

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