Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Rio Olympics: Just because ...

Fireworks exploded during the Closing Ceremonies
for the Summer Olympic Games at MaracanĂ£ Stadium
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday night.

Every four years I fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Just because.

It goes beyond just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

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

David Rudisha of Kenya won the men's 800-meter run.
During the Rio fortnight that just concluded Sunday night, in addition to rooting for American athletes like the swimmer Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, and for the American teams in basketball and volleyball to win and do well, I found myself:

• Urging on Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, such as David Rudisha and Almaz Ayana, who moved so gracefully about the track, excelling in the middle and long distances. Rudisha became the first male runner to successful defend his 800-meter gold since 1964 while Ayana shattered the women's 10,000-meter world record by 14 seconds.

Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands
displays her gymnastics gold medal.
• Cheering on a Dutch gymnast, Sanne Wevers, from the Netherlands, who steadied herself on the four-inch-wide balance beam and flawlessly performed a gold-medal routine. In doing so, she became the first Dutch gymnast to earn an individual medal of any color.

• Applauding a South African sprinter, Wayde van Niekerk, who broke a 17-year-old world record in winning the 400-meter run, then seeing the priceless joy expressed by his coach, a white-haired, 74-year-old grandmother named Ans Botha, who sat in the stands with van Niekerk's mother, watching over her pupil with admiration, confidence and enthusiasm.

• Smiling for the charismatic host Brazilian men's and women's football teams, with their iconic one-named stars like Neymar Jr. and Marta, as they provided their country with many thrills, none bigger than Neymar's decisive penalty kick that clinched the gold medal for Brazil over Germany.

• And, I think everyone around the world cheered for Jamaica's Usain Bolt as he once again ran faster than anyone in the world in collecting three gold medals in athletics for the third consecutive Olympics.

Malek Jaziri of Tunisia competed in the
Olympic Tennis Event.
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), Ines Boubakri (fencing) and Oussama Mellouli (indoor and outdoor swimming) to do well. This proud North African nation collected three bronze medals, earned in fencing, taekwondo and wrestling.

Closer to home, I thrilled in cheering for the United States on the basketball court, in the swimming pool, in the gymnastics arena and on the Olympic Stadium running track throughout the past two weeks. I ached for Kerri Walsh-Jennings, whose quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball was dashed by Brazil, but delighted in seeing her and teammate April Ross rebound the next night to win a bronze medal. They were elated and so was I. The same goes for the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team, arguably the best women's volleyball team in the world. After going through pool play undefeated and winning their quarterfinal-round match, they stumbled against Serbia in the semifinals. Their gold-medal hopes were broken, but the Americans regrouped nicely to win the bronze medal with a satisfying four-set win over the Netherlands – and they were beaming with their bronze medals around their necks on the awards platform. Sometimes, medals can be color-blind. It's the thrill of achievement, sometimes under adversity, that we'll remember years from now.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman
of Muslim faith to compete wearing a hijab.
The late American poet Maya Angelou, who wrote about diversity and inclusion throughout her distinguished lifetime, once observed: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."

Swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African-American
woman to win an individual swimming gold medal.
I was so very proud to see the swimmer Simone Manuel break a color barrier in becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal, when she tied for first with Canada's Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle, setting an Olympic record along the way.

Afterward, Manual said the gold medal wasn't just for her. "It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can't do it, I hope I'm an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it."

I was just as proud of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad for being the first American woman of Muslim faith to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics. There were many other first set during the Rio Games – most of them positive – and I applaud those nations who won gold medals for the first time, including: Singapore (swimming), Vietnam (air pistol), Kosovo (judo), Fiji (rugby sevens) and Puerto Rico (tennis).

The Parade of flags during Sunday's closing ceremonies.
Throughout this Olympic fortnight, the host nation Brazil displayed for the world to see why they are a sports-loving country.

I found myself rooting for athletes from around the world I had never heard of in sports that rarely receive any mention in my country like team handball, judo, and weightlifting.

Just because ... just because I cared enough to want to. And it was fun.

Photos: A variety of sources was used for the photographs included in this blog post.

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