Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Falling in love with the Olympics, again and again

Opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Summer Games were full of color.

Every four years, many of us fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Count me among them.

Last Friday, the athletes of the world representing 207 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the country for Carnival – for the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games. At times, it resembled a giant street party complete with samba, funk, passinho and maracatu. 

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the
Olympic cauldron on Friday night.
It's time to fall in love, again.

The French educator Pierre de Coubertin, who was most responsible for the revival of the Modern Olympic Games in 1894, once said: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

While there's much focus in my country – the United States of America – on celebrated athletes such as the swimmer Michael Phelps, the basketball player Kevin Durant and the soccer (football to the rest of the Olympic world) player Carli Lloyd, to name just a few, I find just as much joy in rooting for the lesser-known Olympians – especially those from other countries who might have overcome an obstacle or hardship to be able to compete. For instance: 

• Swimmer Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee representing the Olympic Refugee Team, had to swim for her life just last summer when – on her journey to safety after fleeing her homeland – the boat she was in started to sink. Along with her sister, both trained swimmers, she jumped out and pushed the boat for three and a half hours until it safely reached the Greek island of Lesbos. "I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days." 

Mardini's personal story is remarkable and one we should all spend time learning more about. 

Jamaica's Toni-Ann Williams and her coach Justin Howell
enjoy a happy moment during the gymnastics competition.
• Closer to home, there's Toni-Ann Williams, 20, a young gymnast from the University of California, Berkeley, with dual U.S.-Jamaican citizenship, whom I've watched thrive collegiately the past two seasons. She was born in Maryland of Jamaican parents. Williams is Jamaica's lone representative in the women's gymnastics competition – in fact she is Jamaica's first gymnast in Olympic history – and the reason I woke up at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Time Sunday morning to watch a live video stream of her Olympic competition on my iPad.

I wouldn't have missed it for anything. 

With a score of 50.966 in the all-around qualification, Williams placed 54th, which wasn't high enough to advance to Tuesday's final competition. Still, it didn't diminish her Olympics enthusiasm. "I am very, very excited," she said afterward during an interview with a Jamaican journalist. "I'm happy to represent Jamaica. I gave it my all. Hopefully, my performance today can be a trailblazer for the kids to keep the program going in Jamaica."

Egypt fielded its first women's beach volleyball team in Rio.
• On Sunday, history was also made as Nada Meawad and Noaa Elghobashy became the first women's beach volleyball pair from Egypt to compete in the Olympics. They were easily recognized by their long pants and sleeves – compared to the standard bikini uniforms worn by most countries – and Elghobashy wears a hijab. She never gave it a thought. "I've worn the hijab for 10 years," said Elghobashy after competing on the Copacabana venue against Germany. "It doesn't keep me away from the things I love to do and beach volleyball is one of them." The Egyptian duo lost to Germany 21-12, 21-15.

As Herb Elliott, the Australian middle-distance runner who won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics, once said: "It is the inspiration of the Olympic Games that drives people not only to compete but to improve, and to bring lasting spiritual and moral benefits to the athlete and inspiration to those lucky enough to witness the athletic dedication."

And that brings us to the story of Sarah Attar.

Sarah Attar marched in the Opening Ceremonies of the
2012 London Games representing Saudi Arabia.
Four years ago, an Olympic milestone was achieved at the 2012 London Games as the first woman track and field (athletics) athlete representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competed. Sarah Attar, then 19, born in the United States of a Saudi father and an American mother and who bolds dual citizenship, ran last in her heat of the 800 meters.

A cross-country runner at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where she studied art, history and graphic design, the 5-foot-5-inch, 115-pound Attar finished her 800-meter heat in 2 minutes 44.95 seconds, about 41 seconds behind the first-place finisher. I remember watching her performance on TV. It brought tears of joy just to see her finish. It didn't matter that her time was the slowest of any 800-meter runner. 

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," said Attar after the conclusion of her race. "I know that this can make a huge difference."

Sarah Attar competed in London wearing a white hijab and
a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs.
Attar competed while attired in a white hijab and a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs. She received a standing ovation from many in the crow at Olympic Stadium as she crossed the finish line alone, well behind the others in her heat.

Fast forward to 2016. "A lot has changed since then," Attar said in an article she wrote for Marie Claire. "Oiselle, an athletic apparel company for women, sponsors me, and I am living and training full-time with an elite group of distance runners in Mammoth Lakes, California."

Now 23, Attar is back at the Olympic Games in Rio, once again representing Saudi Arabia, along with three other Saudi female athletes – all who train outside of the country due to government and religious restrictions placed upon females competing in sports. However, this time, Attar will compete in the Olympic marathon instead of the 800 meters, a distance (42195 kilometers / 26.219 miles) she feels she is better suited to run. Her personal best in the marathon is 3 hours 11 minutes 27 seconds, which she ran at the 2015 Chicago Marathon. The Olympic women's marathon will be run on August 14.

"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge,"
says Sarah Attar.
"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge and I am really diving into marathon training to see what I am capable of at this distance," Attar told Like the Wind magazine.

In a recent Washington Post feature, Attar's coach, Andrew Kastor, credited her with "the right amount of spirit and courage I see in most seasoned and mature marathon racers," and with eagerness as "a student of the sport, learning all she can from her mentors on the team."

In the same article, Attar said: "The Olympics was always what these amazing, elite athletes do, that I just watch on TV, and I observe, and then to be a part of it, where I never would have anticipated that in my life was just, like, so wild."

Sarah Attar will compete in the women's
marathon on Sunday.
More and more, Attar has begun to realize her place in history. 

"There is a whole generation of girls in Saudi Arabia who now have a female Olympic role model to look up to – that didn't exist before. 

"They'll grow up knowing that competing in the Olympics is a possibility, and that's what means the most to me," said Attar, in a recent Firstpost.com story. 

May the next two weeks be filled with friendship, respect, good sportsmanship and fair play. May it be a peaceful gathering of nations. May it be filled with many new stories to share in the years to come. 

After all, every Olympic athlete is a winner in our hearts.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. 

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