Playing right for the right reason
Now that these 10,305 people called athletes have struggled, strived, and suffered just to be first woman finishing or last man standing; now that the 339 different medal events are concluded; now that all these men, women and children — like China’s 14-year-old gold medal winner in 10-meter platform diving, Quan Hongchan — have ended their season of agony and triumph, grinning and weeping, what did you learn from couch-athletics school? We want to say what we have learned. But before we brag about getting our money’s worth from the couch-athletics classes we took, we note that we didn’t always understand our athlete-professors.
For one, there were so many of them, more than 10,000, from backgrounds too diverse to be able to offer integrated instructions. Besides, they came to compete, not to agree; they came from everywhere as well as nowhere. Explaining what that means would be verbally expensive, but they came from 206 places in all, many countries — Argentina, Botswana, and others; or territories — Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and so on; or principalities — Liechtenstein, Monaco, and more; or nowhere — the group called “neutral” because they are Russian athletes not representing Russia. For the time being, no one is allowed to represent Russia. So these Russians compete under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee. No wonder such confusion surrounds what the Olympics were supposed to teach us.
For another, these thousands all identifying as athletes don’t all cherish the same values, as the following answers to one of our questions quickly show. The question: What are the games all about? Answers: “To be able to stand on top of that podium” — Australian swimming champion Emma McKeon. “Playing against the best” — former baseball Olympian Ty Griffin. “Meeting Kerri Strug” — Olympics Dream Team basketballer Reggie Miller. “To push ourselves to the absolute limit” — American water polo player Wolf Wigo. And Irish skier Shane O’Connor’s clincher, “pin swapping.”
Pin swapping. Really? We insist that there’s more to the Olympics than pin swapping. Here are five things our two-week intensive taught us about the Games:
1. The Games make no sense without passion: passion realized, yes; and passion frustrated: watch Karsten Warholm rip his sprint suit after he’s crunched the world record for men’s 400-meters hurdles; watch him dissolve into tears; he had just beat Rai Benjamin. Benjamin is crying too. Why is Sydney McLaughlin weeping on the track? She just broke the world record for 400-meters hurdles, just defeated star teammate Dalilah Muhammad. See the tear-stained face of Jordan Chiles, from the United States of America’s gold medal women’s gymnastics team, after her beloved mentor Simone Biles completed her vault. Look at Gianmarco Tamberi, embracing Qatar’s Mussa Ezza Barshim. Well, you say, Tamberi is Italian. But why does Barshim dissolve into tears after the two shared the high-jump gold medal — why is everybody crying? All these disciplined people just losing it. This is entirely different from “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” These weepers are winners, champions all! Meanwhile, imagine what many a loser is thinking right now: Next time! Next time!
2. We are made for a winner’s climax. Life is not meaningless. Nor is death or disappointment its purpose: reason points toward something better. The Games, with their beginnings to endings, their satisfactions or profound frustrations, speak to something more grand, culminative, and A to Z, than Lamont Marcell Jacobs’s 9.8 seconds on a track or Barshim and Tamberi’s 7 feet 10 inches (2.39 meters) in the air. We must seek it and find it.
3. Sports is a microsome of a broader reality: the Olympics, called games, are surely about jobs and economics also — Tokyo 2020 cost US$15.4 billion; about politics — who the medals table says is superior; about an explosive mix of faith and nationalism. And before that, about smaller, personal, day-to-day choices: extended training routines separating contestants from loved ones, testing family loyalties; record-breaking triumphs that establish perpetual stardom, or failures so disastrous that some never recover. Society’s moral fiber can sometimes be affected by the performance of our athletic heroes in and out of the line of the camera.
4. Body and mind both need each other. Our most powerful Olympic lesson may have come from team teaching by two reserved and brilliant women of the Tokyo 2020 Games — Naomi Osaka, Japan’s first ever tennis grand-slam winner, who lighted the Olympic flame for her native land; and Simone Biles, greatest female gymnast ever, who stepped out of the limelight, acknowledging a personal crisis. Thanks to them, mental health is one of the hottest topics in the world today. Simply put, the Olympics revealed to us, in our couches, ugly scars many of us don’t want to see. Biles and Osaka have come forward and shown the world that athletes are still human when they become superstars. The world’s greatest athletes, our real-life superheroes, may go on the injured list for their body’s sake. What do they do, where do they go, when their mind isn’t right?
5. We need more lovers and fewer haters. We were moved and awed, surprised and astonished to learn what Biles went through after stepping aside. Thanks to the nobility of Juntendo University professor Kazuhiro Aoki, Biles was able to hide and work, work, work, try, try, try. By the end of the competition, she was able to come back and perform a medal-winning vault — thanks to kindness. We don’t need as many haters as there are, like those who launched into diatribes about Biles the wimp and coward, letting everyone down when she was most needed. The world can do with fewer of those. Instead of hating, let’s love one another, and “be kindly affectionate to one another” (Rom. 12:10, NKJV), seeing all as teammates. Let’s all join Prof. Aoki’s team and help restore more champions.
Tiffany Hoyd, in law school at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), is a graduate of Howard University’s Media Journalism and Film Communications program; she has worked for the Major League Baseball Network. Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.
1. Sam Borden, “Olympics 2021: Tokyo Games Again Show What the Olympics Are All About,” ESPN.com, Aug. 8, 2021, https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/31976187/olympics-2021-tokyo-games-again-show-olympics-all-about.
2. Stephen Wade, “Official Costs of Tokyo Olympics Up by 22% to $15.4 Billion,” apnews.com, Dec. 22, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/tokyo-coronavirus-pandemic-2020-tokyo-olympics-japan-olympic-games-3c46bce81928865d9aae0832b5ddd9e3.
3. “Algerian Wrestler Withdraws from the Tokyo Olympics after Being Drawn with an Israeli,” Teller Report, July 23, 2021, https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2021-07-23-algerian-wrestler-withdraws-from-the-tokyo-olympics-after-being-drawn-with-an-israeli.HkpL1WOAu.html.