Every four years we become divisive and we also come together. The coincidence of our Presidential election and the games of the summer Olympics creates a kind of love/hate situation in living rooms, at dinner tables and in neighborhoods across our nation. On the one had we speak of issues that divide us into camps and on the other we join together in cheering the best among us. There is a kind of irony in the magnitude of our difference and our sameness that fights for dominance over who we are as a people.
The Greeks were one of the first nations to experiment with democracy. Theirs was a far cry from the present day government of the United States but the basic elements were there, at least for a handful of the citizens. Women were excluded as were many from lower economic classes and those believed to be outsiders. There were no representatives. Instead it was a system based on one vote for each eligible person with a simple majority determining the fate of any proposal. It was democracy in its purest form. It was the start of a grand experiment that would evolve over time and undergo many iterations. It would be hundreds of years before the grand idea of democracy morphed into a less chaotic and inclusive way of running a more just and fair system.
The Greeks were innovative people who instituted the Olympic games to celebrate the power and beauty of the human body and to bring the people together in harmonious competition. Back then the games were rather simple and the participants performed their athletic feats in the nude. Citizens gathered to watch the events and to cheer for their favorite contestants. The games provided a nice distraction from the hardships of daily life and the continuous discussions and battles that were an inevitable by-product of human attempts to live in harmony.
The modern day Olympic games attract challengers from over two hundred countries and feature a variety of sporting events that the Greeks of old would not recognize. The athletes come with an array of coaches and specialized equipment. They train for years and rise through the ranks to become contenders for gold medals in their specialties. Just as in days of old there are national heroes among them as well as those deemed so extraordinary in their abilities that they are cheered as heroes by everyone.
The road to the Olympics begins in ordinary ways. A young child joins a neighborhood swim team or runs across a field with the speed of a deer. Somewhere an adult notices the talent and suggests that perhaps a bit of training may help the individual to improve. The most gifted youngsters demonstrate not just natural aptitude but a willingness to devote inordinate amounts of time and money to both learning and competition. Everyone can see that there is indeed something quite special that differentiates the best athletes from their peers. They and the adults who guide them are willing to work long and hard. They do not allow challenges to defeat them. Their quest for excellence becomes a focus for them and their families. Everyone sacrifices. Eventually they excel in the neighborhood, in the city, in the state, in the country and the world.
Few of us have the talent, the inclination, the support or the resources to embark on a journey to the Olympic games. It takes a very special set of circumstances indeed to be among the best in the world and yet every four years we are fascinated by the variety of stories that each of the participants bring to the games. From them all of us become inspired to achieve just a bit more in our own lives. The heroes of the Olympic games are the stuff of legends, human iterations of the gods of old.
My fascination with the Olympics began when I was still in elementary school. I watched an old black and white movie about Jim Thorpe and I was hooked. It told the tale of a native American who seemed able to perform any sort of athletic feat more ably than any of his peers. He came from poverty and want but on the field of competition he was glorious, winning at seemingly anything that he tried. Eventually he found glory and gold at the Olympic games. Sadly, different rules of the day and his own ignorance of them eventually resulted in a decision to strip him of all of his medals simply because he had once played on a semi-professional team to support himself. I remember feeling crushed by the unfairness of what happened to him but still regarding him as amazing.
Perhaps the greatest Olympic story of all is that of Jesse Owens who dominated the games in Munich at a time when Adolf Hitler was intent on spreading the myth of a super race of white men so perfect that they would be able to dominate the entire world. It visibly angered the dictator to watch a black man disprove his theories and served as a reminder to everyone that there is potential greatness in all of us regardless of background or race. The Olympic games have served time and again as the great equalizer that disregards the often faulty thinking of mankind.
During the next couple of weeks we have so many opportunities to watch the most remarkable men and women doing their best not just to represent their respective countries but to demonstrate the power of the human spirit. It is a time when we might teach our young that no worthy goal ever comes easily but with determination we all have the potential to realize our dreams. The games demonstrate, as one of the relentless commercials says, that all of us have gold inside our veins. We were born with abilities just waiting to be released and it is up to each of us to find out what those skills are and how we might use them to better ourselves and the world around us.
I watch the swim competitions and think of hot summer afternoons when I witnessed my grandsons earning multi-colored ribbons in the neighborhood pool. I see the track stars and recall cheering the same boys as they ran in weather so cold that all of the spectators were covered in coats and heavy blankets. I think of the young people dunking basketball after basketball at our local park. I see the bicycle riders struggling up mountain roads. I know that none of the competitors reached the pinnacle in their respective sports without a work ethic that would shame all of us and I applaud each and every person who showed up again and again and again.
I’m not much of an athlete. I grew up at a time when girls were rarely encouraged to pursue sports, especially in my particular family. I never had the kind of coordination needed to work with a ball of any kind. I mostly ran and rode my bicycle and twirled my baton. I practiced tricks on roller skates and learned to swim only enough to save myself if needed. I focused my time and attention on academic pursuits, a worthy cause but one that left me sometimes feeling incomplete. I have come to believe that we humans should develop both body and mind to be whole. I suspect that this is what the ancient Greeks were thinking when they offered their citizens philosophies, innovative political systems, art, literature, mathematics and athleticism. They understood that we are incredible creatures most especially when we strive to use all of our capabilities.
Genius of mind or body is found even in the farthest corners of the world. There is potential for greatness everywhere. Each of us needs to spend more time becoming our personal best and less criticizing those who look or feel or act differently. We are all part of the same team, the human race. When we face our own challenges and embrace everyone around us we all become better. We all find the gold.