Why the Olympics are Our Most Beautiful Display of Humanity
The Olympics is one of the most beautiful things that humanity has. Here’s why:
In a world ripped by news so terrible I’ve stopped opening CNN.com, we’ve just seen two weeks of the best stories you can possibly imagine.
Michael Phelps, a phenom moving into middle age and struggling to cope with a lifetime spent doing nothing but bathing in chlorine, comes back after being utterly disheartened and totally depressed at the London Olympics and through the last four years. This time he has his young baby boy in the stands with his mom and the woman he loves. He opens up by swimming the fastest relay split of his life. Gold. He then goes out in the 200m butterfly, takes a solid lead through the final lap but appears to lose it at the end. Throwing his hands forward a split second faster than his Japanese counterpart he out-touches him at the wall and squeaks out a gold. Some say he returned to up his sponsorships, but his ear to ear grin suggests nothing but pure pride and joy at the ability to compete. He proceeds to crush in the next relay, gold again. When he shows up for the 200m IM he’s supposed to be battling out with Lochte, many thinking Lochte might finally take him. But the Olympics happen. They get deep into Phelp’s blood, and he puts out a super human effort, making a world class look like a joke and finishing three body lengths ahead of everyone else after only four laps. He has time to take his goggles off and look around smiling before anyone else touches the wall. He nearly equals his Olympic record from 8 years earlier, as though not a day has passed. His greatest competitor, Lochte, who holds the world record in the event and would be tied for the most successful Olympian of all time if Phelps had never touched the water, doesn’t even get a medal. Watching the heartbreak he experiences as a lifetime of effort and success falls short for him is equally part of of the poignant Olympic experience. It’s not always a fairytale. The contrast make’s Phelp’s untouchable run even more impressive.
The following day Phelps heads out in the 100m butterfly against the two best of the modern era in the event. The three of them have been arch nemesis for a decade. Laslo Cseh has been giving Phelps a run for his money for years in the event, establishing a tough rivalry. Chad Le Clos out-touched Phelps at the wall in London four years ago, bringing him a surprise defeat that crushed his spirit and burned itself into his mind for the past four years. Le Clos has been taunting Phelps, staring at him, and even shadow boxing in front of him in the warm up room for the past four days — trying to get in his head and just dog him at every chance. Phelps would love nothing more than to put him in his place. Down the last stretch a no-name Turkish swimmer, inspired by the moment, swims right past three of the best all time in the event and cruises in for Gold. As Phelps touches, something strange happens. They stare in confusion at the score board, trying to piece together the results. It takes a moment for them to figure out what has happened… There’s been a three way tie for silver. The first in Olympic history. Phelps and his bitter rivals Le Clos and Cseh have ALL tied to the hundredth of a second for silver. If a fiction writer penned it, it would be considered too absurd. At the medal ceremony they share the same step of the podium and awkwardly pose together for pictures with their medals. A silver for Phelps under any other circumstances would have been a break in the story. But this oddly poetic tie for second seems even more perfect than if Phelps had just gone out and taken gold.
One night later Phelps enters his final race. The American swimmer Ryan Murphy starts off the 4x100 meter medley team and is so charged up by the Olympic stage that he sets a world record on his opening swim. The second leg sees the British swimmer Peatey, who has been dominating the field by a wide margin all week in the breast stroke, cruise by the American bronze medalist in the even. Then Phelps comes out and closes the gap that has opened to the competition in his final Olympic swim, his giant chin dragging the water as he gulps for air on every stroke — looking like a massive air scoop on some racing boat. He crosses with a slight edge over everyone else, a great performance in his last swim, giving the gold medalist in the 100m freestyle, Nathan Adrian, the ability to easily take it home. On the medal podium after the race, you can see Phelps doing everything he can to absorb this moment, realizing it is likely his last race, his last great victory, his last chance to absorb a moment this profound. The end of possibly the greatest sports career in history. Watching a lifetime of suffering, hard work, achievement, victory, pushing boundaries, and inspiring humanity flash across his face, and seeing him absorb that it is now fading into the rear view mirror is a moment that can only be described as human. It’s certainly profound watching the man who brought us possibly the most inspiring thing I have ever seen — somehow running the table for a record 8 golds in one Olympics in Beijing, and doing it with a level of drama that was unimaginable (right down to an absolutely impossible last moment 1/100th of a second out-touch of a competitor in a relay that seemed sure to ruin the run).
In women’s swimming Maya Dorado, a Stanford swimmer who had missed making the team in the previous Olympics and declared this to be her first and only Olympics, had somehow rolled into the games ready for the performance of a lifetime. She didn’t really expect to win a medal at all. Maybe a bronze at most. She was just happy to be there. She ripped out an amazing performance, one of the best of her life, to pull in for silver in her first individual event — behind the unbeatable powerhouse Katinka Hosszu who appears to be a Hungarian robot spurred on by her slightly insane boyfriend. In her second race she again pushes herself to new heights and snags a bronze medal. Impressed by her unreal wave of success, the United States decides to make a last minute change — pulling their planned swimmer from the relay and substituting Maya instead. Maya, riding on the high of a lifetime, put down another performance to push any she had ever had and brings the US to a gold in the relay. The girl that thought she’d leave the games with nothing now has a gold medal. And one of each color. Finally, she enters the 200m backstroke, again competing against the Hungarian robot Hosszu. It’s a forgone conclusion that Hosszu will win yet again, as she is solidly drubbing the field every time she touches the water. They turn for the length of the pool, Maya easily behind Hosszu just as expected. But Maya has nothing to lose, she didn’t even expect a medal coming in and she already has three. What difference does what’s possible mean to her? She just refuses to accept the inevitable and slowly pulls Hosszu in the entire way down the stretch. By the time they reach the wall, it hasn’t been enough. She’s still clearly behind. They dive for the wall, Maya kicking her legs up and Hosszu reaching for the wall. They pop up out of the water and stare at the leader board. There’s a pause as the water drips from their goggles and they try to determine what has happened. Maya clearly is hoping she got some sort of medal. Then her jaw drops. Her name is on top of the leader board. Somehow, some way, in her never-take-no-for-an-answer dive at the line she managed to lunge passed the superhuman Hungarian that no one even dared challenge. She stares in disbelief, unable to do anything but laugh in amazement. She certainly didn’t expect that. In her post race interview she says “I can’t believe that just happened.” But this isn’t a race, it’s the Olympics.
In men’s gymnastics, the United States opened up the all around competition being one of the front runners for gold. After the first two rotations, they had several miserable mistakes and were almost impossibly far behind already. Any form of medal at all seemed to be entirely impossible. The men huddle together on the side of the arena, giving each other a pep talk. Refusing to just lie down and die. This same team is largely carried over from four years ago at London, where they qualified number 1 and somehow let the moment get to them, falling all the way off the podium and leaving without a medal. Not again. The next American goes up to the parallel bars, runs his routine, then absolutely sticks his landing. He lets out a roar, fists clenched, every part of his demeanor screaming with adrenaline. His energy ignites something in his teammates. A shift happens. The next American goes up, nails his routine and sticks it too. The team is besides themselves, shouting with primal enthusiasm and refusal to go out without a bang. They sit nearly last in the competition a distance behind bronze that is impassable. Their third athlete nails a nearly impossible third stick. They erupt on the sideline.
Their entire demeanor has changed. No one in the building has anywhere near their level of energy. Everything around them disappears. They move to the next apparatus. Their first gymnast nails his routine and all but sticks that too. They’re on another level. This doesn’t happen. Charged on by the Olympics, the emotions, a lifetime of hard work, four years of heartache and deep desire for redemption from the last Olympics, they are on another planet. Second man goes up, riding a wave and outside his mind, proceeds through his routine on the rings, freezing mind-blowing, super human positions cold and then swings twice and releases, flipping and spinning through the air… and he sticks it cold. His teammates are so fired up it appears at any minute they might start ripping the seats out of the stadium in their frenzy. The third man sticks it as well. What is happening? This is impossible. They have squeezed from a totally impossible virtual last to within an enormously improbable but also seriously doable distance from the bronze medal spot. They proceed to the final event. The high bar. They are untouchable. Their first athlete somehow finds perfection yet again, and all but sticks the landing. Then Sam Mikulak, the team captain and one of the best gymnasts in the world — and also the same gymnast that gave them their most devastating setback early on the floor exercise — goes and sticks his landing too. The entire team roars, every vein popping out as they release years of pent up energy and desperation to finally realize their life long goals and right their mistakes from London four years ago. Their last athlete steps up to the high bar. The team’s confidence is out of the building, the impossible seems within reach. They’re mounting one of the biggest come backs in recent sports history. And the last man up is a prodigy on the high bar. His routine is set to stun, he has the potential to score huge, and he rarely fails his team. They sit back just slightly, happy to have it in the hands of their man. His routine is the last one between them and possibly regaining the bronze, regaining their pride and fulfilling what they’ve dreamed about since they were small children. The broadcast team has been interspersing videos of a knee-high Sam Mikulak nailing routines as a small child. This isn’t a competition, this is a lifetime. Daniel Leyva grabs the high bar, then begins his spins. The announcer says “About to see some big time gymnastics” as he lets loose, doing two laid out flips through the air with a seemingly impossible release technique, and nails it. His teammates jump up and down in the back ground, antsy with anticipation. The announcer says “Hold on tight” as everyone holds their breath. He continues his routine, making it through an even more improbable release doing two flips with two twists and grabbing the bar again just fine. He’s on fire. They’re all on fire. Nearing the end of his routine, his teammates eyes lit up knowing that he’s gotten through everything difficult and all he has to do is stick his landing, he spins and lets go of the bar on an easy release. One he’s nailed 10,000 times in the gym. Not a second thought given. This one doesn’t even involve a single flip, let alone the double flipping, double twisting release he already nailed. His hands find the bar. He grabs. And his hands slip right off.
He lands in a crouch on the pad below and crumples onto his knees.
The entire auditorium is in disbelief. His team is stunned. Daniel doesn’t move a muscle. His head is dropped down, his eyes staring at the mat ahead of his knees.
And he sits there.
And he sits there.
And he sits there.
The camera zoomed in. His crushed spirit on display for the entire world. A lifetime of hopes and dreams spinning through his head as he tries to cope with the fact that they’ve just evaporated into thin air. The shock of going from possibly the greatest wave of moment of the entire Olympic games, to this moment hits everyone watching. His torment has him frozen there. His team struggles to have a thought that makes sense.
The announcer says “I can’t remember the last time Daniel Leyva missed the bar on that skill.”
After quite a while, he finally gets up, does the Olympic thing and grabs the bar, finishing his routine.
He hauls himself off to the side of the arena, and his teammates huddle, crushed. They chat, trying to come up with words. Trying to find a way to move forward. Trying to come to grips with the fact that their entire life’s goal simply will never happen for them. Life just isn’t fair. And we watch as these young men have to pick up and move forward, realizing that some things just don’t go the way you want. The contrast to Phelp’s storied career makes it clear just how unreasonably improbable great success on that scale really is.
A few days later the Brazilian gymnastics squad, which has never even entered a full team in a prior Olympics, has just seen one of their own nail a floor exercise routine. He sits in contention for a gold medal, as the home crowd goes berserk, even exploding with energy as the greatest foreign competitors slip up. A major competitor goes up, runs through a pass, then trips and steps out of bounds. The crowd roars, knowing their man came one step closer to a medal. They’re desperate for the home team to pull in a medal of any type. Another competitor goes, and again makes a mistake. The air buzzes with excitement in the stadium. The British Max Whitlock goes up and puts on the performance of a lifetime, slotting into first place. The hometown man sits in silver. While the United States might be disappointed, the Brazilian crowd rages. They’ve never even had a team in this event. The second Brazilian goes, almost nailing his routine and moving into the bronze medal position. The Japanese favorite goes, slips up, and falls short. The crowd explodes. They know they have at least one medal. American Sam Mikulak goes, he stumbles and the crowd roars. He steps out of bounds on his next pass and the crowd roars louder. It’s all but sealed. He finishes his routine. The Brazilians sit two and three, on a team that has before this week never even existed in the Olympics. The man sitting in the bronze medal position, Arthur Mariano, lies in a ball on the floor, his head between his knees. His score isn’t that strong, Sam Mikulak could bump him for the bronze. Meanwhile Sam sits anxiously, having gone from a favorite in two straight Olympics to hanging on this moment to find out if his lifetime of work and pushing himself will bring him even a single medal. The score comes out. Everything two men have ever hoped for hangs in the balance. Sam shoulders slump, his dreams smashed. The Brazilian looks up and his team explodes. He crumbles into tears, still in a ball on the floor. When he finally gets up, he can’t help sobbing uncontrollably. The home team is riding the Olympic spirit so high that their nearly nonexistant gymnastics team has somehow challenged all the powers to grab both silver AND bronze in one event. Sam has to pick it up and move on. Again, it’s not competition, it’s human.
Kerry Walsh Jennings, three time Olympic gold medalist and all time great at beach volleyball — having never lost a single match in Olympic play and having only ever lost a single set — has an awful game against the Brazilian number two team. They lose in the semifinals. A perfect run of gold medals is out for her. There won’t be an unheralded run of four golds in four Olympics over twelve years. They come back out to play the Brazilian number two team in the bronze medal match. After looking tense, they pull out a tough game. In a post game interview, she says “You know, I’ve always won straight through to the gold. I’ve never had to suffer a devastating loss, collect myself, and come back out and win. Because of that, this bronze means as much to me as all my golds.”
Wayde Van Niekerk enters the 400 meter final in track. As a South African whose mother is not white, he grew up in an interesting circumstance. His mother was an excellent runner herself and may well have won an Olympic gold — except that due to apartheid, she was not allowed to compete. In an interview, she says that she’s not bitter — she just wasn’t meant to be an Olympian, she was meant to be the mother of one. His coach is a 70 something year old lady. Practically a grandma. Somehow this woman can still coach a modern Olympic athlete through hard workouts and top competition. Her story alone is amazing. Few onlookers know much about Wayde, as compared to the big names surrounding him. Wayde has drawn lane 8. No major international competition in the 400 meter has EVER, in 120 years, been won out of lane 8. Not the Olympics. Not the world championships. Nothing. No matter who was in that lane. And two of the greats in the 400 meter, including American Lashawn Merrit, are behind him. Wayde is at an enormous disadvantage, unable to see how anyone else is running because he is starting ahead of all of them. If at any point he can see them, he has already lost.
He comes out of the blocks fierce, unwilling to relent. He rounds the first turn and appears to be holding his own, though the staggered start that accounts for the turns makes it difficult to see how they line up. They round the second turn, and he’s still out front. They power down the stretch and his competitors surge towards him. Then somehow he finds another gear. The announcer says “The South African is losing steam… or is he?” He ignites down the stretch, powering farther and farther out ahead of the best in the world. He crosses the finish line a full 20 meters ahead of the field. Pulling to a halt, the entire stadium reacts in disbelief. He looks at the board and realizes he has not only won gold, the first man in 120 years of track competition to do so from the outside lane in a 400, but he has ALSO set a world record. And this isn’t ANY gold record. He has just broken the once though un-touchable record of Michael Johnson from TWENTY YEARS before at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. One of the hardest records on the books in the Olympics, untouched in 20 years of world class competition, has just fallen to the relatively unknown South African running in the cursed outer lane. Usain Bolt is filmed laughing and cheering in the tunnel, watching the performance on the monitor.
A Puerto Rican favorite in the 400m hurdles race lines up and false starts. Under the new rule he’s out. He can barely pick himself up off the ground, bawling. At 31, this was his last chance. A gold medal was very possibly seconds away, and a moment’s flinch meant he will never see an Olympics medal.
A woman breaks her back in the bike race.
The U.S. Team pulls a first ever sweep of the podium in a track event, grabbing every medal in the 100 meter hurdles.
Usain Bolt comes off slow against Justin Gatlin in the 100 meter dash. It appears the troubled Gatlin might repeat for gold 12 years apart, a comeback after a controversial steroids ban after his first gold in 2004. It also seems Bolt might finally fall. Until Bolt hits top gear and surges past Gatlin for the gold, the race not even close at the line. Bolt comes out and again walks the crowd in the 200. The announcers put him up their with greats like Jordan and Muhammad Ali. The fastest man to have ever lived.
The American 4x100m relay team gets ready for the last sprint race of the games. In London 4 years ago they led the race, when Tyson Gay didn’t get ahold of the baton and it fell to the track. Gay, despite being a top sprinter for years, has zero medals in Olympic competition. They picture the four members of the team watching the London baton drop over on their laptops. The pain in their eyes hurts to watch. Several of them hand the laptop back to the interviewer and turn away. Flipping back to the track, they line up to race. The gun goes off and the Jamaican team surges ahead, looking to give Bolt a perfect 9 for 9 Olympic record since his very first Olympics in 2004 where he got outted in the first round. 9 golds in 9 races. Or a chance to repair their misfortune for the Americans. The baton passes and the American sprinter pulls up tighter to the Jamaican. They seem almost neck and neck. The Baton passes again and it seems close. But on this leg the Americans need to surge well ahead of the Jamaicans because Bolt is coming on the last leg, and no one can touch him. They don’t. The last pass happens, and Bolt takes off ahead of everyone. The American sprinter struggles down the back stretch in second, and somehow the Japanese sprinter pulls up and passes the Americans for a photo finish at the line. The Japanese don’t have a single individual sprinter that has been mentioned all week, and yet they’ve somehow just beaten the star studded American team. Tyson Gay reluctantly but happily celebrates finally having won a medal at least, but the Americans are clearly suffering at the realization that their chance at gold in London was a once in a lifetime opportunity. They later find that they have been disqualified for a slightly off baton pass — Gay will retire without a medal. Bolt and his teammates collect Jamaican flags from the audience, then pose for pictures as Bolt clowns and poses. Perfect 9 for 9 in three Olympics. The fastest man that has ever lived.
Brazil, the host country, having never won an Olympic gold in their most beloved sport — soccer — makes it to the gold medal match at home. They go up 1–0 early, but quickly get tied at 1–1. Stays that way for about 90 minutes of play (why I hate soccer)
Finally goes to penalty kicks, where they trade having one player go one on one with the goalie, just one kick allowed. Whoever scores more out of five.
Germany goes first. Player lines up, kicks towards the left corner. Brazilian goalie dives, gets a hand on it, but the ball slips around his hand and scores. The crowd goes quiet, knowing if their player misses that could be it.
Brazils player scores. Back to even.
Germany lines up, kicks at the high corner, goalie can’t reach, ball scores.
Pressure back on Brazil, a miss could easily mean heartbreak at home. Brazil’s player stutter steps, kicks and scores.
Germany kicks hard, goalie can’t reach and Germany scores.
Back to requiring Brazil to score. Player lines up, gets it.
Germany scores again. The crowd is on the verge of imploding with nerves, the pressure of having to go perfect, not one missed shot too much.
Brazil comes up, kicks, goalie dives the wrong way and the ball sails into the net. Scores again.
They’ve both scored all five. Now it’s sudden death. Score and you win. Germany goes first again, the crowd palpably anticipating heartbreak, knowing they haven’t missed yet.
The German player lines up and pauses, collecting himself. He runs at the ball and chips it low to the right. He doesn’t get it all the way to the edge and as the goalie dives the ball finds his stomach. He wraps around it and clings for dear life. Save!!! The first of over time and the one they couldn’t give up. The crowd goes insane, but it isn’t over.
And guess whose turn it just HAPPENS to be to kick for Brazil? Brazil’s Michael Jordan, the biggest name in soccer, the biggest hero in Brazil just so happens to be the next player up. In the gold medal match. Which they’ve never won. At home. At their own Olympics.
How does that happen?
Neymar, the man so famous he goes by only one name, Brazil’s most cherished star and a man known for attention getting hair and flashy antics. And it’s somehow him that has the chance to win Brazil their first soccer gold medal ever at their own Olympics.
He lines up. The referee blows the whistle for him to kick. And he just stands there.
No one moves. The crowd hangs on their seats. He simply stares at the goalie, collecting himself.
Finally he runs forward, then stutters to a stop. The goalie nervously adjusts on his feet.
He jogs forward again and chips the ball high left. The goalie dives to the same side, merging with the ball. Then gravity takes over, the goalie’s dive begins to fall back to the earth while the ball continues high on its path, cruising by his shoulder and pulling the back of the net as it grinds to a halt.
The stadium explodes. Neymar instantly bursts into tears, kneeling on the ground. His entire team collapses onto the grass crying. One player dives on top of another and they lie on the grass together, oblivious to how they look to the outside world. Their goalie stuffs the ball he saved into his own shirt to be sure he can keep it forever, then wanders around hugging his teammates, a smile ear to ear on his face, tears on his cheeks, the ball in his shirt awkwardly blocking every hug.
I don’t care about soccer, but how can you not love that?
It’s one of the most beautiful, most human, most powerful, most inspiring, and most emotional displays we ever get to see. It’s also one of the most positive. How can you not love the Olympics?