The people of the “city of Salt Lake City” and the whole state are reveling in the 10-year-old memories of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was a perfect 16 days. The Opening Ceremony was spectacular with lights, flags, heroes and snowflakes swirling, all captured on the TV screen.
The weather was as if it were programmed from on high. It was exciting to see the friendly volunteers (many speaking the languages of the world), the decorated buildings and the thousands of athletes competing in our Wasatch.
Leading up to the Games was another story. For some it was an over-hyped exercise of the elites inviting other elites to party. An example was that many tickets were out of the reach of ordinary folks.
For me it all changed when a true champion revealed herself. A mother of a boy of about six came into the clinic. She was working and rearing her son alone. She had something important to show. She was obviously excited. In the office she pulled out a small, red cardboard token, a cheap poker chip.
This single mom was an alcoholic. For a whole seven days she had not had a single drink. In her AA meetings her brothers and sisters had rewarded her for her victory. She had earned her medal. It was better than gold.
Her courage, her weeklong accomplishment, and her willingness to share her personal triumph were inspiring. In medicine we like to hear about the patient getting better. At that moment she became greater in my sight than any athlete coming to Utah. That is not to say that the physically gifted don’t have struggles and overcome them with discipline and hard work, but here was a young mother who was sober.
Seeing her triumph triggered the thought of how all around us there are comparable stories of conquering self. I learned from her story, the Olympics could be an opportunity to improve the health of the spectators, while admiring the fitness of the skaters and biathletes. Recognizing non-athletes for their efforts did not dilute from the world record performances of Olympians; it expanded the spirit of the Games so more could “feel the fire within.”
The presence of the Olympics could help everyone in the community to become champions of their own health. Robert Hunter of the SLOC was a listening ear. Dr. Scott Williams, then the assistant director of the Utah Department of Health, had a comparable vision of bringing the Olympic gift to everyone.
The concept was to have the five Olympic rings stand for different aspects of health. One would be nutrition, another activity, preventative health services, safety, on down to the last ring, which would focus on the importance of mental health, including being sober.
Out of the dedicated action of different interested groups and individuals, came the Gold Medal School program. This effort in Utah has encouraged thousands of kids to be active and be healthier. Dr. Williams carried the story to Athens and spoke to representatives from Beijing as they planned their own future Games.
The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for faster, higher, stronger. The hope is to add Salubrius, which means healthier. With this addition, the Olympics benefit everyone.
In the end there are many great tales to savor from 2002. It was a wonderful celebration for the people of the planet to see us at our best. For one mom and her son it was also about a small, red cardboard poker chip.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].