Few things in life can bring people together and make all the evil and trivial things in the world retreat into the shadows like sports can.
For the next two weeks, presidential politics, war, violence and economic fear will take a backseat to competition, sportsmanship, national pride and triumph of the human spirit. For many, the Olympic games in London will be an escape from the daily wear and tear and provide a chance to get caught up in something much bigger than themselves.
Track athlete Jesse Owens arrived in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics in the face of one of the greatest evils this world has ever experienced. Adolf Hitler was determined to prove the Aryan race was far superior and would dominate the athletic competition that year. Owens went on to win four gold medals, a feat not equaled until 1984 by Carl Lewis.
Owens record-setting performance in the face of such racial hatred was one of the most inspiring events in Olympic history. It even prompted a statement from Hitler who said: “People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive and their physiques are stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
This year marks 40 years since the biggest tragedy to hit the games and one nation specifically. The cowardice of five terrorists led to the forfeiture of their sad existence but more importantly the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches as well as one German police officer in the 1972 games in Munich, Germany.
Although not from Israel, Jewish-American Mark Spitz would rise to the challenge, taking a record seven gold medals. His total would stand as the literal ‘Gold Standard’ until the 2008 games in Beijing when Michael Phelps would collect eight. Spitz was actually asked to leave Germany prior to the closing ceremonies because of such heightened concern for his life.
Racists may try their best to terrorize and force their beliefs on the masses, but time and time again their efforts are thwarted and the best in human nature comes out.
The Olympics can work miracles. Besides actually caring about how fast someone can swim, shoot an arrow or bat a shuttlecock around, ignorant ideas fly out the window and human accomplishments are chronicled and celebrated. No matter skin color, race, religion or political view, all achievements find a way to bring out the best in us.
No government policy can dictate what speaks to the human soul, no racial divide is too great a distance to withstand the leap of triumphant accomplishment and no ideology can hold back human emotion.
The highest degree sport achieves is truth. You win or you lose. Your hard work pays off or it pushes you to dust yourself off and try again. Gold medals don’t care if you are brown, white, yellow, green or purple or if you are a conservative, liberal, fascist or communist.
For this sports fan anyway, the Olympics have shown me that it is possible, no matter what worldview I subscribe to or whatever I believe to be truth, I can cheer for my country and still enjoy the success of others.
Success is not mutually exclusive to anyone group of people and it should not be met with disdain. We all work hard at what we do to be the best, we all want to be successful and enjoying other peoples failure should be classified as an oxymoron.
The Olympic games welcome in even the most casual sports fan as well as those that never make time for athletic competition. The Olympics are a chance for us all to be the person we want to be, even if it is for only two weeks.
I don’t know what London has in store for these games, but I hope we can all take a moment to remember the individuals that died in Munich and celebrate the accomplishments of Spitz as well as Owens and the barriers that fell in 1936 in Berlin.
While remembering what has passed, enjoy the present and find a way to let the two come together to make the best future we can.