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Mark Duncan, Associated Press
With the Italian Alps as a backdrop, United States Tracy Barnes skis to a 58th place finish in the Women's 15 km Biathlon race at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics Monday, Feb. 13, 2006, in Cesana San Sicario, Italy.
A lot of what the Olympics is about is bringing the world together, bringing people together. It's about competition, yes, but it's also about friendship, camaraderie. ... It inspires a lot of people who aren't competing, who've never competed. That's what the Olympics is about. —Tracy Barnes

Tracy Barnes' Olympic experience in Sochi, Russia, will be significantly different than she planned.

She did not spend years of her life training for the grueling sport of biathlon so she could watch from the stands. But next week in Sochi, she will do just that with a grateful heart.

The 31-year-old earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic biathlon team, but then gave it up to her twin sister, who’d been sick and unable to compete to her potential during the trials.

Some might think it would be painful for her to be a spectator after working for years to be a participant.

But Barnes said it isn’t just her affection for her sister that will make her trip to Russia special. It’s the fact that the Olympics are unlike any other sporting event.

“There is a lot more to the Olympics than the racing and trying to win a gold medal,” Barnes told the Deseret News two weeks ago. “A lot of what the Olympics is about is bringing the world together, bringing people together. It’s about competition, yes, but it’s also about friendship, camaraderie. ... It inspires a lot of people who aren’t competing, who’ve never competed. That’s what the Olympics is about.”

The energy that accompanies the games is difficult to describe. When Salt Lake doubles luge athlete Preston Griffall was asked if it’s possible to prepare someone for how it feels to just walk into the opening ceremony, he said he didn’t think it was.

“Until you get there, it’s really something you can’t describe,” he said. “It really is hard to prepare somebody for it. It’s hard to explain what the feeling is that you have until you get there.”

The Olympics are special because they are rare

The fact that the games occur only once every four years makes them special and especially cruel. Lindsey Vonn is the most successful female Alpine skier in American history with 17 World Cup titles and six consecutive downhill titles and four overall championships. She’s earned 59 World Cup victories and is just three shy of tying the women’s all-time record of 62 FIS wins.

And yet, Vonn, who made her Olympic debut in 2002, owns just two Olympic medals — a gold and a bronze earned in Vancouver. A horrific crash kept her from the podium in 2006 and a knee injury will make her a spectator this winter.

The Olympics are special because athletes represent their countries

In most competitions, athletes play for teams. They play for money. They play for contracts and sponsors and entities that make even more than they do with a successful performance.

It is the one time that athletes wear the colors of their country. They represent people who share their culture and history. They honor more than sports fans with their efforts.

This aspect of the games makes them appealing to even the least athletically inclined among us.

The Olympics are special because they shine a spotlight on athletes and competitions overlooked

Justin Reiter doesn’t care that most people don’t even understand what an Alpine snowboarder does. The 33-year-old was so determined to make his Olympic dream a reality, he slept in his truck while he trained in Park City.

Most of the U.S. speedskaters relied on online funding campaigns just to pay rent and buy food while they chased their Olympic hopes. Most work part-time jobs while training for the games, and finding financial success is most difficult for winter sports athletes.

Steven Holcomb is the Peyton Manning of bobsledding. The record-breaking Park City native owns 52 World Cup medals (half of those gold), two world championships and the first U.S. bobsled Olympic gold in 62 years. Russian bobsledding legend Alexandr Zubkov said if Holcomb lived in Russia, he’d be rich and famous.

In the U.S., he’s neither. And yet, Holcomb isn’t bothered by that at all. He loves his sport, and he loves his country. So if fame and fortune belong to athletes who achieve less in more popular sports, so be it.

The Olympics are special because the games are made up of sports played by the entire world

If a sport isn’t played by enough of the world’s population — and at an elite level — it can’t be included in the Olympic program.

Certain sports may have deeper roots in certain countries, but any country that meets minimum standards can compete. There are a lot of impressive athletic stages. But the Olympics are a collection of the world’s best athletes in dozens of sports and compete for the love of competition and country. It isn’t just the best soccer players, the best basketball players, the best skiers. The Olympics are simply the best. And it is the only time that luge athletes and hockey players are considered teammates.

And finally, the Olympics are special because the athletes are people with journeys that inspire us

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Olympic athletes don’t have to win gold to inspire us. Their stories of sacrifice and hard work give us reason to persevere in our own lives. Their ability to fight back from disappointment, heartbreak and physical pain helps us overcome the obstacles in our own lives.

Not everyone dares to compete.

Not all of us are blessed with athletic talent.

And not all of us are willing to embrace the possibility of failure as completely as Olympians.

But the courage exhibited by these extraordinary athletes — on and off the field of play — can inspire us to be brave when facing our own challenges, transforming them into our own opportunities.

And that is exactly what makes the Olympics special.

Twitter: adonsports, Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com