Shanti Emerson: Takeaways from the Olympics
The glory of a win in the Olympics is beyond a Super Bowl or World Series victory. It is international.
It is recorded in history, and all medalists will be known for this feat the rest of their lives. Then there are the deep disappointments. Some great athletes such as Simone Biles have an off day or bad luck or an injury. The pain in their faces is difficult to watch.
Everything they have worked for all their lives, all those thousands of hours of training, are coming to culmination the minute they start their sport in the Olympics.
So what can we learn from this biennial event?
First of all, we can be inspired by the dedication to their sports these world-class athletes have shown since they were children. They are the ones who get up at before dawn or stay late after school to swim laps. Their Saturdays are full of competitions. They are not cheerleaders or band members. They don’t have time to do that. They only have time to practice, practice, practice, and practice some more. While the rest of us are doing computer games, they are working to better their speed and their skills.
We learn that they have very supportive families and communities, and this is key to their success. Gold Medalist Peggy Fleming’s father used to get up at 4 a.m. so he could use the resurfacing machine to make the ice smooth for his daughter at her skating rink. Her family moved to Colorado Springs so she could study with a great coach.
To many parents, taking a child to practice every weekday and to out-of-town competitions every weekend would be a chore. There are a lot of would-bes out there who could have been great athletes, but didn’t get reinforcement from home.
Also, they have a lot of support from their communities. Gold medalist Scott Hamilton’s expenses were paid by a wealthy couple from his home town. I will always remember the Hmong community and their pride in gold medal gymnast Suni Lee. Winners are celebrated in their home towns with parades and newspaper headlines.
These athletes have to work well under intense pressure. Before they enter the Olympics, the media hypes them to the max and privacy is impossible. The contests are televised around the world to billions of people. These athletes must learn to calm themselves and to focus on their performance. Their nations are depending on them, and they have to relax and do their best.
Champions are “comeback kids.” While others get discouraged when defeated, these athletes get more determined, tougher, and more focused. Making mistakes is inevitable. They learn from their errors, make corrections and change for the future. They do not give up. They regroup like gymnast Jade Carey.
Olympic athletes have goals. Most have been aiming for the gold all of their lives. It can be an obsession. Yet winning isn’t everything. Even more important is doing their personal best.
World class athletes are always learning and working with the best coaches to strategize how to win their events. Some young athletes leave their families to study with teammates and coaches far from home.
Olympic athletes have a deep sense of belonging. Not only are they members of specialized teams like swimming or fencing, but also of the larger national team and, even more importantly, a member of the international team of Olympic athletes.
World class athletes are not only kind to their own teammates but reach out to their competitors. Who could forget the 2021 U.S. women’s gymnastics team hugging their Russian counterparts after being beaten by them in the finals? Or swimming multi-medalist Katie Ledecky embracing the winner of a race she was supposed to have won? How about the two women runners (U.S. and Botswana) who collided and then helped each other across the finish line?
After tying in the long jump, Italy and Qatar shared the gold rather than going for sudden death. Later the Italian said, “Sharing with a friend is even more beautiful. It was just magical.” These competitors are role models for good sportsmanship.
In the opening ceremonies, the Parade of Nations is truly awesome as we realize how big and diverse the world is and instead of nations at war, they are there for peace. Athletes from each country greet each other with respect, and the color of one’s skin does not matter at all in the games.
So maybe we don’t have an Olympic gold medal or lead parades or make newspaper headlines, but we can learn from the great ones. We can seek advisers and mentor others. We can be persistent and work toward our goals every day.
We can pick ourselves up after a failure and learn from our mistakes, determined to do better next time. We can be kind to everyone, friends and competitors alike.
These athletes make a difference in our world, and so can we.
Shanti Emerson lives on Banner Mountain.
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