It’s something of a simplistic idea, the notion that the Olympics can unite the world.
It’s naïve to think that centuries of strife between warring nations can be erased in two weeks of competition. It’s willful ignorance to choose to forget that the IOC is a corrupt organization, to turn a half-blind eye to a Russian contingent tainted by drugging allegations, to not consider the crushing poverty and rampant pollution in 2016 host city Rio that can’t be solved by pretty light shows at the Opening Ceremony.
I know all this. But I still believe, if not in the Olympic ideal, then in the human spirit of its competitors.
This election cycle has exposed an ugly vein of racism still stubbornly clinging to our nation’s roots. So if the sight of the Refugee Olympic team, whose 10 members escaped civil war and unimaginable hardship but maintained a love for sport and competition, marching under the Olympic flag makes me cry, so be it.
My own efforts at adulting sometimes seem thwarted at every turn by leaky windows and nagging doubts. So if I want to engage in a bit of escapism and tweet about Estonia’s cute skirts or that Tonga torso, I will.
I have a personal connection or two to the Games, tenuous though they are. I’ve written about three-time Olympian Amber Campbell, whom I covered during her record-breaking career at Coastal Carolina and who has her sights set on a medal in the hammer throw event she won at the Olympic Trials. I’ve interviewed other athletes in these Games and ones past: Venus and Serena Williams, 2012 1,600-meter relay champion Francena McCorory, two-time 2008 track and field gold medalist LaShawn Merritt, 2008 swimming gold medalist David Walters … if I stretch my brain, I could probably remember more – not to mention how old I am. It’s fun to watch someone you’ve talked to, whether once at a tournament or dozens of times over half a decade, compete at his or her sport’s pinnacle.
I’m eager to cheer for Amber. I’m excited to see Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who swam for her life after the boat she and 19 others, including her sister, were in broke down in the Mediterranean Sea, swim in less dire circumstances. I want to see what else Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, can do. I look forward to Simone Biles’ coronation and the dozens of sweet surprises and no-one-saw-that-coming moments the Olympics always produces.
The ones already stored in my memory bank remain vivid. Mary Lou Retton. Carl Lewis. Torvill and Dean. Dan Jansen. Jamaican bobsledders. The Dream Team. Derek Redmond. Ali. Kerri Strug. Michael Johnson. Rulon Gardner. Korean unification (short-lived though it was.) Usain Bolt. Believing in miracles and watching them happen.
Sappy strains of “What the world needs now/is love, sweet love” are now running through my head, so let’s dial it back a notch. I’m not submitting that the Olympics are a panacea for the world’s problems. They certainly aren’t going to fix all of mine.
But the Games do offer a bit of perspective, a chance to pause and appreciate, to cheer and cry about something outside yourself. That sounds like exactly what I, for one, need right now.