If there is an antidote for the toxicity plaguing our political life these days, it has to be the chance to see talented, dedicated and disciplined people from all around the world working, striving and competing every day and every night for two weeks.
True, even the Olympic Games aren’t a paradise.
There are still too many examples of flag-waving, too much jingoism on the cheap. The ongoing controversies about doping and other forms of cheating also are discouraging.
And the way female athletes are treated – other than Ryan Lochte, is there a single male athlete who has his hairstyle choice subjected to the kind of comment and criticism women endure on a routine basis? – reminds us just how persistent sexist attitudes are.
Not to mention how damaging.
It’s possible, of course, to dismiss and even disparage the commercialism of the event – the fact that some of the athletes are racing toward a pot of gold at the end of the Olympic rainbow.
This overlooks the fact that most of the athletes – and particularly those in non-marquee sports – aren’t going to see vast wealth as a reward for their many, many hours and years of sweat and pain.
And even those who have punched their meal tickets not just for themselves but for the next several generations of their descendants – Michael Phelps comes to mind – keep returning long after any sense of economic necessity would seem to compel them.
Years ago, I interviewed Janet Evans, one of the greatest female swimmers in Olympic history.
She exploded on the world stage as a teenager. Small of stature, blessed with an effervescent smile and master of a distinctive windmill-like freestyle, she dominated the 1988 Olympic Games, winning gold medals in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle races and the 400-meter individual medley.
That year, when she was only 17, she set world records in three events that lasted for nearly 20 years.
It was also the year she peaked.
When she came back four years later, Evans still was an incredible swimmer, but she’d slowed a bit and the rest of the world was catching up. She won a gold and a silver in Barcelona.
By the time the Atlanta Olympics approached, she was back in the pack, an exceptional swimmer by any human standard other than that of the elite, elite athlete.
That’s when I talked with Evans. We chatted at the natatorium on IUPUI’s campus not long after she’d finished a workout.
I wanted to know what pushed her to keep going long after she’d conquered her sport and accomplished all that any person could want.
Much of the conversation did not flow smoothly.
Evans dismissed my questions with stock answers and clichés. I used the interviewer’s trick of rephrasing what amounted to the same question to ask it again and again.
Finally, she saw that I really wanted to know. She smiled and said that it was true that she didn’t need to prove anything anymore.
“But it’s still fun,” she said. “I love to swim and I love to compete. As long as it’s fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”
Years later, when she was 40, I wasn’t surprised to hear Evans was mounting a comeback and wanted to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. She didn’t make it, but she ended up swimming a lot faster than any 40-year-old has a right to.
Some fires take a long time to burn out.
My favorite moments in the Olympic Games come at the end of an event. The competitors, even those who are fierce rivals, most often exchange handshakes, fist bumps or even hugs.
The ritual is one of good sportsmanship, of course, but good sportsmanship is more than good manners. It’s a reminder of the larger forces at play, the fundamental truth that competition at its deepest level also becomes collaboration.
By pushing each other, we all become better. We could not discover how good we are or can become without being tested by others.
In that way, the individual owes a debt to the community and the community owes a debt to the individual.
That reminder is the reason this year, in particular, the Olympic Games are such a cleansing breath of air.
Thank goodness for the Olympics.