The 2012 London Summer Olympic Games draw many of us to watch in wonder; each devoted athlete has dedicated his or her life to the agonizing, fine art of perfect completion. Whether they are competing against other athletes, or whether they’ve ascended so high that they’re competing only against their own previous best records, the athletes humble me with their focus and achievements.
For the novel I’m writing, I researched the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. As at the Games to be held that summer in Berlin, the National Socialist officials staged a show for the world. There was a temporary ban on signs, graffiti and actions that discriminated against the Jews, so as not to offend the world with the true extent of Nazi intolerance. Only one Jewish athlete competed on any German team. Rudi Ball, a hockey player, was simply too talented to exclude and Germany couldn’t win without him. It seems he was aware of the politics involved in his selection; it is reported that he bargained to get his family out of Germany in return for his commitment to play.
Of course, 1936 was not the only time when politics or politically-fueled violence heightened the tension and drama of competition, marring it with cruelty. In 1972, terrorists kidnapped and killed nine Israeli athletes. In 1996, a white supremacist set off a bomb at the Atlanta Summer Games. While the victims must be remembered, I choose not to name the offenders, these or any others who corrupted the spirit of competition with their evil intent. They don’t deserve to be remembered.
One of the images that I will hold from these Summer Games is what I saw after a girl gymnast lost control during her event and fell short of her best. This happens frequently and it’s uncomfortable to see; we non-athletes wonder how, after hundreds or thousands of practices, does the athlete lose his or her grip? It can evoke our sympathy because we know how far we are from attaining what that athlete could accomplish, even on his or her worst day. I don’t recall the country or team this girl represented, or even her name, although I wish I did. What I remember is that her teammates stood with her in a circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms clasped. The camera audio picked up their voices, reaffirming to one another that their deeper purpose was unity and relationship, something no one could take away.
So there may be a true Olympic Spirit, a human choice to live beyond politics and any excessive will to win. Of course we strive to bring our honest best to any game, to fulfill our humanity. But when one of us falls short of a perfect performance, we can reach out with affection and mercy instead of flinging judgment and rejection. When we lack understanding, we can decide to bring a receptive mind instead of weapons. We can gently whack the dust off of one another after we fall, choosing to believe that we are all related. That’s what those girls did and at that moment, they’d already won.