The Olympics: humanity on display

Charles Hamlin at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Andrea Sirois.

Charles Hamlin at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Andrea Sirois.

As we approach the end of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the athletes, thankfully, have once again become the real story. More than just a competition focused on results, scattered amongst Sochi’s events are the sound bites, visuals, and actions that set us apart and show us as being, well, human.

Perhaps never before have the Olympics been held in as tenuous a location. Situated in the north Caucasus along the Black Sea, and part of a historical territorial dance between the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Russia, Sochi and its venues are wary neighbours to the more recent flashpoints in Chechnya, Georgia and newly formed Abkhazia.

It is a region of seemingly endless tension, whether political, cultural, religious or military. Before the Sochi games, indigenous Circassians were protesting the choice of site, claiming it was the scene of a 19th century Russian-led genocide. Recently, Islamic jihadist groups have threatened violence to further their quest for independence. Even with this backdrop, the Olympics continue to show the humanity born of competition, the highs, as well as the ever-balancing lows.

At the start of these Olympics, I found it curious when Canadian short track speed skater Charles Hamlin was quoted saying he was slightly disappointed with his performance at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, despite winning two gold medals and a silver. The reason given was his uncharacteristically poor performance in one event, the 1500 meters.

So, as if on cue, the Canadian would go on to win the 1500 meter gold medal in Sochi. He would then fail to even qualify for the finals in the next three events, events in which he reached the podium in Vancouver. Are his results a cruel irony? Perhaps. Is this an example of what some will call the balancing act that is life? Maybe. Are his feelings heading into the Sochi games those of athletes demanding the best from themselves in every race? Absolutely.

Even so, I have been surprised at the complexities of disappointment shown at these games. I cannot think of a more poignant contrast in mood than when United States snowboarder Shaun White congratulated Swiss-Russian gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov for his victory in the half pipe event.

White had finished out of the medals in  a discipline he had dominated for years. Having made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes, he walked away with a glazed look, staring blankly ahead, while wondering where it had all gone wrong. Podladtchikov was victorious, yet gracious, referring to White as his inspiration. More importantly, he wished the victory  had come, in the true spirit of competition, against one of White’s usual bar-setting performances.

I admire the respect, as well as the desire for fairness, sportsmanship, and unhindered performance found amongst rivals in the highest echelon of sport. In just the latest example of competitors helping each other to combat equipment failure, Justin Wadsworth, the American head coach of Canada’s Nordic ski team, gave Russian athlete Anton Gafarov a replacement ski in the cross-country sprint.

Gafarov had broken his ski in a fall and, although out of medal contention even before the mishap, was doggedly trying to finish his Olympic experience to the best of his ability – broken ski and all. For the Canadian coach, it was the only thing to do, and represented a repayment of sorts.

In the 2006 Turin Olympics, Wadsworth’s future wife, Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner was the recipient of a replacement pole from a Norwegian coach, allowing Renner and her partner to win the silver medal. In one of fate’s cruel ironies, that sporting gesture left the Norwegians in fourth place at the finish, and out of the medals.

The selfless, and spiritual essence of the Olympics was also shown by speed skater Gilmore Junio, who relinquished his spot in the men’s 1000 meters to teammate Denny Morrison. Morrison had missed qualifying for the event because of an untimely fall on the final turn during the Canadian trials.  Humbly, Junio said Morrison was simply skating better than he, and deserved the chance to race. Morrison repaid the gesture with a silver medal.

But ultimately, and for me, the beauty of the Olympics is more personal. Call it cliché, but the determination of athletes to perform to their very best – leaving nothing to chance, leaving every ounce of their mental, and physical ability out on the field of competition, and leaving the Olympics satisfied with their result – trumps all.

British downhill skier Chemmy Alcott, competing at her fourth Olympics in Sochi, had never won a medal. Her best result had been an 11th in both 2010 Vancouver, and 2006 Turin. Recently recovered from breaking her right leg for the third time, and having resumed skiing only a month earlier, the self-funded athlete finished in 19th place in the women’s downhill. Exhausted, but beaming while looking into the camera at the finish, Alcott’s only words were: “I’m so proud of myself.” And, so she should be.

When the Sochi Olympic Winter Games close, I will be left with memories of joyous, and gracious victory, as well as the loneliness, and heart-felt disappointment of defeat. I will relive the excitement, and inspiration provided by competition at the highest level, regardless of the final result. But, most of all, I will remember Chemmy Alcott, and the athletes from 88 nations, large and small, who came to compete to the best of their abilities, and left me amazed at the images of our collective humanity they so powerfully displayed.

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