I love the Olympics and am not ashamed to admit it. I have been extra excited about this year’s summer games because I had to wait an additional year to watch them. And although we are only about halfway through them, the games have been worth the wait. So here are some of my thoughts on this year’s Olympics so far, with, of course, a few movies sprinkled in.
One of my favorite things about the Olympics is I become a fan of sports I would never watch (or even care about) if they weren’t part of the Olympic competition. I mean, outside the Olympics, when was the last time you watched foil fencing, or badminton, or archery? For me, at least, the answer would be, well, never. But every four years, I will watch horses dance in the equestrian competition and cheer for the athletes playing rugby, even though I don’t understand most of the rules. And who knew the U.S. was an international power in skeet shooting, winning gold in both the men’s and women’s events, or that Japan would take gold in both men’s and women’s skateboarding? Calling it women’s skateboarding might be a stretch as the medal winners were ages 13, 16, and 13, who barely beat out the “elderly” American, age 34.
So, what makes the Olympics must-see TV? To me, it’s because you never know who might win. And although I always want the Americans to do well, I love it when an underdog surprises us. If I were a betting person, I would be wealthy if I had predicted Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui winning gold in the men’s 400-meter freestyle or Anasasija Zolotic in Women’s Taekwondo or Lee Kiefer in foil fencing. The wins by Zolotic and Kiefer were the first gold medals won by the U.S. in their respective sports in Olympic history. Hafnaoui ranked as the 100th best swimmer in the world just two years ago and was the last person to qualify for the Olympic finals.
As I watched some of these upsets, I thought of one of my favorite sports movies, Cool Runnings.[i] It portrays the story of the Jamaican bobsled team who almost pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. I mean, when was the last time it snowed in Jamaica, a country known for its swift sprinters? In 1987, after Derice Bannock failed to qualify for the 100-meter dash in the 1988 Summer Olympics, he kept his Olympic dreams alive by forming a bobsled team and entered the 1988 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, using an old, borrowed bobsled, the Jamaican team finished dead last after the first run. But they improved to eighth after the second run. And then this happened on their third run:
Although the Jamaican bobsled team failed to win a medal, they returned home as heroes. And that’s what makes the Olympic games so great. It isn’t just about winning. It’s more about following a dream and doing everything in your power to make that dream a reality. Sure, to even get to the Olympics, an athlete must have talent. But what often separates a medalist from the rest of the competitors is hard work.
Katie Ledecky is perhaps the most incredible woman swimmer of all time, winning two gold and two silver medals in these Olympics, giving her a total of seven Olympic gold medals to go along with her 15 world championships. And every time she entered the pool, the commentators commented on her grueling training regime. Which, of course, reminded me of another movie. The film Miracle[ii] tells the story of the U.S. ice hockey’s upset of the much more talented (and heavily favored) Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Here is one of my favorite scenes:
Putting together talent, motivation, and hard work can be a winning combination. But even the best don’t always win. These Olympics showed us the U.S. women’s soccer team, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Biles are humans, after all. Going into these Olympics, the U.S. women’s soccer team remained undefeated in its last 45 international contests until Sweden pummeled the reigning Olympic champions 3 to 0. Of course, the U.S. women could still win the gold (they are currently playing in the semifinals), but it was a wake-up call to the perennial favorites.
Ledecky lost two races she had won easily in the previous Olympics to her Australian rival, Ariane Titmus. The 400 meter was the first time Ledecky had lost an individual Olympic final. So how did Ledecky react after the loss? With style and grace: “Certainly a tough race,” Ledecky said. “I think we delivered. You can’t get much better than that. Tremendous race, a lot of fun. I can’t be too disappointed with that. That was my second-best swim ever. I felt like I fought tooth and nail, and that’s all you can ask for.”
That is the spirit of the Olympic games. You train hard; you give it your all, and with a bit of luck thrown in, you might win a medal. Then there is the opposite. In the 1994 U.S. Figuring Skating Championships, all eyes were on America’s two figure skating rivals, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. As Kerrigan headed toward the ice to perform her routine, a man attacked her, injuring her right knee. As a result, Kerrigan had to withdraw from the U.S. championships, and Harding won it. But the U.S. placed both skaters on its Olympic team. In the end, Harding finished eighth at those Olympics, while Kerrigan finished second. But the story was far from over. It turned out Tonya Harding and her ex-husband had hired the attacker, hoping to break Karrigan’s leg so she couldn’t compete in the winter games. Once the world learned who was behind the attack on Kerrigan’s knee, there was hell to pay. Here is the ending scene from the film I, Tonya,[iii] which chronicles all the events:
We love our Olympic champions, but we want them to win with class, which brings us to Simone Biles.
Going into these Olympics, everyone who knew anything about gymnastics had already bestowed at least five more gold medals around Biles’ shoulders. And for 31 good reasons—her medal total in Olympic and world championships. But everyone watching could see something was not right as she performed in the qualifying round for the team all-around competition. Then, in the finals of that event, Biles did one vault (not the one she intended to do) and shocked the world by withdrawing. In attempting to explain her withdrawal, Biles initially said, “I know that [in] this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came here and felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.” Biles was physically fine, but mentally, she determined she couldn’t go on.
And then the haters came out. Some called her a quitter; others portrayed her as selfish. Others claimed she couldn’t handle the pressure and argued she didn’t desire the title of gymnastics’ GOAT (greatest of all time), comparing her unfavorably to the likes of Michael Phelps or even Michael Jordan. But there is a big difference between Biles and Phelps or Jordan. If Jordan has a bad game, he scores fifteen instead of forty. If Phelps has an off day, he doesn’t win a race he was supposed to. But the stakes are much higher for a gymnast.
When I heard Biles had developed a case of the “twisties” (gymnast speak for losing your sense of where you are while in the air), I thought of Diane Ellingson. Ellingson was a three-time All-American gymnast at the University of Utah (my alma mater) who led her team to a national championship and became the Junior Olympic champion. But in a warm-up on the vault, she over-rotated and landed on her neck. The fall paralyzed her. And although she put the same effort into her rehabilitation as she did in her gymnastics, after five months, nothing changed, and she realized it never would. But, in the spirit of the best Olympic athletes, she said of her injury, “I will never be bitter towards gymnastics because I learned the greatest lessons in my life through the sport.”
With the enormous pressure on the shoulders of a reigning Olympic champion of the stature of Simone Biles, perhaps her withdrawal was her bravest performance of all. As The Dallas Morning News said in a recent editorial, “Most of us will never know what it is like to be held up as the greatest in the world at anything, much less something so intensely public and precarious as a sport where every twist and leap and vault is a risk not only for the body but for the spirit…. We don’t know what is next for Biles. What we know is that she is a young woman, not a god or an automation, and we should not expect her to be.”
Regardless of what happens next for Biles and the other outstanding athletes of these Olympic Games, they have proved to me once again, you don’t always have to win to be a winner.
[i] Cool Runnings:
- Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
- Director: Jon Turteltaub
- Screenwriters: Tommy Swerdlow and Lynn Siefert (based on the story by Lynn Siefert and Michael Ritchie)
- Starring: John Candy, Leon, and Doug E. Doug
- Release date: October 1, 1993
- Production Companies: Pop Pop Productions, Determination Productions, and Mayhem Pictures
- Director: Gavin O’Connor
- Screenwriter: Eric Guggenheim
- Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, and Nathan West
- Release date: Febraury 6, 2004
[iii] I, Tonya:
- Production Companies: AI Film, Clubhouse Pictures (II), and Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office
- Director: Craig Gillespie
- Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
- Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney
- Release date: January 19, 2018