I have not been able to watch much of this year’s Summer Olympics on television. Travel and other preoccupations have interceded and my viewing has been limited to short replays of key events and several planned sessions where I was free to watch a particular competition. Otherwise, I’ve been relegated to reading about the games online and in the news.
The stories have been wide-ranging, to be sure: like the saga of Michael Phelps and how his efforts seem to inevitably result in gold; the heartbreak of Wilhelm Belocian, the French sprinter whose years of Olympic training ended in disqualification when he anticipated the starting gun; the disrespect of Islam El Shehaby, Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent; or the remarkable career of Usain Bolt and the superhuman speed in his legs. They are compelling events of compelling people. But there is one story which, for me, is the most important of the entire Olympics.
You saw the footage, likely: two competitors, fallen during the run of their lives, reaching out to one another at the expense of Olympic dreams, and at the end of it all, in possession of something far more precious than the medal for which they competed. What the two of them won was a sudden clarity of perspective during what was probably the most important event of their lives. As it turned out, that moment likely was the most important event of their lives, though for reasons which neither would have anticipated.
Each in her own way dreamed dreams of attaining gold, of the notoriety that comes with finishing at the front of a field of competitors representing the best in the world. In solitary moments, each nurtured the audacity to believe that she might rise above the others and receive the special adulation reserved for Olympic champions in this, the age of celebrity worship. Each worked very hard to be the very best that she can be. And suddenly, each was lying on the ground, in front of their fellow competitors and the world, sprawled together in an inelegant collision which, perhaps for some others, might have become a calamity for all time. But not for these two.
In turn, they reached out to one another. In gestures as innate as smiles and tears, and at the expense of their long-held dreams, they stopped the chase to help one another up, to reach out in empathy and mutual encouragement so that neither would be left behind. Only when both were standing on their own did their personal race begin once again. And when the event was ended, they sought out each other and hugged in an understanding of what they had just achieved.
That exchange on the track had little to do with who would win a 5,000 meter gold medal race, and everything to do with the hearts and souls of the human race. In that moment of unrehearsed and unscripted love, two individuals discovered not only the depth of their own characters, but also the hunger for such feeling around the world. For in its aftermath, the event that played out in front of the world audience touched us all. We witnessed it, we acclaimed it, we attributed importance and feeling to it. The women won the admiration and regard of the world in that moment, and have spoken about the unanticipated expressions of respect from people around the world. And today, few can name the winner of the women’s 5,000 meter event, but Olympic fans the world over know the story of the “women who helped each other.”
There are those who might say that what the contestants did on that day defied the rigors of competition and perseverance, that one of the elements of success in any endeavor is the ability to remain focused on one’s objective and its demands. Some “winners” wear such a brand proudly, as a testament to toughness, to their rugged determination. And I understand the allure of such persona. Oh, to be self-sufficient!
But beyond simply touching us spectators with their empathy, these two women have both discovered and taught a lesson of life to the rest of us. There is enough reward in the race to make champions of us all. A hand up carries enough strength to allow every competitor to run the race with dignity and self-respect. We sacrifice little in the effort of a hand up. And what we gain in return is tenfold the cost of stopping to help another. We are always surprised at learning the lesson once more, such as at an Olympic race venue. We should never doubt its veracity….