The impact that the Olympic games have had on the world as well as on the individuals who participate in them.
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If my calendar is correct, there has been two thousand and eight years since the start of the Common Era, but more specifically one hundred twelve years have past since the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece in 1896. From that time the world has come together, despite many global issues and differences, every four years to celebrate and participate in the most elite sporting event on the planet. Five interconnected rings on a white background are more than just a creative logo designed to market this spectacle of athleticism. They signify the coming together of enemies and allies on a peaceful, yet competitive, world stage displaying the best that each country has to offer in the way of athletic talent. It starts with a single flame ignited in the ancient birthplace of the Games in Olympia, Greece and is concluded with champions who return to their home countries as heroes and heroines.
From beginning to end, the Games of the Olympiad are conducted with class and honor, and considering the quality of athletes who take part, it is easy to understand why. Carl Bond of Sweden, Tadahiro Nomura of Japan, Michelle Smith of Ireland, Janos Martinek of Hungary, Carl Lewis of the United States, and Liu Xuan of China are just a few of the talented athletes that have stood atop the highest podium in sports over the years and received a gold medal in their respective sports for themselves and for their countries. Shannon Miller of the 1996 U.S. women’s gold medal gymnastic team speaks with a tremendous sense of pride in her family contributions as well as what it means on a national level to compete in the Olympics. Miller’s first gold medal was the team victory she shared with her teammates and her second was for an individual effort on the balance beam. “It couldn’t have been any better,” Miller recalls of her experience winning her first gold medal in Atlanta. “It was so very hard fought and in the end, to hear the crowd chanting, “USA USA,” it was amazing. There is nothing I enjoyed more than slipping on the red, white and blue.”
Taken seriously by spectators, but even more seriously by the athletes themselves, is the sense of importance to one’s country that each event represents, which was famously displayed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the performance of Jesse Owens. Named an Ambassador of Sports by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, Owens won a total of four Gold medals in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay at the Berlin Games, much to the chagrin of then Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who was using the Olympics as a way to show the world that Germany was once again a world power and also to prove that the Aryan-race was superior in every way. Owens, as well as many other athletes over the years, crossed political and racial lines with his victories, which, in this instance, might be called a foreshadow of events to come as the German regime was toppled just eight years later at the conclusion of World War II, just as Owens defeated them on the track.
In 1972, thirty-six years later, world superpowers would again collide on the Olympic stage, but this time the results would be even more shocking yet much less publicized. Most noted for the brutal killing of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorist group Black September, an event that was the result of thousands of years of turmoil in the Middle East, the Munich Olympics also consisted of a battle between two titans on the basketball court who were also at odds on the global political stage, the United States and the U.S.S.R. The undefeated United States basketball team was the heavy favorite going into the Games, with an impressive sixty-two wins and zero losses. They powered through the early rounds with ease, winning with scores like 66 to 35, 81 to 55, 96 to 31 and their narrowest victory to date, 61 to 54 over Brazil. The U.S.S.R was no slouch either, winning each of their first eight games en route to the championship game against their Cold War foe, the United States. After a late fight between American Dwight Jones and Russia’s Dvorni Edeshko, the Russians led by four with less than twelve minutes to play. With multiple players injured or ejected, the Americans closed the gap to just one point with ten seconds remaining in the game. One hard-foul and two perfect free throws later, the Americans had taken the lead and all but sealed up a victory with just three seconds left in the game. After three clock resets, Soviet Aleksander Belov drove to the hoop and sunk the game winning shot, giving the Americans their first Olympic loss in men’s basketball and signaling that the Russians were a force to be dealt with on every level, athletically and politically.
Thirty-six years later at the Beijing Olympics, the world is once again fighting in many wars and dealing with many disasters, such as the Cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. One can’t help but to wonder what events will take place this year that will set off a chain of events that will effect our global landscape; it’s all a part of the excitement that leads up to the Games.
In addition the national significance of the Olympics, the Games mean a lot to the people who participate and to their families. “I can remember the financial and time sacrifices that my family made when I was growing up,” says Miller, “but it’s all that I have ever known.” Miller started gymnastics when she was just five years old in Edmund, Oklahoma. By the age of 12, she had already made her presence known by placing third in the Olympic Festival of 1989, a competition for rising stars. With five World Championships and seven Olympic medals, two of which are gold, under her belt, Shannon Miller is one of the most successful gymnasts in U.S. history.
Competing in these games is a dream that every young athlete has but so few get the opportunity to achieve. “I am just so thankful of all the blessings I have,” Miller said when asked what it meant to have a childhood dream come true. Referring to her faith, she continued, ”Win or lose, whether I fell five times or stuck [a landing], I always knew there was someone out there with me and that just takes all of the pressure off.” Currently Miller contributes to media coverage of her sport and represents young athletes as they prepare for their journey to the world stage.
Larissa Latynina of the U.S.S.R, Paavo Nurmi of Finland, Birgit Fischer of Germany, Elisabeta Lipa of Romania, Thomas Alsgaard of Norway, Janica Kostelic of Croatia and Roman Fonst of Cuba have all represented their countries well and have won multiple gold medals, upholding the elite standard that was set so many years ago when Games were brought back. “We are out to compete,” states Miller. “It’s all about unifying the athletes and the sports in the greatest sporting event in the world.” Boys and girls and men and women become heroes and heroines and are vaulted into Olympic history, and after all of the awards have been presented and they are heralded as champions, the month long athletic celebration comes to an end that is just as awe-inspiring as the opening; the president of the International Olympic Committee declares that the games are concluded and calls upon the youth of the world to return in four years to do it all over again, the flags are lowered and the flame is extinguished.